The Compleat Oxonian
An interview with Michael York, Cabaret's other star
THE wall-to-wall Persian rugs at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston are faded. There are large worn-out spots down the middle of the hall runners where generations of peripatetic snobs have tread or trudged. I had been told that the elevators were perfumed. I didn't smell anything. Everyone had been so impressed with the fact that I was going to interview someone at the Ritz-Carlton, and had inspired me with such an otherwise non-existent curiosity about the mystique of those hallowed halls. As I walked through the doors, I indulged myself in the bad pun that they were hollow, not hallowed. The "someone" I was going to interview had gradually taken on a secondary importance, even in my mind. Only slowly, ever so slowly, had it begun to dawn on me that the Ritz-Carlton, spectacular as it might be, had taken on such alluring dimensions only in comparison with my poor ignored "someone". No one really knew who Michael York was.
I looked back shame-facedly at the excited screechings I had uttered when asked if I wanted o interview him, "some English actor who's in 'Cabaret'". And how terribly untrendy it had been of me to giggle at Joel Grey's incredible antics in the movie's opening scenes, but still to wait with bated breath for Michael York to appear, as he finally did, his beautiful boxer's nose suspiciously sniffing Berlin's decadent 1930's air: after all, who is Michael York? Many things to many people in "Something for Everyone." A few might remember him as a stereotypical young Englishman, latent homosexuality personified, Oxford-accented to perfection, in several of his other roles. Or as another one of those striking Zeffirelli faces in that director's visually stunning renditions of Shakespeare. For most Americans he seems to drew a blank. Who was I to react to enthusiastically?
When I was about sixteen, I hadn't read much Shakespeare. Forget the implications -- cinematic, literary or otherwise -- of Zeffirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew" for my unpenetrating mind; forget any sensation created by the Burton Taylor team. After the movie I remembered one character from the play, Lucentio. Played by Mr. York. "Romeo and Juliet," another Zeffirelli extravaganza? I could have ravedfor hoursabout the figure of Tybalt. Guess why. A year or so later I was ready to go to college. A serious academically inclined young lady? How super to read at Oxford or Cambridge; such a stimulating intellectual atmosphere? Looking back, I am rather dubious about such reasoning. I'm afraid my imagination was busy populating the cricket-fields of those institutions of learning with the ubiquitous presence of countless Michael Yorks: tan and rugged, batter's arm swinging purposefully across the screen of Joseph Losey's "Accident," cricket whites emanating some holy light.
I'm surprised I even noticed the carpets in the Ritz-Carlton. Adolescent crushes had faded fast in the cynical Boston climate, but Michael York was still the embodiment of that lost naivete, still subject to my curiosity about what the man behind the actor was really like. Admittedly, my mind was more agitated than my heart when I knocked on the door to his suite, but casual as I now felt in the realization of his relatively small fame. I was still letting myself remain skittishly impressionable.
Well he smaller than I had expected. At least, he's not the brawny specimen of British manhood he appears or film. Rather thin and well-dressed, soft spoken and polite. A mild joker in a veddy British way. "I'm an absolute tea-fiend. Get me some immediately, or else I shall have to inject it into my veins." (Take that damn foreigner down to Harlem.) A refined version of the feline eyes, two-coloured hair, the endearingly bumpy nose projected on the movie-screen. The Oxford accent, my dear, of course unmistakable: but not an affected one. Rather the natural tones of the Oxonian graduate, the eternal college boy who likes to reminisce affectionately but unpretentiously about his undergraduate days.
He is the first one to ask questions: about coeducation at Harvard, about similar changes at English universities, "when I was at Oxford (for the first time I knew then that the collegiate role fit the man himself) if you were caught with a girl in your room, you were promptly sent down." He asks if I have a copy of the Crimson with me. I do, and he leafs through it thoughtfully, smiling at certain items. "Kids go to a lot of films here, don't they?" A modest manner; sometimes, when speaking about other actors or directors, almost too much so. Friendly, helpful, approachable but shy. A warm smile, but almost never a laugh. A set of positive phrase: "marvelous," "I adore it," "extraordinary."
