Monday, August 11, 2014

Commitment to Art

In his book, Starring Sherlock Holmes, author David Stuart Davies asserts that there are two methods of acting when it comes to playing Sherlock Holmes: "It seems that actors approach this difficult part in one of two ways. There are those like Peter Cushing and Jeremy Brett, who regard the Holmes canon as their bible, devouring every word and using it as a research tool to aid their characterisation. Other actors, like Robert Powell, who played the detective in Sherlock Holmes - The Musical in the late 1980s, regard the script alone as the sole source of all the information required to play the part."

I am inclined to agree with Davies' assessment as it is clear that some actors throw themselves into the role of Holmes more so than others. However, the question I wish to pose today is which school works better? While it may seem that the actors who commit themselves to Doylean fidelity give the better performances, one cannot overlook such fine portrayals from actors such as Robert Stephens or Nicol Williamson whose approach to the role was markedly different. Today I would like to take a closer look at the actors who are committed to the canon and those who are not.

It has been well documented that Peter Cushing was extraordinarily devoted to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Cushing always went to great lengths to add reality to his characters, but his admiration for the great detective was seemingly unparalleled. What made Cushing's preparations even more incredible was how he often did it in the face of writers, producers and executives who didn't care as much. When Cushing was contacted to star in 1959's The Hound of the Baskervilles, he was rightly worried when screenwriter Peter Bryan wanted to present a "sexy Sherlock." He made sure that everything from his costumes to set pieces were in order; Cushing would burn holes in his dressing gown with a cigarette to give it the necessary, well-worn look. Cushing even went to great lengths in changing lines of dialogue, especially when the detective discusses his fee. As Cushing recalled: "They had some line which was absolutely wrong, so I asked, 'Why can't we use one that Holmes actually said?' And so we used a line from the story The Problem of Thor Bridge: "My professional charges are upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether."

When Cushing returned to the role on television in 1968, the lengths he went to for fidelity to Doyle's stories remained the same. Sixteen years later, Cushing's approach to the role would be echoed by Jeremy Brett as well as the entire production staff at Granada who brought the stories to life on the small screen. Granada's intention was to adapt the original stories as faithfully as possible. Before production began, each of the stories were combed over in order to find any little details about Holmes or Watson. The result was a card-covered booklet with 1,200 listings entitled The Baker Street File: A Guide to the Appearance and Habits of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. This accuracy translated wonderfully to the screen and seldom have some of the tiniest details from the canon been depicted.

Nicol Williamson
While Cushing and Brett have been praised for their performances, there are other actors who have played the great detective who spent less time delving into the canon than others. Of particular note is Nicol Williamson who played Holmes in the 1976 adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I have given Williamson's performance much praise and my piece on his turn as Holmes can be read here. However, Williamson practically boasted after securing the role that he he had never read any of the original stories nor had he seen a Sherlock Holmes movie. While Williamson may not have received the same praise as some his predecessors, his performance is nevertheless brilliantly realised.

But, there is one chief difference between Williamson and others. While actors such as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing and later Jeremy Brett were trying to interpret Holmes as he had been written, Williamson's Holmes is different - addled by drugs and acting far more neurotic and eccentric than usual. The same can be said of Robert Stephens who played the detective in 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens' Holmes is also at odds with Doyle's original, presenting him as being far more melancholic and morose. This difference in interpretations truly makes the two schools of Sherlockian acting rather incomparable. Williamson and Stephens were not trying to present the detective as he was written, whereas Cushing and Brett were.

But, one thing stands out above everything else: all of the actors discussed herein gave brilliant performances as Holmes, and whether they were influenced by the Doyle canon or not, each one has left a great impact on the history of Sherlock Holmes cinema.

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