Malcolm McDowell was the insolent prince of early-70s cinema, the Liverpool salesman who stormed the establishment’s barricades. You can see him on screen in Lindsay Anderson’s If…., kickstarting a bloody revolution inside an English public school. You can see him in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, hanging with his droogs at the Korova milk-bar, making up his rassoodock what to do with the night. The sky was the limit. The world was his oyster. One felt he could achieve pretty much anything.
If McDowell’s life was a movie, he would either have gone on to be crowned king or he would have exploded and vanished, ideally before he turned 30. But real life has a way of monkeying with the script, which may explain why McDowell is now a snowy-haired 77-year-old. He is a father of five, an avid golfer and a jobbing Hollywood actor specialising in baddies. His wild youth is behind him. He has made peace with his lot. “I had an incredible first few years,” he explains. “And of course that was the golden age. But you can’t keep playing the rebel for ever.”
Every now and then he'll land a peach of a part. Last year he played Rupert Murdoch in the #MeToo drama Bombshell. But his filmography also includes titles such as Abnormal Attraction and Death Race 2050, Kids vs Monsters and Meet the Small Potatoes. He has appeared in nearly 300 productions, many of which he forgot the instant he walked off the set. "People stop me and say: 'Oh, we loved you in blah-blah' and I say: 'Sorry, that wasn't me.' And then they'll show me on their phone or show me the DVD cover and sure enough, there I am." He chuckles. "And I have no memory of doing it at all."
In his latest film, The Big Ugly, he plays a London gangster at large in the US, intent on laundering dirty money through the green hills of Appalachia. Billed below Vinnie Jones and above Ron Perlman, McDowell comes weaving through the action with a weaselly menace and a face like a clenched fist. It’s the sort of polished, dependable B-movie performance that must feel almost second nature by now.
Happily, McDowell remembers The Big Ugly. They shot the film in Kentucky, deep in the boondocks at the height of summer. He recalls boarding at the Motel 6 and eating biscuits and grits at the local Cracker Barrel. “I had my 14-year-old son staying with me. He got so bored and it got so hot. That steamy southern heat that Tennessee Williams writes about. The only thing to do was drive to Walmart and walk around this big air-conditioned building to keep cool. That was the excitement. That was the big thing to look forward to. Breakfast at Cracker Barrel and then we’ll hit Walmart. After a week, he said: ‘You know what, Dad? I think I’d like to go home and see Mum.’”
Just lately, of course, McDowell has been at home a lot, too. He lives with his third wife, Kelley, in a small town near LA but says the effects of the pandemic have largely passed him by. The main drag is that he was booked in to have his left knee replaced but the operation kept being cancelled; it’s finally happening tomorrow. “I’ve been winging it for long enough,” he says. “Hobbling about, bone-on-bone.”
He was a child of the aspirational postwar working-class. His dad ran a pub in Burscough in West Lancashire, the Bull and Dog. In his youth, McDowell worked at the Planters’ nut factory and as a coffee sales rep before alighting in London. He had a confident swagger and an air of dancing mischief. He went about life as though it were a game to be played, or a set of rules to be broken. “You’re a Brechtian actor,” Lindsay Anderson told him. “They know that you’re acting but the audience believes you anyway.”
There's quite a good movie in Caligula somewhere. But not the porn stuff
The collaboration with Anderson was like a marriage, he says. Spats, rows and make-ups. They made three fine films together, chasing the character of If….’s Mick Travis through the capitalist hunting grounds of O Lucky Man to the floundering society of Britannia Hospital. And it was thanks to If.… that he landed the role of Alex DeLarge in the vicious, playful A Clockwork Orange, prancing about Thamesmead in bovver boots and a bowler hat. “Fiftieth anniversary next year,” he says. “Where does the time go?”
At the peak of his fame he starred in Caligula, a fevered Roman epic bankrolled by Penthouse magazine. The production sounds hilarious; it was basically two films in one. First, McDowell played the mad emperor alongside a classy lineup of actors that included Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole. Then the producers brought in adult performers to shoot hardcore sex scenes to be deployed as extended cutaways, seemingly at random, so as to give the impression that McDowell was gazing wistfully at a lesbian orgy, or a gladiator getting a blowjob. “There’s quite a good movie in there somewhere,” he says. “But not the porn stuff.”
Caligula was an embarrassing calamity, but it was at least fun to make. He recalls that Gielgud moved into his Italian villa for a while. The old actor would sit in the garden working at the Times crossword and lamenting the state of his personal finances. This was 1978, the time of the 83 per cent tax rate. The UK’s millionaires were all feeling the pinch.
