It's debatable whether Liam Neeson is better known for his acting or his way with beautiful women. But now, with his recent success on Broadway and his lead role in Schindler's List, GEORGINA HOWELL finds he's also winning the hearts of Hollywood
Sittings Editor: Hamish Bowles
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark
When Steven Spielberg chose Liam Neeson to play Oskar Schindler in his all‑important new film, Schindler’s List, he told him, "I'm going to give you the best introduction in a movie that any actor ever had." And he has.
In the establishing shots, you watch, from the back, a tall man dressing for dinner with meticulous care. You see a hand reaching for a pair of gold cufflinks. An enamel swastika is pinned to a satin lapel. Cut to a club where the maitre d' approaches eagerly and leads him to a table. As the camera swings around for the first time, revealing the handsome face of Oskar Schindler, he is smiling knowingly at the available woman at the next table.
Liam Neeson emerges from the elevator of the Westbury Hotel in Dublin at eleven in the morning, yawning and rubbing the back of his neck. He is, as they say in Ireland, a fine big handsome fella, six feet four, with a nose broken in his boxing days. He looks round, putting his jacket on over a soft old blue cotton shirt. He comes over, and as he gets closer you see the horn‑rimmed spectacles, which give him a gentler, needier air. He hesitates a moment, looming shyly over the sofa, then takes the jacket off again, screws it into a ball and sits on it. He draws a waitress to him from 500 feet away by sheer physical magnetism and addresses her gently in a broad Belfast accent and the rich warm tones Spielberg describes as his "cigarettes‑and‑cognac voice."
"Bring us a big pot of coffee, would you, darlin', and could you ever lay your hand on a jug of real orange juice and lots of ice, would you?" He bestows the same appreciative smile on her as he did on the woman in the movie, and with as palpable an effect.
Schindler's List, the film of Thomas Keneally's 1982 Booker Prize‑winning novel about the real‑life industrialist whose factory took in and saved more than 1,000 Jews in Nazi‑occupied Poland, is intended to be a turning point in the careers of both the director and the actor. This film, Hollywood has been saying, means more to Spielberg than any of his others, including the blockbuster Jurassic Park. The master of special effects and pure entertainment has moved into a gritty mode of cinema verité to close the gap between fiction and documentary. Vast in its emotional reverberations, politically dynamic in its timing, its release deftly timed for the Oscar nominations, the film could be the succès d'estime that Spielberg craves and could put Neeson on the A‑list, turning the 41‑year‑old actor into a household name.
"I don't know about that," he says. "Look, it's black‑and‑white, it's three hours long, it's set against the Holocaust, and I play a guy with a German accent." He gives a muffled laugh. Pain and humor appear together on his face. "It's not going to turn me into Kevin Costner!"
For Spielberg, Neeson was the ultimate choice for the flamboyant and enigmatic Schindler. No easily decodable hero, he was a randy bon viveur and drinker; a black marketer, war profiteer, and gambler; a Catholic playboy; and above all, irresistible to women. At least as far as the last two characteristics, Neeson fit the role like a glove.
A movie director told me a story to illustrate Neeson's seductive powers. It could just as well have been a tribute to Schindler's. "I gave a party in L.A. recently, and l invited Liam. A rather well‑known society hostess came up to me and asked, 'Where's Liam Neeson? I simply can't imagine what women see in him.' So I introduced them. Well, it didn't take him long. A couple of days later, a friend of mine spotted her in the West Beach Café in a passionate embrace with him."
Neeson's name has been linked ‑in the obstinate press cliché he has come to detest‑ with the names of some of the most interesting or beautiful women of his generation: Barbra Streisand, Sinéad O'Connor, Helen Mirren, Julia Roberts, Brooke Shields. And since their triumph on Broadway together early this year in Eugene O'Neill's classic Anna Christie, with Natasha Richardson, the glorious daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and the late Tony Richardson.
