Log in

No account? Create an account

Michael Gothard and the Curse of Curtis Harrington

« previous entry | next entry »
Mar. 15th, 1972 | 11:55 pm

"I didn’t like him at all."
Curtis Harrington

Louis M. Heyward

The set of ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’ was clearly an unhappy one. Executive producer, Louis M. Heyward, who - having been impressed with him on ‘Scream and Scream Again’ - had cast Michael Gothard in the role of Albie, said:

“Curtis Harrington was great to work with but Shelley was difficult. There were problems between her and co-star Michael Gothard. She also kept insisting that I get a 'Sir' for supporting role. I got Ralph Richardson but she had meant Laurence Olivier.”

Judy Cornwell's problems with Shelley Winters

Judy Cornwell, who played the maid, Clarine, gives a more detailed account of Shelley Winters’ ‘difficult’ behaviour, both before shooting began, and on set:

"Richard [Eastham, Cornwell’s personal manager] told me that ‘Wuthering Heights’ had now opened in America and I had wonderful, rave reviews for my performance. Unfortunately for me, Shelley Winters too had seen the reviews, and she had overall script approval in her contract for the next film.

Before the shooting in Shepperton began, my part was almost deleted from the script. The best scenes were changed to become hers, and any of my scenes that were not essential to the story line were cut.

When I was sent the final draft of the script I was horrified and talked over the situation with Richard … He wanted to know whether I would rather pull out of the film, but I decided not to do so. I liked the producers of the film and this would be my fourth for American International Pictures. The heads of the company sent me Christmas cards. There were not to know that a certain actress would invoke her script approval clause.

I knew that Michael Bryant had worked with Shelley Winters on a film for television, so I phoned him to see what it was like to work with her.

'Tricky,' he replied. 'She makes mistakes when you are giving your best performance, so you have to do it again. This goes on until you drop your performance, then she comes up, and that is the take they use.'

My heart sank.

The first day of filming for ‘The Gingerbread House’ [as ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’ was originally titled] arrived and I met Curtis Harrington, an experienced and charming Hollywood director. We talked through the scene and then Miss Winters arrived. I was introduced to her as the girl who gave the great performance in ‘Wuthering Heights.’

She gazed at me with small beady eyes and said, 'I know. She's a scene stealer.'

Curtis laughed as if she had made a joke; I knew she had not.

When we began preparations for the scene, as Michael [Bryant] had warned me, she fluffed and made mistakes. I kept steady … not panicking, just keeping up my performance and not dropping it for one second.

Suddenly there was a wail from Shelley who said she had a headache and she stormed off the set, so we broke for an early lunch …

After lunch we returned to the scene again and this time she wanted me in a different position from before. Curtis tried to accommodate her. Every position that would work for the camera was unacceptable to her.

I heard a couple of yawns from the crew. They did not like one of their own British actresses being put through the wringer by this Yank.

Curtis began to lose his cool. 'Would you like me to put her under the table?' he said.

I took several deep breaths and stayed calm.

We began the scene again and suddenly she came up with a performance. So did I, and there was a shout of 'Take and Print.' I think she thought I was going to be thrown by the sudden change but I was not. I was tired at the end of the day, but the first scene was in the can, and my next scheduled scene did not involve her.

[Presumably this was her scene with Albie (Michael Gothard) and Mr Harrison (Hugh Griffith) in the kitchen: Judy seems to have had no problems with either of them]

The next time we had to work together she started again. I had had enough by now, so I let her have it with both barrels and told her that I had worked with some pretty big names, people with huge talent, and that none of them had behaved as badly as she had. I said life was too short for such games and could she please stop pissing about.

Instead of wailing and storming off the set, which by now was frigid with silence and tension, she smiled, her face relaxed, and she said, 'My God, you remind me of me when I was young.' … from then on she was nauseatingly nice to me, and I had no more trouble from her."

Curtis Harrington's friendship with Shelley Winters

Harrington seems to have been very tolerant of Winters’ unreasonable behaviour – he must have known what to expect, as he’d already worked with her on ‘What’s the Matter with Helen?’

In fact, in an interview for ‘Terror Trap’ in April 2005, he admitted: “A lot of movie stars particularly can be quite difficult. I mean, Shelley Winters is one of them. So I've learned to handle all that fairly well by being diplomatic and sympathetic and all those things. When I hear of directors who are very brutal with their actors, I think that approach is all wrong. I mean, actors need a lot of TLC to do well."

As we shall later see, this ‘TLC’ was something he denied Michael Gothard; but then, Harrington and Winters were friends.

Another friend of Harrington’s, David Del Valle, says:

“Curtis did [‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’] because Shelley asked for him personally, the perks were of course a trip to the UK and the joy of working with Sir Ralph Richardson whom he adored …

… I got to know Shelley Winters who acted for Curtis on two occasions. Curtis would organize parties around her and we would all find ourselves sitting on the floor around this ornate loveseat in his living room as Miss Winters held court from her throne, she loved to be the center of attention at all times …

Shelley bonded big time with Curtis on the set of ‘What’s the Matter with Helen?’…”

In the ‘Terror Trap’ interview, Harrington answered questions about both ‘What’s the Matter with Helen?’ (in which Winters starred with Debbie Reynolds) and ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’

TT: Did Debbie [Reynolds] and Shelley get along?

