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Odd Man Out: James Mason – A Biography

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‘Incredibly good-looking, in a dark way … that curious quality of a man with an eternal secret. … That was what was so arresting. … That and the voice.’ - Geraldine Fitzgerald The reason for watching a James Mason film, as the film critic Pauline Kael once noted, was usually only James Mason himself. Mason was actually pointed toward a career in architecture before acting o ‘Incredibly good-looking, in a dark way … that curious quality of a man with an eternal secret. … That was what was so arresting. … That and the voice.’ - Geraldine Fitzgerald The reason for watching a James Mason film, as the film critic Pauline Kael once noted, was usually only James Mason himself. Mason was actually pointed toward a career in architecture before acting overtook him during his third year at Cambridge. He went on to make an indelible impression playing emotionally haunted characters on stage and screen, such as one early stand-out role, Johnny McQueen in Carol Reed’s 'Odd Man Out' (1947). Mason and his first wife, Pamela, arrived in the United States in the late forties, and the Hollywood phase of his career lasted through the 1950s. It memorably included diverse classics such as 'The Desert Fox', 'A Star is Born' (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and 'North by Northwest'' After his return to Europe, and remarried to Clarissa Kaye, he continued in landmark movies such as 'Lolita', 'Georgy Girl', 'The Verdict' and, his last, 'The Shooting Party', receiving two more Oscar nominations in the process. But in this revealing book, Mason is shown to be a highly sensitive man uncomfortable with stardom, and often at odds with attempts to mould or typecast him. He remains, in legacy, the most intriguing and unpredictable of the great screen-actors. ‘James knew how to steal movies, and give a performance that only really got noticed when the whole film was put together; so he would emerge with immense distinction having apparently been doing very little on the set.’ - Christopher Plummer


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‘Incredibly good-looking, in a dark way … that curious quality of a man with an eternal secret. … That was what was so arresting. … That and the voice.’ - Geraldine Fitzgerald The reason for watching a James Mason film, as the film critic Pauline Kael once noted, was usually only James Mason himself. Mason was actually pointed toward a career in architecture before acting o ‘Incredibly good-looking, in a dark way … that curious quality of a man with an eternal secret. … That was what was so arresting. … That and the voice.’ - Geraldine Fitzgerald The reason for watching a James Mason film, as the film critic Pauline Kael once noted, was usually only James Mason himself. Mason was actually pointed toward a career in architecture before acting overtook him during his third year at Cambridge. He went on to make an indelible impression playing emotionally haunted characters on stage and screen, such as one early stand-out role, Johnny McQueen in Carol Reed’s 'Odd Man Out' (1947). Mason and his first wife, Pamela, arrived in the United States in the late forties, and the Hollywood phase of his career lasted through the 1950s. It memorably included diverse classics such as 'The Desert Fox', 'A Star is Born' (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and 'North by Northwest'' After his return to Europe, and remarried to Clarissa Kaye, he continued in landmark movies such as 'Lolita', 'Georgy Girl', 'The Verdict' and, his last, 'The Shooting Party', receiving two more Oscar nominations in the process. But in this revealing book, Mason is shown to be a highly sensitive man uncomfortable with stardom, and often at odds with attempts to mould or typecast him. He remains, in legacy, the most intriguing and unpredictable of the great screen-actors. ‘James knew how to steal movies, and give a performance that only really got noticed when the whole film was put together; so he would emerge with immense distinction having apparently been doing very little on the set.’ - Christopher Plummer

30 review for Odd Man Out: James Mason – A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Gerry

