Leslie Howard – The perfect Englishman (1962)
Leslie Howard – The perfect Englishman
“I am,” said Leslie Howard, “one of those unfortunate people to whom any kind of public appearance is an embarrassment, for whom to have to perform before my fellow men is a misery… From the moment when, offered accidentally and accepted economically, I got my first job on the stage and sheepishly daubed my face with grease paint, I had the inner conviction that this was the most embarrassing occupation in the world.”
This attitude may have something of a pose, but it is true that Howard was vague, forgetful, shy–and somehow extremely charming. He had the great virtue of being unserious about himself, and in the thirties, when Hollywood was host to scores of English actors whose elegant enunciations of the language were much prized, Howard was the most interesting of a type. His style was ideally suited to movie acting. Even as a stage actor he had demonstrated the knack of infusing each new part with his own personality.
Brooks Atkinson wrote, at the time of Howard’s stage triumph in The Petrified Forest: “His style of playing is such a lucid expression of his light slender buoyant personal appearance that I confess I am unable to tell how his acting of Alan Squier differs from his acting of Peter Standish in Berkeley Square or Tom Collier in The Animal Kingdom. In my mind all those parts are permanently stamped in the image of Mr. Howard’s limpid personality.”
What was most clear in Howard’s work was that he was a shy romantic, an uninsistent cavalier. He was extremely myopic, so his gaze seemed always be fixed on some far horizon rather than on the mundane present. Hence the performances for which he is best remembered: Alan Squier; Ashley in Gone With the Wind (of which he said, “Terrible lot of nonsense–heaven help me if I read the book”); the violinist in Intermezzo; even the visionary airplane designer in his last film, Spitfire. He was par excellence the dreamer, and his death in 1943, in a commercial plane shot down by Nazi raiders, was an appropriate one. He had been on an unimportant wartime mission, but one which represented the best contribution an actor could make to a cause in which he deeply believed and for which he had willingly, quixotically made sacrifices–including, finally, his life.
(The Stars by Richard Schickel – New York, Bonanza Books, 1962, p. 150)