The Horse's Mouth

"I’ll show you how to understand a painting,” says the reprobate artist Gulley Jimson to his on-off lady friend Coker. “Don’t look at it. Feel it with your eyes. Feel the shapes in the flat, like patterns. Then feel it in the round. Feel all the flaws and sharp edges, the lights and the shades, the cools and the warms. Now feel the chair, the bathtub, the woman. Not any old tub or woman. But the tub of tubs and the woman of women.” Coker remains contemptuous of his work, thinking it nothing but obscene.

The Horse’s Mouth is a character study of a talented, eccentric artist, who is not only difficult, conniving, uncouth, and thoroughly disreputable, but he is also severely criticized by those who think he’s not any good. Despite the detractors, he maintains his personal vision throughout the story, lording it over all from his dilapidated houseboat moored on the Thames at London’s Chelsea.

One of Gulley’s quirks, which Alec brilliantly exploited in the screenplay, is his love of working on a large canvas, the larger the better; walls are of particular interest to him. But whatever the size of the painting, he continually modifies and changes it and, even when he has completed the work, he isn’t satisfied with the final effect, “It’s not what I meant,” he says, “not the vision I had. Why doesn’t it fit like it does in the mind?”

Alec decided that Gulley should have a distinctive voice, and the one he assumed was gruff and gravelly, perfectly defining his attitude towards people. His hair was unkempt and he created a walk that was slightly off kilter, giving the impression that his legs were beginning to let him down.

He always lived the parts he played, physically as well as psychologically. His wife, Merula, said, “Ronnie, you have no idea how glad I’ll be when you finish shooting this film. I’ve had enough of living with Gulley Jimson. Alec has become so dirty, he won’t even clean his nails.”

The first week of shooting went well for all concerned, except for Alec. At the end of the third day he was not his cheerful self. By the end of the fifth day he was really depressed. When, on the sixth day, he didn’t join us for lunch, I realized something was wrong. I asked John if he knew what was upsetting him. He was as mystified as me. On the evening of the seventh day I knocked on his dressing room door.

“Alec, this is Ronnie, may I come in?”

His reply was testy, “Please do.”

He politely asked me to sit down.

“Alec, what’s the matter?”

A little tight lipped; “Is there something the matter?”

“There must be. You’ve been miserable ever since we started shooting, and every day it gets worse. What’s wrong?”

Still on the cold side, “Do you really want to know?”

“That’s why I’m here.”

“Then I’ll tell you. I wrote the screenplay of this film, didn’t I?”


“And I’m playing the leading part?”


“Well, Ronnie, not once since we started has anyone said to me ‘That’s good, Alec, or that really works, Alec, or well done, Alec.’”

I was stunned. “Is that what’s wrong? Don’t you understand, we think you’re wonderful? We’re just trying to live up to you.”

“Couldn’t someone have said so? May I tell you something that may help you to understand actors?”

“Please,” I replied, “God knows I can do with it.”

What he said next should not be forgotten by anyone who wants to work with actors:

“All so-called normal human beings go through a period when they want to act. This is usually between the ages of ten and fourteen. Little boys play cowboys and Indians; little girls dress up in their mother’s clothes, putting on lipstick. As they mature into adults, ordinary people grow out of this adolescent phase and become doctors or accountants or bankers. But the actor, in the part of his mind that still wants to act, remains no older than fourteen. So, Ronnie, that’s how you must treat me. I need to be praised. I need to be patted on the back. I need to be told I’m good! And the more you encourage me, the better I will perform for you.” As an afterthought he said, “And sometimes, I just need to be smacked.”

Excerpted from Ronald Neame’s upcoming autobiography, Straight From the Horse’s Mouth, published by Scarecrow Press.

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