The reply to this film’s titular question is delivered, somewhat hyperbolically, by friend and fellow nonagenarian Karl Malden: “He is the history of our industry up to now.” Certainly multihyphenate Norman Lloyd was deeply involved in all media — collaborating, offstage and on, in front of the camera and behind it, with numerous major players. A peerless raconteur, Lloyd can toss off anecdotes about Chaplin, Welles, Renoir and “Hitch” with wry, self-deprecating wit. If showbiz success means leaving ’em hungry for more, Matthew Sussman’s scattershot but competent hour-plus docu, which opened Nov. 23 at Gotham’s Film Forum, amply fills the bill.
Illustrating Lloyd’s disarming reminiscences with old photos and playbills, Sussman accomplishes the transition from scrawny Jewish kid to aspiring thesp with commendable economy, as Lloyd mischievously abandons his modulated, pear-shaped tones for a few pearls of prime Brooklynese.
Insufficiently fleshed out, though, is Lloyd’s immersion in the socially conscious theatrical renaissance of the 30s, when small, fervent avant-garde groups blossomed, led by the likes of Clifford Odets, Elia Kazan, Joseph Losey and Eva Le Gallienne. Lloyd’s evocative descriptions of these movers and shakers proves both fascinating and regrettably short, culminating with his tenure at the Mercury Theater and his small but show-stopping turn as Cinna the Poet in Orson Welles’ legendary anti-fascist production of “Julius Caesar.” Stark, black-and-white photos of Lloyd, surrounded centerstage by striking lighting effects and black-leather-garbed thugs, alternate with Lloyd’s juicy anecdotes of Welles’ mercurial temperament.
Accompanying Welles to Hollywood for his famously aborted “Heart of Darkness” project, Lloyd unfortunately did not stick around for Welles’ next outing, “Citizen Kane.” He was, however, handpicked by Hitchcock to play the title villain in “Saboteur,” his most famous role, amply covered by Sussman in some of docu’s rare extended clips. Other excerpts include scenes with Cameron Diaz in “In Her Shoes”; paying tribute to her co-star is Diaz herself, by far the youngest and most attractive of pic’s talking heads.
Sussman follows Lloyd’s ever-sinuous career path, from his turns as Charlie Chaplin’s tennis partner and “Limelight” actor to Lewis Milestone’s script reader to stager of the first American production of Brecht’s “Galileo,” starring Charles Laughton, during the early days of HUAC.
Indeed, Lloyd only once loses his cool, speaking about the blacklist and the cowardice of those who allowed it to happen. A victim himself, he only found work when Hitchcock defied network prohibitions and hired him as producer on his seminal TV show, several episodes of which Lloyd also directed.
Sussman bookends his docu with scenes from Lloyd’s belated induction into the Players Club, recording the evening’s highlights with a tantalizing montage of vintage Lloyd one-liners. Unfortunately, here as elsewhere, Sussman’s choice of coverage seems somewhat perverse, granting nearly as much time to the cocktail party before the event as to Lloyd’s impromptu one-man show.
Still, pic’s portrait of a collaborative artist whose contributions are as pervasive as they are unsung swims valiantly against the name-recognition tide.
Tech credits are bare-bones but adequate.