"It's the first time I've ever held and interview like this, you know. I'm doing it because I enjoyed doing 'Cabaret' so much, and it also gives me a chance to talk with Americans. Oh yes, I've been to America before, my wife (does the heart sink?) used to work for Glamour magazine. But I've been living amongst this colony of American refugees (so he can be sarcastic...) in London, and they all have this terribly pessimistic view of the States. I wanted to see for myself. And then, I adore travelling more than anything else. I think it's what I like best about my life as an actor."
HIS LOVE OF TRAVEL goes back to his childhood. Although he is originally from Oxford, his father was a business executive who travelled quite extensively, and so Michael moved around a lot as a child. "I suppose that's where I first got a taste for the gypsy life," he explains. During his school years he became interested in acting, and one of his first stage appearances was in a student production of "The Merchant of Venice." He continued to do much Shakespeare, acting in "Hamlet," "Richard the Third" and "Julius Caesar" after he joined Michael Croft's National Youth Theater at the age of 16. The members of this stage company were teenagers -- or "young toughs and lay-abouts," as he calls them -- drawn from all over England, who spent their "hols" acting and producing plays throughout England and the Continent. "I've always had a soft place for Shakespeare; I adore him. It's too bad he's so massacred in the schoolroom, rammed down people's throats in the most ghastly way. I think I love him because I grew up with him, knowing him as a kid; he gives such credit to his audiences' imagination. I got high on it." Franco Zeffirelli obviously not only spotted York's acting ability, or his ugly good looks, but also detected in him a fellow addict, a lasting enthusiast for the genius of the Bard.
York's love affair with the theater grew during his years at Oxford. "I read English at Oxford -- Tolkien's son was my tutor, actually. But you have to understand the English tutorial system at the universities to realize that I didn't spend much time in the classroom. I spent absolutely all my time acting." He belonged to the Oxford University Drama Society, the university's theater company that produces Shakespearean and classical drama. But he didn't confine himself to tradition, and joined the Experimental Theatre Company at Oxford as well. "Theater was my hole life at Oxford, and Oxford is a very drama-oriented place. It's funny. Sean Connery was the big actor around town at that time. I imagine I always wanted to make acting my career, but if I hadn't I would've picked journalism.
His penchant for the written word is still strong. On his wide travels he keeps a journal and writes down his impressions of each place he visits. By writing he feels he can create a tangible link with past experience, both immediate are removed; scrutinize his own moods, and analyze his reactions in retrospect: study the appearances of strange people and places. "I also read quite a bit, but I don't understand people who re-read books. There's so much to see and read. I don't have the time to re-hash something like that, and I don't approach a book as something that need's going over." Like his journal, each book he reads reflects a new and first impression. Like his indignation at the idea that he ever lets himself be type-cast in many movies, while what he wants is the often indecisive and impulsive freedom to pick a "new direction" with each new role, he confronts life with an infectious excitement. He can rush headlong into each novel experience, because it is based on a mature conviction that Michael York and his world will learn their most valuable lessons from many an unfamiliar little incident.
AFTER GRADUATING from Oxford (with honors), York joined the Dundee Repertory Company, earning the usual minimal rep salary in exchange for a varied acting experience ranging from "Antigone" to "Salad Days." Then came his great break. "The mind boggles at the thought of how full of coincidence life is. With me, I think it was just a question of being at the right place at the right time. I know many actors, friends and colleagues who simply didn't have the luck I did. Looking back, I'm very grateful that things have worked out so well." The right place and time were in London during the auditions for Britain's National Theatre. Sir Laurence Olivier was one of the judges, and a director with the company. Two days later, York was one of its members.
