This hundredth post is a sad one, as we mark the death, on Saturday, of John Neville. Like Ian Richardson, he was a fine Shakespearean unfairly overshadowed by the big names of his generation. In Neville’s case, spending much of his career in Canada didn’t help either. But obituaries such as the Guardian‘s and the Telegraph‘s remind us what a force he was, as a young actor in England (I particularly like the anecdote about how he and Burton, switching off in Othello, both played Iago one drunken matinee; and to bring in current topics, I note that he opened the Nottingham Playhouse in 1963 as Coriolanus, with Ian McKellen as Aufidius!) and as an actor and impresario in Canada. I had had no idea that he was the artistic director of the Stratford Festival from 1985 to 1989, during which time he created his most famous role.
Yes, John Neville will be remembered—for a very long time—as the titular character in Terry Gilliam’s still criminally underrated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s a little flabbergasting (if anything can be a “little” flabbergasting) that Baron Munchausen was the most expensive movie ever made to that point; its estimated $46 million price tag would be $89 million today, which is probably about average. (The Motion Picture Association of America no longer releases average budgets; for 2007, the last year it did so, the average combined production and marketing cost of a Hollywood film was $106.6 million; as a rule of thumb, 20 percent of that is marketing.) Gilliam’s troubles with cost overruns, strikes, and other tribulations are well known—there’s a whole book about them—and they pretty much ended his Hollywood career, but he got the movie made and it’s the movie he wanted to make. Viewed today, it’s an exercise in imagination that is also a monumental, whimsical, beautiful, exuberant, messy meditation on the need for imagination, a theme Gilliam must have wanted to scream at the studio. The special effects hold up amazingly well after a quarter century, the main performances are superb (though what would you expect from Eric Idle, Jonathan Pryce, Oliver Reed, a young Uma Thurman, a very young Sarah Polley in her first role, and even Robin Williams as King of the Moon, a role in which his schtick for once is not fatally annoying?). But it’s Neville, fittingly, who makes the movie, creating a Munchausen who more than lives up to the trickster requirements of the role, but who is also genuinely affecting, as in this scene with the nine-year-old Polley.
Terry Gilliam directed Faust at the English National Opera last year. I’d love to see him do Shakespeare. I think he might be especially good for the problem plays (including Pericles and Timon here). What do you think?