British actor Sir Alan Bates, who died Dec. 27, was never much of a movie star.
Now, that's not to say Mr. Bates didn't make his share of movies. Over the course of a career that began in the late 1950s, Mr. Bates appeared in nearly 80 feature films and television productions. Still, his innate ability to lose himself in a character made him one of those performers often referred to as That Guy. Mr. Bates was That Guy who played the repressed butler in Gosford Park. He was That Guy who disrobed for a decidedly odd wrestling match with Oliver Reed in Women in Love, and he was That Guy who performed beautifully in the following films:
THE ENTERTAINER (1960): More than holding his own alongside the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier, Mr. Bates never let his character's despair overwhelm this naturalistic show biz parable. The film was a springboard for Mr. Bates' and co-star Albert Finney's careers, and Mr. Olivier's well-tempered performance is among his best.
GEORGY GIRL (1966): Set in Swinging London, this semisweet romantic comedy features Mr. Bates as a poster child for problem promiscuity as his character impregnates one woman and then falls in love with her less-worldly roommate. The film also stars Charlotte Rampling, James Mason and a very young Lynn Redgrave, but is best remembered for the catchy Seekers theme song, which you've been whistling since you began reading this.
WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (1961): In this odd religious parable, Mr. Bates stars as an escaped murderer whom the children of Lancashire village believe to be Jesus Christ. What makes this movie so interesting is that while there is something of a transformation in the Bates character, the movie never soft-sells its message. He is always a criminal, and justice, in the end, must be served. Still, his ability to accept his fate and responsibility for his actions is faith-affirming stuff.
THE FIXER (1968): A polar opposite to Whistle, this movie stars Mr. Bates as an innocent Russian Jew accused and imprisoned for a vile crime he did not commit. Although fairly flagrant with its political message, The Fixer avoids becoming preachy, thanks, in no small part, to Mr. Bates' very human portrayal of a man fighting to survive a real-life nightmare. The role earned Mr. Bates an Academy Award nomination.
ZORBA THE GREEK (1964): This life-affirming adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel is best remembered for Anthony Quinn's scenery-chewing performance as the title character, but it is Mr. Bates' far lower-key portrayal as the repressed Englishman Basil that keeps the film grounded. Mr. Quinn's and Mr. Bates' seaside dance, shot in glorious black-and-white, is one of cinema's great transcendent moments.
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