Lee said that a successful actor needed “a degree of versatility”, and he embodied that idea. He never quite broke out of his typecasting as a horror villain, but he didn’t need to — he showed the variety and depth possible within such characters, playing each not as a collection of clichés (even when they were written that way), but as something like a human being (even when they weren’t). This is the key to one of the great roles of his later career, that of Saruman in the various Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. He is utterly terrifying but also fascinating, and there are moments where we want to sympathize with him, or perhaps join him, and then we realize the error of our momentary desires. No actor in those films so fully and convincingly portrays the temptations of evil.
Though Lee performed well and even memorably in plenty of bad, unmemorable movies, the one that stands as the apotheosis of his skill is ‘The Man with the Golden Gun.’ It’s neither Lee’s worst movie nor the worst James Bond movie, but it’s pretty bad nonetheless. However, Lee so perfectly embodies Scaramanga that he steals every scene he’s in and is usually listed as one of the great Bond villains.
One of the film’s faults is that it plays too much for laughs, but Lee doesn’t make that mistake. He takes Scaramanga seriously as a character and he doesn’t wink at us to signal that he thinks he’s in a crappy movie. To have an actor commit to a role, even if it’s a terrible role in a terrible movie, pays respect to the audience. The nature of film production is such that an actor can’t always know when they’re in a good or bad film, anyway, as what things feel like on set can be quite different from what ends up making it through postproduction, and so the only way to make sure that you don’t mess up a potentially great (or even just passably good) movie is to treat the job as you would had you been cast in the greatest, most demanding, most prestigious film of all time.
Again and again, Christopher Lee performed that way. Nobody performed terribly-written lines as adroitly as he — no matter how awkward, stilted, or absurd the line, he would find a way to inhabit it, a way to make it seem like the only thing his character could possibly have said at the moment of utterance. As an actor, he couldn’t necessarily control the writing, the cinematography, the editing, but he could control his own performance, and that he did.
Lee was, for similar reasons, an impressive comedic actor. One key to successful comedic acting is this: the actors shouldn’t do the laughing for the audience. Watch Lee in, for instance, ‘Gremlins 2,’ an at best mediocre film in which he is delightful: his timing is excellent, and he knows when to pull back and allow a simple, stoic glance to do all the work for him.
It’s a shame that Christopher Lee was never nominated for an Academy Award (though of course the list of actors and filmmakers never nominated for that award is not at all a shameful one). He certainly deserved at least an honorary, career-spanning acting award, because he achieved far more than a lot of actors who walked away with Oscar in their hands. It’s one thing to perform well in a beautifully written, sensitively directed, artistically shot, masterfully edited movie. It’s quite another accomplishment to perform so consistently well, year after year, in a wide variety of movies that more often than not are not especially well written, directed, shot, or edited — that, indeed, at times seem to have been written, directed, shot, and edited by a vaguely sentient slime mold. Christopher Lee did so, over and over again, for more than sixty years. If that doesn’t define a great actor, I don’t know what does.
Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.