- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

James Mason, the third son of a Yorkshire textile merchant, was born a century ago on May 15, 1909, in Huddersfield, England. Seldom without a sketchbook from childhood to the last months of his life, Mr. Mason seemed to be pointed toward a career in architecture before an acting yen overtook him during his third year at Cambridge.

A struggling stage and film actor during the 1930s, he eventually began to make an indelible impression when playing literally hunted or emotionally haunted characters.

This tendency was memorably engraved in the movie that Mr. Mason regarded as his best: Carol Reed’s “Odd Man Out,” released in 1947. A chase thriller set in Belfast, it cast Mr. Mason as mortally wounded Irish revolutionary Johnny McQueen, who spends most of the film with his life ebbing away. In subsequent roles, Mr. Mason often excelled at portraits of the gallantly introspective, doomed or inconsolable.

Frequently at odds with British producers while emerging as a star during World War II, Mr. Mason was a professional exile before the Reed classic opened. The actor and his first wife, the former Pamela Ostrer Kellino, arrived in the United States in 1946, anticipating the Hollywood phase of his career.

That phase lasted through the 1950s. It began unconventionally, with a set of independent productions for the German-born director Max Ophuls, “Caught” and “The Reckless Moment.” Though unsuccessful, they remain durably attractive showcases for Mr. Mason.

Always a striking camera subject and blessed with an insinuating, whispery voice, Mr. Mason first mesmerized British moviegoers playing aristocratic cads in costume melodramas that he personally despised. His initial foothold as a Hollywood aspirant came in 20th Century Fox projects with World War II themes: as the German military commander Erwin Rommel in “The Desert Fox” and then a freelancing spy in “5 Fingers.”

In 1954, he played the villainous knight in “Prince Valiant,” Captain Nemo in the Disney version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and then — his greatest single movie performance — the doomed Hollywood star Norman Maine in George Cukor’s remake of “A Star Is Born,” ostensibly a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland.

Mr. Mason and Miss Garland were nominated for Academy Awards, but neither won. It wasn’t all that surprising since Marlon Brando was in contention for “On the Waterfront,” which dominated the competition.

In retrospect, Mr. Mason enjoys an enviable consolation prize. He commands more respect for a near-miss than many actors do for having won Oscars against lackluster competition or on dubious grounds. For many years, his performance was peevishly underrated by partisans of Miss Garland or Mr. Cukor. Revivals of a restored version in 1983, a year before Mr. Mason died, reinforced the case for him as the movie’s ultrasensitive acting instrument and histrionic tower of strength.

Never a socially happy transplant to Southern California, although Pamela Mason took to Hollywood like a duck to water, James Mason failed to follow through on his advantageous versatility in 1954. In 1956 and 1958, he had only one movie that could be taken seriously, “Bigger Than Life,” a flop. He finished the decade strongly, with “North By Northwest,” “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the now-neglected comedy “A Touch of Larceny,” which merits a video edition. By that time, he was 50 and a likelier candidate for character roles than secure stardom.

His marriage also ended in the early 1960s, leaving Pamela Mason and their two children in Hollywood while Mr. Mason became an international film nomad. He eventually settled in Vevey, Switzerland, and remarried, to the Australian actress Clarissa Kay, encountered while he was filming Michael Powell’s idyllic “Age of Consent” around the Great Barrier Reef with the very young and dishy Helen Mirren.

This middle-aged exile brought some rewarding roles, often of a droll or sneaky-funny emphasis, beginning with “Lolita” in 1962 and extending through his final movie, “The Shooting Party.” Mr. Mason received two more Oscar nominations, for supporting actor, in “Georgy Girl” in 1966 and “The Verdict” in 1982.

According to biographer Sheridan Morley, he was disappointed that Sidney Lumet, who cast him in “The Deadly Affair” and “The Sea Gull” in the late 1960s, then selected him as Paul Newman’s legal adversary for “The Verdict,” overlooked him when casting the role that won Peter Finch a posthumous 1976 Oscar in “Network.”

It seems a little more baffling that Mr. Lumet couldn’t find a place for Mr. Mason in the all-star ensemble of “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1974. He appeared in a later Agatha Christie adaptation, “Evil Under the Sun,” and he joined Christopher Plummer for an estimable one-shot partnership as Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes in the 1979 thriller “Murder By Decree,” worth rediscovering for their rapport.

Mr. Plummer contributed an amusing recollection of Mr. Mason to the Morley book: “James knew an awful lot about how to steal movies through the back door and give a performance that only really got noticed when the whole film was put together; so he would emerge with immense distinction having apparently been doing very little on the set.”

Geraldine Fitzgerald, who appeared with Mr. Mason in a 1937 adaptation of “The Mill on the Floss,” vividly evoked the still unknown performer. “I recall telling him that one day the camera was going to love him and make him a very great star. James just [looked] at me in disbelief. He was incredibly good-looking, in a dark way. … He had that curious quality of a man with an eternal secret. … That was what was so arresting. … That and, I guess, the voice.”

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