It’s among the most recognizable
issues/36/images in the history of film: George C. Scott as General George
S. Patton, standing before an American flag as big as the continent
itself, helmet on, boots polished, brass gleaming, hands wound tightly
around a riding crop as he prepares his soldiers to go into battle.
This unforgettable sequence, which opens 1970’s Patton, is
the quintessence of great moviemaking: entirely compelling—and
wholly artificial. The inspirational speech in question was never
really made by Patton, but pieced together from several of Patton’s
addresses to his troops. The backdrop flag was purely symbolic,
meant to suggest the enormity of difference between the America
of WWII and the America of the Vietnam era. And at the center of
it all was Scott, rasping out Patton’s words with the granite
resolve that was his trademark—an actor in costume delivering
the performance of his life in a film he was miserable making.

Scott died in September, at the age of 71, leaving
behind a legacy of film, theater and television performances that,
like the man himself, were notable for their candor and primordial
intensity. Although he considered himself primarily a technician
who pursued acting not as a means of self-expression but as an exercise
of skill, his work inarguably conveys the sense of an actor whose
soul became the substance of whatever role he took.

Scott’s appearance on a stage or screen was always
a moment of impact. His penetrating stare, distinctive voice and
commanding physicality brought uncommon power and grace to the work
of good writers and directors, and transformed otherwise forgettable
product into something worth at least a look. He was best known
for his characterizations of articulate yet absurdly volatile men,
men ensnared in unwinnable situations espousing unpopular truths,
exploding with unstoppable rage: the swashbuckling
general in Dr. Strangelove, ready to blow up the world if it’ll teach the
Russians a lesson; the frustrated Chief of Medicine in The Hospital,
accusing a head nurse of training her incompetent staff at a
concentration camp; the straight-laced father in Hardcore,
kicking down brothel doors in an effort to find his runaway

His agility as an actor enabled Scott to be just as
convincing when the script didn’t call for the fury and bluster
at which he excelled. Watch him in Richard Lester’s 1968 drama
Petulia, lending a poignant, soft-spoken tenderness to his role
as a lonely doctor offering care and affection to the mixed-up woman
who’s fallen in love with him. Or as the New York lawyer who
thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes in the 1971 comedy They Might Be
Giants, clearly demented as he puffs on his trusty meerschaum, yet
dazzling everyone around him with one quick-witted insight after
another. Scott once told an interviewer that his style was more
comedic than people realized. It’s easy to see in a farce like
Strangelove, with his bombastic Gen. Buck Turgidson perched like
an eagle on his seat in the War Room, plumping for the apocalypse
one moment, whispering cuddly-poos to his girlfriend over the phone
the next. But it’s there, too, in more subtle form, in some
of his dramatic roles—like the ragged, boozy preacher calling
for the execution of sinners in The Hanging Tree; or the preening
big-city attorney being foiled in a small-town courtroom in Anatomy
of a Murder. Both performances—his first on film —are
vintage Scott: two men taking themselves very seriously, and acting
like bigger fools than they’ll ever know.

Scott’s way with a script came in part from his
love of words. He taught a creative writing course while in the
Marines, and briefly attended journalism school before leaving to
pursue acting full-time in 1950. He appeared in 125 regional theater
productions, then got his break when he was seen by the director
of the New York Shakespeare Festival, Joseph Papp, in 1957. In just
three productions over the course of four months, Scott rose from
obscurity to award-winning favorite of the New York stage. Then
he was discovered again, this time by Hollywood.

The first five years of his film career were fruitful
ones. First came The Hanging Tree and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy
of a Murder (for which Scott received his first Oscar nomination)
in 1959, followed by his portrayal of a vicious promoter in 1961’s
The Hustler, which earned him his second Oscar nod. The period ended
with his performance in Strangelove, which called for him to endure
the ritual of daily rewrites demanded by director Stanley Kubrick,
whom Scott respected but didn’t hesitate to tell one interviewer
was “an incredibly, depressingly serious man.”

A familiar face on film throughout the 1960s, in roles
as disparate as the three-card-monte hustler in The Flim-Flam Man,
and Abraham, the first patriarch of Israel, in The Bible, Scott
had his golden period in the ’70s, appearing in 15 films across
a wide range of genres. Some, like The Hindenburg and Oklahoma Crude,
are best forgotten. But this era also produced his two most powerful
performances. The Hospital (1971), Paddy Chayefsky’s indictment
of the medical establishment, featured Scott as a gifted, deeply
committed physician with a volcanic temperament, so exasperated
by his peers and disgusted by life that he’s ready to end it
all. His portrayal of the suicidal Dr. Herbert Bock is a potent
mix of rage and quiet despair, and earned him his fourth Oscar nomination—which
no one expected him to win. After all, it was only a year after
he’d famously refused to accept the Oscar he’d won for

The Patton experience was an unpleasant one for Scott.
While he loved the complexities of Patton himself, he called the
movie “a dreadful misapprehension” of the truth of the
man, feeling it made Patton appear more bloodthirsty and cruel than
he actually was, without focusing enough on his other dimensions.
Still, in the finished product Scott is brilliant, portraying Patton
the way he might well have portrayed himself—as a man of dignity,
vulnerability and punch; as sensitive as he was harsh, with a gift
for eloquence whether mapping out strategy or reciting his own verse;
a man who truly believed he was an ageless warrior traveling through
the battles of time.

As for the Patton Oscar, Scott had informed the committee
long before the awards ceremony that he wasn’t interested in
playing their game—just as he’d done nine years earlier
with The Hustler. He accepted awards for his film and television
work, but distrusted the Oscars, believing they had more to do with
industry lobbying than excellence in filmmaking. Scott preferred
the immediacy of live theater to the tedium of making movies, and
claimed he continued to do films only for the money. In 1974 he
attempted to circumvent the Hollywood system by producing, directing
and distributing The Savage Is Loose on his own—including renting
a theater in New York where it could play for a solid year. The
story of a shipwrecked family coming to terms with life on a tropical
island, Savage was a critical and financial disaster that, in the
end, might’ve benefited from studio distribution after all.
While no masterpiece, the film is a fascinating exploration of primitive
male and female instincts, and deserved a better fate.

Off screen, Scott often resembled the volatile characters
he played so well. For much of his life he was a hard drinker, with
a violent temper that often found him trading blows and harsh words.
He had his nose broken five times, and was known on occasion to
fight with directors, other actors, and even with himself. Once,
overcome with frustration in the middle of a stage production, he
took a punch at a backstage mirror and had to finish his performance
wearing a rubber glove to catch the blood pouring out of his hand.

In his later years, Scott’s film persona changed.
While he continued to work in television and the theater (receiving
critical acclaim in 1996 for the Broadway revival of Inherit the
Wind), the movie roles grew smaller, the characters more grandfatherly,
less grand. In his last film appearance, as an elderly mob boss
in Sidney Lumet’s remake of Gloria, there’s still that
strong presence; still a hint of impending threat; still a trace
of that unmistakable voice—which in its prime sounded like
a cauldron of gravel soup coming to a boil. But Lumet’s lukewarm
script and direction don’t give Scott anywhere to go with the
role, and in the end you’re thankful he only had to appear
in two scenes.

In a way, it’s fitting, given his love/hate relationship
with the movies, that Scott went out on so quiet a note. It was
the opportunity to excel, not a thirst for acclaim, that was his
driving force as an actor. In an industry built on our collective
weakness for the pretty, the predictable and the profitable, George
C. Scott’s career was a reminder that there will always be
room for greatness. MM