Friday, November 30, 2012

Being Faithful in Spirit

"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man."

I can understand why the filmmakers chose to preface their movie "Gandhi" with such a disclaimer.

It is a considerable task to tell anyone's life story — let alone one as complex as Mohandas Gandhi's — but, all in all, I think director Richard Attenborough did an incredible job.

I have long been a fan of biographical movies — "biopics," as they are called in our McNugget culture that appears to regard whittling things down to a single syllable or initial or two as progress — but "Gandhi," which premiered 30 years ago today, is my favorite.

I remember reading about the movie when it was still in its casting stages and hearing that Ben Kingsley had been cast in the title role. I couldn't understand it. I wasn't familiar with his previous work — which was almost entirely, if not exclusively, in TV productions. I didn't necessarily think he was a bad choice. I just felt that the actor who was chosen to portray someone as significant to the history of the 20th century as Gandhi needed to be someone with stature in the acting community.

Actually, an actor with some heft in the acting community — Dustin Hoffman — reportedly was interested in the part, but he was offered the lead role in "Tootsie" and wound up taking that role instead.

(Among the actors I heard mentioned as possible leads before Kingsley was chosen were Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Finch and Albert Finney. I don't know if any of them really were interested in the part, but, in hindsight, I don't think any of them would have been nearly as effective as Kingsley.

(And I say that as someone who has admired Hopkins' work for a long time. I thought he did a remarkable job of portraying Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." I'm old enough to remember Richard Nixon, and I can say without fear of contradiction that Hopkins neither looked nor sounded like Nixon, but he had his personality down.)

Kingsley may not have brought a high–powered resume to the project, but he sure left with one. His performance earned him an Oscar and propelled him into acting's stratosphere. Ironically, Kingsley beat Hoffman for the Best Actor Oscar.

Kingsley has gone on to give brilliant performances in many movies, including another one of my personal favorites, "Schindler's List."

Gandhi himself probably would have insisted that he couldn't have accomplished the things he did without the help and support of millions. Likewise, Kingsley was surrounded by an impressive supporting cast — Martin Sheen as the journalist Walker, John Gielgud as the viceroy, Candice Bergen as photographer Margaret Bourke–White.

In fact, I heard that the extras who were brought in to line the streets in the re–creation of Gandhi's funeral procession — roughly 300,000 — far outnumbered the extras who have appeared in any other movie.

But the portrayal of Gandhi was a triumph for Kingsley. He truly was faithful in spirit to the man and his life.