His first appearance with the National Theatre was in a production of "Much Ado About Nothing." "I just walked on and waked off. The real stars were Maggie Smith and Albert Finney." More importantly for York's film career, Franco Zeffirelli was the director. Zeffirelli gave York his first screen role in the bawdy "The Taming of the Shrew." Film critics began to sit up and take notice. Although he had graduated Oxford. York was now enrolled at the University of Renaissance Padua: be played the student who woos Bianca. His cinema reputation as the young academic had begun.
While working on "The Taming of the Shrew," he met director Joseph Losey, who dropped him right back on campus in "Accident." Like most audiences. York admires and appreciates the genius that went into making the picture. "I was tremendously satisfied working with him (Losey). He's a complete professional and won't compromise overmuch, either -- he knows what he's about. When I started working with him on 'Accident.' I wasn't at all experienced in film. I had an absolute trauma after seeing the first rushes at the local cinema." He briefly evokes the close, sweaty atmosphere of a small English moviehouse. "Well, Losey said to me. 'What are you worried about? I'm very pleased. If I hadn't wanted you to look and act that way, do you think you would have?" He taught me so much, one felt so creative."
York's next film was "Red and Blue" with Vanessa Redgrave, followed by "Smashing Time" with sister Lynn and Rita Tushingham. In 1966 he launched himself into the world of television as Young Jolyon in the BBC's popular adaptation of "The Forsyte Saga." During the summer of '67 York worked with Zeffirelli in Rome as Tybalt in "Romeo and Juliet." Then he returned to twentieth century England for a persona as a young policeman in "The Strange Affair." Alexandria beckoned in "Justine" with Anouk Aimee, but "of all the films I've made. I like that one the least."
LISTENING TO HIM SUM UP his films and their locations, it seems that his travels left him little time in England at all. "I was bitten by the India bug before it became all the rage." Late in 1967 he went to India to star with Rita Tushingham in "The Guru." A typical example of a movie made before its time. But then the fad caught up with us before it was released. You can't imagine how surprised we were to bump into people like the Beatles and Mia Farrow on our way home." York remains oblivious to general critical opinions: "Personally, I like that almost the best of any movie I've made. It suffered from lack of 'selling.' It was made on a budget of 'frozen rupees' from things like The Sound of Music, but then it was never pushed enough. The Museum of Modern Art has a copy, tho'; it might be revived. What it was about? Well, you know, the old theme of 'East, West, never the twain shall meet.'"
Even if he hasn't been able to assimilate India's culture, the country still fascinates him. In talking about it he sounds like some philistine American tourist marvelling at the wonders of England. "Benares especially intrigued me. You really had a sense of a civilization having been there for thousands of years." In India, too, he met his future wife, who had been sent with an assignment to photograph Michael. "We have an excellent marriage; she has subordinated her profession to mine, that's why it works so well." Michael York had not been in America long enough to be attuned to the vibrations of Women's Liberation.
Holland is another one of his favorite countries. In between his numerous film commitments, he and two Dutch friends managed to make a low-budget experimental film, "Confessions of a Loving Couple." The two friends, "Pim" and "Wim," recently broke down all censorship codes in the Netherlands with their pornographic "Blue Movie." They also broke most audience attendance records for a Dutch-language film. Despite his image of only brief encounters with foreign countries. York proved quite knowledgeable when it came to analyzing the film scene in a country like Holland. He is very pleased with the turn things are taking in the traditionally dull Dutch film world. Of course it's still very Burgher there, but I think it's the youth that counts. They're the once who go to the movies and the ones who make them. We made 'Confessions of a Loving Couple' on a shoe-string budget. It was most extraordinary experience, very experimental and all improvisations. Only one take per shot, too, because there wasn't enough money for vast amounts of wilm."
Did he find it difficult working with foreign directors? "No, it was always a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Last year I made a French film with De Broca. Phillipe is the most extraordinary character. This was in Morocco. We were stuck way out in the desert, miles away from everything, just the sand and us. But the French are so marvelous, they create a convivial atmosphere wherever they are. I mean, here we were, in the most godforsaken place, and they were always laughing and cheerful--so wonderfully French! The movie? It's a comedy. I love it. But then, I like zany movies."
