|by Matt Bartley
Who is the actor living today that is descended from Italian nobility and has played golf with Dean Martin? That was present at the last public execution in France and has had his finger broken by Errol Flynn? Who has met the assassins of Rasputin and then played Rasputin himself? Who has played Dracula, a gay Hells Angel and the architect of the middle east? Who can sing opera and has worked for such directors as Joe Dante, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, Tim Burton and Peter Jackson? Why, it's Christopher Lee of course.
I'm always quite wary of autobiographies, particularly actors, as they tend to be self-aggrandising, overly precious, and far too keen to psychoanalyse their every move whilst describing every film they were ever in as a forgotten classic (having read extracts from Sean Astin's autobiography, he ticks every box there).
And there's also a certain amount of trepidation involved when you consider the fact that Christopher Lee has had a very privilged upbringing and uses a range of language that will you have reaching for a thesaurus for every chapter. If it was anyone else writing this, it could easily be incredibly pompous.
But this isn't anyone else, it's Christopher Lee, and let me be clear here, I think the guy is a true legend. And I do not use that word lightly. Christopher Lee is every inch a screen and film icon and there are very few people you can say that for. Has Christopher Lee ever given a bad performance? No, he's made plenty of bad films (he'll admit this himself), but never given a bad performance. Beloved to many horror freaks as the best Dracula ever, this is a man who stamps an indelible impression on every film he makes. This guy IS Saruman for fricks' sake.
Now, it's true that he's not regarded as an acting genius, and that's fair enough. Richard Burton, for example, is an acting genius (you don't get seven Oscar nominations by accident). But is Christoper Lee an icon? Absolutely, and that's something Richard Burton to use the same example, will never be. Christopher Lee once seen, is never forgotten, and has many defining impressions (Saruman, Dracula, Lord Summerisle...). How many of us can genuinely claim we have a lasting impression of Richard Burton? Exactly.
But the highest compliment I can give his autobiography, is that it's made me love him a hell of a lot more, and considering just what a fan of his I am, that's some mighty achievement.
He never comes across as pompous or snobby because of his privilged background, it's just who he is. And Lee reports this with no airs, graces or affectations. He states it with a lack of pretension, and doesn't seek to congratulate himself or defend himself because of it. His writing style is crisp and utterly lacking in any pretension whatsoever. What he does have however (which few people do when writing their autobiographies) is talent and bags of it. His retelling of his childhood is evocative and conjures up memories of Tom Brown's Schooldays and throughout his writing is colourful, while never becoming florid or verbose. If he ever decided to quit writing, he could easily become a writer, because he's a born storyteller.
He knows his language certainly, so this isn't a book you could read in one sitting as his immense literary skills can eventually wear you down, but once you start you won't be able to stop.
For one thing, Lee actually has a life worth telling (unlike Michael J Fox - lovely guy, but a pretty dull life in his retelling), and he recounts it vividly from his army days in WW2 to his first screen appearances and through to his days with Hammer which sealed his legendary status. Historical, literary and cinema icons drop in and flit through his life, but again, Lee never becomes smug in the telling. He's extremely priviliged and he knows it, and it's very touching to read just how content he is with life.
It also helps that you can practically hear those smoky tones of his as you read the book. The experience of reading his autobiography is akin to settling down next to the fireside, to listen to your favourite uncle retell his life. And what you may not be expectng is just what a funny guy he is. A chapter rarely goes by without a wry, self-deprecting joke to round it off, and like the best jokes they're never as funny when they're retold by someone else. Just read it yourself and giggle away. In fact, just buy the damn thing. I'm going to plead with you to buy it, it's so damn good. It may just be the best autobiography I've ever read.
Frankly, nothing Christopher Lee could ever do would ever lower him in my eyes, but his autobiography cements just what a legend he is. Sadly you know that he isn't going to be around forever, so let's all pray that the Oscars or the BAFTA's pull their finger out soon , and give him the lifetime achievement award he so richly deserves.
Christopher Lee is an actor of immense talent, but his book proves another thing - he's a man of immense dignity and class too.
And that is too rare a thing.
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originally posted: 02/23/05 11:16:31