Real-life character central to Gosford Park (2002)

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Real-life character central to Gosford Park (2002)

Post  Admin on Wed Nov 07, 2007 8:54 pm

Real-life character central to Gosford Park
Jeremy Northam plays 1920s-30s matinee idol who provides a bridge between classes.

SOURCE: Southam Newspapers
BYLINE: Jamie Portman


NEW YORK -- When Jeremy Northam signed on to do a Robert Altman movie, he didn't expect to end up behind a piano, tickling the keys and singing romantic ballads in his distinctively plummy baritone voice.

"I was bloody terrified," the 41-year-old actor says. But he realizes now how
pivotal the character he portrays is to the world of class and privilege that
Altman depicts in his critically acclaimed new movie, Gosford Park.

Northam found himself playing a real-life character -- onetime British
matinee idol Ivor Novello -- in Altman's pungent examination of a weekend
of skullduggery and murder at an English country house in 1932. Novello was
not only an enormously popular actor of the day -- he starred in Alfred
Hitchcock's first movie, The Lodger -- but also a gifted playwright and
Composer who was always ready to perform his own songs.

Gosford Park depicts the rigid class structure of that era, contrasting
The upper-crust snobbery of the hosts and guests at this country weekend with
The completely different servant culture existing downstairs. But Altman decided to bring Novello onto the scene because he didn't really represent either class.

"It's clear in the film that he's used as a device," Northam says. "I think
he was of interest to Robert because he's someone who exists between the
two worlds of upstairs and downstairs life. His presence is sort of suffered by the upstairs people, while he's lorded over by the downstairs people. Robert wanted to bring music into the film, but he also wanted to provide this unspoken commentary on both the conflict and interaction between these two worlds of upstairs and downstairs."

Because Northam is British, he's aware of just how big a star Novello, who
died in 1951, was in his heyday. One of Novello's songs -- the plaintive
First World War ballad, Keep the Home Fires Burning -- continues to be regarded by many as an unofficial British anthem. Which means that even if Novello was not of quite the right class, he would be considered a real catch by his blueblood hosts.

"It would be sort of like having Frank Sinatra come into your house and
sit down and sing at the piano. It would be an extraordinary thing. He was a
huge star."

What's more, all the songs which Northam warbles from the drawing room
at Gosford Park were actually written by Novello.

"We had a bit of a problem trying to get songs that were absolutely
historically right for 1932," he says. He hopes that purists won't object
to the fact that some of the music used comes from Novello's later musicals. "The most important thing, I think, was to find songs that had some kind of connection with the narrative and some kind of place in the setting.

Northam made his first big impact on North American audiences with the
1995 The Net, in which he plays a shady character who enters besieged heroine Sandra Bullock's life, and Jane Austen's Emma, in which he plays the courtly gentleman who captures Gwyneth Paltrow's heart. He's always been comfortable in period items -- recently he won critical praise for his performances as Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl and as a dedicated barrister in The Winslow Boy -- but he can also do tough contemporary roles. In April, he opens in Enigma, portraying a ruthless Second World War intelligence officer.

But for Northam, Gosford Park has particular resonance -- not simply
because he was anxious to work for a legendary Hollywood maverick like Altman but because of his own family background.

"I suppose you could say I'm very middle-class. But if you go back a
generation, you'll find that my dad comes from a very working-class
background. He was a scholarship kid who got a scholarship to a good school and went on to university. I think his upbringing was horrible and academia was his escape. My mother came from a much more middle-class background."

Both of Northam's parents became professors at Cambridge University,
and like the character he portrays in Gosford Park he doesn't feel locked in by a rigid class structure.

"I don't know how you define these things. I'm always very aware in
England that the way you speak is often taken as one of the things that could lead to speculation about where you're from or who you are."

He also knows that he sounds rather upper-class. People always assume
he's the product of an exclusive school like Eton. "But I'm not. People always
think I'm a Conservative voter, which I'm not."

Still, Northam has little patience with Americans who deny the
existence of a class system in the U.S. "I say: Doesn't it exist here? Of course it does but in a different form. In the end really the same things define class here as anywhere else. It comes down to money."

So what about the world as depicted in Gosford Park? "It's a narrow,
nasty, mean-spirited world." But it's also a world occasionally redeemed by "little acts of kindness And honour and generosity."

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