It is now 40 years since Malcolm McDowell presented himself as that unforgettable satanic hell raiser Alex DeLarge, the charismatic but deranged teen gang boss in Stanley Kubrick’s now classic A Clockwork Orange, based on Anthony Burgess’ l962 novel. You couldn’t forget malevolent Malcolm/Alex in that bowler hat, a thug with ultralush eyelashes and ultraviolence at the top of his agenda. I still vividly recall when I first encountered Alex. Warner Brothers had invited a small band of entertainment writers for a private screening of the film in Burbank. When the lights came up after 136 minutes, there was deadly silence. Everyone was in a state of shock. So were, as it turned out, the Warners’ executives who didn’t know what to make of Kubrick’s visually stunning but harsh social satire. To further exacerbate the moguls’ angst, the control-freak director had deliberately unleashed the final cut on them shortly before it was to be released.
Ever since then, when evil is required, Malcolm is the man. He was into orgies and sleeping with his sister in the l979 movie Caligula. He was a vicious London thug opposite Paul Bettany in Gangster No. l. In the 2004 flick Evilenko, he outdid Hannibal the Cannibal Lecter as a Soviet serial killer whose diet over several years included children. And of course, his foulest screen deed of all was to kill Captain Kirk in the l994 Star Trek Generations.
More recently, he has been making movies left, right and center and somehow finding time to appear on the small screen. He had a regular role as Terrence McQuewick in Entourage, and for TNT he plays the bossman at the legal firm of Franklin and Bash. He also pops up in this year’s dark horse, black and white period movie The Artist, playing the butler in a film set in the 1920s as Hollywood contemplates talking pictures. At the rate he works, he doesn’t seem to spend much time on his magnificent 100-acre avocado and citrus ranch in Ojai, where he lives with his artist/decorator wife, Kelly and their three sons. He also has two adult children from his marriage to his second wife, actress Mary Steenburgen. McDowell will be honored by the Ventura Film Society on Tuesday, Dec. 6, in tandem with a screening of his 1968 film If, about the violent takeover of a school by its students, a social commentary that’s as relevant today as it was in those revolutionary times. Not surprisingly, McDowell needs little prompting to reminisce about his remarkable career.
VCReporter: Why did Kubrick pick you for Clockwork?
McDowell: He liked me in Lindsay Anderson’s movie If [l968], where I played a rebellious schoolboy.
Is there any comparison between Mick Travis in If and Alex in Clockwork?
None at all. Mick is a pure revolutionary, quite naive in a way, but his heart is in the right place. He sees all this injustice taking place at his private school, the Big Brother thing, and he rails against it. Violently at times. Funnily, it’s all happening again today with people protesting with the Occupy Wall Street stuff in the streets of major cities.
Is Hollywood still making those kind of films that mirror today’s social injustices?
Only a handful of independent films do. Today there are plenty of movies — if you’re age 12 to 18. But few for the over-35s. Back then, there were the Five Easy Pieces, the [Bob] Rafelson movies and Chinatown. Today it’s all green screen and comic-book movies. Slim pickings for the baby boomers.
What was your first reaction to seeing A Clockwork Orange?
I was blown away when Stanley first showed it to me. But it wasn’t until it came out almost a year later that we realized it would have a whole life of its own. Some people wanted to ban it. They called me a fascist, and the stories moved from the entertainment pages to the editorial pages. That’s when you know it’s a hit.
Why were you upset with Kubrick after the movie came out?
He used me. And then he quickly dumped me, and I was very angry at that. I thought it was a cruel betrayal. I always had a close relationship with [director] Lindsay Anderson, and somehow I thought Stanley would become a friend for life. But that wasn’t his style. I felt used and I hated him. Much later, I realized that he was such an extraordinary filmmaker, and his style was to swallow talent whole and then spit them out and go on to the next project.
What were you paid for the role?
Fifty thousand dollars, which was big money for a guy my age. But Stanley refused to pay me as much again for what was the long over-run on the film. He never did. Finally, Warners came up with the extra money. Another $50,000.
But didn’t you argue with him about other payments?
Stanley was a parsimonious guy and he didn’t want to pay me for the two weeks’ work for the voiceover narration. So one night after dinner, I asked him about it. I kid you not; from his pocket he suddenly pulled out a slide rule, did some phony calculations and said, “I only owe you for one week — the rest of the time we played Ping-Pong.”
Have you had fun at retrospective Clockwork screenings?
A funny thing happened to me at one of them. As I was leaving, a guy — he must have been 20 or so — pointed to me and said, “I know you. You were in that film.” I nodded and he said, “What part did you play?” Then, after a pause, he declared, “Oh, I know. You’re the guy who was stomped by Alex as he crooned “Singing in the Rain.” [The role was played by Patrick Magee.]
Why has Clockwork survived the test of time?
Every new generation of college kids rediscovers it, and that’s why it has become one of the truly great cult films of all time. It’s like a rite of passage for them, and it still holds up beautifully. Now they get past the early violence, and I’ve been at screenings where 800 kids are laughing their heads off. Don’t forget, its political message is still true today. The Big Brother government interfering with the rights of individuals. That’s been in America since the revolution.
How have you handled aging?
I’m not one for getting under the knife to try and look 45 when I’m in my 60s. I prefer the school of aging gracefully
You seem to spend a lot of time playing heavies.
I don’t only play heavies, and it’s not as though I’m attracted to those parts, although I suppose I’m primarily known for that. You get to do good parts among all the crap, and believe me there’s a lot of crap out there. But those bad guy roles are only half of my career. I’ve been lucky. It’s kept me in work and I usually get to have a good death. So I’ve got nothing to complain about.
Is being honored by the Ventura Film Society important for you and do events like that boost the local cultural landscape?
First, I am always happy to introduce new audiences to wonderful movies like If. I’m also delighted to get accolades in my own back yard. It means I don’t have to fly anywhere! I hope it will boost our burgeoning cultural scene. I will do anything I can to promote culture here. Residents in Ventura County deserve to enjoy the kind of arts that people enjoy in big cities. And let me add that I’ve lived here since l982 and have found a little piece of heaven here.
What do you miss most when you go away to shoot all those movies?
Those unique Ojai sunset pink moments.
Malcolm McDowell will be honored by the Ventura Film Society on Tuesday, Dec. 6. There will be a reception with the actor from 6-7 p.m. ($25 tax deductible donation) followed by a screening of his film If. Admission to the screening only is $10, $7 for seniors. Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, 628-2299 or www.venturafilmsociety.com.