Neeson gets restless when he sees these names in print. "The women I've been involved with I've loved dearly, but when it comes down to it ‑it's like, where have 22 years of acting gone?" He particularly hates for his mother to read "that stuff." The widowed Kitty Neeson, a retired school cook, still lives in Ballymena, county Antrim, a staunch Catholic in a Protestant stronghold. When the children were young, she saw to it that they went to mass every Sunday and observed the holy days of obligation. His three sisters, Elizabeth, Bernadette, and Rosaleen, are all happily married. He is the uncle of ten children. When I ask what we should do about a large and riotous family who come to sit near us, causing the volume gauge on the tape recorder to hit six, he suggests, "We could get some gaffer tape and gag them."
"Should we ask them to move?"
"Aah, you can't. Not with kids. We'll move."
At the far end of the lobby, he drinks his coffee and looks worried.
"I don't have a line about Natasha. Just that I'm very much in love, and I love it. I love her. Please say that. Because we're very much together and very open about it.... I think it coincides with a certain time in your life." He's never been married. "Men acquire a sense of who they are emotionally at this age, you know? Hopefully they get over counting the number of women they lay."
Because of Natasha, who is in the city making an Irish movie, Widow's Peak, for director John Irvin, Liam Neeson is back in Dublin. It's as if a decade hadn't passed since he was the brightest of the bright new talents at the legendary Abbey Theatre down the road. He has been showing Natasha his town, beginning at Gallagher's, ending up in the Bailey and Davy Byrne's, where Brendan Behan once hung out and where, as another Irishman told me, "If you're broke, you're a hero!" He keeps running into old friends, like Johnny Murphy, the saxophonist from The Commitments, who greet him as though they saw him yesterday. But things have changed. Grafton Street used to be full of runaway boys trying to pickup a living. "They'd come up to you three at a time, one with a jacket over his arms and try to sell it to you. And while you were saying no and he’d be telling you to feel the cloth, the other two would be going through your pockets and you'd never feel a thing."
The self‑imposed distance that makes him say "I have no men friends in LA.," and the reserve that people can feel around him when he's working can be attributed to his roots as a conspicuous Catholic in Ian Paisley's hometown. It is also a by‑product of his focus and concentration on his work. The classical grounding he had with the Abbey Theatre, which some say provides the best training in the world, has left him with a quiet confidence about himself as an actor. He does not need to confuse theatrical collaboration with socializing, and the suggestion that he might need to stay "in role" 24hours a day makes him smile a little. In the unique rural tradition of the Irish theater, he used to tour the drama festival circuit, a different gig in a different town each day, playing the classics to audiences of 40 farmers a night‑"and then going to the pub and debating the play with those same farmers until two in the morning."
He took part in his first play at sixteen, not because he wanted to be an actor, but, characteristically, because he had an interest in the female lead. He was a boxer, then a forklift operator in a brewery, a background that secured him his first important role with the Lyric Players' Theatre in Belfast, playing "Big Jim" Larkin, the founder of the Irish labor movement, in The Risen, a play about the Troubles of 1912. His second break occurred when movie director John Boorman saw him playing Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and cast him as Sir Gawain in Excalibur.
"And that was great because for the first time it gave me a few extra shillings. In those days the English pound was weak against the American dollar, and you had a lot of miniseries being made in England. And when the work dried up in London, I got a Miami Vice episode that got me a work visa ‑and I thought, fuck it, just go out there! Go where the work is. And I didn't want to be a disgruntled Irish actor kickin' myself at the age of 50 and saying, 'Oh, shit! When I was 34, I threw away my chances of going to L.A."'
He went. But the very mention of L.A. casts a gloom over the pugnacious features. "When I got to Hollywood, this fat man with a cigar asked what I'd done, and I said I'd got some good reviews in Of Mice and Men. And he took the cigar out of his mouth and said, 'You played a mouse?"
