Directing him was only a matter of giving a slight suggestion here, a gentle nudge there. He was an immaculate actor, clean, precise, and exact in everything he did. There was no floundering about until he got the feel of a role, but a studied analysis with a design in the background that built bit by bit until the total architecture became visible. It was not consciously Stanislavsky, but he was doing precisely what Stanislavsky had formulated in connection with building a character. He knew what he wanted and why; Claude had great concentration, knew his attitude in each scene, played with his partner, and created an inner life for his character.
He was a professional in the best sense of the word. While he came on the set prepared, he always allowed room for the director to create with him. As I reflect upon his career, I am amazed at the variety of roles he played and his fantastic versatility. Gentle fathers, suave villains, sharp politicians, evil doctors, compassionate doctors, sophisticated artists—there was no end to the list.
Recently, I was glancing through a book written by John Gielgud and was astonished to learn Claude had once taught him acting in London. Moreover, Laurence Olivier was also one of Claude’s students. Claude had never mentioned this to me, like many other things in his past. They did not seem important to him. His life was acting, the satisfaction of creating a memorable role.
Dear Claude. Which of the powers that be was it that decided that he would never quite be the romantic hero? When he’s not being awesomely obsessed and increasingly insane (The Invisible Man) he’s the unloved suitor, (Mr Skeffington, Notorious), the kindly, no-nonsense authority figure (Here Comes Mr Jordan, Now Voyager), or the gay sassy best friend (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood). Perhaps this is why the ending of Casablanca is so satisfying: finally Claude gets the partner he wants.
As with many of the great British actors of his generation, he belies his humble (in his case, cockney) origins and is the epitome of class, quality, substance, and sophistication. It’s not just the voice, of course, although that is marvellous; it’s his subtlety and understated playing, his ability to be at once completely natural and always charismatic. He is almost unique in Hollywood history in that he is a character/supporting actor who is also a star, and because of this he has a greater opportunity to play a wide range of characters, and to do some of his best work in non-heroic roles. Who else can show to quite the same degree the pain, stoicism and self-awareness of the man who knows that the woman he loves does not love him?
Bette Davies (in Mr Skeffington) says ‘you’re laughing at me’ and it’s this quality of delicious amusement that I love the most. At his most sublime, he glides through films like some kind of fairy godfather; effortless but never camp, dropping sparkling asides like glitter, elevating proceedings to a perfect, swishy level of glory.
Favourite Role: Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942). It’s saying something that in a film with seven actors I like (two of whom I love beyond reason) Claude outshines them all. It’s a corker of a role, of course, and the film is the glorious sum of its excellent parts, but Claude’s lightness of touch, his worldly amusement, is simply perfection.
Another good place to start: Alexander Sebastian in Notorious (1946), a remarkable performance of depth, subtlety and intelligence in a flawless film, one of Hitchcock’s best, with career-best performances from Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant too. In my life only two people have ever made me even fleetingly sympathetic towards a Nazi, and Claude is one of them. Also you can’t go wrong with his Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); fabulously delicious, endlessly amused by Errol’s exuberant Robin, and Basil’s intense Guy.
Now I could spend every minute with Elvis. There were times when we’d shut ourselves off from the rest of the world for days. Elvis would leave word that he wanted “no calls unless it’s my daddy or an emergency call from Colonel.” It was my time, and no one could interfere. He was all mine. When we got hungry, I phoned down to the kitchen and ordered the food, which was brought up and placed outside our bedroom door. After we finished, we stacked our empty trays neatly back in the same place. We saw no one, nor even the light of day. The windows were insulated with tin foil and heavy blackout drapes to prevent any hint of sunlight from entering. Time was ours, to do with as we pleased, for as long as we pleased. Elvis had a few months free between film commitments, and there was no pressure to return to Hollywood. We always seemed to be more in love when we were alone. I loved those times, when he was just Elvis, not trying to live up to an image or myth. We were two people discovering each other. Only in the privacy of our own private quarters did Elvis show me a side of himself which had rarely, if ever, been seen by others. With no Colonel, no scripts, no films or music, nor any other people’s problems, Elvis could become a little boy again, escaping from the responsibilities of family, friends, fans, the press, and the world. Here with me, he could be vulnerable and childlike, a playful boy who stayed in his pajamas for days at a time. One day he was the dominant one and would treat me like a child, often scolding me for an incidental action. On other days I was the stronger one, looking after him like a doting mother, making sure that he ate everything on his plate, took all of his vitamins, and didn’t miss any of his favorite TV shows like Laugh-In, The Untouchables, The Wild, Wild West, The Tonight Show, and Road Runner. We listened to early Sunday morning gospel singing–our favorites were the Stamps, the Happy Goodman Family, and Jake Hess–and we watched the old movie classics that Elvis loved: Wuthering Heights, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. We cried ourselves to sleep over The Way of All Flesh, which concerns a banker who plans to carry a large sum of money out of state, only to discover upon awakening the following morning that he was been robbed. Striped of everything, he takes to the streets, surviving among the derelicts, an outcast. Years later, one Christmas night, he wanders into his hometown and peers through the window to see his wife and children, now grown, opening their presents. Sensing his presence but never recognizing him, his wife takes pity on the lonely old man and invites him in to share the evening with her family. He declines, heading down the snowy street alone. Elvis identified so thoroughly with the story that he toyed with the idea of a remake. He intended to cast Vernon in the lead role. There were other favorites we’d watch over and over–Mr. Skeffington with Bette Davis and Claude Rains, Les Miserables with Fredic March, Charles Laughton, and Rachelle Hudson, and Letter from an Unknown Woman with Joan Fontaine. When we weren’t watching movies, we -played silly games like hide-and-seek, or we’d have pillow fights that often ended in heated discussions of who hit whom the hardest. Our arguments were usually playful, but I noticed that they could become serious, especially after we’d each taken a couple of diet pills. One evening we had both taken uppers and were wrestling with each other. I threw a pillow at him. He ducked it, and then, laughing, threw it back. I hurled another one at him, and the another, and without giving him a chance to recover, I threw another one. The last one hit him in the face. His eyes flashed with anger. “Goddamn it!” he snapped. “Not so rough. I don’t want to play with a goddamn man.” He grabbed my arm, throwing me on the bed, and while demonstrating how hard I had thrown the pillows, he accidentally hit me in the eye. I flung my head to the side and jumped up, accusing him of hitting me on purpose. “You can’t play without winning,” I yelled, “even with me. You started throwing harder and harder. What did you expect me to do?” I stomped off to my dressing room and slammed the door as I heard him yelling, “You’re not a goddamn man.” That night, we went to the movies. My arm was bruised where he’d grabbed me, and my eye was swollen black and blue. To make matters worse–and to make sure he felt bad–I wore a patch over the bruised eye. Everyone teased me, and Elvis joked, “Couldn’t help it. She tried to get rough with me. I had to show her who’s boss.” That night I got named “Toughie.” Despite his teasing, Elvis felt terrible about the incident. He had immediately apologized to me and kept apologizing for days. “Baby, I’m really sorry,” he said. “You know I’d never hurt you in any way, that I’d never lay a hand on you, don’t you? That was a real accident.” Yet the incident frighted me. From then on, I began taking fewer pills and eventually stopped. I tried to persuade him to do the same. I started to question the quantities even though I knew he had various ailments causing pain which necessitated taking prescribed medication. I did everything I could for Elvis and we shared many wonderful happy times together. However, his harsh objection to stopping make me realize that there could be a problem. I assumed he knew best for himself.
Chapter 18 excerpt from Elvis and Me, Priscilla describes her alone time with Elvis after graduating.