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Sir Christopher Lee Dies

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The great British actor Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93.

As Benjamin Lee wrote in perhaps the best of a host of tributes being offered this morning on Lee’s life and work, in The Guardian, “Sir Christopher Lee has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The veteran actor, best known for a variety of films from Dracula to The Wicker Man through to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, passed away on Sunday morning at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, according to sources. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.

As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. He was knighted in 2009 for services to drama and charity and was awarded the Bafta fellowship in 2011. His film career started in 1947 with a role in Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors but it wasn’t until the late 50s, when Lee worked with Hammer, that he started gaining fame.

His first role with the studio was The Curse of Frankenstein and it was the first of 20 films that he made with Peter Cushing, who also became a close friend. ‘Hammer was an important part of my life, and generally speaking, we all had a lot of fun,’ he said in a 2001 interview.

Lee’s most famous role for Hammer was playing Dracula, a role which became one of his most widely recognized although the actor wasn’t pleased with how the character was treated. ‘They gave me nothing to do!’ he told Total Film in 2005. ‘I pleaded with Hammer to let me use some of the lines that Bram Stoker had written. Occasionally, I sneaked one in. Eventually I told them that I wasn’t going to play Dracula any more. All hell broke loose.’

In the 70s, Lee continued to gain fame in the horror genre with a role in The Wicker Man, a film which he considered to be his best. ‘Wonderful film… had a hell of a time getting it made,’ he said. ‘Its power lies in the fact that you never expect what eventually happens, because everyone is so nice.’ He went on to play a Bond villain in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun and turned down a role in Halloween, which he later said was one of biggest career regrets. In his career, he also turned down a role in Airplane!, something he also regretted.

His concern over being typecast in horror films led him to Hollywood and roles in Airport ‘77 and Steven Spielberg’s 1941. His career saw a resurgence in 2001 with a role as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and then as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. He also became a regular collaborator with Tim Burton, who cast him in Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. Burton went on to award him with a Bafta fellowship.

In 2011, he returned to Hammer with a role in the Hilary Swank thriller The Resident although he generally tried to avoid the horror genre in later years. ‘There have been some absolutely ghastly films recently, physically repellent,’ he said. ‘What we did was fantasy, fairy tales – no real person can copy what we did. But they can do what Hannibal Lecter does, if they’re so inclined, people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen, and for that reason, I think such films are dangerous.’

After dabbling with music throughout much of his career, including a song on The Wicker Man soundtrack, Lee released his first full-length album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010. It was well-received by the heavy metal community and won him the spirit of metal award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony. His 2013 single Jingle Hell entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, which made him the oldest living artist to ever enter the charts.

Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production. In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. ‘Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,’ he said. ‘I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.’”

Lee had a few thoughts about the film business and life in general, which are fairly acidic: on the film industry: “There are many vampires in the world today – you only have to think of the film business;” on fame: “In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment;” on Hammer Horror:”They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful;” on his craft: “I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique.” And this final thought on acting: “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.”

Manoel de Oliveira – Greatest Living Filmmaker – Dies at 106

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira shooting his film The Magic Mirror in 2005.

Since we’re all mortal, it had to happen, and now it has; Manoel de Oliveira, to my mind the greatest living filmmaker – without question – has finally died at age 106. His second to last feature film, Gebo and the Shadow, was an austere masterpiece, and he adapted readily to digital cinema, but remained a master of the quiet, patiently constructed image, creating films that always ended with an unexpected twist, but on a metaphorical level rather than being a mere plot shift.

Not that Oliveira was without humor – far from it – as evidenced in this great clip in which he does a Chaplin imitation for filmmaker Agnes Varda. And of course, the Tweets are piling in – as well they should. Since he picked up the pace of production in his late 80s, Oliveira has emerged as the most innovative, deeply moral, and absolutely humanist filmmaker of the late 20th and early 21st century. There’s really no one else like him – before, or now, after his death.

