A Life in Film: Peter Cushing Book Review

Author: David Miller

peter-cushing-life-in-film-jacketThis year celebrates 100 years since Peter Cushing’s birth and to honour that Titan Books have re-published ‘A Life in Film: Peter Cushing’ with and has been re-edited. Personally speaking, I have always had a great deal of affection for the films of Peter Cushing, at least since the age of about 12 when I first saw his first outing as Baron Frankenstein in Hammer’s first major Horror film: The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). As with the other great horror stars, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi I couldn’t get enough of their films. But I was always particularly liked Peter Cushing: his sallow cheek bones, suavely angled features and gentlemanly English demeanor. Later I read how he was an absolute perfectionist for each role he did and that comes across strongly in the book: how he would create his own watercolour illustrations as to how his costumes should look, what Sherlock Holmes might carry in his pockets; he would experiment with a saw on cutting up cabbages for carrying out cranial brain operations as Baron Frankenstein etc. In whatever film he was in, no matter how small the budget or however much an exploitation movie it might be, Peter Cushing always played the part with such dignity. Without exception. On the back of the book there is a quote by George Lucas who had directed Cushing as the Gran Moff Tarkin in a little film called Star Wars states: “He will be remembered for the next 350 years at least.” I think this is true and this book by David Miller demonstrates that amiably.


This biography/filmography goes into much detail about Cushing’s life, films and his great love, his wife Helen (more on this later). It begins with a foreword by actress Veronica Carlson who starred with Cushing in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed in 1969 in which she recalls a particularly difficult rape scene they had to play together, how difficult this was for both of them to act and how Peter was just the perfect gentleman and sensitive to the needs of others in a most dignified, courteous and gentlemanly manner. And this is the same for anyone who had performed or worked with Cushing. It is always the same opinion. No one it would seem had a bad word for him; no matter how big a name they were and certainly never seemed to make any enemies. The book adequately covers Cushing’s early years, his ventures into stage acting and his work with Laurence Oliver’s theatre company before his early years trying to make it in Hollywood between 1938 – 1940, even acting in a Laurel and Hardy film. For many years Cushing played on the stage before making it on television with his portrayal of Winston Smith in the BBC Nineteen-Eighty-Four. For years Cushing was scratching out a living before his big break came with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 for Hammer before hitting the mark again with Hammer’s adaptation of Dracula the following year consolidating his position as an actor. Over the next few years Cushing tried to avoid being typecast in horror films (or ‘terror’ films as Peter Cushing preferred them to referred as) before finally accepting that this was his niche market by the mid-1960s. The book also gives due credit to the last high point in Cushing’s career, that of the role as the Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, something this is often amazingly neglected in many books on the actor that tends to want to focus on the horror films. He had also been offered the part which he turned down and went to Donald Pleasance in John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) which would have been the crossover between the old and new horror films.


Tragedy struck Cushing in 1970 when his wife, Helen (who was older than him) died of emphysema. This had a profound reaction on Cushing who worked very hard over the next few years distracting himself with acting jobs in order to, as he put it mark time until he could meet up with Helen. Quotes by the people he worked with, letters by Cushing and quotes from his autobiography, ‘Past Forgetting’ highlight the severe grief and depression this treasured actor went through for the rest of his life. It even quotes a letter by Cushing turning down a part as signed by Helen and Peter Cushing. The book is beautifully illustrated with over 200 photos, many of them rare and those which cover the years from 1970 on display how thin and quickly Cushing aged after his wife’s death.


For myself it is Cushing’s work in the many horror films that are the most interesting, his friendships with other actors and his long term partnership in many of these films with none other than Christopher Lee. This book is not an ordinary biography and is much more than the standard ‘Film of…’ book while few books are illustrated so well. Full marks to the publishers, Titan Books for publishing this superb addition to any fan of the classic horror films and particularly those of that most gentlemanly of actors, Peter Cushing.


Chris Hick


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