McDowell’s imitation of Gielgud is perfect. He catches the man’s mellifluous delivery and querulous top note. “He’d say: ‘Oh, my accountant says I have to make cutbacks but I don’t see where I can.’ And I’d say, “Well, you’ve got a huge house, John.’ He’d say: ‘Oh yes, but I can’t sell that.’ ‘Well OK, but don’t you have a chauffeur-driven Rolls?’ ‘But, but – how do you think I’m going to get into London?’ ‘How about the train?’ ‘Oh, but I couldn’t do that. The train indeed!’ And I’d say” “Well, that’s why you’re having to do movies like this one, John.’”
I'm an old fossil these days. So I sit still and stay quiet
At the end of the decade, McDowell went to Hollywood to play the role of HG Wells in the film Time After Time. There he met the American actor Mary Steenburgen. The marriage eventually ended but by then he had put down roots. Looking back, he seems more nostalgic for his old London house than for the British film career he abandoned.
“It was just off Church Street, near Notting Hill Gate, back of the Czech embassy. Painter’s studio. A unique building. I bought it in 1969 and sold it the first year that Blair got in. And my Aunt Vera lived there for longer than I did. I said: ‘You can stay here, Auntie, I’ll be back in three months.’ Then I went to Hollywood, met Mary, fell in love, had two children. Never went back.”
England at the time felt too small, too parochial. Whereas the US was enormous, almost too big to handle. “I was out of my depth,” he admits. “So I played the heavy. The Brit. Which is sort of boring, but unfortunately that’s the way things worked out. When you move to a country like America, you’re a very small fish in a very big pond.”
I’m interested to hear McDowell’s side of the story. Reading the cuttings, one gets a different take: the sense of an actor who somehow squandered his promise and let his audience down, possibly out of spite. The critic David Thomson refers to his “strange, thwarted career”. The biographer Roger Lewis describes his later years with an undisguised glee (“his pretty boy looks faded and he was condemned to playing villains in straight-to-video films that turn up on Channel 5”). It’s as though McDowell’s progress offends our collective sensibility. We hate to think of Peter Pan growing up to become a footsoldier in Neverland. The children of the revolution must never ever play golf.
I ask whether he is as excited by acting as he was in his youth and he says that he is by and large, it depends on the part. “I still love it, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Maybe in my forties I didn’t have a good time. People didn’t know what to do with me. I was a useful rebel in the 60s and 70s. But the Kubrick movie was overbearing. Everything was measured against A Clockwork Orange, which gets a little old. But that’s what happens when you work with giants.”
Kubrick, in the end, was too controlling, “too brutal”, to properly bond with. But he adored Anderson and was great friends with Robert Altman. Those were his giants. Maybe there are others still out there. From time to time he will overhear his sons discussing new directors they love; artists who seem to share the same bold and freewheeling style. “But I’m an old fossil these days. So I sit still and stay quiet.”
Far be it for me to moonlight as his manager, but if he hears that there are exciting young film-makers hiding in the woods, why not seek them out? Better that, surely, than another third-billed slot as a photo-fit Mr Knuckles, another film he has forgotten as soon as it is put in the can.
“No,” McDowell says, “I’m not going to seek them out. If they offer me something, I’ll do it. But do I want to go parading around actively looking for work? No. Because I don’t have the ambition to be above the title, doing this, that and the other. I really don’t care. I’ve had an amazing run, an incredible career, when you take it all into account.”
I sometimes think: My God, I've just acted in a real piece of shit
Maybe this is the arc of most actors’ careers. Maybe it’s not just actors either. We start out looking for the biggest stage, the biggest challenge, the project with the potential to turn the world on its head. We finish up with a different set of requirements: a regular pay-cheque, some half-decent colleagues and a work trip somewhere warm, preferably near a golf course. McDowell – gifted, vibrant actor though he is – once said he would rather hit a hole in one than win an Academy Award. He tells me that this was partly meant as a joke but that actually he did hit a hole in one one time and it’s the most exhilarating thing, a feeling that lasts for ever.
On top of that, he has never especially been a believer in prizes. It has always struck him as funny, the way the Academy lavishes acting Oscars on the movies with the best script and the best direction, the ones that are already so good that the actor barely makes any difference. The voters, he feels, are coming at it arse-backwards. Those aren’t the films where the real heavy lifting takes place.
McDowell casts his mind back over his own long list of credits. The gangster flicks and the sci-fi knock-offs. The kids’ animations that few kids ever saw. He says: “I sometimes think: ‘My God, I’ve just acted in a real piece of shit and I managed to produce a credible performance. I managed to turn that piece of shit into something watchable.’ That’s what’s worthy of an acting award.” – Guardian
The Big Ugly is out on July 24th