LONDON — Having stacked up more than five decades of distinguished credits on stage and screen, Peter Ustinov certainly qualifies as an elder statesman among British actors. Yet his latest film role, that of an eccentric tea plantation owner during the British Raj in India in "Stiff Upper Lips," intrigued him exactly because, he says, "I've never played that kind of character before. I've never played an Englishman."
What, never? Well, hardly ever.
Long ago he played the Prince of Wales in "Beau Brummell" (1954), but in reviewing his long filmography, this man we think of as British an actor as Alec Guinness or Laurence Olivier has surprisingly played mostly non-British parts--the Roman Nero in "Quo Vadis?," the Belgian Hercule Poirot in "Death on the Nile" and other Poirot features, plus a slew of films in which he was called upon to be Italian, French, Bavarian or something closer to his own ethnic background, Slavic.
At 78, he's mentally spry but physically more fragile than he used to be. Carefully easing himself into an armchair in his suite at the Berkeley, a discreetly classic London hotel, he politely answers questions about his long, accomplished life. He and his wife have just returned from a very British pastime, the finals at Wimbledon, but they are soon to leave for the place they call home, the countryside outside Geneva.
It is suggested that with his shock of white hair he looks more English now than before. "Everyone at my age can look English," Ustinov ripostes in his well-spoken voice full of well-spoken words.
So "Stiff Upper Lips' " Uncle Horace, replete with deep-seated class prejudices and randy desires, provided a welcome change of pace for the actor. It was also a chance to counter the Merchant Ivory image of staid Olde England--and have a few good laughs along the way. He believes that the Victorians constructed a kind of reformed, false Englishman. The film opened in Los Angeles on Friday.
"The British originally were impulsive, romantic and disreputable," he says, words that could describe Uncle Horace. "The Industrial Revolution and Queen Victoria's personal attitude toward the things she found not amusing perverted the whole sense of what England was. I think England is much closer to Shakespeare than Walter Scott."
Gary Sinyor, director and co-writer of "Lips," parodies those stuffy British period pieces that have gained favor with American audiences. Having been weaned on the British fare of Masterpiece Theatre or films such as "A Room With a View," "Passage to India" and "Howard's End," American audiences may be surprised by the playfulness of 'Lips.'
The film is set in 1908 when the "veddy" proper Aunt Agnes (Prunella Scales) wants desperately to marry off her niece Emily (Georgina Cates). The likeliest prospect is Cedric Trilling (Robert Portal), a Cambridge classmate of her nephew Edward (and Emily's brother)--thus, the right age, the right class, the right deportment. What does it matter that he is a pompous bore endlessly quoting Homer ("As the poet Homer says, 'The rosy-fingered dawn. . . .' ")? And what does it matter that Emily hates him, instead loving George, the working-class bloke?
To spark some romance, Aunt Agnes takes them first to Italy, then to India to visit Cedric's great-uncle Horace (Ustinov). Though in a supporting role, Ustinov plays Horace to the hilt; he's the quintessential British expat, a crotchety Empire functionary bullying his Indian servants and blindingly ignorant of indigenous culture.
So great is Ustinov's gift for gab that Sinyor let him improvise during shooting. "When I first met him, he kept me entertained for two hours, just talking and talking," Sinyor recalls. "The man has a brain the size of Mars! So in one scene where he's telling George how to behave like an Indian servant, I just wrote, 'Horace continues to ramble.' "
Ustinov also made up a scene, one of the funniest in the film, in which he teaches George to roll his head and sing-song, "If it be pleasing to you, I am bringing you a gin and tonic. . . ."
It's easy to see how Sinyor was captivated. Ustinov is a born raconteur. Every question sends him off on an anecdote or a recollection. In a split second he changes his voice to imitate a jowly American politician or an indignant English lady. He plays for laughs, but he insists that his purposes are fundamentally serious.
Born and raised in London, Ustinov was trained to be a British gentleman, in the Victorian sense. To escape his Russian background, his father tried to adopt a tone more British than the British and put his son in Westminster, one of the exclusive private schools where boys were expected to wear top hats and tail coats.
Young Peter grew up with a gift for mimicry, precociously copying his parent's friends in speech and manner. "I think it happened largely because I'm an only child," he observes, "and only children have to learn to amuse themselves as much as possible."