Monday, November 16, 2009

Edward Woodward

Another sad passing to report. This morning, the superbly talented Edward Woodward, who spent a long career comfortably straddling the fence between character actor and leading man, died in a British hospital at the age of 79. Most of my fellow Americans remember him from The Equalizer (talk about an actor absolutely making a show) but to us he will forever be the doomed Sergeant Howie in 1973’s The Wicker Man.

On paper, Howie must have read like a near unlikeable stiff – an almost unbearably pious and humorless Christian who travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl – and it must have been a concern for director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer that no one would care what happens to this jerk one way or another. But Woodward, with his tough, unforgiving countenance and soft heart breathed humanity into the role, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In fact, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the conclusion of the film represents one of modern horror’s most truly disturbing sequences, and Woodward’s cries of “Oh, God – Oh, Jesus Christ!” will echo in memory long after the film has ended.

Another fine remembrance would be to revisit the fine Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford’s absorbing courtroom drama about two Australian officers being court-martialed for the murder of prisoners during the Second Boer War. The film arrived on US shores in 1980 as part of a wave of extraordinary Australian films of the late 70s and early 80s that included Mad Max and Gallipoli and announced the extraordinary careers of directors like Beresford, George Miller, and Peter Weir. Morant is an actor’s showcase all the way, making international stars of Woodward and Bryan Brown, who arguably give career-best performances. Woodward would always excel at the tough-as-nails military type, but never let you forget that they were real, three dimensional men. Morant probably led to his acceptability for CBS as the lead in The Equalizer, and throughout 4 seasons of thug-busting his way through mediocre scripts, there was never even the slightest hint that he considered the material to be beneath him. For a more satisfying dose of Woodward in a weekly series, check out the little seen (at least in the US)series, Callan, an espionage drama set during the height of the cold war; he’s disarmingly young, but looks at the world around him with the same weary suspicion and droll humor that Woodward brought to nearly everything he did.

Though it wasn’t his final appearance, we’ll regard his appearance in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz as Woodward’s true career capper. It’s a film lover’s delight to watch him along with contemporaries like Jim Broadbent, Billie Whitelaw and Paul Freeman having a grand time as members of the Sandford Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, keeping the city safe from absolutely everyone.

Summer is Icumen in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Grows the seed and blows the mead
And springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb
Cows after calves make moo
Bullock stamps and deer champs
Now shrilly sing cuckoo
Cuckoo, cuckoo
Wild bird are you
Be never still cuckoo