    James Mason was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, on 15 May 1909 and eventually made his way to school at Marlborough where he spent his time 'almost without public trace'. However, he did make a late appearance in a debate, the motion of which was 'That this present generation's take on recreation typifies a general decadence.' The school magazine, 'The Marlburian' wrote, 'Mr Mason contrived out of a mass of relevant and irrelevant facts and assertions to make a convincing speech.' addi James Mason was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, on 15 May 1909 and eventually made his way to school at Marlborough where he spent his time 'almost without public trace'. However, he did make a late appearance in a debate, the motion of which was 'That this present generation's take on recreation typifies a general decadence.' The school magazine, 'The Marlburian' wrote, 'Mr Mason contrived out of a mass of relevant and irrelevant facts and assertions to make a convincing speech.' adding, of his closing address, 'He concluded by dealing out abuse to his opponents all round.' He lost the vote by a massive 102-2! But he had, at least, made his first public speech. From Marlborough he moved on to Cambridge where he earned a first-class degree in architecture but when he left in the summer of 1928 he was still unsure what he wanted to do. He was wavering between becoming an architect, a photographer or an actor. It was not until the summer of 1931 that he made the decision to become an actor. And by then he had appeared on stage in two productions, his debut in 'The Bacchae' at the New Theatre, Cambridge, in 1929 and 'The Fairy Queen' at the same theatre in 1930. In the latter he worked with Derek Arundell, with whom he shared undergraduate years at Cambridge, and Arundell was to say of him, '... he asked me rather vaguely if I happened to think he could ever make it as a professional actor, and I remember trying to discourage him because he didn't seem to me to be all that good ...' How wrong could he be? But Mason decided on an actor's career and spent his time at stage doors, in agents' offices and reading 'The Stage' newspaper to try to get some work. He eventually made his professional debut at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot, [the same theatre where David Niven had made his debut three years previously when an army cadet at Sandhurst] on 23 November 1931 in 'The Rascal' and he immediately fell in love with actress Pat Hayes but nothing came of his infatuation. He toured thereafter, spending a season with the Brandon Thomas Company, and also playing a variety of roles in plays by Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, John Galsworthy and his first appearance in 'The Prisoner of Zenda', a tale that he was to star in as a movie much later in life. He was spotted by Tyrone Guthrie and this led to his London debut in 'Gallows Glorious' where he worked once more with Dennis Arundell, who was later to comment, 'it was when I became aware for the first time that there might perhaps be a rather dark and moody side to James' otherwise tranquil nature'. This was spotted later on by a number of Mason's actor colleagues but it never caused any unrest or any lost of respect for his ability or professionalism. From these modest beginnings the film star emerged in 1935 when he made his first film 'Late Extra', of which one critic wrote of his performance, 'His acting is adequate although far from outstandingly good.' Mason himself often worried about his performances but, after many minor movies he graduated to better things. He did rock the boat a little with his criticism of the British film policy and he did not endear himself to many when he became a conscientious objector during World War II - although he did tour as a member of an ENSA ensemble. He moved to America, appeared on Broadway, without much success, tried his hand at journalism and radio shows before moving to Hollywood, a decision about which he was always ambivalent. Meanwhile he had unconventional living arrangements, which eventually led to him marrying his first wife, after she had divorced her first husband after they had all lived together for a number of years. His film career fluctuated between the good, the bad and the ugly but he continued to be in work and picked up many good contracts. And then along came 'A Star is Born' with Judy Garland and he was nominated for a best actor Oscar, only to be beaten by Marlon Brando for his performance in 'On the Waterfront'. Mason was to get his second Oscar nomination as a supporting actor for 'Georgy Girl' but he was beaten by Walter Matthau in 'The Fortune Cookie' and his third nomination, as best actor, was for 'The Verdict' but again he lost out, this time to Lou Gossett who appeared in 'An Officer and a Gentleman'. And many critics thought that he should also have been nominated for his role in 'Lolita'. He tried his hand at producing and directing, did television work, once as a Bible reader, left and returned to Hollywood, divorced his first wife, married his second and moved to Switzerland from where he and his wife, for whom he successfully arranged engagements in some of his films, would regularly travel to locations all round the world. He also made one last, and again unsuccessful, assault on Broadway before ill health struck him down. But he was well enough to have one final triumph in 'The Shooting Party', which brought Mason back with John Gielgud for the final time. Edward Fox was also in the film and he was to say of Mason, 'There was this courteous, well-mannered, non-complaining, exemplary actor in total command and control, but looking suddenly terribly ill and grey. He never flagged or faltered, never missed a day's shooting, but he was being extremely economic with what strength he had and I think he must have known he was close to the end, but determined to go out with one more really classic performance. Which of course he did.' It was his last hurrah and he died on 27 July 1984 at the age of 75 with 'The Times' saying of him that he was 'a highly intelligent and creative cinema performer' while the 'Los Angeles Times' noted 'a wracked nobility in the most gentle and subtle of actors'. He had made over 100 films, performed with all the greats of his time and, despite his own reservations at times, - he once said 'There have always been ups and downs in my life, though the downs do seem to have been more frequent than the ups' - was revered as a superb actor. Sheridan Morley has provided an excellent portrait of a troubled, enigmatic and deeply private man and has painted a vivid portrait of a real craftsman actor. It is very definitely a book for every cinema buff.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    This is an excellent biography of the fine British actor James Mason. My only complaint is that it is too short. It was a feast to read, and the writing style of Sheridan Morley (son of another fine British actor, Robert Morley) is elegant and insightful. I learned an awful lot about Mason I didn't know, most surprisingly what a sad man he was. This is a very good piece of work. This is an excellent biography of the fine British actor James Mason. My only complaint is that it is too short. It was a feast to read, and the writing style of Sheridan Morley (son of another fine British actor, Robert Morley) is elegant and insightful. I learned an awful lot about Mason I didn't know, most surprisingly what a sad man he was. This is a very good piece of work.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sally

