Originally posted in 2009
In a business full of self-destructive characters, George C. Scott may very well top the list. Five times married, a fierce alcoholic, and possessed of a bestial temper that gave vent to physical violence perhaps hundreds of times in his adult life, Scott makes latter day bad boys like Sean Penn look like pipsqueaks. At the same time, his gentlemanly demeanor and deep intelligence (manifested in an articulateness rare in American actors) added another level which, combined with the volcano bubbling beneath, made him fascinating both as an actor and a human being.
David Sheward’s book Rage and Glory: The Volatile Life and Career of George C. Scott (Applause, 2008) is the first biography to capture this extraordinary performer and is likely to remain the definitive work on the subject for a long time to come. For someone of my age, who followed Scott chiefly during the 1980s and 90s (his declining years), the scale of Scott’s accomplishments – and his depravities – come as something of a revelation.
On stage and screen that seething presence was a self-taught phenomenon. The high point of course is Patton, but the truth is that in theatre, television and film, Scott was a trailblazer, using the power he’d acquired as a much sought-after marquee name to take on the powers that be. Unlike so many in his profession, he stubbornly believed in the theatre, treading the boards as well as the sound stages to the end of his days. Yet, while he appeared on Broadway from time to time, he was one of the prime players in the Off-Broadway and regional theatre movements, making his name at the Public and Circle in the Square, as well as founding the ill-fated Theatre of Michigan in the early 1960s. In television, where he’d worked steadily during the Golden Age on shows like Playhouse 90, he bucked the establishment as well, most notably in his civil rights era show East Side/ West Side, which he starred in and produced, and which chronicled the ups and downs of a New York City social worker. (He later tried to inject controversial content into his Fox sit-com Mr. President in the 1980s with much less success). In the cinema, he used his A list box office status to helm projects of his own, the films Rage (1972) and The Savage is Loose (1974) both of which were critical and box office failures. Like Marlon Brando, he refused his Academy Award on principle. Unlike Brando, his refusal was tied to no left-wing cause. Indeed, Scott was conservative in many ways. He merely hated the falsity of it all; he referred to the Oscars and show business as a “meat parade”.
This fierce independence – and the frustrations inherent in swimming against the tide – no doubt were part and parcel of the spirit that made him such a (his own words) son of a bitch. Sheward’s portrait of this aspect of Scott’s character is no less appalling for being objective and unsparing. Scott was an alcoholic on a scale most of us scarcely encounter. When he was drunk (which was constantly) he was shit-faced: stumbling, black-out, fist-fight drunk. Almost every colleague he worked with reports two things: how professional he was (how well he did his homework, knew his lines, and was a reliable and helpful scene partner); and….the fact that they were terrified of him. No one, male or female, was above his wrath, including the most beautiful woman in the world Ava Gardner, whom he reportedly beat to a pulp. And just as he was so very professional when he showed up at work, a good portion of the time he missed work entirely due to his frequent drunks and hangovers.
In the final analysis, one has to observe that, while Scott was plenty destructive, his self-destruction was something of a failure. Indeed, he did pass away as the result of refusing treatment for a fatal condition. But at the time he did so he was 72 years old. And he was amazingly productive right until the end.
I have to admit I adore George C. Scott, which is obviously what drew me to this book. His performances in The Hustler, Dr. Strangelove, Patton and The Hospital are among my favorites, just as I was saddened by his final choices, trotting out old warhorses like Inherit the Wind and Twelve Angry Men in which to chew the scenery during his final days. Sheward’s book covers every bit of these highs and lows, and includes interviews with ex-wives, estranged children, and major co-workers, making it both a valuable resource and a racy reading experience. Yet there are gaps. Rage and Glory is extremely strong on the “who, what, where and when” but sadly deficient on the “why”? Can a genetic predisposition to alcoholism explain all of it? What was he so angry about? His modest origins (he was a child of a coal miner who later became a factory worker and then a successful executive, and a cultured mother) are only touched upon here, and yet there must have been something that drove him – something that he hated, that he wanted to smash. Even speculation about what that was would be welcome. Likewise, there is nothing about Scott’s reaction to Colleen Dehurst’s death (eight years before his own). For a time the two were a great stage couple. Scott’s life with Dewhurst over two marriages seems to be the closest thing he ever knew to domestic stability, yet in Rage and Glory it is a blip. But these omissions are but small matters – nothing to punch anyone in the nose about.