The setting for "Cabaret" was not a new adventure for York from a geographical standpoint, but from an historical perspective. Many of the scenes in "Cabaret" would have been familiar to him from his Don Juan-esque escapades in "Something for Everyone," the box-office flop that York stubbornly persists is his favorite film.
IN "CABARET," Berlin on the crumbling brink of the Third Reich and Hitler's holocaust is the historical background York was to blend with his unfortunately recurrent role of the young, innocent, effete British student-scholar. "For background I read a book on the rise of Hitler. What I felt about my role? In 'Cabaret' I tried to preserve the sense of 'I am a Camera' you also find in Isherwood's Berlin Stories." York isn't bullshitting. either, when he cites Isherwood. He means that he has in fact read the stories. "In other words, I was involved in what was happening, as well as looking on. As for being type-cast. I would hate to feel my personality is like Brian's in 'Cabaret,' 'the effete homosexual.' No, the homosexual theme was not just getting on the bandwagon, it has an artistic validity of its own. Now with Liza the case is different. The reason I agreed to do 'Cabaret' was because of Liza, and Bob Fosse, of course. I had admired her before, thoroughly enjoyed all her performance, even 'Junie Moon.' That bouncy, enthusiastic, dynamic personality you see in Sally Bowles -- that's Liza. In all her parts she is always Liza. She's a terribly generous person, you know, a joy to work with, such a professional."
In explaining why he predicts that "Cabaret" would be well received, he pointed to the present popularity of musicals, "especially among modern young people, who a year ago wouldn't have gone near a musical. It's this mood of nostalgia for that sort of thing." But he elaborated this opinion more vehemently with a strong belief of his own. "It is vital that people be entertained." Assuredly, "the whole point of the medium is to communicate," but Michael York has very definite ideas about what should be communicated. "Entertainment should ennoble, uplift, teach, educate, bring out the best." Nor does he like to act in anything he feels would be degrading or undignified for the character he played, unless the artistic terms of the film demanded it -- "but that's just me." An apologetic smile. That is him exactly, uptight but alright.
York is violent on violence. He thoroughly sympathizes with the uproar in the press about violence in contemporary cinema. Even the more sadistic scenes in "Cabaret" were hard for him to stomach, but they were excused for the sake of historical authenticity. He doesn't let a director like Peckinpah off so easily. "My God, a line has to be drawn somehow. There are ways and ways of showing man as a violent animal. I was appalled watching Peckinpah's 'Straw Dogs." An attitude like that is bloodthirsty: it's dangerous and corrosive for people to watch these things. I had an offer to star in 'Outback,' that movie made in Australia. You haven't heard of it? There are all these so-called 'roo-bashing' scenes (kangaroo hunting), which were sickening for me to read, let alone watch. I turned it down. One must respect one's private standards."
Yet he is far from conservative when it comes to giving his preferences in talking about his taste in film-making. "I would love to do something avant-garde. What's avant-garde?" Time for another compromising York definition. "I would hate to make demarcation lines. But it Andy Warhol offered. I would jump at a chance to work with him. Another instance of wishful thinking is a bout with Bergman. And favorite movies are Fellini's "8 1/2" and Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," "my favorite film ever. I don't know why..." Are there any actors he would like particularly to work with? "So many, so many." Hesitates. Ready for this one? "Paul Newman?"
SINCE HE READS so much, there must be some best-ever book he would like to see made into a movie. "Well yes, actually, one book haunts me: did you ever read E.M. Forster's A Passage to India? You know my weakness for India? You know my weakness for India. Maurice? To be perfectly honest. I wish I hadn't read that book. Forster has always been a kind of idol of mine. I've always loved his work. I met him at Cambridge one, had tea together. Utterly marvelous ... No. I don't think that Maurice should have been published, perhaps just not so soon. It's obviously worth publishing, that's not the point." The point is, Michael York has certain set of standards. One of them is privacy.
