The Hall of Hams #13: Ray Milland
The Hall of Hams is my series on some of my favorite actors who have brought the art of melodramatic acting into the modern era.
Today is the birthday of Ray Milland (1907-1986). Milland is outside the profile of many or most of the actors in this series, who are trained English (or English style) stage actors who later went to the screen. Milland was indeed Welsh but as an actor was almost entirely self-taught and had little stage experience, being almost entirely a creature of the movies. But the type of acting he did, and the kinds of films he did, place him squarely in the melodrama camp.
A former rifleman in the home guard, he began breaking into British silent movies in the late 20s as an extra. His first film was Picadilly, featuring Anna May Wong (whose birthday is also today) as well as Charles Laughton and Gilda Gray). In the 30s he came to Hollywood, occasionally getting a decent role, as in 1939’s Beau Geste, but it wasn’t until his 1945 Oscar winning performance as an alcoholic in Lost Weekend that he was truly put on the map.
Ironically his performance in this film is a showcase of all his limitations. Generally, as an actor Milland is understated and monotonic to the point of boredom. He has very few colors in his palate and they are unattractive ones: whiney, worried, irritated and angry nearly cover his range. When called upon to enact big emotions, he forces them. Lost Weekend is a strange film. Without intending to, it points the way to his later career (which we’ll get to in a minute.) It purports to be a serious look at a real problem, a groundbreaking Hollywood drama. But it is actually a straight-up exploitation film which treats Milland’s character like a freak or monster, complete with theramin music on the soundtrack. Is it secretly meant to be a camp comedy? It’s possible; it was directed by Billy Wilder. I can’t think it is meant to be anything but. But, then Otto Preminger directed Skidoo, so what do I know?
Milland had some other high points (notably Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 1954) then started to gravitate towards television through much of the 50s and 60s. Then, lo, something very interesting. Like a lot of the actors of his generation (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford) he got a new lease on life by doing lots of low-budget horror and disaster films. Has anyone ever written about Milland in this light? He worked a lot in his last twenty years, so there was plenty of other stuff on his resume to round it out, but the fact is, he did enough horror in those years to constitute a body of work, to make him a sort of second, far less amusing Vincent Price. This list is hardly complete, but Milland was in The Premature Burial (part of Roger Corman’s Poe cycle, 1962), X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963), Frogs (1972), The Thing with Two Heads (1972), The House in Nightmare Park (1973), Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), The Dead Don’t Die (1975), Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976), May Day at 40,000 Feet (1976), The Uncanny (1977), Cruise into Terror (1978), The Darker Side of Terror (1979), The Attic (1980), Cave In (1980) and The Sea Serpent (1983). His performances in these films would best be called “appropriate”. If he was alive today I have no doubt he would be doing original films on SyFy and Chiller. Which would be especially excellent since he would be 106 years old.
But that’s not all! He stars in some of the very best Columbo episodes — he is PERFECT playing an irritated, grumpy old rich, white man, which he was. He wrote an excellent autobiography called Wide Eyed in Babylon, which of course I have read. The book reveals Milland to be a highly intelligent, conscientious and caring guy — several cuts above most of his peers in those respects, as near as I can tell. Square and conservative, yeah, but what of it? At any rate, his integrity and his brains explain the fact that he tried his hand at directing about a dozen times.
Of the couple of these efforts I have seen, Panic in the Year Zero (1962) is TRULY interesting. A post-apocalyptic scenario, it depicts the tough choices a man must make as he tries to keep his family alive in the wake of an atomic attack. The perspective is PALEO-conservative, and to me that is one of the things that makes the movie interesting. How many right wing films was Hollywood making during the Kennedy Years?(answer: almost none). More than this — it doesn’t provide answers, it provides questions. It seems to me the hero of the film crosses the line several times in the new tooth-and-nail universe, but the film KNOWS that, and invites us to ponder it and debate it. I think it’s a genuinely neat film.
Much less so is the 1968 court room drama Hostile Witness (1968), a film so boring and out of step with the times the only thing I can compare it to is Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz, which was released the following year (though the plot is closer to The Wrong Man. )
At any rate, by this point Milland was in dire need of an infusion of “hip”. And in 1972 he got it. Here he is with Rosie Greer, in what I deem to be the high point of both of their careers, The Thing with Two Heads:
For more on film don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of show biz, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.