I’ve been reading the actor James Mason’s long out of print autobiography, Before I Forget, and I must say it makes for fascinating reading. I can’t recall a more self-deprecating book about anyone’s life, in which Mason frankly admits that he was a “cad,” and takes great delight in chronicling the many failings of his life on both a personal and professional level.
I’ve already blogged on his infamous Thunderbird wine commercial, but here are a few additional details to add to the story; not only did he actually write the sardonic ad copy for the 30 second spot, but he insisted that it be shot in Cadaques, Spain, where he was filming Juan Antonio Bardem’s production of Les Pianos mécaniques, so as not to interfere with his schedule.
Very well; a 35mm sound film crew was dispatched from the United States to shoot the commercial, a considerable undertaking in 1964, but Mason took great delight in the fact that he had neglected to tell the crew that, in his own words, “the roads approaching Cadaques are narrow and unfriendly,” and was not in the least surprised when the heavily-laded equipment truck failed to negotiate a bend in the road and “went over a precipice,” completely destroying the equipment.
The crew, fortunately, had managed to jump clear as the truck headed for the cliff, and eventually turned up at the hotel, in torn and soiled clothing, where Mason was properly solicitous, and arranged for the crew to use the 35mm equipment from Les Pianos mécaniques the next day, which was a Sunday. Filming took place in a large banquet hall in the hotel where Mason was staying, right off the main lobby, and even under such trying conditions, after a hard day’s work, the unit managed to get the commercial completed, and left with the film. For his labors, Mason was paid a mere $10,000, which he desperately needed at time, having just gone though a rather traumatic divorce.
Yet that’s not the end of the story. When the ad agency cut the film together, they felt that while Mason’s performance – in which he studiously avoids taking one sip of Thunderbird wine – was perfectly fine visually, his voice didn’t “sound quite so happy or enthusiastic as they would have wished.”
Would Mason agree to postsync his dialogue? Yes, of course he would, for an additional fee, and the work was accomplished in a London sound studio, with the quite remarkable result that “my voice was as chipper as as that of a contestant in a BBC guessing game. So that what you got eventually on the screen was a jolly eruption of idiotic sales talk oddly issuing from a glum actor. I had several happy days [doing the commercial] but I doubt I sold much Thunderbird.”
Mason was also notorious for agreeing to participate in projects and then backing out, such as the Academy Awards telecast in 1955, when he was nominated as Best Actor for George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954). Contacted by the producer of that year’s telecast, the distinguished director Jean Negulesco, Mason readily agreed to appear on show, but admits candidly in his autobiography that “I was lying. I had no intention of being at the rehearsal or at the show itself. But I did not wish to discuss his programme nor to argue with him; it would have put us both in a bad humour.”
And so, as he planned, when Oscar night rolled around, James Mason was nowhere to be seen. Lauren Bacall ran into the actor a few days after the ceremony (Mason lost, as he suspected he would, which was the reason he didn’t want to turn up in the first place), and called him “a cad. She was right, of course.”
All in all, a rather astonishing man, and a very individualistic actor. Despite his idiosyncratic behavior, Mason enjoyed a long and extremely successful career. And yet, as Mason told his biographer, the late Sheridan Morley, shortly before Mason’s death in 1984 – as recounted in Morley’s excellent biography of the actor, James Mason: Odd Man Out (sadly also out of print) – “to be a successful film star as opposed to a successful film actor, you should settle for an image and polish it forever; I somehow could never quite bring myself to do that.” But perhaps that’s precisely why his performances are so memorable.