|David Niven, George Kennedy and Peter Ustinov in Death
on the Nile (1978).
During the ’60s, Peter Ustinov was
a Renaissance man if ever there were one. He wrote plays, short
stories, screenplays, directed films, plays and operas, was an
internationally acclaimed movie star who won two Best Supporting
Actor Oscars (Spartacus, 1960, and Topkapi, 1964).
He wrote an autobiography, was a vied-for talk show guest because
of his brilliance as a raconteur, received dozens of honorary doctorates,
and still had time left to meet with the world’s leaders as Ambassador
at Large for Unicef.
Sir Peter Ustinov (he was knighted in 1976), now
78, is back in the public eye thanks to two movies, Stiff Upper
Lips, which opens nationally this month, and The Bachelor,
which opens in November. Both are directed by Gary Sinyor,
who co-wrote Stiff Upper Lips. In The Bachelor, Ustinov,
who has always been considered hip amongst brainy young people,
co-stars with Chris O’Donnell, Mariah Carey and Brooke Shields.
PBS viewers are also currently enjoying his four-part miniseries,
On the Trail of Mark Twain with Peter Ustinov, which traces
equatorial societies 100 years after Mark Twain wrote Following
the Equator. His previous documentaries, many of which he wrote,
on topics including Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Russia and
the Vatican, frequently reappear on PBS.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Ustinov portrayed
the Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot in Death on the
Nile and Evil Under the Sun, and he is still associated
closely with that role. He also played another famous detective,
Charlie Chan, in two movies, and narrowly missed playing Inspector
Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. He was signed for the
original movie, but rejected the deal when Ava Gardner was replaced
by Capucine. Peter Sellers became a household name in the role
and, ironically, Ustinov instead chose Topkapi (1964) when
Sellers backed out of that movie.
Sir Peter, who lives in Paris, was in New York in
July promoting Stiff Upper Lips. Age has not diminished
his humor or his interest in diverse artistic and political matters.
Even in the incredibly baroque St. Regis Hotel reception room,
he overpowers his surroundings. Somehow it is not at all surprising
when Sinyor characterizes him as one "who knows many of the
world’s leaders on a social basis."
Stiff Upper Lips, set in 1908, is a biting
satire of the silly, arrogant but sexually repressed, entitled
English who were delineated by E.M. Forster in his novels, and
also the Merchant-Ivory film adaptations. Although a period film, Stiff
Upper Lips, which is absurd and surrealistic without being
ridiculous, has contemporary reverberations for countries who reject
the humanity of others in the name of national identity. "The
nastiness is always there," Ustinov says. "In the case
of Britain, to my mind, Britain has always been a nation of pirates,
of people who make laws but don’t necessarily respect them, of
swashbucklers. And then came Queen Victoria with a very long reign,
and she found very little amusing." He recalls a scene in
his play Photo Finish (1962) in which a father sums up for
his son what is in effect moral hypocrisy: "In my day there
were things that were done, and there were things that were not
done, and there was even a way of doing those things that were
not done." He laughs, "And that’s the whole of Victorian
England to me; it was utterly hypocritical-but it exists everywhere."
Though his knighthood makes him a symbol of the United
Kingdom, Sir Peter, who was born in London in 1921, is hardly a
defender of the class system. "I am not English, and therefore
feel freer to comment on all that, and the director, Gary Sinyor,
isn’t either, and it was his baby. He has roughly the same sort
of standpoint as I do because he is an Egyptian Jew" Sinyor
told Ustinov that his father was very keen to appear to be as English
as possible, "which was also the case with my father," Ustinov
says. "Out of this is born a certain sharpness of vision which
is not really necessarily the habit among native sons." Ustinov
agrees that he is more international than English. "My grandfather
was exiled from Russia in 1860, so we’re really not a Red or a
White tradition, but pink."
