THE EARLY YEARS
When critics discuss the movies James Fox starred in during the ’60s and early ’70s his costars often seem to overshadow him. This is somewhat understandable since Fox’s greatest films from that period feature amazing talents from the decade such as actor Dirk Bogarde and musician Mick Jagger. But Fox is an extremely talented and unique performer who possessed the uncanny ability to brilliantly portray young men of various backgrounds wrestling with their sexual identity and social class while the sexual revolution was still taking shape.
James Fox was born William Fox in London in 1939 to an upper-class British family and he started acting when he was a just a child. His father Robin Fox was a theatrical agent and his mother Angela Fox was an actress who gave birth to two other sons, the talented actor Edward Fox and producer Robert Fox. Out of the three Fox children, it seems that James aka William was the only one who started his career in show business at such a young age.
His first film role appears to have been Toby Miniver in the British WW2 drama The Miniver Story (1950) which was a follow-up film to the Oscar-winning classic Mrs. Miniver. Fox was only about 10 years old at the time that he made The Miniver Story, but his performance must have been memorable because he soon offered roles other films such as The Magnet (1950).
Fox took a 10-year break from acting in 1952 to focus on his education but he changed his name to James and finally returned to the screen in 1962. On his return, Fox showed incredible versatility as a young actor and was able to deliver exceptional performances in gritty British dramas like Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) as well as lighthearted comedies like Tamahine (1963).
In 1963 Fox really got to show off his acting chops after taking a starring role in the critically acclaimed dark drama, The Servant (1963) directed by Joseph Losey. Fox was only 24 years old at the time that The Servant was made but his performance in this pivotal British film is incredibly impressive and it’s a role that would shape his career for the rest of the decade.
SUBVERTING SEXUAL IDENTITY & SOCIAL CLASS IN BRITISH CINEMA
In The Servant, Fox stars as the handsome, carefree and hard-drinking British aristocrat Tony, who has just bought a new home in London and hires a manservant named Hugo (Dirk Bogarde) to care and cook for him. The relationship between Tony and Hugo becomes more and more tangled and intertwined as the film progresses. There are class differences between the two men as well as an underlying sexual tension that threatens to surface throughout the entire film. Their blossoming friendship is tested when Tony’s ill-mannered girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) seems to become annoyed as well as jealous of Hugo, while Hugo seems equally annoyed and jealous of Susan. Susan finally asks Tony to get rid of Hugo but he refuses. Soon afterward Hugo hires his “sister” Vera (Sara Miles) to help care for and clean-up after Tony. At first Tony seems extremely disinterested in Vera but Hugo finds various ways to force them together. When Tony finally decides to consummate his relationship with her the audience is forced to wonder if Tony was only attracted to Vera because he thought she was Hugo’s sister? If Vera was just any girl, would he have paid her any attention? After Tony discovers an uncomfortable truth about Vera he fires them both but soon afterward Tony can’t resist hiring Hugo again.
Together Hugo and Tony resume playing house together and act more like an old married couple than master and servant. This facade hides the fact that Hugo wants Tony’s privilege and wealth while Tony desperately wants Hugo’s acceptance and companionship. Hugo begins using his powers of persuasion over Tony and soon Tony becomes a prisoner in his own home; trapped by Hugo’s domineering personality as well as his own reliance on alcohol. As their relationship becomes more and more codependent a simple game of hide & seek between the two men suddenly turns into something much more sinister and subversive. A complex struggle for power and class hierarchy, as well as sexual domination, seems to be taking place between them when Hugo taunts Tony with veiled threats of “You’ve got a guilty secret!” while Tony hides like a petrified child terrified of incomprehensible demons he is unwilling to face.
James Fox is absolutely astonishing in the complex role of Tony and he brings a depth and complexity to a role that could have easily become something mundane in another actor’s hands. Particularly when they’re forced to act opposite a powerhouse performer like Bogarde. His emotional performance makes Tony’s downfall at the end of the film all the more painful to watch. Fox deservedly received the 1964 BAFTA Award (British Academy of Film and Television Art) for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles for his outstanding performance in The Servant.
After his demanding role in The Servant, Fox showed his versatility once again by taking on the role of a British pilot in the fun-filled rollicking comedy Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965). But later that same year he returned again to dramatic roles in director Bryan Forbes’s King Rat (1965), a hard-hitting prisoner of war story.
In King Rat, Fox plays a British Royal Air Force Officer named Peter Marlowe who’s trapped in a Malaysian prisoner-of-war camp run by the Japanese during WW2. In the film, Peter or “Pete” is taken under the wing of an American Corporal called “King” (George Segal) after he spots the young British officer conversing with locals and speaking Malay. King thinks Peter could be useful to him so he gives him some cigarettes and a meal with the hope that he will join his motley crew of con-artists manipulating fellow prisoners under the watchful eyes of the Japanese military. Soon the handsome and somewhat naive Peter is being ordered around by the low ranking corporal King. It’s easy to simply view King Rat as a brutal WW2 buddy movie or prison film about men trying to survive any way they can in terrible circumstances, which it is. But underlying this is the complex relationship between Peter and King at the center of King Rat, which transforms the film into something much more subversive and sublime.
Fox gives a pitch-perfect performance as the educated British Officer Peter Marlowe. He easily stands out among the dirty prisoners with his good manners, easy-going attitude, bright blond hair, and clean-shaven face as he wanders around the camp wearing a gender-defying sarong-style skirt and sandals. The rest of the prisoners seem extremely rugged, desperate and plain ugly in comparison. Throughout the film Peter develops a relationship with King that is clearly much deeper than the relationships the two men share with the other prisoners. It’s obvious that Peter admires King’s bravado as well as his ability to survive and thrive under such dire circumstances. And King clearly admires Peter’s class and dignity in a situation that has turned other men into monsters or “rats.” Peter and King are an odd pair but their bond seems genuine until the war comes to an unexpected end. When they’re finally rescued from the prisoner-of-war camp Peter finds himself in a highly emotional and codependent relationship with King and seems incapable of behaving like a free man in a free world. King, on the other hand, is upset about his sudden freedom because it means he will lose control of his “kingdom” and be forced to return to civilian life.