Neeson has never got used to the way actors in L.A. go into stage rehearsal with their beepers on in case the big one comes up, in case they're wanted for a movie audition. He's angry that all those years with the Abbey Theatre, the best theater in the world, count for nothing by the swimming pools of L.A. And this blue‑collar bruiser who reads Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats in his hotel rooms has been an equally hard one for Hollywood to figure. In a score of violent movies, he has played an I.R.A. hit man, a tramp, a boxer, a porn moviemaker, a deformed scientist, and assorted criminals. The critical acclaim he's won in some of these films failed to register him indelibly in the mind of America and appears to have deepened his cynicism.
"Was it Orson Welles said Hollywood's like a rocking chair? You get into it, and you get up again, and 40 years have passed. I've been knockin' around, you know?" He gives his muffled laugh. "Who am I to complain?" He takes off his spectacles and puts them on the table, a gesture of despair. "Hollywood is about the dollar, and it stays consistent to that. You can be a mediocre actor or a good actor; if you are in a hit film, you will get the scripts. Sure. I'm too long in the business to believe the great scripts will come flying in because of Schindler. OK, say it happens. Say the movie and I are critically successful and the big one comes up ‑they will go with Richard Gere!"
An Irish director told me he regards Neeson's West Coast pessimism as a form of loyalty to his background. "It's real, and it's very Irish. It's saying how can you, as an intelligent person from a country that's a pit of emotion and politics, surrender all that and deliver yourself up to a cloud of bullshit? Most Irishmen and Brits take the line, with each other at least, 'No shagging way will I hang round Hollywood!' " But as one friend says, "He talks about L.A. being all politics and bullshit. But he's up there. I've seen him at premieres walking up the red carpet in sunglasses and an Armani jacket, with a lady on his arm, doing the dance."
Ironically, it was a stage role that brought him what should be his breakthrough film. In Anna Christie, as Mat Burke, the seaman stoker with a raw passion for a girl he discovers to be a prostitute, he raised the temperature of Manhattan audiences to furnace level, sold every seat, and was nominated for a Tony. Natasha Richardson, who had talked the self‑deprecating Neeson into attempting the play, was left somewhat breathless by their tour de force. "He knew all his lines by the first day of rehearsal," she said at the time. "Liam is a star and has been one for some time. People are just slow to catch on. " She is somewhat more reticent about her costar now that she is officially separated from her husband of two years, Robert Fox.
Spielberg, who was hanging fire over his choice for Schindler, brought his wife, Kate Capshaw, and her mother back to the actor's dressing room after the performance. Seeing that Kate's mother was still mopping her eyes after the final scene, Neeson gave her a bear hug that lifted her right off her feet. Going home in the car, Kate told her husband, "You know, that was just what Oskar Schindler would have done." Within a week, the part was Neeson's.
He finished the play on a Sunday and flew to Poland on Monday. At 6:00 A.M. on Wednesday, still a little dazed, he was standing ankle‑deep in snow at Auschwitz, about to receive an emotional kick start that would project him into Schindler's state of mind.
"There in front of me were those familiar bleak rows of huts but also all the usual clutter, the caravans and trailers and cables. I knew I was standing in front or a sacred monument, but at the same time, in my jetlagged state, it was just another location." One of the coproducers, Branko Lustig, was standing beside him. "He said to me, 'Horrible, isn't it?' I told him, 'I suppose. But somehow I don't feel it.' And Branko took off his glove without a word, unbuttoned his cuff, and pulled up his sleeve ‑and there it was. The tattooed number. He said, 'I was born here, in Auschwitz.' And for me the connection was made."
The violence in the movie happens without passion, he says, which makes it all the more frightening. "The Nazis put this final solution into action with the same expertise it takes to make a Mercedes‑Benz. They went to murder people with clipboards and notes and numbers and bureaucracy."
Neeson, known to be a movie "loner," generally likes to go back to his room after a day's shooting, lock the door, and read a book. But he broke these habits to hang out with the cast and crew. "Schindler would have done it. I also felt every minute of making that film was precious, because, irrespective of what it does at the box office, it's going to be up there as a sincerely felt piece of work very closely based on something that actually happened and people who actually existed."