Ustinov’s Hollywood career could easily have been
curtailed during the blacklisting era because of his BBC broadcasts
attacking McCarthyism. "I wasn’t American and there was a
columnist who attacked me called Jimmy Fidler, and he said, "Is
this the way to repay American hospitality-by attacking [Senator
Joseph] McCarthy? "When I was asked by the BBC to do two half-hour
pieces exclusively on McCarthy. They must have known what they
were doing, but it was very interesting because I was very scathing
about McCarthy, who I thought was a terrible anomaly in American
life. I never got into trouble because I always said I had no allegiance
to a flag. I had no allegiance to anything if I didn’t know who
was holding it," he said, chuckling.
|Stiff Upper Lips|
Ustinov directed Terence Stamp, Robert Ryan, and
Melvyn Douglas in Billy Budd (1962), Sophia Loren, Paul
Newman, and David Niven in Lady L (1966) and Elizabeth Taylor and
Richard Burton in Hammersmith Is Out (1972), but he has
abandoned film direction. "I thought I’m not a professional
film director. In order to be that, you have to stay with that
job the whole time because technically there are so many changes.
Nowadays, even when I do a film like this, my intelligence tells
me what to do, but all the technical demands are completely different
from what they used to be. So, I thought, it’s really not my job,
and I prefer writing, really. I enjoy writing very much."
Does being an actor make it easier to direct other
actors? "No, you can’t project yourself onto another actor.
He has qualities which you haven’t got, otherwise he wouldn’t be
doing the part. I let anything happen and then say, `That’s not
quite the right way, try something else. Obviously, I’m not a dictator.
I hate dictators; I hate dictators who say, `You’ve got to do it
this way,’ or who give you an inflection. It’s absolutely impossible.
I’m very much opposed to that. They have to find it themselves,
but sometimes it takes longer than you would like."
Ustinov doesn’t rehearse extensively, and can’t
recall going beyond eight takes per scene. There are good actors
who give you exactly what they rehearse, and there are better actors
who make the effort, which has to be hidden, of giving you the
impression that what they’re doing is actually happening at that
moment. And not as many as you imagine do that. There are quite
a few actors who are in a solid mode and know exactly what they
rehearse-you’ve got to be able to take yourself by surprise the
whole time, within the limits of the psychological verity of what
you are doing.
"The Method is often very good so long as it
doesn’t become a restrictive influence. Sometimes it’s restrictive
in that it slows up reactions and makes people grope instead of
doing things. I think the whole art of acting is one of extremely
|With Prunella Scales in Stiff Upper Lips (1999)|
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with whom he
acted in The Comedians and directed in Hammersmith Is
Out, were close friends. "Burton had a great talent. He
could have been a very good writer if he’d wished. But I don’t
think that the use of the Burtons as a couple of ideal lovers was
really quite well thought out, because you can’t get the same spark
off a couple that know each other as well as those two [did] and
who pretend they’ve fallen in love for the first time. It’s really
too difficult and too much to ask."
His plays The Love of Four Colonels (1951)
and Romanoff and Juliet (1957), which he directed as a film
in 1961, reflect his passion for world cooperation. "Being
of extremely mixed blood, in Serbian terms, I’m ethnically filthy,
and extremely proud of it. Therefore, my only real allegiance in
this world, apart from civilized behavior, is the United Nations.
I’m a firm believer that it’s the only hope. After the failure
of the League of Nations, we mustn’t let the whole thing slip out
of our hands, because it also recognizes things which NATO doesn’t that
every nation is unfortunately, but inevitably, at a different stage
of development at the same moment. The bombing of Kosovo didn’t
lead anywhere at all and it’s going to be a much worse mess."
Since 1991, Ustinov has been President of the World
Federalist Movement, a nongovernmental organization committed
to world peace through world law. Among its missions is the establishment
of a world federation through the UN of the international criminal
court, which would intervene on matters of genocide, war crimes
and crimes against humanity. "Non-government organizations
are becoming more and more important as a form of democracy," he
states. "I’m absolutely for the concept of national identity
so long as it is cradled into a form of interdependence, which
is absolutely necessary. I’m against a form of national identity
which is in any way constituted at the expense of third parties.
I don’t think it makes any sense whatsoever. As somebody of mixed
blood, I feel that no blood has any special value above another.
It’s nonsense to think so." MM