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Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor [Paperback]

Simon Callow
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

7 Sep 1995
This biography follows Charles Laughton from his parents' hotel in Scarborough to his climactic assumption of the role of King Lear in Stratford at the end of his life. The reader discovers a hugely talented and complex man, a legend in his own lifetime, who nonetheless counted himself a failure.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 327 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New edition (7 Sep 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099589311
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099589310
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 13 x 2.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,289,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent biography 4 April 2009
Charles Laughton seems to have slipped into oblivion. It is now virtually impossible to find his work on DVD in England and his films are mostly forgotten. But, did you know that he was the first British actor to win an Oscar? "The Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933). He abandoned a successful career as a Scarborough hotelier to become an actor in London moving quickly from stage to screen and work with Alexander Korda. After the success of Henry VIII he left London for Hollywood for which the English never forgave him.

Despite his looks he become a highly paid Hollywood movie star. Eventually directing one of the finest films to come out of Hollywood in the Fifties: "The Night of the Hunter" (1955) with Robert Mitchum. Stanley Cortez, director of photography on the film, said that in all his career only two directors understood light: Orson Welles and Charles Laughton. Laughton suffered from his sexuality - he was gay - and his looks - he thought he was ugly. Anyone who has seen Henry VIII or the fabulous "Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (1939) will know that he exuded a spry, mischievous charm that completely transcended his looks.

If you have read any of Simon Callow's other work - A superb biography of Orson Welles "Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu" or "Being an Actor" - you will know how he inhabits his subjects. He has a way of getting inside the warts, as it were, and helping the reader to understand his subject's desires, troubles and motivations. Laughton was my father's cousin so I was keen to discover a part of my family history about which I knew virtually nothing. I had waded through the Charles Higham biog which was co-written with Laughton's widow, Elsa Lanchester, so was delighted to discover Callow's book.
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Still the best biography on Laughton and a reference book for those interested in the inner works of acting in particular and film and theatre in general.

It provides good background of each of Laughton's performances and a sharp analysis of them, daring to contradict the general consensus on some of his best praised performances (Ruggles of Red Gap, Hobson's Choice) and bringing some focus on others which where considered lesser back in the time but which certainly deserve new attention (White Woman, The Bribe and This Land Is Mine). Unlike previous biographies, Callow gives extended consideration to Charles' work on stage, one of the highlights being his seance at the Old Vic in 1933-34.

It's also a sound book, on the strictly biographical sense, which doesn't shy away from focusing on the influence of Charles' personal life (His homosexuality, his independence from established Hollywood, West End and Broadway Lobbies…) and its influence on its work, but wisely declines getting lost in the gossip (as lesser biographies of the man have done).

Recent books on "the Night of The Hunter*, have shed new light on Laughton and dismissed some statements which back in 1987 were believed as fact, and Callow ackowledges that in the new preface for the 2012 reprint: but this book still remains the best work on Laughton, as a man and as an actor.

* Books like Preston Neal Jones' Heaven and Hell To Play With, Jeffrey Couchman's The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Film and Callow's own book in the BFI classics series.
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5.0 out of 5 stars excellent 26 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Excellent book and appreciated as a Christmas present regarding a man who was a great actor who I remember well.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Charles laughton. A Difficult Actor 1 Jan 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have always enjoyed Charles Laughton's roles, his films mainly of course, but the spoken word recordings are also a favorite. This book, after reading the rather lightweight Charles Higham book, came as a surprise. Full of wonderful revelations that put the flesh on the bones as it were. An in depth treatise on the mans life and personality. Every nuance is explored and handled sympathetically, but at the same time fully revealing. It has certainly changed my perception of the Laughton the media has taught us to admire.
I still enjoy the sometimes over the top acting, the ever present professionalism of the man, but, this book has changed me somewhat. Written by a lauded actor, as only an actor could write it, deep and yet, understanding too.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars worthwhile but not his best book 15 Aug 2000
Everyone must read Simon Callow's ON BEING AN ACTOR and with that book in mind I opened this tome with high hopes. It covers everything Laughton did in great detail and Simon Callow has his own mind - films which have been praised to the skies including Hobson's Choice are here given the thumbs dowbn for good reason. Yet I was slightly disappointed by this rather stodgy biographical fare. Not entirely Callow's fault - Laughton was on this evidence a stodgy and deeply unhappy person. Only read it if you are a fan and prepared for some drastic re-valuations.
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