Wednesday, May 27, 2009

George Sanders: A Scoundrel for All Seasons


Egomaniac. Heel. Rotter. Villain. Scoundrel. George Sanders has been called all of these and then some, and he took no offense. As a matter of fact, his autobiography is called Memoirs of a Professional Cad. Never was there a more decadent, delicious, deliberate bad egg in all filmdom than George Sanders. His voice, a deep, silky British accent, would carry lusciously to the ear, any number of cynacisms and indignities to any target he chose. Male, female, rich or poor, his verbal affronts knew no bounds. Oh but his verbal assaults were always carried out with style. His characters were always impeccably dressed, always slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) menacing, snobbish with a droll wit. These intrinsic elements of his persona were used to peak perfection in his portrayal of acid tongued critic Addison DeWitt in the film masterpiece All About Eve.

Sanders was born in Russia in 1906 to English parents. The family escaped to England in 1917 during the Russian Revolution. Entering the American cinema in the mid 1930's, Sanders didn't hit his stride until 1940 when Alfred Hitchcock cast him as the obnoxious and despicable Jack Favell in his classic Rebecca. Hitchcock used him again that same year in Foreign Correspondant. Then a string of Nazis and other nasty nellies followed including an unrecognizable turn as a red headed pirate (?) in the Tyrone Power swashbuckler The Black Swan (1942). Eventually Sanders began to find his groove, as an incomparable heel in Summer Storm (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Fan (1949). He was also an incorrigible King Charles II in the historical bed hopper Forever Amber (1947).

Then in 1950 came his pinnacle role, the one for which he is most closely identified, Addison DeWitt. For his performance as the theater critic with the poison pen, Sanders won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. Among so many grand personalities and egos, he more than held his own, introducing Marilyn Monroe's buxom sexpot character, Miss Caswell, as "a graduate of the Copacabana School of Dramatic Art." Classic Sanders.

Of course there were his many marriages, including one to super celeb Zsa Zsa Gabor and later to Gabor's sister, Magda, but all ended in divorce. As Sanders aged, he went into decline. Plagued with health problems and fits of rage, he became weary of life itself. Finally in April 1972, he was found dead in a hotel room in Barcelona, Spain. Also found, five empty bottles of Nembutal and an infamous suicide note, which read: "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck." The urbane cynic who sneered in the face of convention remained unrepentant to the very end.

16 comments:

  1. This is a GREAT post! George Sanders was SO amazing!

    (Although, as I've said many times...I'll never forgive him for "killing" Tyrone Power...well, he pretty much did!)

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  2. Brilliant piece. Was there anyone more unctuous than Sanders? He was also a cad in The Ghost & Mrs Muir although in this one I failed to see how he attracted the likes Gene Tierney. He must have made an indelible impression on Hitchcock because so many of his villains were in the same mold. However they were as rarely as odious.

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    1. All of George Sanders' marriages ended in divorce. His third wife Benita Hume died while they were married and this almost destroyed him.
      Also, Gene Tierney was attracted to George enought to have an affair with him in real life. There has never been a man as brillant, talented, handsome and sexy as George Henry Sanders.

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  3. Fantastic post Rupert. George was a great Villian. I can't see him as a real nice guy in a movie. Well, I saw that someone already said the Tyrone Power thing so I won't go there. lol. I never heard his whole note before, I just heard the bored part. You always give me something that I never knew. I always thought I knew a great deal about the classics but you always come up with at least one thing I hadn't heard before.

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  4. Rupert, Thanks for posting Sanders' suicide note.. it's so...so Sanders. I adored his "cad" performances in both "All About Eve" and "Rebecca." Recently I saw one of the films from his "The Saint" series, and found him also quite appealing in that detective/international playboy role, too.

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  5. Got to love this fella... he could charm the birds from the trees and I am sure he could make a virgin swear!!! One of his best evil roles was in Manhunt which starred Rupert's earlier heroine Joan Bennett. But you have to remember he was also a dashing hero in the early Saint movies too. He was equally adept at both sides of chivarly and chicanery. And for those of you who love The Falcon series, which I do then he also starred as a hero in this, which was then taken over by his real life brother Tom Conway who was also an athletic charmer of derring do, and like George met a pretty tragic end at the bottom of a bottle. I presume their lives were ruled by their genes or that English penchant for self-destruction by a certain type of upper class male. Maybe too much public school, tally ho and all that!!! Perhaps on some level old George thought he was Dorian Gray. At least half the male population could use an injection of his suave!!! And the femals probably wnat us to take the other half while we are at it...

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  6. SariQuiteContraryMay 28, 2009 at 8:34 PM

    I am a George Sanders fan. I love to hear him speak. I was not aware of his suicide..or the note. What a guy....difficult and cynical to the end. It is only fitting of such a character.

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  7. Enjoyed your posting! I thought he was great in All About Eve and Rebecca - not sure if I've seen him in much else, but I'd like to.

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  8. I'd forgotten he was in Rebecca (must see that one again). For me, though, he'll always be Addison deWitt in All About Eve.

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  9. Ahh, thanks for this.

    I, too, am a huge fan of George Sanders. I was surprised to learn that he and his brother, the actor Tom Conway, were born in Russia and were White refugees. Their impeccable English-ness seems all the more perfect in light of the fact that it was their second language.

    I will watch anything he does. That's why Ivanhoe was such a wonderful surprise to me: I'd been avoiding it for years (I still have trouble watching Robert Taylor because of HUAC), but here's George playing what in my mind is the most interesting character, completely troubled by inner conflict.

    Thanks, again, Rupert for this post.

    John

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  10. Again, another fabulous piece. I am hard pressed to think of an actor whose roles are quite so deliciously fun to hate as Sanders'!
    :)

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  11. Hugely underated actor. There aren't many who can boast so many classics and minor classics on their CV. I grew up loving him in the Saint and Falcon films.

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  12. I love George Sanders (especially his detective roles). He played a delicious cad, too. What would Rebecca be without his sliminess, let alone All About Eve's Addison.

    Thought I read somewhere that he predicted his own death. Can't remember who he told, but said he would commit suicide (which he did).

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  13. Brian Aherne wrote an ineresting bio on Sanders. It was such a tragic work. At the book's end, Aherne states how Sanders' suicide was an act of selfishness, which it was.

    A marvelous actor who left behind such a magnificent body of work.

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    1. No, it wasn't. He had several strokes and was becoming unable to work. Also, he feared he was suffering from dementia and he knew what his family went through with his mother's dementia. He knew his widowed sister, his only living relative, would have to care for him Not wanting to burden her he took his own life. He sent her a letter, which is never mentioned, in which he told her "Don't be sad, I am only anticipating the inevitable by a few years. His bored note was done to perpetuate his screen image.

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  14. Thank you for your post on George Sanders. But may I respectfully disagree with Aherne on Sanders' suicide being selfish. When the circumstances surrounding the suicide are considered, including the agonizing death of his beloved wife, Benita, from bone cancer as well as all those who knew of both his emotional and physical state, the suicide was predictable. The second, less well-known note to his sister was not about boredom, but facing the inevitable. Following the two strokes and with a declining quality of life (he could no longer even play his piano), knowing that his sister had spent many years caring for their parents, and not wanting anyone to bear the burden of his care perhaps Sanders felt this was the best and least selfish way to his life.

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