Diane and Donald
Faces made for movie screens – one from Australia that made a vivid impression in only a handful of appearances, the other from England who was a regular and welcome presence for 40 years – are the focus of birthday commemorations today. Queensland-born Diane Cilento (1933-2011), a great beauty nominated for a Tony® Award playing Helen of Troy in the play Tiger at the Gates on Broadway and an Oscar® for embodying the gamekeeper’s sexy daughter Molly Seagrim in the movie Tom Jones, did not work in traditional Hollywood movies – with one exception. After appearing with distinction as the Contessina de Medici in The Agony and the Ecstasy, she was cast as a worldly-wise widow alongside Paul Newman and Fredric March in director Martin Ritt’s gritty and unusual Western, Hombre (1967). Among a stagecoach full of self-interested characters thrown together for a ride that will eventually draw them together against predatory outlaws, Cilento’s earthy Jessie is perhaps the most rock-ribbed realist (“Anytime a man weasels out on you, turns out he’s doing you a favor”). But when the going gets tough, as The New York Times’ J Hoberman recently observed in his appraisal of Twilight Time’s Hombre Blu-ray, she becomes “the movie’s most generous character.” British character actor Donald Pleasence (1919-1995) started out on the stage (he earned four Best Actor Tony® nominations over a 10-year period) but really burnished his resume in movies of all kinds, showcasing uncommon versatility and audience accessibility: comedies, thrillers, Westerns, epics, sci-fi/horror, period pieces and actioners. His distinctive credits are legion: Sons and Lovers, The Great Escape, Fantastic Voyage, You Only Live Twice (as Ernst Blofeld), Will Penny, THX-1138, The Eagle Has Landed, Oh, God! and Halloween. The same year he played Blofeld, he was seen in another evil role: World War II-era German General Kahlenberg, one of three high-ranking murder suspects in director Anatole Litvak’s suspenseful The Night of the Generals (1967), available on TT Blu-ray. Also starring Peter O’Toole and Charles Gray (a fellow Blofeld in the later James Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever) as the other brass hats and Omar Sharif as the dogged investigator tracking the killer, the movie is a well-appointed thriller with epic trappings and sinister trimmings. Second in creepiness only to O’Toole’s unraveling psychopath is the coolly methodical, unctuously manipulative Pleasence, who while seeming quite capable of the crimes in question also guards a secret that comes to light halfway through the movie: he’s a key player in Operation Valkyrie, the Nazi high command’s plot to assassinate Hitler. Cilento retired from acting 17 years before her passing, but Pleasance worked until his death. Always at home but yet managing to stand out in large ensembles, Pleasance landed a lovely late-career part in the starry company of Woody Allen’s German Expressionist spoof Shadows and Fog (1991), debuting next month on TT Blu-ray. You’ll know his face when you see it.