When Peter confronts King in a fit of desperation at the end of King Rat and asks, “Don’t you remember what we had?” it brings deeper meaning to the relationship between these two men of different backgrounds, class and rank. At the end of the film, Peter runs through the camp in a desperate attempt to see King one last time before he leaves with his American comrades but Peter never gets to say goodbye. The silent and stoic pain James Fox manages to manifest for his role after his character realizes that he won’t ever see King again is hard to watch. Peter’s identity, much like Tony’s in The Servant, seems to have been shaped by his own disregard of social class and within the confines of the prison camp as well as his deep emotional attachment to another man. At the end of King Rat, James Fox is sent adrift once again and left unsure of his place in the world and where he stands.
After a small but memorable role in The Chase (1966), Fox returned to lighthearted roles in comedies like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Arabella (1967), until taking on the role of Chas in Performance (filmed in 1968, but not released until 1970) where he would once again play a man struggling with his social conditioning as well as his sexual identity.
THE END OF A DECADE
As the 1960s were coming to a close, James Fox was becoming a major British film star. He was also indulging in the excesses of the decade such as alcohol and drugs, long before he took the role of Chas Devlin in Performance (1968/1970).
Fox had met Performance co-director Donald Cammell on the set of the fascinating crime caper film Duffy (1968), which Cammell wrote and Fox starred in alongside James Coburn, Susannah York, and James Mason. Fox had also become friendly with Mick Jagger who he had met backstage at a Rolling Stones’ concert in Rome in 1967. Fox’s budding friendships with Cammel & Jagger seems to be the initial reason why he was considered for the role of Chas in Performance.
Before making Performance Fox had mostly played refined upper-class British gentlemen. But as I’ve pointed out, he also portrayed characters who were in some ways redefining class roles in British society as well as questioning their sexual identity. I think Cammell probably saw a little of these qualities in Fox’s previous film’s too, which would have made him rather perfect for the tangled and twisted role of Chas Devlin in Performance even if it has been widely reported that Marlon Brando was the director’s first choice.
To prepare for the role of Chas, Fox moved to South London and immersed himself in British gangster life for 2-3 months before filming started. He also worked directly with dialogue coach David Litvinoff who had come in contact with British criminals and knew the notorious Kray twins firsthand. Litvinoff offered Fox an insider’s look into the gangster lifestyle that would lend his character, as well as the film, a grittiness that previous British crime films often lacked.
In Performance, Fox fully immersed himself in the role of the sadistic Chas Devlin who “performs” violent acts of terror for his boss Harry Flowers with. When Chas finds himself on the run after killing a childhood friend and fellow criminal, he ends up hiding out at the home of an androgynous and reclusive rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger) and Turner’s lovers, the beautiful and fun-loving Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the boyishly cute Lucy (Michèle Breton). Turner’s home is a little too bohemian for the conservative gagster but Chas manages to forget about his hang-ups when Pherber feeds him some psychedelic mushrooms. While Chas tries to figure out why he’s suddenly feeling so odd, Turner and Pherber have fun playing mind games with him. In the process Chas finds himself questioning his sexual identity and the role he has carved out for himself in the brutal crime world he inhabits outside of Turner’s home.
As the film comes to its violent conclusion, Chas’ feelings for Turner take a complex turn and he seems to lose himself completely as he and Turner merge into one “performer.” Much like his character Tony in The Servant, as well as Peter in King Rat, at the end of the film Fox’s character is left with his identity in tatters but this time his transformation is so complete that the audience no longer recognizes him. Chas and Turner have merged into one.
Fox is brilliant as Chas. He brings so many subtle character quirks to his role that they’re hard to notice at first glance but he knows that a simple twitch of the eye or a bite of the lip can bring a character to life in ways that are barely noticeable but extremely powerful. Fox becomes Chas Devlin so completely that it’s hard to know where his own performance begins and ends.
Unfortunately for film audiences, Performance would be the last movie James Fox would make until his return to acting in the late 1970s. After the filming of Performance ended Fox suffered a breakdown brought on by the sad death of his father and his heavy drug use. When Fox finally recovered he didn’t want anything to do with acting anymore and devoted himself entirely to religious studies for 10 years.
It’s been rumored that his breakdown was caused by his experiences on the set of Performance but Fox had started to use drugs before shooting the movie and he had also openly expressed interest in studying scripture before filming began. It seems he was going through a lot of personal turbulence in the late sixties and in his biography Comeback: An Actor’s Direction (1983) Fox writes that before filming Performance he was, “Not only in a guilty muddle about drugs, but my sexual imagination was also in complete turmoil.” It’s no wonder that he brought so much realism to characters such as Chas. Fox was obviously grappling with his own identity during this time and much of his inner turmoil is reflected on screen.
Thankfully Fox seems to have sorted himself out. After his 10-year sabbatical, he left his religious studies behind and returned to acting regularly in the ’80s. Within the past 25 years, he’s shown that he’s still capable of taking on complex roles in films that examine sexual identity and class structure. Some interesting examples of this include his role as the gay British spy Anthony Blunt in A Question of Attribution (1992) and his role as the British aristocrat Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day (1993). Hopefully, we’ll continue to see more interesting and daring performances from Fox in the future.