Ge­of­frey Rush’s un­canny abil­ity to in­habit the peo­ple he plays is on dis­play in two works of genius, writes Peter Craven

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

far right

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