Look at the filmographies of most successful actors and you think: Well, there's a career. Examine Terence Stamp's, however, and you're more likely to marvel: What a fascinating life.
Can anyone else claim to have worked with Fellini, Pasolini, William Wyler, Ken Russell and Ken Loach—and been in a Star Wars movie? Have played a drag queen (famously, in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), the Devil (in Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves), a pope, a Tantric sex therapist and Brigham Young, to name just a few of his wildly disparate roles?
From the start, Stamp—who receives the Peter J. Owens Award at SFIFF at Film Society Awards Night, and appears at his Castro Theatre tribute Friday, April 29—has treated acting not as a job, let alone a quest for stardom, but as a restless search for new frontiers.
He came in with the ’60s, and for the duration of that decade seemed to personify so many things about England at its suddenly-“Swinging” coolest. Certainly he had a debut any actor would envy: Cast as the title figure in Peter Ustinov's film of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, his angelic looks and demeanor inviting—and getting—martyrdom at the hands of Robert Ryan's misanthropic 19th-century British Navy superior.
That was a part that could have made any handsome newcomer a heartthrob. So Stamp did the natural thing, at least to him: He campaigned for the most repellent part he could find. That was Freddie Clegg, the seemingly nondescript young man who stalks, kidnaps and imprisons a young woman (Samantha Eggar) in Wyler's film of the John Fowles bestseller The Collector. It was an unnerving performance. Evidently an unnerving production experience as well—such that longtime friends Stamp and Eggar were reportedly never on such good terms again. Their Cannes acting prizes must have offered some consolation.
He spent the rest of the decade working sparely on an eccentric lineup of films that must have had his agent crying in despair, studiously avoiding any Hollywood offers. He turned down Alfie—to the great good fortune of his former flatmate Michael Caine—to make Joseph Losey's bizarre mod spy spoof Modesty Blaise; romanced Julie Christie (offscreen as well) for John Schlesinger's lush Thomas Hardy epic Far From the Madding Crowd; played a Cockney cad, a supporting role, in Loach's gritty low-budget Poor Cow; a near-mute Mexican anti-hero in the quasi-spaghetti western Blue; a dissolute, doomed English movie star in Toby Dammit, Fellini's contribution to the all-star supernatural compendium Spirits of the Dead; a nameless visitor who seduces, ignites and destroys an entire bourgeois family in Pasolini's Teorema; Arthur Rimbaud in the little-known Italian A Season in Hell; and a childlike man waking from a lifelong coma in cult sci-fi feature The Mind of Mr. Soames.
It was an extraordinarily adventuresome decade for film, and for this actor in particular. Then the ’60s were over—and so, abruptly and for some time, was Terence Stamp as any kind of public personality. When a high-profile romance with Swinging London It Girl Jean Shrimpton ended, he spent several years on a spiritual quest in India, very rarely working. The next time large audiences saw him was as General Zod in 1978's Superman and its 1980 sequel.
In the years since, he's entered the realm of the supporting character actor with gusto, appearing in mainstream hits from Young Guns and Wall Street to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, stealing scenes from stars like Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and Tom Cruise. He's narrated documentaries and even lent his voice to videogames.
Every once in a while, however, a fine director makes a movie that becomes unimaginable without him. In Stephen Frears' 1984 The Hit, he was striking as the oddly serene target of mob assassins. Ten years later he proved he was still capable of confounding all expectations with a note-perfect performance as Adventures of Priscilla's “Bernadette,” flamboyant mother hen to two younger crossdressers. In 1999 Steven Soderbergh created The Limey specifically as a vehicle for him; clips from Poor Cow provided the backstory for this tale of an aging British gangster who travels to L.A. to avenge his daughter's death.
It's a wanderer's resume, which also includes theater work, several acclaimed memoirs, a novel and two cookbooks. (He's wheat and dairy-intolerant, hence the latter.) The man can act, write, cook and perhaps juggle flaming torches for all we know.
Surely he will have some great stories to tell at the San Francisco International Film Festival event, which, in addition to a clip reel and onstage Q&A, features the screening of a work the Film Society anticipates will be Toby Dammit—a satirical and surreal featurette in which a chalky-gaunt Stamp essays the kind of vain, self-indulgent, self-destructive movie star another actor might easily have become after Billy Budd (and dating Brigitte Bardot). Did he sign on just to work with Fellini, or because the part had personal resonance? You can ask him at the Castro.
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