CH: Just barely.

TT: Interesting.

CH: It was rather inevitable that they would have a conflict occasionally. Shelley imagined a rivalry with Debbie.

TT: Why is that?

CH: Well, Debbie still had a very youthful figure and by this time Shelley was already dumpy and heavy. It was that sort of thing, a kind of female jealousy.

TT: You'd get Ralph Richardson for your next project, as well as Shelley Winters part deux. Tell us about ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?’

CH: Yes, we made that right after ‘What's the Matter with Helen?’ She and I both flew to London together to make it at the Shepperton Studio.

TT: Who approached whom?

CH: It was an AIP production. They had already contracted her to do a film for them. And they decided this was the one they wanted to do with her. Because I had just worked with her and she liked working with me, they hired me to direct it.

TT: How was the second round with Shelley on this one?

CH: Well, she didn't have the rivalry of Debbie Reynolds being on the set this time. Shelley was the solo star, there were no problems at all. She was completely happy through the whole production.

Shelley Winters’ fraught relationship with Debbie Reynolds was already well-known, but Judy Cornwell’s revelations had yet to be published.

If Cornwell’s detailed and specific accounts of Winters’ ‘neurotic’ behaviour, and deliberate fluffing of her lines – in the presence of multiple witnesses – are true, then Harrington’s anodyne disclaimer, “She was completely happy through the whole production,” is clearly a lie.

Harrington looks like a man trying desperately to protect his friend, Shelley Winters, from criticism, at the expense of the truth.

This might explain why Heyward thought there were problems between Winters and Gothard, when no other record of this has been found. Winters’ attitudes to younger women seem to have been common knowledge at the time the film was made; Harrington may have put the blame for the time and film Winters wasted in trying to spoil Cornwell’s takes, on Gothard. If Harrington had tried to blame Judy Cornwell, the truth – that Shelley Winters’ insecurities were responsible – would have been obvious to anyone in the business.

In another example of his loyalty to Winters, when interviewed by Rusty White, Harrington talks about the script changes, but fails to mention that they had been demanded by Winters, due to her jealousy of the younger actress.

RW: Yes. I noticed Jimmy Sangster [Hammer film director] was listed as one of the screen writers. Did you get to know him?

CH: He wrote the original script, but we did a lot of changes. We had no contact with him at all. The final script, a lot of it uncredited, was written by Gavin Lambent.

Harrington comes off even worse in an interview with Harvey F. Chartrand, first being bitchy about his employers:

“American International Pictures had offered me a contract to do a picture. I was scheduled to direct a new version of ‘Wuthering Heights’, [the film for which Judy Cornwell got good reviews, and Shelley Winters called her a “scene stealer”] which they subsequently made with another director. It was a disaster, of course.

In the meantime, AIP had ‘Whoever Slew Auntie Roo’ in development … I worked extensively on the script. Originally, it was very poor and we improved it a great deal.”

So Harrington spins the cutting of Judy Cornwell’s lines, to pander to Shelley Winters, as ‘improving the script.’

Curtis Harrington's attack on Michael Gothard

In an interview with DVD Drive-in, Harrington again chooses not to mention either his annoyance with Winters, or the fact that Cornwell faced Winters down over her behaviour. Instead, he reserves most of his criticism for Michael Gothard.

“Michael Gothard was one of the most neurotic actors I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t like him at all. He was assigned to me by the producers. I wouldn’t have cast Michael Gothard. He was an extraordinarily egotistical bad actor who kept flubbing his lines. It was like pulling teeth to get a performance out of him. I never understood why Gothard had any career at all. I guess casting directors thought he was an interesting type.”

It seems almost as if he has transferred any possible criticisms of his friend Shelley Winters to Michael Gothard.

If you transpose Shelley Winters in place of Michael Gothard:

“Shelley Winters was one of the most neurotic actors I’ve ever worked with … She was an extraordinarily egotistical bad actress who kept flubbing her lines. It was like pulling teeth to get a performance out of her” – you get something Judy Cornwell would probably agree with.

The question is, why implicate Michael? An uncharitable view might be that he was not around to defend himself. As he had taken his own life, he was apparently fair game for accusations of ‘neurotic’ behaviour.

We don’t know what, if any, problems there were between Michael and Shelley Winters. If she behaved in the same way with him as she did with Judy Cornwell, that might have been enough to make anyone fluff their lines, which was the result Shelley Winters was looking for anyway.

It is also possible that Michael Gothard, who had a strong sense of justice, may have become uncooperative because he felt aggrieved at Judy Cornwell’s treatment, just as the film crew reportedly did.

