Max von Sydow: Jesus at 60

You sit with Max von Sydow and you find yourself thinking, "So this is what Jesus would look like at 60." It's not the world's prettiest picture. This is a face that has experienced, and survived. His weathered skin is Scandinavian-pale, almost ashen. His blonde hair looks windblown, even when it's not. His full lower lip suggests a man eternally pouting over life's difficult puzzles.

But then there are the eyes: cool blue, perfect spheres. It is those eyes that have the young waitresses at the hotel restaurant waving goodbye, giggling with the same excitement they might accord Tom Cruise. Those eyes have been the essence of many a great von Sydow performance. In 1988's Pelle the Conqueror, von Sydow barely spoke, but he made speeches with his eyes, and came away with an Oscar nomination. For Ingmar Bergman, a filmmaker obsessed with faces as living sculptures, landscapes on which his haunting stories were to be played out, von Sydow's face--familiar, serene, yet powerful--was the perfect tableau. In a remarkable series of films it is the focus of Bergman's drama; you can't look away from the eyes as they cut through the bleak Scandinavian settings and stark black and white photography. Is it any wonder these eyes can also intimidate?

And von Sydow's eyes can unnerve you. He has a remarkable stare--there seem to be minutes between blinks. But when I admit to him I'm uneasy, he backs up in his chair and says, "Oh, please. I find it very hard to take myself seriously."

You can tell von Sydow is used to adulation. But he's sick of it too. After all, Bergman himself may be deeply allied with the form and content of his films, but von Sydow is just an actor--a brilliant vehicle for Bergman's dark investigations, but a vehicle as well for other, lesser visions and for absolute piffle on many occasions. And he actually likes to talk about his non-Bergman oeuvre. Perhaps he's worn out by 30 years of reliving the doppelgangers of The Seventh Seal with art-minded reporters. In any case, he's happy to show people the von Sydow who makes movies just for the hell of it, and, he'll concede, because the money's so good, even if the movies aren't. Great actor that von Sydow is, he's taken some preposterous roles just for the money (an honorable tradition that includes actors like Olivier, Burton, Caine, O'Toole). Back-to-back with his sharp, uncompromising turn as Barbara Hershey's artist-lover in Hannah and Her Sisters he actually did an episode of "Kojak." If Hollywood has largely failed to understand von Sydow, von Sydow has perhaps had a fix on Hollywood from early on.

Von Sydow says he doesn't know if it's true, but Hollywood legend has it that George Stevens chose him to play Jesus, his first American role, in The Greatest Story Ever Told, solely on the basis of a photograph. The resulting film became the Ishtar of its time (at $20 million 1965 dollars). "George Stevens was caught in something he really couldn't handle," says von Sydow. "There were too many interests he was afraid of offending." But even in disaster, the film opened Hollywood's doors for its foreign star.

Therein began the rather bizarre string of American films that almost invariably managed to misuse the Swedish actor in a new way each time. Von Sydow was probably thought a natural for The Exorcist in 1973. These days it's difficult to think of the film in artistic terms, but it was taken very seriously indeed by reviewers when it opened. It made sense to cast the estimable von Sydow as Father Merrin, mystic matador to Satan's bullshit. No matter that his most memorable scene had him slimed by Linda Blair's Technicolor vomit. He was the film's legitimizing class act. And he had his first Hollywood blockbuster: audiences made it the biggest moneymaker of its day.

"Nobody told me there was any idea for a sequel to The Exorcist," von Sydow says. "But my agent called me to tell me they were going to do it, and there was a part for me. I said, 'But I died in the first film.' 'Well,' he told me, 'this is from the early days of Father Merrin's life.' I told him I just didn't want to do it again. Then the producers doubled the price. I still said no. But I agreed to meet with [director] John Boorman. He was very sweet and asked me to read the script. So I read it and I said, 'Sorry, it's not for me.' Well, I think they doubled the price again. But this time they also gave me the script to another film which I found very interesting. My agent told me that for doing two weeks' work on Exorcist 11, I'd get paid more than I've ever made and I'd have this other thing. I said O.K."

Exorcist II: The Heretic turned out to be a major embarrassment. (John Simon, only one of many critics who had their fun with it, noted that, "There is the very strong possibility that Exorcist II is the stupidest movie ever made.") And the role used to lure von Sydow to The Heretic was given to Nicol Williamson--that of Merlin in Boorman's magical Excalibur. Von Sydow tells me ironically that he is often asked to sign autographs from people who think he is Nicol Williamson.

Von Sydow is philosophical about the vagaries of Hollywood and the film business. He offers brief comments on some of his pictures as I reel them off one by one:

Hawaii (1966): "The film lost when the producers made George Roy Hill cut it down. In fact, in doing that he made the film less rich, therefore longer."

The Kremlin Letter (1970): "It was great to watch Orson Welles, not only as an actor but as a director. As soon as he appeared on camera he took over. He rearranged the scenery, rewrote the dialogue. John Huston was very amused."

The Exorcist (1973): "An extremely well done film, but maybe not my cup of tea."

The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972): "The roles were very inspiring for me to do. It was so close to my own background. A long and intense period of work."

Voyage of the Damned (1976): "The writer and director got lost showing so much suffering. Too much feeling. One family tragedy after another."

Hurricane (1979): "Sometimes you remember more about the location where you shot the film than the film itself. I was just not right for the part."

Flash Gordon (1980): "I was tired of playing tight-lipped people."

Conan the Barbarian (1982): "Schwarzenegger's a very intelligent man. Real charm and presence."

Strange Brew (1983): "Not even a brewery wanted to have any¬thing to do with it."

Dune (1984): "It should have been a series of three films. Then, it would've paid off."

Victory (1981): "Ah, the football game..."

In short, most of von Sydow's American efforts clash kitschily with the gems of his Swedish oeuvre--The Seventh Seal Through a Glass Darkly, The Magician, Winter Light, The Virgin Spring, Shame, Wild Strawberries.

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