Friday, January 17, 2014

An Oscar-Worthy Sherlock Holmes


Oscar-buzz has begun already as the nominees for the 2014 Academy Awards were announced yesterday. If you have missed the list, click here for a link. To be timely, I decided to take a look at what I believe is the most Oscar-worthy performance in the history of Sherlockian film. If there was ever one actor who deserved an Academy Award for his portrayal of the great detective, it is Nicol Williamson who played Holmes in 1976's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

Williamson seems at first to be an unlikely choice. Alongside actors such as Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing what makes his performance stand out? I think the reason why I like Williamson's performance is because he plays the part against type. Although I am the Doylean purist that I am, I can appreciate Nicol Williamson's unusual turn as the drug-addled detective.

For those who may be unaware, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution began life in 1974 as a novel written by Nicholas Meyer. The first monumental Sherlock Holmes pastiche, the book presented an alternate time-line to Doyle's canon in which Dr. Watson manages to lure Holmes to Vienna in an effort to cure the detective of his cocaine addiction. In doing so, Holmes and Watson meet Sigmund Freud, become involved in a kidnapping case and learn the truth behind the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution became a bestseller, and a movie adaptation seemed inevitable. Interestingly, when the movie went into production in 1975, Meyer followed and adapted his own book to the screen.

The movie's director, Herbert Ross was the man keen on reshaping Sherlock Holmes for this film. By 1976, the great detective had already been presented in a different vein, most notably in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Ross said: "I want to see Holmes a little soft, a little quizzical, a bit like Leslie Howard." When Nicol Williamson had been cast, he too thought that Holmes should be played against type. Williamson was quoted as saying, "This Holmes is different: below the surface there is a fractured little boy chasing after a butterfly."

Williamson was accepting a great challenge when he took over the part. This Holmes must still exhibit the cold, calculating reasoning of Doyle's original while presenting an obvious drug addiction. Quite simply, Williamson's manic Holmes is a triumph. He presents both sides of the character wonderfully, constantly fidgeting and twiddling his thumbs in a beautiful reflection of Holmes' unbalanced character. Williamson's own description of the character, likening him to a fractured human being is clearly seen.

Alan Arkin (left) as Sigmund Freud with Nicol Williamson's
Sherlock Holmes
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is all around an excellent film too, and boosts one of the finest casts of any Sherlock Holmes films. Aside from Williamson's Holmes, Alan Arkin takes top honours as an understated Sigmund Freud. Robert Duvall presents a characterisation of Dr. Watson very akin to Doyle's original, a rather ludicrous-sounding English accent not withstanding. Charles Gray puts in an appearance as Mycroft Holmes - eight years before he played the character opposite Jeremy Brett in Granada's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Lastly, Sir Laurence Oliver makes a cameo appearance as Professor Moriarty, and despite the professor's limited screen time, Oliver manages to make a great impression. It should also be noted that The Seven-Per-Cent Solution 'was' nominated for two Academy Awards in 1977 - Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design.

Nicol Williamson's performance as Sherlock Holmes has faced some opposition in Sherlockian circles for his atypical portrayal of the great detective. Yet in terms of performance alone, Williamson's turn in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is grand and he is rivaled by few. If you have not yet seen this movie, it comes highly recommended from me. In fact, it is probably in my top ten favourite Sherlock Holmes films of all time.

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