Now that we're back with English subject matter, on native soil, how does he understand the alleged "Renaissance" in the English film world of recent years? "The actors have always been there, the Renaissance, as you call it, has been among the directors and in the style of filmmaking. Location is so important in many of these films, especially the very realistic ones. Film-making is now really a mirror held up to nature, for the first time. I'm thinking, of course, if 'Sunday Bloody Sunday,' and films of that type. When I was at school, there was this whole New Wave in the film world: you had people coming in like Tony' Richardson or Tom Courtenay."
In view of the changing scene of that period, the question of the rise of satirical entertainment in England at that time comes to mind. York is quick to agree. "Yes, there was definitely a 'satire boom during the 60's. It started with Dudley Moore's and Peter Cook's revue 'Beyond the Fringe.' The impact that show made was phenomenal, it started a whole new movement. Then 'That Was the Week that Was' was a nationwide hit. Still, I think that satire had always been there, it was certainly popular when I was at Oxford. But 'Week' was just so good, it caught the mood of the times." Remember the optimistically disillusioned 60's? "David Frost (who was one of the main forces behind "That Was the Week that Was") was right in the tradition of Oxford and Cambridge ... Do people in England accuse Frost of betrayal when they see his new image on the David Frost Show? It's very strange ... it's hard to reconcile the English and American Frost. People were absolutely shocked when they saw his talk-show. In England he's still considered very much a man of the people. Rather different from the way he comes across in America -- so obsequious." As strong adjective for polite Michael York, and he's by now predictably fast to qualify it: "but it's far from me to criticize David."
DIFFERENCES between England and America are symbolized for him in more ways than David Frost's schizophrenia. Theater is much more a way of life in England. This manifests itself also in a great increase in regional theaters throughout England. "I wouldn't mind going back to the stage myself." Bristol's Old Vic has established a theater called the Young Vic. "It's packed every night. It's a kind of Shakespearean theater-in-the-round, where everyone can come. And they do. In America it's different. An evening at the theater is a major investment. It's so expensive here. First you have to get a babysitter, usually you take a car into the city from the suburb, or a taxi, because there's no place to park. Then an expensive dinner. Theater tickets are exorbitant. It's much more easy to stay home and watch television. In England they don't have these talk-shows, either, the ones that are so popular here. They haven't caught on yet, and I don't know if they every will."
Several days after the interview, I'm watching one of those all-American talk-show. The Dick Cavett Show. As one of his guests Mr. Cavett Show would like to welcome Michael York, currently starring in "Cabaret" with Liza Minelli. Mild applause. York walks on: stiff, uncomfortable, poker-faced in his dangerously British way. Excerpts from "Cabaret" are shown, scenes more with Liza than Michael. As I watch York chat with Dick Cavett, who is obviously as unimpressed with his visitor as the American audience. I can see York getting more and more nervous, as he begins to push the film, thereby obscuring his own engaging personality. The actor in him as defeated by the man, who is uneasy about his own presence in a television-interview situation. Listening to his short, bland statements, I hear his voice of a few days ago. "I hate seeing myself on screen. One cringes, you know. I saw 'Cabaret' in full for the first time a week ago Monday. It was one long series of little cringettes. I would have liked to correct so much. You remember what was going on in your mind and all around you at the moment of each take. Then, at the screening, you miss things you worked so hard on it's sheer torture."
I HATED TO THINK who pained Michael York would have been in watching his nervous self on T. V. While the tension built across from Cavett, I remembered how relaxed York could be. In talking about the power of television he had told an animated little story about a trip he made to Russia some time ago. "It was utterly fantastic. The 'Forsyte Saga' was just being shown on Russian television. Wherever I went, people recognized me. Little girls would come running up to me with bunches of flowers. I was astonished!" He laughs. Michael York is laughing for the first, last and only time. Little girls and flowers ... I had seen his unusual side