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Entering an Empire of Pain

Derek Jacobi, of 'I, Claudius' fame, found transforming into Francis Bacon an unsettling yet rewarding experience.

October 11, 1998|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A star was born when "I, Claudius" premiered on PBS in 1977. A 13-part adaptation of Robert Graves' saga of corruption in the Roman empire, the BBC series starred British actor Derek Jacobi as a stuttering, twitching boy who grows up to be emperor.

Jacobi was 37 when the series was shot and was already an acclaimed stage actor in England. He was virtually unknown to Americans, however, who were thunderstruck by his exquisitely nuanced performance.

It seemed unlikely that Jacobi would ever get a screen role as meaty as Claudius, so it's not surprising that he's devoted most of the last two decades to theater, much of it classical. A part worthy of Jacobi's talent came his way in 1994, however, when a scruffy young painter named John Maybury offered him the lead in a low-budget film about Francis Bacon.

Anyone who knows a bit about modern art knows that this is a lot for an actor to take on. Born in Dublin in 1902 to British parents, Bacon began painting in the '20s, and by the '40s had developed his signature style. Imbuing human flesh with the quality of flayed meat, Bacon's paintings are tormented evocations of loneliness, isolation and the human capacity for inflicting pain. Regarded as one the most significant artists of the 20th century, Bacon is credited with bringing the human figure back into painting at a point when it had been almost totally eclipsed by abstraction.

Alcoholic and a sadomasochist, Bacon had a rather untidy personal life. It was there, however, that Maybury found the linchpin for his film, "Love Is the Devil," which focuses on Bacon's affair with George Dyer, a petty criminal who was the subject of some of the flamboyantly homosexual artist's greatest paintings. The affair ended in 1971 with Dyer's suicide.

Amateurs obviously need not apply for the job of portraying this complex and brilliant man, but Maybury never dreamed Jacobi would take it on.

"I assumed he was way too grand for my little movie, but I sent him the screenplay anyway," the director says. "He responded that it was one of the best screenplays he'd read in years and would love to do it. Needless to say, I was thrilled."

Dining on the patio of a West Hollywood hotel, Jacobi, 59, comes across as elegant and self-effacing to a fault. Having recently sat enraptured through the entirety of "I, Claudius," a reporter tells him she'd knight him herself if Queen Elizabeth II hadn't already done it. He threatens to blush.

Jacobi's modesty demands that he change the subject, so he says, "When I met John, my instinct told me he was totally on top of his subject. John's a painter himself, so he knew what he was doing, and he wrote a very literate, intelligently structured script."

The film is essentially a chronicle of the disintegration of Dyer, who's played by Daniel Craig in his first major role. Maybury recalls that "Daniel was extremely intimidated when he heard that Sir Derek Jacobi would be playing Bacon--in fact, I had to beg him to take the part."

"It's true I was nervous, but thank goodness John persuaded me to do it," says Craig, who's currently in Africa shooting Hugh Hudson's "I Dream of Africa" with Kim Basinger. "It's always a danger to meet your heroes, but Derek was fantastic. He threw himself into it completely and was an absolute sweetheart."

Having lined up his cast, Maybury then had to contend with some self-appointed keepers of Bacon's flame who were determined to derail the film.

"The most problematic people were those who've made careers off their connection with Bacon," says Maybury, whose film went into development two years after Bacon's death in 1992. "John Edwards [Bacon's sole heir] gave his full support, but the Marlborough Gallery [the former executors of Bacon's estate] forbade us to show any of his paintings. Edwards eventually took the estate out of Marlborough's hands because they were being destructive on several fronts. [Critic] David Sylvester also said that if I used one word from some interviews he'd done with Bacon that he'd sue me off the planet."

These constraints were matched by constraints Maybury imposed on himself.

"There was no point in doing a bio-pic because there are documentaries on Bacon," he says. "Nor did I want to make a dodgy film about painting. I focused on the relationship with Dyer because the paintings of George are my favorite. George Dyer is like Manet's 'Olympia.' He's one of the great icons of 20th century art, yet it's as if he never existed. He has no family I'm aware of, and very little is known about him."

Maybury was free to take poetic license with his characterization of the mysterious Dyer, but such was not the case with Bacon. The subject of three biographies and several documentaries, Bacon was an intensely social man, and Maybury discovered an endless parade of people who'd crossed paths with the artist and had an anecdote to tell.

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