By Tom Roberts
Few actors can lay claim to the length and breadth of Anthony Quinn’s body of work. Across a remarkable sixty-five year career, he worked with actors from Harold Lloyd to Keanu Reeves, from Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret, and with directors from Cecil B. DeMille to Federico Fellini to Spike Lee.
Launching that career in 1936, Quinn worked within the legendary limitations of the Hollywood system. He was a contract player, performing in whatever picture the studio assigned. That provided some choice opportunities—two Hope and Crosby Road pictures, the bullfighting bravura of Blood and Sand, and the disturbing lynch-mob parable, The Ox-Bow Incident. From his first real role at twenty-one in DeMille’s The Plainsman, Quinn conveyed the natural poise of an actor with more years and more roles under his belt. That poise never left, even as the sleek beauty of his twenties weathered into what The New York Times would later call his “lordly, grizzled charisma.”
He was, paradoxically, constrained by his looks and his bearing. His suave Latino handsomeness and his easy masculine manner were not the stuff of 1930s leading men. Ten years earlier, he might have inherited the mantle of Valentino. But the moment of the Latin lover had waned, and his dark, forceful presence consigned Quinn to the supporting roles then classified as “exotics”—ethnic characters, usually villains. He played not only Mexicans—his own heritage—but an endless gallery of Native Americans, Spaniards, Cubans, Chinese, Filipinos, Frenchmen, Arabs, Hawaiians, Greeks, and more gangsters and spies than an FBI agent sees in a lifetime.
Even in the stereotyped film universe of virtuous cowboys and barbarous Indians, Quinn brought a dignity, candor, and depth to his Native American characters that have made most of them wear better than many of the cowboy counterparts who vanquished them. No flaring nostrils, no noble poses: Quinn brought an emotional honesty to his exotics that made them, if not less stereotypical, more authentic. Complex though they may have been, these characters were nonetheless cast in adversarial postures to many of the leading players of the day: menacing Gary Cooper in The Plainsman; threatening Edward G. Robinson in Larceny, Inc.; cracking a whip at Dorothy Lamour in Road to Singapore.
By the end of World War II, though, Quinn had grown frustrated with Hollywood’s inability to see beyond his ethnic outer layer. After a decade in films, few professional paths lay open that he had not already trod into dust. He could have gone on attacking Erroll Flynn, frightening Bob Hope, and challenging Tyrone Power, but he chose a far more adventuresome course. He headed east.
Many of today’s most gifted movie stars occasionally reaffirm their artistry by taking highly publicized turns on the Broadway stage. Quinn beat them to it by fifty years. In 1947, feeling trapped in the slot assigned him by studio chiefs, he abandoned Hollywood for four years of intense stage work and acting study. At a time when Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift were moving west, Quinn moved his family east and embarked on an educational regimen with the Actors’ Studio.
Working there with Elia Kazan, Quinn succeeded Brando as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, playing on Broadway and touring the country for a year. It was extraordinary training for Quinn, who had been a movie actor exclusively for eleven years. It also earned him the respect of Kazan, who four years later would cast him in Viva Zapata!, revitalizing Quinn’s film career and bringing him his first Academy Award.
It is a measure of his seriousness as an actor that, even after his star shone more brightly on the screen, he still returned periodically to the rigors of the Broadway stage. His 1960 stint as King Henry II opposite Olivier in Becket earned Quinn a Tony nomination. In 1983, he returned to Broadway in a musical version of Zorba the Greek, playing a character with whom he had become inescapably linked.
But it was the blazing trail he left on the movie screen from 1952 virtually until his death in 2001 that made Anthony Quinn such a presence in the cultural firmament. These are the roles we associate with him, embodying him as a primal force with an unquenchable passion for living. His major gift as an actor was his ability to convey that life force on celluloid, to imprint his three dimensional personality onto the two-dimensional screen.
Curiously, for all his legendary prowess as a ladies’ man, Quinn’s on-screen relations with women were mostly troubled. The tragic union of Zampano and Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada is emblematic of the friction that Quinn’s characters experienced with women. Tangling with volcanic wife Anna Magnani in Wild Is the Wind, with freespirited daughter Shirley MacLaine in Hot Spell, or with temptress Lana Turner in Portrait in Blackallowed him to portray more complex, self-doubting characters. The steamy dance with Rita Hayworth in Blood and Sand or the misty, middle-aged Walk in the Spring Rainwith Ingrid Bergman are notable exceptions. And his two outings with Sophia Loren, Black Orchid and Heller in Pink Tights, gave him his most unqualified shots at out-and-out romantic leads.
His most trenchant screen relationships, though, were undoubtedly with men. His two Oscar-winning performances provided dynamic, assured counterpoints to two of Hollywood’s strongest actors at their most intense: Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! and Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. Many of Quinn’s most enduring films find him inhabiting an almost exclusively male world: Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, The Ox-Bow Incident. Only his signature performance in Zorba the Greek finds him balancing equally intimate relationships with both the pathetic Madame Hortense of Lila Kedrova and the introverted Basil of Alan Bates.
His offscreen life, never very private, seemed at times to merge with his onscreen roles, none more so than that of Zorba. The actor and the character became inextricably intertwined in the public eye ever after. He was in some ways confined by that success. Zorba was larger than life, and Quinn infused him with the ideal degree of extravagance, balancing the performance deftly with the others in the film. The public wanted more big performances from him, but Quinn wanted to continue what he had fought to attain, the freedom to choose every sort of role, modest or outrageous, that allowed him to explore new territory. He was not always able to accomplish that, but he left a gallery of indelible screen performances that have permanently secured Anthony Quinn’s place in the pantheon of great film actors.