Thursday, December 6, 2001
When George Harrison died of cancer last week at the age of 58, many recounted his guitar playing for The Beatles, his concert for the poor of Bangladesh, his stint as a Traveling Wilbury and his accomplishments as a solo artist. Unlike his bandmates in the Fab Four, Harrison was somewhat leery of the spotlight and often spent more time producing recordings for other performers like Badfinger and Cheech and Chong. Because much of this work was anonymous (for collaborating with the aforementioned stoner comedians, he's credited as "R. Producer"), the breadth of Harrison's legacy is often difficult to determine.
This is especially true of his contributions to film. Of all The Beatles, Harrison was the most active movie buff and was willing to put his money where his heart was. Harrison's tunes can be heard in "House Calls" and "Fandango," and he also scored the 1968 flick "Wonderwall." Like the rest of his Liverpool chums, Harrison appeared in five Beatles movies and in some concert films like "Eric Clapton and His Rolling Hotel." Harrison's onscreen career consisted of little more than a series of cameos, where he usually played himself. This may have been regrettable because Richard Lester, who directed the Fab Four in "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help," found "The Quiet Beatle" to be the best actor of the bunch.
Unlike Ringo Starr or Sir Paul McCartney, Harrison never played a lead role outside of the band and didn't try his hand at writing a screenplay as McCartney had done with "Give My Regards to Broadstreet." True to form, most of Harrison's movie making was hidden in the shadows.
The Python picture
Harrison's most lasting work as a filmmaker was the formation of his British-based company HandMade Films. Through HandMade, he was able to finance movies that might never have seen the light of the screen. It's doubtful that Harrison was the type of domineering producer that David O. Selznick or Darryl Zanuck were. He was often merely listed as an "Executive Producer" and sometimes backed projects merely because he wanted to see them on the screen. Nonetheless, he sometimes provided songs for and appeared in HandMade Films, and the company had a distinctly quirky product.
He became a movie mogul in the late 1970s after becoming close friends with Eric Idle of "Monty Python's Flying Circus." The two met when the comic was promoting the film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in Los Angeles, and for both the encounter was of mutual admiration. When he was breaking up with the band that gave him fame, Harrison felt dejected and lamented "The only thing worth getting up for is 'Monty Python's Flying Circus.'" Harrison liked the troupe so much that when Idle made a wickedly funny TV parody of the Fab Four called "The Rutles," he not only approved but he contributed to the songs and even played a reporter.
Hot off the success of their microbudgeted (less than $100,000) "Holy Grail," the Pythons tried to find backing for "Monty Python's The Life of Brian" which followed Graham Chapman as a contemporary of Jesus whom some religious fanatics mistake for the Messiah. Still controversial 22 years after its release, the comedy gave its initial backer, EMI, cold feet. After reading the script, Harrison put up 2 million pounds of his own money and can be seen delivering one line in the finished film.
The movie, which is arguably the best the Pythons made, is often hysterically funny and insightful because it pokes fun not at Jesus (who only appears in a short, dignified sequence near the beginning) but at the irrational and sometimes dangerous manner that human beings try to deal with the divine. Much of the subsequent output of HandMade Films followed in the same mold. Although some of the approximately 26 movies that Harrison backed were set in the United States, like "Five Corners," "Checking Out" and "Powwow Highway," most were British. Several of which, "Privates on Parade," "The Missionary," "Nuns on the Run" and "A Private Function," were vehicles for Monty Python members like John Cleese or Michael Palin.
The most popular of the lot was 1981's "Time Bandits." Directed by Python animation specialist Terry Gilliam (who later went on to make "Brazil" and "The Fisher King"), the imaginative fantasy concerned a group of dwarves who steal a map from the Supreme Being (nicely played by Ralph Richardson) so that they can plunder treasures through the ages. The movie proved that the off-center vision of Gilliam and the other Pythons (it also starred Palin and Cleese) could be as popular as that of George Lucas.
The former Beatle did break the mold on occasion. Harrison also backed the darker comedies of Bruce Robinson like "Withnail & I" and "How to Get Ahead in Advertising" where the hysterically funny Richard E. Grant managed to make obnoxious behavior a virtue.
HandMade got behind Nicholas Roeg's eerie "Track 29" and Neil Jordan's classic "Mona Lisa." The latter film earned Bob Hoskins his first Oscar nomination as a newly released former convict who has the seemingly thankless task of driving around a classy hooker. The gritty crime drama established Jordan, who later directed "The Crying Game" and "The End of the Affair," as a major talent. Hoskins has expressed gratitude for Harrison's willingness to back seemingly uncommercial projects by proudly stating that Harrison would make a movie "written on a candy wrapper" if he liked it.
If Harrison saw talent in filmmakers that other producers later regretted ignoring, he also made his share of blunders. His most infamous production was 1986's "Shanghai Surprise." Reviled by critics and avoided by the public, the comedy misfire paired Madonna and Sean Penn. The two, who were married at the time, were much more entertaining in the tabloids than they were onscreen.
Harrison eventually sold HandMade at a loss to Paragon Entertainment in 1994. His last flicks (1990's "Nuns on the Run" and "Cold Dog Soup") couldn't make up for flops like "Shanghai Surprise." Shortly afterward, he wound up suing his business partner Denis O'Brien for breach of contract. O'Brien had shared executive producing credit for all of the films, and Harrison claimed his former partner had swindled him out $20 million. Harrison later won roughly half of the claim from the court, but the financial hits he took from the suit and the failed films were probably the reason the normally publicity-shy musician agreed to participate in the "Beatles Anthology" in 1995. While his involvement in that venture restored his fortune, he never backed another film again.
Just as some of Harrison's albums like "Somewhere in England" disappointed, he is missed because he left the world with gems like "All Things Must Pass" and "Cloud Nine." Similarly, the subsequent work of Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan demonstrates that gamblers like Harrison are often necessary to make such careers possible. There was something in the way Harrison contributed to their movies, and for that, both film and movies buffs should rejoice.