The only bone of contention he had with the director, he says, was that Spielberg wanted him to put on weight for Schindler.
"Schindler was a big, robust man who looked 15, 20 years older than his age, the way people did in the forties. Doing eight shows a week in Anna Christie had left me a little lean. Steven gave me some of that weight‑gain stuff bodybuilders use. Well, it made me sick. And I thought if I succeeded, they were only going to say, 'Jesus! That guy Neeson's put on weight!' It wouldn't necessarily marry me to the part, that was my argument. Well.. "‑he gives me an amused sideways look‑"it worked out, you know what I mean?"
Vanity? An Irish director I talked to said no. "It's a European attitude. It's like, 'I'm an actor. I don't need props to do my job.' " In the same way, he was skeptical of the slight German accent required for the part. "You have to be careful you don't end up acting the accent."
"You can take all that with several large grains of salt" says John Irvin, who directed Neeson in the 1989 movie Next of Kin. "He's discriminating, intelligent, and shrewd. But he's wary‑like a boxer looking over his gloves, waiting for an opening. He is a long‑distance runner with a well‑built, interesting career. He talks about Cruise and Gere ‑but can you imagine Tom Cruise being offered Schindler?"
He's likely to win as much critical acclaim for Schindler's List as for Anna Christie, but there's no mistaking the longing in Neeson's voice when he talks about recent mainstream hits like The Fugitive. "Wonderful script, wonderful piece of work by Harrison and Tommy Lee Jones. I would have loved ... a beautifully crafted film!" He still hasn't landed that major role and, God, he's tried. He makes sure he reads every script that's being made into a movie, "even the ones I'm not up for and wouldn't be right for.
"So I've developed an intuitive sense: This is the usual schlock, right, there's a car chase, yep, he did it. There's no way I want to be involved in most of them, but I recognize a movie that's going to be a hit. I'm right about seven times out of ten."
He says that he will probably move into his Manhattan apartment. This doesn't surprise one New York friend. "He has revitalized himself as an actor in Anna Christie. They told him he was a great actor again. No one's said that to him since the Abbey Theatre. There's also the fact that Natasha loves New York."
But he will still play Hollywood politics, still work at it. He keeps track over the years of the movies he wants, like the currently becalmed Neil Jordan script about Michael Collins, the charismatic founder of the idealistic Irish Republican Brotherhood. He likes to quote Henry Fonda, "Screen acting is learning to wait."
"You know, I ran into Richard Harris the other day, God bless his socks! I so admire him. The stories about what he did to get Camelot! He would dress up as a waiter and go to the table where the head of the studio was sitting and present him a note on a silver dish, and the note would say, 'I'm your King Arthur!"' He can't help laughing. In the 1967 movie, Richard Harris finally got to play opposite Natasha's mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as Queen Guinevere. "Cut to our meeting 30 years later. He told me he was begging and cajoling Warner Brothers to give him a screen test for their new movie. No. They wanted Paul Newman. No. They wanted Gene Hackman. He eventually got the screen test ‑and he just blew them away and got the part. Through sheer belligerence. That process, for Richard and for me, is never going to stop. And if it's between me and Kevin Costner, it's going to be Costner, and Schindler's List isn't going to change that."
He's not ashamed to let the hunger show. He sufficiently overcame his reservations about kowtowing to turn up for a reading for Schindler's List in costume ‑a forties suit, a trilby, a haircut, the whole thing. But it was that hug he gave Kate Capshaw's mother that clinched it, just as it has always been women that befriended him, waiting like guardian angels at the turning points of his life: his three brisk sisters, smartening him up for interviews and auditions; the schoolgirl lead, baiting him to take his first stage role at sixteen; the sophisticated, experienced actresses, coaching him in sexual politics, teaching him to reveal his more vulnerable, gentler side; Natasha Richardson, persuading him to go back to the classics and try his luck on Broadway. But isn't it women always?