The Truth About Churchill
Watching DVDs in the middle of the day is usually a bad idea, but I was dying to see Peter Richardson’s Churchill: The Hollywood Years, a movie that to the best of my knowledge has never been shown on this side of the Atlantic. The premise of the farce is that, far from being a portly, middle-aged gent with a plummy English voice, Winston Churchill was a studly American Marine. With the brave, romantic aid of Princess Lilibet, this swaggering action hero squelched the occupation of Buckingham Palace by Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels. Then he flew off into the Battle of Britain and died a hero’s death. (Not shown.)
Even with Christian Slater as Churchill, the romp is nowhere near as bad as you might think. Harry Enfield’s George VI is an atomic hoot, trust me. Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson completely refresh the look and feel of the funny-Adolf-and-Eva shtick. Jessica Oyelowo plays Princess Margaret as if she were Ava Gardner — let’s see more of her! The nicest performance, though is the one that points, inadvertently, to precisely what’s missing from Churchill. Every once in a while, Neve Campbell seems about to burst out of her Princess Elizabeth impersonation and into a fit of giggles. This makes you remember The Carol Burnett Show.
What made the sketches in Carol Burnett so much funnier than anything that anybody had ever seen before was the principal performers’ bold but somehow helpless flirtation with Losing It. The jokes were completely trumped by the agony crimped into the faces of Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vicki Carr as they struggled not to break character and laugh their heads off.
The rule against spluttering laughter on stage is dictated by the quality of the comedy. If there’s no quality, there’s no rule. The Carol Burnett troupe turned this around. Their trembling jaws signaled their awareness that they were putting on tripe, but the signal itself transmuted “acting” into “improvisation” — even though, for all we know, the breakdowns were as rehearsed as the blocking.
Christian Slater’s problem, in Churchill: The Hollywood Years, is that he’s aware that his comic-book antics and shoot-em-up bravado are ridiculous. Aside from a few almost unwatchable “sincere” shots, he smirks his way through the entire picture. But it’s not the right smirk. It’s the smirk of the Big Man on Campus who’s being required by the Dean of Students to do something un-cool. Hey, his smirk says, I’m only going through the motions here. Think Eddie Haskell.
Carol Burnett never smirked. She threw herself into her preposterous roles with with the passion of an operatic diva. So did Harvey Korman. They vied for preposterousness. It was inevitable that one of them would sooner or later surprise the other with a stupendously preposterous bit, causing the predictable audience reaction right up close. (I seem to recall that Korman had a knack for strutting so strenuously that he would flub his lines — a doubly whammy for his colleagues.) Harold Bloom might say that our laughter is overdetermined.
Churchill: The Hollywood Years left a mystery in its wake: would it be best to watch it before Inglourious Basterds or after? See what Mr Teasy-Weasy does with the Führer’s hair before you answer that one.