May 31, 1922 – Denholm Elliot
I’m often given parts that aren’t as big as they are colorful, but people remember them. When it’s a minor or supporting role, you learn to make the most of what you’re given. I can make two lines seem like ‘Hamlet’.
Denholm Mitchell Elliott was a quite a distinguished British character actor, noted for his stage, film and television work. His specialty was playing slightly sleazy/slightly eccentric, flawed upper-middleclass English gentlemen. His career spanned 40 years. He was one of those actors who possessed a well-known face, if not a famous name. He was a complicated, slightly disturbing actor. His delivery could be dry, witty and veddy, veddy English, but by simply arching his eyebrow or curling his lip his portrayals of slightly menacing individuals were extremely convincing.
In the spring of 1992, the film Noises Off directed by Peter Bogdanovich limped into theatres, a co-production between two companies known for box-office successes, Disney Studios and Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin Productions. In fact, a re-release of Spielberg’s Hook (1991), a film as misconceived as any ever made, was the top film that season. On stage, the rollicking farce Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, ran for five years on the West End and for 553 performances on Broadway, and even though Frayn endorsed the film version, the few of us who did see it laughed, and one of its joys was the wonderful teamwork of a cast: Michael Caine, Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, Marilu Henner, Nicollette Sheridan, Julie Hagerty, Mark Linn-Baker and Elliott. Elliott was especially good as an aging British actor (the rest of the cast, except Caine, played Americans), who drinks a bit, forgets his lines and turns up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As so often with Elliot, he stole the show.
He was born in London. After an especially unhappy childhood, he studied at The Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts (RADA), on the advice of his psychiatrist, but he left after a year. He served with the RAF in World War II, was captured by the Nazis, and it was his three years as a prisoner of war in Germany, playing in the POW camp amateur productions, that intensified his interest in acting.
After being liberated by the allies, Elliot found steady stage work in London and on Broadway, making his film debut in 1949. He went on to play an enormous range of parts in more than 75 films of all genres: Alfie (1966), Trading Places (1983), Brimstone & Treacle (1982),the gay classic Maurice (1987), and in one of my own top favorite films of all time, A Room With A View (1985), a Merchant/Ivory film that brought Elliott an Academy Award nomination for his role as Mr. Emerson.
Elliott’s rather remote, aristocratic style, later used to good advantage, was never likely to make him a popular movie star, which he realized, and he continuing to act on the stage, notably in T.S. Eliot‘s The Confidential Clerk (1953) and in Tennessee Williams‘ Camino Real (1957). His career included many stage performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and an acclaimed turn as the twin brothers in Jean Anouilh‘s Ring Round The Moon on Broadway in 1954. His scene-stealing abilities led Gabriel Byrne, his co-star in the film Defence Of The Realm (1986) to tell the press: “Never act with children, dogs, or Denholm Elliott”.
He did his first Hollywood film, King Rat (1965), but it was his role as a sleazy back-street abortionist in Alfie that really attracted attention. He returned to Hollywood to play a self-appointed crusader against vice in The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968). He was great at villainy, and although too varied as an actor to be typecast, he seldom escaped from this, but he did in Sidney Lumet‘s excellent film version of Anton Chekhov‘s The Seagull (1968), where he is the kindly doctor.
He had rare leading role in a version of Henrik Ibsen‘s A Doll’s House (1973), with Claire Bloom, playing Krogstad, the conniving bank official aiming to replace Torvald (Anthony Hopkins), but was back to supporting roles with The Apprentice Of Duddy Kravitz (1974), as a drunken has-been British director used by Richard Dreyfuss in his rise to the top. He worked almost non-stop in films in the 1980s, in parts big and small, including as Harrison Ford‘s academic superior in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1986); September (1987) by Woody Allen, a gender-switch version of Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya; and as Elliott Templeton in the 1984 Bill Murray version of The Razor’s Edge, the third film adaptation of gay writer W. Somerset Maugham‘s 1944 novel. I love him as a sad heterosexual in the thriller Bad Timing (1980) directed by the late, great Nicolas Roeg.
Although he was gay, Elliott was married twice; the first time to the British actor, Virginia McKenna, and beginning in 1962, he had an open marriage to American actor Susan Robinson, with whom he had two children.
Robinson was reconciled to her husband’s boyfriends and seldom felt jealous. On one occasion, he brought one of them, a young Moroccan guy, to their home in London. In a gesture of defiance, Robinson immediately started an affair with a famous French actor while on vacation on Ibeza and was reassured to find herself still attractive and desirable and with no guilt. Robinson claimed that her sex life with her husband always remained active:
Between us, he was always 100 percent masculine, both in bed and in taking decisions in our home life.
In turn, Elliott never stood in the way of Robinson’s affairs. Their rule, like so many open-relationships was:
As long as you don’t fall in love and as long as you don’t have anyone else’s baby….
In her biography Denholm Elliott: A Quest For Love (1994), Robinson wrote that on a night not long after her marriage, she was out with the artist Francis Bacon and his boyfriend Jonathan Edwards. The two handcuffed her to a bar stool and then went home with the key. She got home and managed to slide into bed beside her husband without disturbing him, the stool beside her on the floor. He left the next morning without ever seeing it, and Robinson took a cab to Bacon’s studio, where her freed her from her accessory and then took her to lunch.
She also wrote that Elliott’s assignations with men increased in number and frequency as the years passed until her husband’s promiscuity became “an almost a psychological disorder”. She wrote that his tastes ran to the rather exotic: “Moroccan gigolos, Chinese waiters, Spanish garage attendants, a hunchbacked Haitian dwarf”.
Elliott was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. He took his final bow in 1992 at his private place on Ibiza, gone from HIV-related TB. He was cremated. His widow set up a charity, The Denholm Elliott Project, a collection of cottages on Ibiza, providing HIV positive people with a free holiday at no cost. The charity continues to this day.
Susan Robinson Elliott died in a fire at her home in London in spring 2007.