Brian Cox: Putting the Rabbit In the Hat

We had been hearing a lot about the tv series Succession from friends. Tom Power on CBC called it the greatest series ever on an episode of Q, the show he always watches as soon as it’s available.

Power’s interviews often signal the books I need to get. Harvey Fierstein’s memoir, for instance, was promoted in the Q interview more recently, a book I’ve just begun to read. And a couple of episodes earlier in March came Power’s interview with Brian Cox, whose memoir is subtitled “Putting the Rabbit in the Hat”.

I didn’t understand the excitement about Succession, so I’ve started catching up on that too, which I’ll have to discuss another time.

But now I’ve read Cox’s book.

The greatest artists don’t necessarily make the best books or conversely, we might say that the best books don’t necessarily come from the best actor. Yet I was swallowed up in the entertaining prose of Brian Cox’s memoir. No I don’t immediately think of him as a brilliant actor. But he’s written a terrific memoir, full of anecdotes and also many observations on acting.

I might sum it up in the story he tells about Troy (2004), a favorite film I’ve seen many times. In this version of the story, Priam comes to Achilles begging for the body of his son Hector, dishonoured in the battle with Achilles. It’s funny because this moment in the Iliad is the stirring opening image of a recent powerful TED talk about wakes (meaning the poetry of Homer’s Illiad not the film adaptation). You can find that here, and excuse me if I seem to be digressing. Please bear with me, I’m making an elaborate metaphor.

It’s the very first thing we hear, the first two minutes of poet Kevin Toolis’s talk.

I want to cite this discussion of poetry and honour alongside the scene between Brian Cox and Peter O’Toole in the film, admittedly the outcome of a script and a director, not the specific choice of Brian Cox naturally.

First though, let’s set it up with a scene between Priam and Achilles. It’s intriguing because it juxtaposes a fine actor of a previous generation with an under-rated actor of our own, namely O’Toole and Brad Pitt. Cox goes into some detail about the efforts of a young actor seeking to transcend his physical gift (his beautiful body) in his quest to become a genuine actor. You see that in this clip, as Pitt holds his own alongside O’Toole.


And then, towards the end of the film in a clip that I must caution you about –it’s violent & horrible—Priam is brought down by Agamemnon. It’s a bit of poetic justice I suppose, that the two leaders should meet, even if there’s no poetry in this justice. Agamemnon stabs the honourable King Priam in the back, and further disrespecting him in denying him any sympathy for the innocents in the war.

You can watch it.

Or you may prefer to read this paraphrase of their last lines in their exchange.

PRIAM: (shouting at the Greek soldiers, watching them despoil the temple) Have you no honour?! Have you no honour!?

(a spear stabs into him and through from behind; Priam collapses, and we see it’s Agamemnon’s spear)

AGAMEMNON: I wanted you alive. I wanted you to watch your city burn.
PRIAM: Please… the children. Spare the innocents… (fading as he is dying)
AGAMEMNON: Nobody is innocent. Nobody. (walks away)

Watching the TED talk I was struck by the poetry of honour, alongside the conspicuous lack of poetry in the modern world.

Watching episodes of Succession this week (a dark show full of nasty selfish people rarely illuminated by empathy or love) a series I contrast with Ted Lasso (a glimmer of light for many of us, as gentle and kind as Succession is brutal and cruel), I’m thinking that Brian Cox is in many ways come of age, the actor for and of our time. Or our time has caught up with him.

Perhaps he wouldn’t want to be typecast as a backstabber? Yet the slaying in this clip could just as easily be the younger pragmatic generation of actors (plug in Viggo Mortensen or Ed Norton) sweeping aside the poetic previous generation of stage actors (O’Toole or Gielgud or Olivier).

Cox is just right for Succession, even if he’s striding through a world without poetry or kindness, just as he did in Troy.

Thank goodness Cox’s memoir contains something essential, missing from many memoirs and thank goodness is also found in Fierstein’s memoir. When you’ve finished a book and recall an episode such as the scene I described from Troy between Peter O’Toole and Brian Cox, the index is indispensable.

Cox is not just telling us stories about celebrities & stars. The title is apt. Magic is pulling the rabbit out of the hat, right? Cox truly addresses the craft and the art of acting in cinema and onstage: to propose how we might first put the rabbit into the hat. If you were just starting to explore this question you could do worse than to read Cox’s ideas, reminding us of famous stories such as the encounter between two styles in the film Marathon Man, where Laurence Olivier famously told Dustin Hoffmann (whose method acting was exhausting him) “My dear boy why don’t you just try acting?” It’s such a delicious rejoinder, I’ve always wondered if it was a real moment or not. But it doesn’t matter, as it has become like a parable.

Yet perhaps Cox isn’t quite on one side or the other, not just because his career is largely among American film-makers. I’m devoutly against the notion of “stars” and the foregrounding of virtuoso acting chops, particularly at this time of year: when the Oscars seem to regularly get it wrong. Cox is more of a character actor than a star, reflecting my preference. That you probably know Cox for something he’s done in a supporting role is for me a positive sign of a real actor. Being a star is a dubious honour. Cox has worked with every famous name in the business, often in the OTHER version that wasn’t seen. Before Anthony Hopkins got rich playing Hannibal Lector, Cox played the same character in Manhunter, a film nobody saw. He played Winston Churchill the same year that Gary Oldman won an Oscar playing the same historical figure. You could have seen him in the Bourne films, a Scot playing in Braveheart and Rob Roy, but not likely the star you remember.

And now suddenly his role in Succession is one we remember even if it’s much the same anti-heroic character as his Agamemnon, the back-stabber without honour. But perhaps that’s the way business and plutocracy works.

After decades of playing roles without quite breaking through, he seems to have a hit with Succession, a television series that’s finished its third season. As I watch that trailer for season one, from the vantage point of partway through season two, I’m staggered by the simple fact: Cox is at the centre of the family dynamic that drives the series.

Cox tells us that according to the original plan Cox was hired to do the first season as the patriarch of the family and then was supposed to die. Ha, as if..! Impossible. And that factoid is itself as much a matter of big money as it is about the mechanics of the drama.

But it reminds me a bit of Scheherazade, who avoided being killed off by telling entertaining stories. It’s apt, because if nothing else, Cox himself is a superb story-teller. His book overflows with his tales.

Index or not, I’ll be re-reading it soon, because it was so much fun to read.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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