Tushingham in Zhivago. Screen cap from the DVD Beaver review.
As I discussed in last week's Topics, etc. at The Auteurs' Notebook, there's a lovely new Blu-ray edition of David Lean's 1965 Doctor Zhivago coming out...today. Last week I spoke not only with Ned Price of Warner Home Video, but with actor Rita Tushingham, who plays title character Zhivago's unknowing daughter, credited simply as "The Girl," who hears the film's story from Alec Guinness' Yevgraf in a frame narrative. The role came at a peak in Tushingham's fame. She was not even 25 at the time, but had achieved near-iconic status several years earlier for her portrayal of Jo in the film version of Shelagh Delaney's play A Taste of Honey. The Angry Young Man of British literature, theater and film of the mid-to-late '50s and early '60s had its opposite number, of a sort, in Resilient Waif, and Tushingham's Jo was really one of the most memorable of them. (See also Leslie Caron in The L-Shaped Room.) Tushingham went to work for the redoubtable Lean after having acted for some of the most energetic Britain-based directors of the day: Tony Richardson, Sidney J. Furie, Richard Lester. She was one of the poster girls for newly Swinging London, and here she was doing a period piece for a venerated old school master. At least that how we critics/pseudo-historians see it. As a working actor, Tushingham saw it rather differently.
"I think it was…luck, to be able to get A Taste of Honey," Tushingham told me last week. "But also it was a breakthrough, I guess because it was something more noticeable; all of a sudden actors were playing different kinds of characters, more everyday people, but not the type of everyday people that you had in most plays or films, who were just background. And there began to be stronger roles for women. These characters, even if they seemed forsaken in some sense, were strong and they did find their ways. They didn’t fade into the background.
"As for Zhivago, yes, it was a wonderful opportunity to be part of, and it was a different kind of thing, but at the time, you don’t necessarily think of it like that. You think, 'Oh it’s nice I’m doing this film!' But obviously, the standout difference here was the budget, it was a very different budget from the films I was used to working on. So there was, among other things, more time to do things, and there wasn’t a need to rush and scramble to get it all done. They got made quite quickly in the ‘60s, although some would sit on the shelf. I know The Leather Boys [her film with Furie, released in 1964] sat for about a year, nearly two years before it was released."
Although she play's a crucial part in Zhivago, her character doesn't figure as a part of the film's larger narrative; she is, in one sense, an audience surrogate. I asked about how she approached the role and its particular perspective. "Obviously I knew the story," Tushingham said—Zhivago was of course adapted from a world-wide best-selling novel by Russian poet Boris Pasternak— "but you have to be at arm’s length from that, because the character truly doesn’t know. She had no knowledge of who she really is, and, more important, of what it is that Yevgraf is asking for. So I tried to make myself inhabit that feeling of ignorance."
The picture was a remarkably frustrating one for Lean; he had to shoot in Spain, which he didn't see as the ideal location in which to reproduce Revolution-era Moscow, and he couldn't shoot in his preferred format of 65mm. According to Tushingham, he didn't make his frustrations known to his cast. "The stress didn’t show at all. I suppose the thing is, in the end, the fact that you’re going to do it and you’ve got the script, you’ve got the actors, so you get on and do it. If you look at Bridge or Lawrence, they’re all massive, aren’t they? Huge films, huge locations. Zhivago worked...it didn’t have to be in Moscow, he was able to create the illusion…because so much of it is real. He couldn’t get the location, but today, you know, if they need to show an army, they can shoot massive scenes with hardly any people in them and then CGI the army in…but it shows, doesn’t it? And I don’t like it when I hear people say, 'Oh, we can fix it in the editing.' I don’t think that ought to be said. I know sometimes you’re running against a clock. But the craft is…you should be able to do it. People could do it years ago, so why can’t you do it now? And that was something Lean never said, and if there was anyone who actually knew how to fix things in the editing, it was he; editing was where he started. And he would have a very good idea of what he wanted, and he would shoot to get it. Whereas, working with Richard [Lester], you almost felt that he more or less edited as he went along."
As she beat me to bringing up Lester, I thought I'd pursue that, and asked if she still stayed in touch with the now-retired director. "All the time, he and his wife are my closest friends…" I mentioned that of all the directors out there who ought to retire, it's a shame that Lester is one who actually did, because we could use him back. I then brought up Getting Away With It, the Steven Soderbergh book which threads a long Lester interview with a frank diary of Soderbergh's career travails of the pre-Limey '90s, and Tushingham very nearly leapt out of her chair. "I would love to work with him," she said, going on to note that yes, Steven and Richard remain in touch with each other. "He's getting films made that are important films. I think he’s amazing. He reminds me of what we had in the ‘60s, that energy, that vitality…I think he’s fantastic."
And, well, at that point I mentioned that I myself had worked with Steven, on The Girlfriend Experience, and then it came out that Tushingham herself was preparing to make a film using the digital RED camera, and the talk turned into an S.S. lovefest and disquisition on working with the RED, which was nice for the two of us but probably wouldn't be too great for you to read. So I never got around to asking Tushingham if she was aware of having been something of a bete noire for the legendary critic Manny Farber, whose essay "Pish-Tush" excoriates Rita, Jeanne Moreau and Giulietta Masina for, among other things, "swell[ing] their proportions with giantism with gestures and decor." I'm not sure I would have had the heart to bring it up even if I'd had the time.
I should also note spoke prior to the passing of Lynn Redgrave, who had been a friend and a colleague (they costarred in 1964's Girl With Green Eyes and 1967's Smashing Time), or else Redgrave would have surely been the main topic of discussion.