Just one man's opinion

Harrington’s accusation that Michael was a “bad actor” and “kept flubbing his lines” is out of line with the experiences of others who worked with him.

Philip Saville, who directed Michael in "The Machine Stops" called him a "lovely man", and "a very special person".

In correspondence, Mark Lester, who played Christopher Coombs on 'Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?' said: "I worked with Michael in the 1970's and to my knowledge he was a truly professional actor with a unique charm and presence. It was a pleasure to work with him."

Harry Fielder – an old pro in the industry, described Gothard as: “good guy to work with" and added that "Michael was always word perfect.”

Executive Producer Louis M. Heyward said of him: "I felt that Michael Gothard was going to be the biggest thing that ever happened. He had that insane look and that drive, and he was wonderful … He had a lot of class and a lot of style.”

Peter Sasdy, who directed him in two episodes of ‘Arthur of the Britons’, the Hammer film ‘The Sweet Scent of Death’ and an episode of ‘Lytton’s Diary’, wrote:
“As far as Michael Gothard is concerned … I thought of him as a very interesting actor, with strong personality and in the right part he’d always give a good performance.”

Even Patrick Dromgoole, Executive Producer of ‘Arthur of the Britons’, who did not particularly like Gothard, said he was “an artist of high standard” – not the kind you would expect to fluff their lines.

John Glen, who’d worked with him on ‘For Your Eyes Only’ cast him in ‘Columbus’ because he knew he could rely on him to perform, not just his own lines, but those of another cast member, without “flubbing.”

“I was anticipating trouble. When you're a director you have to box a little clever sometimes and I'd cast a very good actor called Michael Gothard as Brando's assistant, the idea being that if Marlon didn't turn up any time I would put Gothard in. And sure enough, on the first day, Marlon was a no-show, so I put Michael in and he took Marlon's lines.'

Glen also described Gothard as a "captivating" actor.

Mathilda May, who played the naked alien vampire girl in 'Lifeforce', (and was supposedly embarrassed by the film), says of Michael Gothard: "I remember him as a lovely person; a gentleman ..."

David Wickes, who directed him in "Jack the Ripper" and "Frankenstein", had this to say:

"Michael had a screen presence unlike that of any other actor with whom I have worked. He could frighten an audience with a glance. His soft, husky voice was electrifying and he knew how to use it to maximum effect.

Each time I welcomed Michael to the set, I knew that we were about to get something special in the can. There are very few actors in that category."

Harrington’s friend, David Del Valle, appears to find Harrington’s inability to get along with Gothard puzzling.

“Curtis absolutely hated Michael Gothard whom AIP forced upon him after the actor’s favorable reviews in Gordon Hessler’s ‘Scream And Scream Again.’ Gothard had also scored with a tour de force in Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’, yet Curtis found him unpleasant and difficult in a modest but key role of the sinister chauffeur.

They squared off over Michael’s long hair which he refused to cut until Curtis threatened to fire him …”

Studio in-fighting?

Whether Louis M. Heyward would have put up with Michael Gothard being fired is open to question, and perhaps that is part of the problem.

Del Valle continues: “I always wondered why Curtis was never offered any of those Poe films American International was making at that time in England. Perhaps the lack of success with the aforementioned films [“What’s the Matter with Helen”, and “Whoever Slew Auntie Roo”] sealed his fate with that company.”

Even Del Valle, Harrington’s friend can’t help but portray him as bitter and disappointed man.

“… the whole experience would have buried a lesser director, yet Curtis continued to work even with out that all important block buster that would admit him to that exalted realm of the Hollywood player.”

It is easy to see how having not had the blockbuster he wanted from AIP, and not being given any more work by them, he might have taken out his frustrations on the actor the Executive Producer, Louis M. Heyward, had chosen to cast, with the added bonus of deflecting criticisms of Shelley Winters.

In the end, perhaps Michael Gothard’s good name was just collateral damage in the behind-the-scenes wrangles between the major players.

It seems very unjust that the opinion of Curtis Harrington – who didn’t even like Michael Gothard – is the one that has so often been allowed to stand unchallenged, as the last word on Michael’s life and work.


“Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers, and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s”, by Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas. (1991)

Interview with Louis M. Heyward by Gary A. Smith, in “Uneasy Dreams: The Golden Age of British Horror Films, 1956-1976.” (2006)

“For My Eyes Only: My Life with James Bond” by John Glen (2001)

“Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Brando, Hopper, Beatty, and Nicholson”, by Robert Sellers (2010).

Judy Cornwell’s autobiography, "Adventures of a Jelly Baby: A Memoir” (November 2005).

Rusty White’s Film World Obituaries

Vinnie Rattolle’s Cult Oddities

David Del Valle: Dreaming Dreams no Mortal Ever Dared to Dreamed Before

DVD Drive-In

Terror Trap

Correspondence with Peter Sasdy and Patrick Dromgoole.

Thanks to Tzaratango for finding many of these references.

Link | Leave a comment |

Comments {0}