Thursday, August 24, 2017
August 24, 2017: Famous Virginians: George C. Scott
[For this year’s installment of my annual VirginiaStudying series, I wanted to highlight a handful of the many famous Americans who have been born in the state. Add your Virginia highlights—people, places, or otherwise—for a crowd-sourced weekend post for (Virginia) lovers!]
On three defining military roles for the legendary actor and product of Wise, Virginia.
1) Buck Turgidson: Scott was 37 and already a well-known Shakespearean and Broadway actor when he was cast as General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking satirical war film Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick would later reveal in interviews that the consummate professional Scott refused to play the role as campily as the director wanted, and that Kubrick lied to his actor and included rehearsal footage in the final film in order to achieve that campy effect. But to my mind, Scott was the perfect choice for this key role in his film’s social satire, as he could portray precisely the straight-laced seriousness with which this militaristic madman takes the steps that will lead to nuclear war. Some of the film is to my mind too over-the-top to work as satire, but Scott’s Turgidson is pitch-perfect and hugely frightening as a result.
2) George S. Patton: Scott’s career-defining performance as the World War II general was also pitch-perfect, and to this pacifist viewer also frightening—although I know at least as many viewers who have found it inspiring and honorable. In truth, the brilliance of Scott’s performance, and of Franklin Schaffner’s film (and Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North’s screenplay) overall, is that its Patton is all of those things, often in the same scenes and sequences. Although Scott refused to accept his Academy Award for the performance as a result of his lifelong antipathy to such awards (he likewise refused a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Hustler in 1962), the action was itself also pitch-perfectly in keeping with the enigmatic and iconoclastic character. If Kubrick’s film wears its anti-war heart very much on its sleeve, Patton is far harder to pin down, and Scott’s striking performances anchor both films.
3) Harlan Bache: Over the next few decades Scott would spend much of his time on the stage, as well as in supporting roles in films (and in portraying my favorite Ebeneezer Scrooge, in Richard Donner’s 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol). One of the more complex and compelling such supporting roles was as General Harlan Bache, the armed services lifer in charge of a military school for boys in Harold Becker’s film Taps (1981). Although the film focuses on a group of young cadets, played by such up-and-coming stars as Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn, and Tom Cruise, it is Scott’s General Bache whose voice and perspective on both the school and the military serve as guideposts for those young men. While Bache is far more sane than Turgidson and far less violent than Patton, he is still rigidly tied to his and the school’s traditions in ways that contribute to the chaos and destruction that unfolds in the course of the film (when the cadets take over the school rather than allow it to close). Which is to say, this is one more enigmatic and multi-layered performance from this all-time great.
Last Virginian tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Virginians or Virginia connections you’d highlight?