As Ali Jaafar perceptively writes in Deadline, “Manoel De Oliveira, the Portugese filmmaker who for so many years appeared to defy the laws of gravity and physics, has died at the age of 106. He was, by some measure, the world’s oldest active filmmaker, working up until last year when his latest — and last — film, The Old Man Of Belem premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Born in 1908, De Oliveira’s productivity — he directed 29 films in all — is all the more remarkable given he had only made two films by the time he was 55. The latter half of his long, and critically acclaimed, career would see him earn a dozen career achievement prizes from major film festivals, including two career Venice Golden Lions (in 1985 and 2004) and a special jury prize for 1991’s The Divine Comedy. In 1999, he took home the Cannes jury prize for The Letter.

Unapologetically art house and cerebral in taste, De Oliveira confounded his peers with both his longevity as well as the consistency of his output in his latter years.  He got better with age, making a film a year once he turned 80 until his death. He might not even be finished just yet: He is reputed to have insisted that one of his films, Memories And Confessions, not be shown publicly while he was alive.

De Oliveira was born into privilege. His industrialist father, amongst other things, produced Portugal’s first electric light bulb. Finding himself out of favor under the iron rule of Portugul’s Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar from 1932-1968, De Oliveira found it similarly difficult under the socialist government in the early 1970’s as his upper class roots counted against him. Nevertheless, he persisted with his dream to become a filmmaker, even while he managed his family’s factory well into middle age.

In time De Oliveira moved from the neorealist verité style that categorized his early work — his debut feature was Aniki-Bobo in 1942 about the slums of his hometown Porto — eventually gave way to a more formal, literary approach often dealing with themes of unrequited and unfulfilled love. He often adapted literary works, including four books by Agustina Bessa-Luis.

He worked with many fine actors, including Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Michel Piccoli, Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and also Marcello Mastroianni in the iconic Italian actor’s final role in Voyage To The Beginning Of The World.” His other standout films include Acto de Primavera, The Strange Case of Angelica, The Convent, A Talking Picture, and numerous other works – Oliveira was one of a kind, and his films – as well as his life – serve as an inspiration to all who love and cherish the cinema.

As Cahiers du Cinema said of Oliveira’s work, “He is sovereign, free, unique, perched high on a tightrope no one else can reach, defying the laws of gravity and above all the rules of cinematic decorum and commerce.” I try to avoid obits in this blog, but this is just too major a passing to omit – our greatest living filmmaker is now gone.

All day long, I have had the feeling something was terribly wrong – now I know why.

Colin Wilson

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

Colin Wilson drinking tea in his London flat, 1957.

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Colin Wilson, a brilliant if erratic writer who wrote at least one excellent book, The Outsider, and a raft of other volumes, numbering nearly 100 in all, with the best among them being The Mind Parasites, the first edition of Poetry and Mysticism (the revised version ruined the book), The Space Vampires, and numerous other works. Much of what he wrote was junk, and he often seemed to keep writing until he could figure out what he really wanted to say, filling up the pages in a seemingly unending stream while striving to get at some almost indefinable conclusion.

But ultimately, if he was an outsider, Wilson was essentially an optimist, which is refreshing in itself. As he told one interviewer, “in The Outsider my starting point was all those 19th century writers and artists who came to a sad end, and who ended by saying (in the words of a friend of mine) ‘the answer to life is no.’ My reaction was like that of an accountant who is reacting to the statement ‘We had better declare bankruptcy.’  [My response was] ‘No, no, no.  You’ve plenty of better alternatives.’”

One of his books, The Space Vampires, was made into a truly terrible film by Tobe Hooper, and his outrageous ego – “I suspect that I am probably the greatest writer of the 20th century,” he told the British newspaper The Guardian in 2006. “In 500 years’ time, they’ll say, ‘Wilson was a genius,’ because I’m a turning point in intellectual history” - assured his critical marginalization. But despite his faults, his best work does offer an early clue to a new direction, and for that, I will miss Colin Wilson and his work.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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