The Two-Faced Actor Alan Bates Could Be Both Gentle Heartthrob and Ruthless Tyrant

The Quad's retrospective, "The Affable Angry Young Man," pays tribute to the contradictory shades of the beguiling British actor


The British actor Alan Bates (1934–2003) was a creature of contradictions. His eyes could look very naughty and waggish, yet his body language was quite often stiff and unyielding. He almost always wore a beard and let his hair grow shaggy — as if he wanted to hide himself — but he got full-frontal naked for a notorious nude wrestling scene with Oliver Reed in Women in Love (1969), Ken Russell’s feverish adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s great novel. The clearly conflicted Bates was married and had children, yet in his personal life was frequently in gay relationships that had to be kept secret from the public.

Onscreen, Bates listened to people with a desperate sort of intensity. He seemed to long for human connection, but was also capable of seizing on words as self-sufficient objects, hurling them out at people with spiteful relish. Perhaps the weirdest thing of all about him as a performer was that when he was most menacing with others, Bates could still seem somehow cuddly. His most potent vein as an actor was self-loathing, yet he was capable of a surpassing sort of self-love and self-regard, which is the animating principle of his painter character in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978). His Saul Kaplan is a man who first seems like a dream, and then like a trap.

The Quad’s series of Bates films, subtitled “The Affable Angry Young Man,” kicks off today and, in addition to the one-week Bates retrospective (February 16–22), also includes a weeklong run (opening February 23) of a new 4K restoration of Philippe de Broca’s pretty, popular King of Hearts (1966).

Bates first came to prominence as a handsome (and clean-shaven) leading man of the British New Wave. In his youthful years, he specialized in playing stodgy characters who wanted to break out of their shell, as in Zorba the Greek (1964), where Anthony Quinn tried to get him to live a little. Bates listened and reacted to women onscreen in a notably sympathetic way, but something about him always seemed closed-off in his early work.

It was only when he played Rupert Birkin in Women in Love that Bates came into his own as a fascinatingly two-faced sort of man. He in fact looks a lot like D.H. Lawrence with his beard in that movie, and there is a striking maliciousness in the way he deals with the rich Hermione (Eleanor Bron). When Rupert denounces Hermione in no uncertain terms, she lashes out at him and bloodies his head with a paperweight. In turn, he runs out of her large house and takes all his clothes off to try to cleanse himself from the experience. Somehow Bates manages here to be both totally physically exposed and emotionally shut-down.

It is worth remembering that nudity for both men and women was a new thing in the mainstream cinema in 1969; perhaps even more to the point, full-frontal nudity for men remains a rare thing in movies to this day. Bates was willing to let it all hang out physically in Women in Love, and he looks blissfully released — if only momentarily — when he stares at Reed after their nude wrestling bout in the firelight. A closeted gay man of that time had to be a virtuoso when it came to hiding in plain sight, and Bates sometimes seemed slightly tickled by this dilemma onscreen. He used it creatively, and this made for work that still has a fetching neither-here-nor-there flavor — both bold and shy, sometimes alternately and sometimes at the same time. This combination made him extremely attractive.

Bates was a Lawrencian lover again with the beauteous Julie Christie in The Go-Between (1971). He went on to work a lot in the theater, and had a particular triumph as an academic who is falling apart in the Simon Gray play Butley, but he made his biggest commercial impact on celluloid in An Unmarried Woman (1978). On paper, the part of abstract expressionist artist Saul Kaplan is rather unlikely; he exists in order to give Jill Clayburgh’s newly single Erica a reason to make a tough decision about her life and what she wants. Saul needs to be a fantasy man on the one hand and an incipient emotional tyrant on the other. It’s difficult to think of any other actor who could have pulled off that particular combination in such a coherent way, but Bates makes Kaplan both believable and indelible. Bates’s Kaplan might still be hanging around Washington Square Park thinking about Erica, or he might have had a dozen Ericas since ’78. Bates allows for either possibility.

Bates did some fine work throughout the Eighties, but his film career began to taper off in the Nineties. His last really prominent role was as Jennings in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), a man who strives to be the perfect butler. Bates was long familiar with the experience of having to repress his emotions, so this was an apt swan song. He is a figure both beguiling and stand-offish, and of course the camera loves that sort of mixture.

“Alan Bates: The Affable Angry Young Man”
February 16–22
King of Hearts
Opens February 23
Quad Cinema