A MAN OF CHARACTER
Geoffrey Rush’s uncanny ability to inhabit the people he plays is on display in two works of genius, writes Peter Craven
Geoffrey Rush is about as celebrated as any actor in Australian history. After all, he won an Oscar for Shine, a Tony for his Broadway season of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King and an Emmy for The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, in which he portrayed a comedian of genius.
Well, now he’s in two very different visions of genius. In Final Portrait, directed by Stanley Tucci, he plays Alberto Giacometti, the sculptor and painter who was one of the most uncompromising artists of the 20th century, and in Genius — the television miniseries with which National Geographic sought to put itself on the dramatic map — he plays Albert Einstein, the man who brought us the theory of relativity and (to his own dismay) the atomic bomb. Final Portrait has been doing the rounds of the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals and will get a general release from October 5. Genius, that portrait of a supreme intellect who was also a good and wise man, may earn Rush another Emmy when they are announced on September 17.
Rush is dressed in jeans and a checked shirt as we chat in the conservatory of his Melbourne home. The table is cluttered with notes to himself bearing directors’ names, and not too far away there are hundreds of texts of plays and actors’ memoirs.
He is a man of the theatre to his bones, and he will jump from talking about Jean-Louis Barrault, the great French classical actor who could also do mime (and who Rush watched again recently in one of the most famous films made, Les Enfants du Paradis), to a recapitulation of his voice coach Barbara Berkery’s description of the sheer fluency, the histrionic majesty of Peter O’Toole doing the speeches George Bernard Shaw put in the mouth of Henry Higgins as if they were verse. And this in turn reminds him of the opening of the Broadway musical Hamilton, which he adores. “Lin-Manuel Miranda does it,” he says, “with such speed and such feeling for the alliteration and the narrative rhythm that it sends a chill down your spine.”
That reminds him of the extraordinary patter songs in that old musical The Music Man. Rush describes himself as a “show king” (as a sop to his heterosexuality), but this actor who has played everything from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell to the title role in Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman on stage — and was superb in the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — has just made a film about Giacometti that is in many ways the opposite of histrionic, though it’s one of Rush’s finest performances.
Final Portrait is set in 1964, not long before the great man died, and is about the series of sessions Giacometti subjected critic James Lord (played by Armie Hammer) to when he painted his portrait. It is done in long takes, using nearly monochromatic colour, which mimes the effect of new wave black and white. It’s a superb film, and Rush’s performance is spellbinding and has the strange quality of being spied on rather than projected.
“Stanley had been obsessed by the story for 10 years,” he says. “He didn’t want to do a big The Agony and the Ecstasy- style biopic. What goes on is all between the sitter and the painter. It’s like Waiting for Godot” –– he quotes Kenneth Tynan: “‘ Nothing happens, twice.’ It has no big traditional ‘artistic’ moments.”
He remembers his old acting teacher, Jacques Lecoq, saying, “Think of yourself as a moth not being able to get close to the flame”, and he talks about the imaginative and spatial dimensions of how an actor conceives a role.
“This is the yin and yang of a very idiosyncratic artist. We wanted very much to honour him and what he was like. He was a smaller, stockier man than I am and we used a prosthetic device to make my mouth look more like his and the basic lighting was simply from the skylight. We wanted to give the film a sort of flat existential honesty.”
And the paradox here is that Rush does not give a “big” performance; he does not go out to the camera in the manner of the born stage actor. Instead Tucci peers like a hidden observer at this extraordinary story of a character who is a byword for integrity among artists and was a notable eccentric, not least because of his de- votion to the principle of erasure: of wiping it out to do it again better.
We see Rush’s Giacometti taping bank notes to various odd and dirty corners of his studio and we see him, over and over, making his sitter come back for another session —— and in one startling sequence, eliminating most of the model’s represented face.
The complete absence of romantic mystique results in one of the most convincing portraits of an artist on film.
“Stanley Tucci wanted to ensure that I had a crumpled and depressed look,” Rush says, “and he gave me a collection of Italian swear words to use in the sections of the film that are in French. Giacometti’s French would probably have sounded a bit like Yorkshire to a Parisian. He was from a Swiss-Italian environment and you want that sense from his childhood of the rock face and the escarpments.”
Rush says the film is bled of colour except for the mustard of the dress Sylvie Testud wears as Giacometti’s wife when she begs to go to a Chagall opening and the dash of red in the dress of Clemence Poesy as the mistress.
He says it was a film in which Tucci opportunistically used everything that was to hand. Genius, London’s Highgate Cemetery was made to double for Paris’s Pere Lachaise. He was even keen to ensure Rush had “stubbier fingers”. He said: “We don’t want any of your delicate antipodean fingerwork here.”
In fact Tucci did everything in his formidable power to stop Rush’s face looking bird-like or craggy. He also collaborated with him to ensure he would be vocally staccato and deadpan. Rush says he remembered many years earlier playing the Fool to Warren Mitchell’s King Lear and the old cockney comedian telling him he should be able to say any line of the dialogue like Groucho Marx telling the bellhop he wanted him to send roses with a card signed “Emily, I love you” all in one expressionless line. The effect has a startling realism.
It was also amazing for him to discover his face as the doughty modernist came to resemble his other genius. “Finding a way of broadening my Giacometti face gave him an uncanny resemblance to Einstein,” he says.
In Genius, Einstein’s nose, which many people thought was a marvel of prosthesis, is actually his own proboscis.
How? “Well, I imagined my nose looking like Einstein’s, and somehow we got it to.” He says
Geoffrey Rush, left; as artist Alberto Giacometti with Clemence Poesy in Final Portrait, right; as Albert Einstein in