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TO SAY that actor, writer, dramatist, filmmaker, opera director and stage designer Sir Peter Ustinov was a renaissance man does him a disservice. None of the renaissance men I’ve read about display a soupçon of humor. And Peter Ustinov was brimming with it.
Ustinov’s parents, both naturalized British subjects, were of Russian, German, Jewish, Ethiopian, French and Italian descent. Ustinov himself spoke six languages fluently, English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian, plus some Turkish and modern Greek. He was a master of accents and dialects in each of these.
Richard Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, first performed in 1912, is a satire of the nouveau rich. It’s based on an earlier Molière play, which dates from 1670, with music by Jean-Baptiste Lily.
The plot involves a social-climbing Frenchman, M. Jourdain, his daughter Lucille and her mutual love for middle-class Cléonte. Jourdain is being schooled in aristocratic folderol, none too successfully, by a Music Master, a Dancing Master, a Fencing Instructor and a German Professor of Philosophy. There’s also a Polish tailor and, as the plot evolves, Cléonte masquerading as “the son and heir of Sultan Ibraham the Insane.”
Ustinov, of course, portrays all of these roles with pitch-perfection. The Strauss music is a delight; the Ustinov multilogue is a gentle hoot. “The Professor clears his throat, but fails to be rid of the German accent, even in Latin….”
Ustinov was a life-long car enthusiast, his machinery including a Fiat Topolino (www.wp.me/p2ETap-12R), several Lancias, a Hispano-Suiza, a Delage and a special-bodied Jowett Jupiter. What’s more, in the official video review of the 1987 Formula 1 season, the voice and commentary are his.
Back in the 1950s, recordings of sports cars zooming out of stereo speakers were all the rage. Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar is a wonderful satire of the genre. (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-MF for his take on the era’s Gordini team).
Part of the fun is insider stuff and, some would say, a bit dated. But part is universal. And all the international personalities—plus the sounds of their racing cars—are rendered with great wit.
Ustinov had a serious side as well. From 1969 until his death in 2004, he was devoted to UNICEF, originally known as the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Also, he was committed to the concept of world government, as characterized by the World Federalist Movement.
His philosophical views were shared in his art. A short film episode has Ustinov musing about Fyodor Dostoyevsky—and then encountering this 19th-Century Russian author and engaging him in bilingual dialogue. It’s quite serious and philosophical, another aspect of Ustinov’s intellect (http://goo.gl/QyTfUa).
Ustinov’s film career was a rich one. I remember fondly We’re No Angels, a 1955 movie where he joins Humphery Bogart and Aldo Ray as Devil’s Island escapees saving a hapless family. Ustinov’s roles in Spartacus and Topkapi earned him Oscars for Best Supporting Actor.
The play Romanoff and Juliet recast Shakespeare’s classic as a cold-war spoof. I saw it in Cleveland during its national tour and recall Ustinov’s antics as the General, leader of Concordia, a mid-European backwater being courted by both Russia and the U.S.
There’s a touching moment when the wife of the Russian Ambassador longingly admires “a silly capitalist hat,” the scene paying homage to Greta Garbo’s character Ninotchka in the 1939 movie of the same name. A gentle—but effective—touch. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013