Max von Sydow honored with wide-ranging BAM retrospective

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It’s a fool’s game to name the “best” or “greatest” in any artistic endeavor, but Max von Sydow certainly must be counted among the top actors in the history of movies for the scope and quality of the work he’s done over the past 60 years.

I can’t think of another star who has so skillfully combined work in arthouse fare and commercial film — who else can claim to have worked with Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese?

The film division of the Brooklyn Academy of Music has just launched a two-week festival of von Sydow performances and the programmers have done a great job of trying to suggest the amazing variety of work the Swedish star has done in dozens of movies since the 1950s.

Today, BAM is screening one of von Sydow’s strongest films with Bergman, the harrowing war drama “Shame” and on Saturday and Sunday the films will include the 1986 Woody Allen classic “Hannah and Her Sisters” as well as the star’s wonderfully campy performance as the villain Ming the Merciless in the 1980 “Flash Gordon.”

The 83-year-old Swedish actor conquered art house audiences here when he was still in his 20s in a series of Bergman classics including “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “The Virgin Spring.”

George Stevens introduced the actor to Hollywood with the starring role of Jesus in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” in 1965 and then the Swede nabbed another leading role in the big-budget 1966 film version of the James Michener best seller “Hawaii.”

Since then, von Sydow has made films in many countries and several languages, but most moviegoers probably remember him best for playing the title role in “The Exorcist.”

The actor has only been nominated for an Oscar twice, in 1987 for the Danish film “Pelle the Conqueror,” and last year for “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.”

BAM will screen another of my favorite von Sydow movies, the terrific Sydney Pollack espionage thriller “Three Days of the Condor,” on Dec. 6.

The Alsatian assassin in “Condor” is, technically, a “villain” — he is part of the hit squad that murders Robert Redford’s girlfriend (and co-workers) in the opening scene — but as the story proceeds, Joubert becomes more sympathetic as we see that he is just a gun-for-hire by the CIA or any other organization that will pay his fee.

We get hints of the humanity under Joubert’s surface in the opening scene when his kind eyes and warm manner make it appear that he might not enjoy the dirty work he does. Later in the film, when his contract has been fulfilled, he becomes something of a mentor to the Redford character by warning him of the dangers he faces within the CIA and then giving him a lift to the airport.

The performance has fascinated me for more than 35 years because there is so much depth and ambiguity in the way von Sydow plays a relatively small role.

As Ming, the actor had one of his rare comic roles and von Sydow is spectacularly funny, delivering the juicy Lorenzo Semple dialogue. “Flash Gordon” was a flop in 1980 — audiences then preferred their science-fiction straight up — but the movie has gathered a sizeable cult over the years for its good humor, lively performances and stunning production and costume design (the work of Fellini craftsman Danilo Donati).

But the sly, tongue in cheek tone is powered mostly by von Sydow savoring such evil Ming pronouncements as “Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.”

I hope that the Motion Picture Academy will recognize this fantastic actor with an honorary Oscar while he is still with us. Meanwhile, you can treat yourself to a very well-selected overview of his work in Brooklyn. For the complete schedule, visit www.bam.org

Joe Meyers

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