James Mason – The Leading Figure of British Film

Even though it has been a hundred years since his birth and a quarter of a century since his death, these anniversaries not only remind us of the importance of James Mason in British and American cinema but also confirm that from today’s perspective he remained one of the greatest British actors

During his studies of architecture, Mason fell in love with acting and chose his calling. Even though he is considered a film actor, he began his career and achieved his first success in theatre. In the mid-1930s, he often appeared in low-budget projects that were made very fast in order to fulfill the legal quota of domestic films in British cinemas. Very soon, it became evident that his looks, personality and acting experience surpass those productions and in the next ten years, Mason became the biggest star of British cinema.

Moreover, he was considered the most handsome British actor primarily thanks to his strong acting personality, which often balanced pronouncedly opposed character traits. Thus, many of his characters are elegant and distant personalities, sometimes with aristocratic manners, deep and sophisticated feelings combined with eruptions of violent behavior; or they integrate a very special sensuality and arrogance barely hidden by civilized behavior. The complexity of Mason’s acting persona enabled him to create extraordinarily memorable characters whose uniqueness owe debts equally to his interpretation as well as the screenwriter’s idea or director’s inventiveness. Two successful films from that period secured Mason’s leading position in the British cinema – the psychological melodrama The Seventh Veil (1945) by Compton Bennett, one of the first big commercial successes of British cinema following WW II and Odd Man Out (1947) by Carol Reed, which is highlighted in each anthology of British film.

Having found himself on top in Europe, Mason sought his next challenge in Hollywood where he, in competition with many other popular American actors, did not achieve the greatest heights of fame but nevertheless managed to land a series of excellent roles, primarily playing attractive and sophisticated bad guys (for example in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959). In his interpretation, these heroes are often complex and easily apprehended characters such as the ruined, self-destructive alcoholic actor in George Cukor’s ZA Star Is Born (1954), who convincingly hides his weaknesses beneath the façade of an important person, or a pedophile in Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), who is not only a culprit but also a victim obsessed with passion for a minor.

Another special value of Mason’s talent played an important role in all these nuanced interpretations of very different characters – his ability to convey a convincing impression of a storm of emotions that rips at the psyche behind a perfectly calm face. His expressiveness captured the interest of even the most demanding audiences for less valuable films, thus Mason was often in many of those as well. He was not very selective in his choice of roles, appearing in more than 150 of them (mainly on film but also on television). He made films until the end of his life (several films premiered after his death from a heart attack). Even though Mason’s interesting interpretations managed to increase the value of less quality films that he appeared in, it is possible that during his life their number partly overshadowed the many of his outstanding roles. The real greatness of this extraordinary actor can be seen more clearly today when his weaker films have been somewhat forgotten and his best interpretations still shine with an evanescent glow. (Tomislav Kurelec)