    Another I read more for the women he worked with, than to learn about the man himself. Another I read more for the women he worked with, than to learn about the man himself.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Whistlers Mom

    The cat who walked alone. James Mason never planned to be an actor. The son of a prosperous family in Northern England, he went to Cambridge to study architecture. Student productions gave him experience and his dark good looks and deep, velvety voice attracted attention. He became a popular, respected actor, but never achieved the stature of Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave, or others of his generation. The author blames it on the fact that the photogenic Mason was a better film actor than a stage act The cat who walked alone. James Mason never planned to be an actor. The son of a prosperous family in Northern England, he went to Cambridge to study architecture. Student productions gave him experience and his dark good looks and deep, velvety voice attracted attention. He became a popular, respected actor, but never achieved the stature of Gielgud, Olivier, Redgrave, or others of his generation. The author blames it on the fact that the photogenic Mason was a better film actor than a stage actor, projecting a moody sexiness that appealed to movie audiences. But there's no question that Mason's contentious personality hurt his career. Would his life have been different if he hadn't married beautiful Pamela Ostrer, a woman who was as intelligent, blunt, and caustic as Mason? Pamela's father and uncles were successful English film distributors. If she'd been a son, she would have gone into the family business. As it was, she devoted her energy to her husband's career, with mixed results. Early on, Mason ruffled feathers by openly criticizing the poor production of English films in comparison to American ones. He was right, but it didn't make him any friends. When WWII started, most actors quietly continued to act, that being an industry whose employees were exempt from military duty. Mason loudly proclaimed himself a conscientious objector. With Germany bombing England daily and posed to invade, those who opposed the war were hated. His family cut him off for years and some people in England never forgave him. After the war, the Masons went to Hollywood, where they were just as controversial as they had been in London. Mason gave one interview which was so scathingly critical of the American film industry that he was forced to pay for a large ad in "Variety", explaining and apologizing. Pamela reacted by firing their public relations agent. "Why should we pay someone when we can get so much bad publicity on our own?" She had a point. Eventually, the Masons divorced and (naturally) it was a bitter affair that was billed as "Hollywood's Million Dollar Divorce." Pamela went on to become a successful television hostess. Mason moved to Europe and made movies, most of them forgettable. His name could no longer "carry" a movie, but he was still in demand. Other actors admired his talent and experience. Directors loved his dependability and producers believed that his presence brought respectability to even mediocre films. He remarried happily, but continued to be the quintessential melancholy (non)Dane. As his friend Sidney Lumet observed, "He seemed to take unhappiness as part of his life's condition, not as something that he was supposed to do anything about." He was an odd man and it's doubtful if anyone ever knew him well or completely understood him. Maybe he never understood himself. I like Morley's biographies. The son and grandson of famous English actors, he grew up in the industry and was the ultimate insider. He was a successful critic and must have seen every film ever made. If you're not a film buff (and I'm not) you may have to skip over his endless "and then he went to Wherever and filmed Whatever." But he's witty and literate and had a real talent for getting inside the psyches of famous people who weren't at all what they seemed to their fans. He puts Mason's eccentricities and contradictions into the context of his time and social class, which helps the reader sympathize with this talented, tortured man.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Othniel

    One of a series of showbusiness biographies written by the late Sheridan Morley - this is available (at the time of writing) as a free download. It follows James Mason (1909-1984) from a privileged childhood in Yorkshire, through his development of a vague interest in acting to Hollywood stardom, via a largely unsuccessful theatre career in Britain, a number of P.R. missteps, and several undistinguished films. Journalistically rigorous rather than psychologically probing, with lengthy contribution One of a series of showbusiness biographies written by the late Sheridan Morley - this is available (at the time of writing) as a free download. It follows James Mason (1909-1984) from a privileged childhood in Yorkshire, through his development of a vague interest in acting to Hollywood stardom, via a largely unsuccessful theatre career in Britain, a number of P.R. missteps, and several undistinguished films. Journalistically rigorous rather than psychologically probing, with lengthy contributions from a number of the actor's friends, and extracts from his own writings, Morley pins down Mason's faintly distracted on-screen demeanour, and paints a portrait of an essentially private man who was almost embarrased by his devotion to his art. One is surprised, however, when the author points out that relatively few of the hundred or so films in which Mason starred were bona fide classics. This is a brisk read, and I hungered for a closer examination of some of his most iconic roles. Solid but unspectacular; rather like its subject.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Marie

