At 79, Terence Stamp is certainly overdue for a resurgence-slash–lifetime-award dinner, after 55 busy and scattershot years in movies. Among other Brits of his New Wave–y generation (Caine, O’Toole, Courtenay, Harris, Fox, Bates, Hurt, etc.), Stamp exuded a distinctive Cockney menace that quickly seemed not English at all, but exotically European. There’s never been any ignoring or forgetting his vulturine face and arctic gaze, whether in his disturbed-innocence youth or his Evil Ice God dotage, and few actors deliver haughty authority with such primal effortlessness. The man, it would seem, must now be in the market for some triumphant autumnal project and a shot at a career Oscar, but somehow, remarkably, his longevity has so far earned him neither that plaudit nor even a role in, say, either the Harry Potter or Game of Thrones universes. (Instead, he paid bills as the infrequent voice of Jor-El in Smallville for seven seasons.) By temperament or luck or both, Stamp was always something of an outsider, and his up-and-down career can, from afar, look like a minefield, with too many craters where there should be palm trees.
It would take the occasional and inventive filmmaker to make proper use of Stamp’s knife-like presence, and that’s where the selective Metrograph retro (March 23–31) focuses. The first handful of films couldn’t have been more attention-demanding. He turned heads as the Christ-lamb sailor in Peter Ustinov’s rather magnificent Billy Budd (1962), overshadowed by Robert Ryan’s malignant Claggart but shining out of the film like a Raphaelite martyr. It wasn’t quite the real Stamp; the merciless intelligence and bitter self-regard were still building through that film’s parable symbolism and then the nervous psychosis of William Wyler’s The Collector (1965). (Though he did it a few times when he was young, and did it well, Stamp always seemed a bit ungainly when trying to embody an unintelligent person.)
Both Modesty Blaise (1966) and John Schlesinger’s dozy version of Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) were understandably fashionable choices, but Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967), the director’s first feature, was different, an ultra-realist social-issue dirge in which Stamp tried something new: limning out a perfectly ordinary bloke. His career swerved at this juncture, toward continental artiness and away from England (and away from his famous heartbreak over being dumped by supermodel Jean Shrimpton). Pasolini used him in Teorema (1968) as the unearthly, pansexual demigod who visits an upper-crust Italian family and destroys their bourgeois life. Like Fellini’s Toby Dammit (1968), a sensational Poe-based short about the hedonistic doom of celebrity, it didn’t require Stamp to act out so much as be. Which he could do better than almost anyone — his being-ness was always loaded with meaning, and he became one of the era’s iconic presences, at once decadent, otherworldly, serene, and scary.
What could be called a disenchanted sabbatical followed, in which Stamp spent the Seventies slumming and making only a handful of obscure Euro programmers (one in which he plays Rimbaud). Then came the summoning of Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980), for which Stamp became the first aging actor of renown to have his career resuscitated by doing time as a villain in a superhero blockbuster. They’re junk, but Stamp discovered his steely gravitas and masterly insouciance in them, and has been busy ever since. Amid the pure check-cashing, he returned to England for Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1984), a fabulously sharp and witty gangster road movie, in which, driving through Spain, Stamp’s fugitive rat mindfucks the hoods (John Hurt and Tim Roth) tasked with dragging him back to face the music. Dry and merciless as Stamp’s own deadpan glare and rolling-boulder voice, Frears’s movie was initially a bomb but quickly found a home-video audience that has elevated it to near-classic status.
In the years that have followed, Stamp has rarely had the opportunity to deviate much from his supporting-role bad-guy niche, but the series does include his deft SoCal-guru schtick in Frank Oz and Steve Martin’s Bowfinger (1999). There’s also, of course, Stamp’s glorious transgender karaoke diva in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), preening like a bird of paradise in estrus and embracing the gilt-edge of camp in a way nothing in his career had prepared us for. But it may’ve been one of Steven Soderbergh’s experiments, The Limey (1999), that fully exploited everything Stamp had evolved into. Built as a neo-noir vehicle for Stamp — to the exceptional extent even of using large swatches of Poor Cow as flashbacks — the film is shaped like John Boorman’s Point Blank, structured around an elemental case of paternal vengeance and crammed with Soderberghian texture and comedy. But it’s first and foremost a celebration of Stamp, whose incisive intelligence and no-fucks-given momentum through the plot is a welcome spectacle.
The retro stops there, but in the almost two decades since, Stamp has done day work in every kind of medium-to-big-type of movie, most of them forgettable (The Haunted Mansion, Get Smart, Valkyrie, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, etc.). As he approaches his ninth decade on Earth, a question emerges: Where is his victory lap? Where is Stamp’s Darkest Hour, or Nebraska, or Beginners — a chance for octogenarian glory? Better yet, an actual good movie, in need of maybe the most photographable old Brit there ever was?
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