Examining the career of Christopher Lee, who died this past weekend at the ripe old age of 93, leaves its staggering length and breadth in awe-inspiring view. He started as a literal spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, only to finish as the indelible Saruman in a franchise that helped shape the course of 21st century film. That’s almost 70 years on the big screen, and somewhere in there came more rich and memorable roles that any six actors had any right to claim. Here was a man…
… who boldly made Count Dracula his own after Bela Lugosi cemented an eternal claim to it;
… who battled James Bond, the Three Musketeers and Captain America all within five years of each other;
…who threw down against the three greatest Jedi in the universe and came within a hair’s breadth of mopping up the floor with them;
…who conjured Saruman so well in part because he was the only participant in The Lord of the Rings who had actually met J.R.R. Tolkien;
…who managed to both play Satan and fight Satan, and somehow make us believe he could do both at once;
… and who, in perhaps his greatest role, showed us what “sacrifice” meant in icily plausible terms.
They were roles that actors drooled over. The kind of things that could define one’s career forever. And yet Lee not only made each one a singular expression of his thespian will, but did so in such a way that you couldn’t imagine anyone else in the part. Villains were his forte, of course, and he never shone quite as brightly as he did when he was playing pure evil. But he knew how to vary that tone every time while still keeping the same persona alive in each of them. His magnetic Count Dracula, for example, dripped with the promise of the forbidden, matched by a cruelty that only came from leaving no desire unfulfilled. His Bond villain, Scaramanga, possessed a strange insecurity, desperate to convince 007 that only he was truly an equal. Saruman – the face of evil in Middle Earth with Sauron limited to a CGI eye – turns evil into a calculation, having determined the winning side early on and opting for capitulation and survival over doomed resistance. All of them were cut from the same cloth, and yet all of them were someone different and unique. It takes a good actor to convincingly play the stereotype for so long, but only a great one could constantly find depth and nuance anew in what might have been the same old shtick.
Part of that appeal stem from the kinds of things you expect for strong performers: his rich purring baritone that made you want to listen to him reading stereo instructions; a towering frame that commanded the eye no matter which corner of the screen he occupied (doubly so if he were dressed in some garish Hammer monster costume); a method of delivery that imparted the dialogue into your fundaments with over-the-top power. He rarely screamed or bellowed onscreen. He didn’t need to. His whisper spoke volumes and could hypnotize an audience far more completely than any of his virginal victims onscreen. He made plenty of great films, but also quite a few bad ones, and even then, you tuned in just to watch him do his thing.
But beyond those tricks of the trade, Lee always brought something else to the party, some bit of compelling evidence to keep our eyes on him and only him. The darkness and menace stemmed from very real roots: he’d spent World War II performing serious black ops that remain under wraps to this day. (And seriously, can you imagine some Nazi officer settling in his bed after a long day of brutalizing the locals, only to see CHRISTOPHER FUCKING LEE lunging out of the shadows at him?) We’ll never know what he saw, but clearly it was more than most, and he carried that secret understanding with him into his film career.
It made him compelling without reducing the evil of his characters one iota. He was seductive in a sexual way yes, but more importantly, in matters of the soul. He characters had seen things. Terrible things, but things that no one could possibly deny. He understood what a nightmare the world was, and accepted it as a conscious, rational choice. He’d be happy to share that awful knowledge with us, of course, but only if we signed on the dotted line. And even though we knew it was wrong – that we should run from this man as fast as we possibly could – we still wanted, needed, to find out what lay behind those dark penetrating eyes.
That’s why part of us secretly hoped he’d prevail against his goody-two-shoes adversaries in Attack of the Clones (and would anyone deny that he was the best thing about the Star Wars prequels hands-down?) It’s why Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man can be more con man than true believer and still convince us that he means it. It’s why even when he turned his roles into self-parody – in 1941, for example, or more famously in Gremlins 2 – something deep within us told you he was marking every single one of us who laughed for some horrible fate when we next let our guard down.
No other actor could match that infernal charisma. No one could make you cut that deal with the devil more willingly than he. And while many actors would allow such a sinister vibe to define their every role, Lee somehow proudly, defiantly rose above the cliché even as he fiercely embodied it. He never stopped pushing its boundaries and even now it’s hard to believe that that gorgeously menacing voice won’t return in a few months in some new project utterly blessed to have him. Granted, he never indulged in false humility but it wasn’t hard to see why. We will never see his like on the big screen again.