Christopher Lee (1922-2015)
One of the cinema’s most distinct – and often most chilling – voices has left us. It has been said that Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 93, has been in more films than any single human being. If I had met the man, I probably would never question this claim; after all day, he did say that he’d “done more sword fights on celluloid than any actor in history I should think, and I’ve got the scars to prove it.” I’d have no choice to take his word for it. His voice and his presence were, after all, just as formidable as his career.
Whether it’s truly the case that he’s been in more films than anyone, there are certainly few other actors that have played more iconic roles – or, at least, key roles in iconic franchises – than Mr. Lee. To start with: there aren’t many roles in film more iconic than Dracula – which he played in the 1958 film of the same name – and he really set the bar against which all future future performances would measured. He also played the eponymous character in The Man with The Golden Gun (1974), one of the most memorable James Bond films from the Roger Moore era. I saw him pop up in a few Tim Burton films as well: remember that chilling scene in Sleepy Hollow (1999) where Ichabod Crane was given his assignment. Yes, that was Christopher Lee.
Surprising for an actor of Lee’s history, he left his indelible mark on cinema in more recent years as well: one need look no further than the groundbreaking Lord of The Rings trilogy. Though there had been talk that Lee was interested in playing the wizard Gandalf, it’s hard to imagine a part more suited to his talents than the role he actually played: Saruman the White. Since the trilogy’s primary villain, Sauron, would go largely unseen, it was Lee’s once honorable wizard and his descent to evil that provided the film with the necessary heft and ominousness. While there were many good characters in the films whose journey we cared about, it was Saruman who we knew could challenge them all. Lee played the part to perfection: Saruman’s obsession for power was chilling, and he needed few words to convey it. Notice how Saruman’s lips curled upward in a subtle smirk when the first of his army of Uruk-hai warriors is born from the wizard’s foul magic. I am not sure if any actor could pulled off that gaze of such utter, almost dispassionate, evil.
Lee also portrayed the character of Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. His turn as a “fallen Jedi” who played an important part in hastening the fracturing of the Republic turned out to be one of the most compelling characters in those flawed films. Some years prior to the rise of Vader, he had trained great Jedi like Qui-Gon Jinn just he began to realize that the Republic was becoming unstable under its own weight. Lee portrayed the character as if Dooku was the very wisest of all the Star Wars characters, Yoda included, and it seemed that his turn to the Dark Side was due to his great intelligence. He clearly had some foresight that the Republic would fall no matter what happened, resulting is his decision to help Palpatine usher in a sort of “controlled demolition.” His role in the scheme was to convince star systems to separate themselves from the Republic all conning various guilds to helping him amass his own great army. He spoke and even fought like a gentlemen; his portrayal of Dooku became the perfect mirror image of Alec Guiness’ turn as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original film. It might be easy for Star Wars’ most loyal fans to dismiss the prequel films as abominations, but even that attitude seems uncertain when Christopher Lee appears on screen. It is then that even the most jaded audience members find themselves taking notice.
Movies matter because they connect all of us, offering a common ground for our feelings and emotions that allow a chance to for anyone to connect with anyone else. In all the tales told in films, the most universal is the need to triumph over evil, and one of Lee’s most important contributions to cinema was his ability to create that evil, to give it form and voice. He had great respect for the medium as a format for telling good stories, and he always brought his A Game even to material that would normally pass as schlock. He even did this for his most underrated roles, one of which (for my money) was the mad scientist in the clever satire Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). Lee always has a knack for seeming smarter than other characters that he shares the screen with, so it is definitely a hoot to see his intelligence being upstaged by his own creation, the “Brain Gremlin,” in this film, which plays like a live-action cartoon.
Yes, even Christopher Lee realized that all the films, and the all kinds of characters he chose to play, were all conceived in good fun.