    Professional biographer (and son of Robert) Sheridan Morley avoids gossip and depends on many first person interviews from people now dead in this biography of James Mason. In between these often page long verbatims it tends to simple chronology, however, of Mason's career path. Morley's overall result: the severe introvert Mason never had the career he aspired to much because of his own taciturn iconoclastic shyness. He was not a team player; he was rejected by his family for his "conchie" stat Professional biographer (and son of Robert) Sheridan Morley avoids gossip and depends on many first person interviews from people now dead in this biography of James Mason. In between these often page long verbatims it tends to simple chronology, however, of Mason's career path. Morley's overall result: the severe introvert Mason never had the career he aspired to much because of his own taciturn iconoclastic shyness. He was not a team player; he was rejected by his family for his "conchie" status in World War 2; he shunned the studio system. He must have seemed to his British interwar cinema and (later) Hollywood colleagues that he was prone to biting the hand that was trying to feed him. Throughout, Morley seems to damn him with faint praise. However, Mason's body of work - the most important legacy an actor can leave - has proven to be unique and reflective of a desire always to give an excellent performance. (Key: Mason's work was better than this biography implies)

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    This book could be summed up as: James Mason was an intensely private (though opinionated) and seemingly unhappy man, yet a thoroughly professional and gentlemanly actor (whom some found devastatingly sexy and others thought oddly sexless), who felt he fit neither in the British nor the Hollywood film worlds and might have preferred to be an architect after all. He liked sketching and cats. He spent much of his life hoping for good roles that seldom came, trying none too successfully to be a sta This book could be summed up as: James Mason was an intensely private (though opinionated) and seemingly unhappy man, yet a thoroughly professional and gentlemanly actor (whom some found devastatingly sexy and others thought oddly sexless), who felt he fit neither in the British nor the Hollywood film worlds and might have preferred to be an architect after all. He liked sketching and cats. He spent much of his life hoping for good roles that seldom came, trying none too successfully to be a stage actor, paying for his divorce, and living down others' opinions on his pacifist stance during WWII. He finally found a sort of contentment in Switzerland with his second wife. Anything else?

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Cavazos

    I have enjoyed several of James Mason’s movies. This was a short biography on his life. He was a very private person. A lot of the actors said he was professional, but he was hard to get to know. He was reserved. I always thought he had a good screen presence though, and I was curious about his life.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mrs J Pattison

    I thought James Mason was a good actor, I didn't realise how difficult his life was, I really didn't know much about him, so.I found it interesting to read about him. A shame he really didn't enjoy a lot of his work, I thought he was an English actor who made good films, so I found his life full of ups and downs, I enjoyed reading the book and found it interesting. I thought James Mason was a good actor, I didn't realise how difficult his life was, I really didn't know much about him, so.I found it interesting to read about him. A shame he really didn't enjoy a lot of his work, I thought he was an English actor who made good films, so I found his life full of ups and downs, I enjoyed reading the book and found it interesting.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    A little too light on production notes and too heavy on Mason's difficulties working with British film organizations and within Hollywood system. That being said, still an interesting and diverting read about a rather under-appreciated actor. A little too light on production notes and too heavy on Mason's difficulties working with British film organizations and within Hollywood system. That being said, still an interesting and diverting read about a rather under-appreciated actor.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Anita Hargreaves

    Disgusted he never fought ww2 I couldn't enjoy a book about an abstainer ,lost interest a third in the book why commemorate a coward. A man whose family disowned him and not surprised a shy timid man who also had an affair with his best friends wife. Excellent actor and interesting read. Disgusted he never fought ww2 I couldn't enjoy a book about an abstainer ,lost interest a third in the book why commemorate a coward. A man whose family disowned him and not surprised a shy timid man who also had an affair with his best friends wife. Excellent actor and interesting read.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Norma Cawsey

  13. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Curran

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sheila Gobel

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gerald O'Brien

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rico Abrahamsen

  17. 4 out of 5

    MRS C TUCKNOTT

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jan Schweikert

  19. 4 out of 5

    Keith Spence

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lavinia

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jude

  22. 4 out of 5

    Margaret K. Meyers

  23. 5 out of 5

    Liz Dewhirst

  24. 5 out of 5

    Helen

  25. 4 out of 5

    ELLEN HANNA

  26. 5 out of 5

    kate

  27. 5 out of 5

    David Groombridge

  28. 4 out of 5

    Laistemoonwhite

  29. 5 out of 5

    Graham Lindsay

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Wayne

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