Monday, January 30, 2012

To the Max

"There's an enigmatic relationship between Max and myself. He has meant a tremendous amount to me....As an actor, Max is sound through and through. Robust. Technically durable. If I'd had a psychopath to present these deeply psychopathic roles, it would have been unbearable. It's a question of acting the part of a broken man, not of being him. The sort of exhibitionism in this respect which is all the rage just now will pass over, I think. By and by people will regain their feeling for the subtle detachment which often exists between Max and my madmen." - Ingmar Bergman, Bergman on Bergman (1968)

The man I consider to be the greatest living actor, Max von Sydow, is now 82. His film performances - many, but not most, of which I am privileged to have seen - are rivalled in greatness by his stage performances, of which I have heard great things. The names of the characters he has played in the 144 films in which he has appeared provide us with a guide to the diversity of his brilliance. He is famous for his great kings, his devout priests, and his compassionate doctors: Antonius Blok, Albert Emanuel Vogler, Töre, Jesus, Andreas Winkelman, Smålands-Pelle, Johan Borg, Jan Rosenberg, Karl Oskar, Andreas Vergerus, Father Merrin, The Emperor Ming, King Osric, Salomon August Andrée, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, The Devil, Fridtjof Nansen, The Apostle Peter, August Strindberg, Lassefar, Pope Clement VII, Johan Åkerblom, Eugene O'Neill, Knut Hamsun, Cardinal Von Waldberg, Sir Walter Loxley.

Besides the thirteen films he has made with Ingmar Bergman, he made five films with Jan Troell, who remains one of the greatest living filmmakers. He was nominated last week for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the second time he's been nominated (the first was for Pelle the Conqueror, 1987). I first saw him playing Jesus in George Stevens' beautiful but silly The Greatest Story Ever Told (1964). I was six years old, and by the time I saw him in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), his was a familiar face.

Obviously, Hollywood never knew what to do with him, even if he knew what to do with Hollywood. Of the many films he appeared in, speaking English with a noticeable but not a heavy accent, only a handful are worthy of him. He was so well-known to Americans as Jesus, and as the exorcist Father Merrin, that the makers of Needful Things had fun casting him as Satan. I'm sure he relished the small roles he was offered in Hollywood, and never expected much except a good living. Although now a citizen of France, he still has an address in California.

But if the quality of the films (in a foreign language) were the first consideration, only Marcello Mastroianni appeared in as many equally impressive films. Max will be remembered because so many of the films he acted in were indelible: The Seventh Seal, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light,
A Stopover in the Marshlands, The Emigrants, The New Land, The Flight of the Eagle, Pelle the Conqueror, Hamsun.

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