Friday, June 12, 2015

RIP Sir Christopher Lee

Yesterday I had a day of silence on my blog in the memory of Sir Christopher Lee, who passed away after 93 amazing years on Earth. I intended to write a memorial yesterday, but simply couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t already being said at an overwhelming pace online — in The Telegraph, The Independent, by a number of stars and directors, and even the Hindustan Times. And take a look at the portrait Mark Gatiss had commissioned of Lee.

Peter Jackson actually summarized Lee’s essence very well: “Christopher spoke seven languages; he was in every sense, a man of the world; well versed in art, politics, literature, history and science. He was scholar, a singer, an extraordinary raconteur and of course, a marvelous actor.” He starred in a James Bond film (The Man with the Golden Gun, one of my favorites) and was the cousin of Bond’s creator, writer Ian Fleming. He served bravely in WWII and hunted Nazis. He was distantly related to Charlemagne, upheld the spirit of old world European aristocracy, was knighted by the Queen, and released metal albums in his 80s. He got into a light saber fight with Yoda at age 79 where he apparently did his own stunts, acted in more than 200 films, modeled for Chanel, and was the only cast member of Lord of the Rings to have met J.R.R. Tolkien. He could even sing opera. And the list goes on.

I’m writing about him because of the deep and lasting impact he had on my childhood and teenage years. Along with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing, Lee is part of the unholy trio of gentleman horror idols. They were great friends, all wonderful men, and were collectively responsible for some of the best horror films of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. (Coincidentally, all three men have overlapping birthdays with Cushing on May 26 and Price and Lee on May 27.) While Price passed in 1993 and Cushing died in 1994, Lee has kept the trio’s legacy alive for an additional 20 years.

Unlike Vincent Price, Lee professed a dislike for horror. Over the years he claimed that the horrors he witnessed during WWII numbed him to screen scares and he said that the reason he worked so tirelessly was to support his wife, Danish model Birgit Kroencke (of her, he said that the trick to a happy marriage is to “Marry someone wonderful, as I did”), and daughter. His unusual height of 6’5” and dark, stern if handsome looks are likely responsible for Lee’s frequent casting as villains and monsters. But despite it all, he always had a sense of style, grace, and intelligence.

As I’ve written about in the past, my role models, for whatever reason, tend to be gay or bisexual men. Undoubtedly, Lee ranks high among my heterosexual male role models and in many ways, i grew up thinking of him, Price, and Cushing, as paragons of masculinity. I spent hours watching their films in my youth and, in my early 30s, I continue to revisit their work every month. For example, just in the last two weeks, I’ve watched Lee in The Last Unicorn and Horror Express. Hercules in the Haunted World, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Dracula A.D. 1972 are among the films I watch every year. And, like Lee, I make it a point to re-read Lord of the Rings annually, or at least every two years.

Last July, a few days before my birthday, my grandfather passed away. He raised me and his influence was profound. His sense of manners, belief in human decency, and reliance on intelligence and rationality is something that seems to me to be part of a fading generation. In many ways, the passing of my grandfather, Leonard Nimoy in February of 2015, and now Lee feels like the ultimate dividing line between my youth and adulthood. Their generation is nearly gone and their loss reminds me — this is cliched but true — that time is bitterly limited. 

Not a single one of us is going to be as amazing or badass as Sir Lee, but we can all at least try a little harder to aspire to such towering heights of greatness. And when we miss him, as I do so much these last two days, we can always visit and re-visit his vast body of work. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been planning a comprehensive British horror series for my blog (some 150 films) and I will get started on that sooner, rather than later, to spend a little more time with some of my heroes. Today I’m consoling myself with some gems from his early years — The Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, Alias John Preston, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Corridors of Blood, and The Hound of the Baskervilles — and I welcome you to watch along with me. If you have cable, follow TCM's upcoming memorial schedule.

Rest in peace, Sir. Your memory is cherished, you're more loved than you knew, and you will be missed.

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