Just off a jet from the Coast, Tony Richardson breezes into his suite in a local apartment hotel, still mildly irritated that he'd already seen the in-flight movie. "Doesn't it always work out that way!" he harrumphs. Not pausing to remove his jacket--a fluffy, gray, feathery-looking affair that is actually Siberian wolf--he plucks a grape from the fruit bowl the management has thoughtfully placed at his disposal and trots off into the kitchen, where he rustles up a glass of white wine.
It is a surprising apparition, not exactly what one expects of the man who 25 years ago was at the forefront of a gritty revolution in English film and theater, as the director-in-chief of the so-called Angry Young Men. Beyond his momentary pique over the flight, Richardson is not particularly angry. He is now 54. And whatever sooty proletarian associations his past evokes, they are immediately banished by the startling fur jacket, which he removes to reveal a light lavender sweater over a plaid work shirt.
The fact is: Tony Richardson has gone L.A.
Even the project that has brought him temporarily to Washington, the pre-Broadway tryout of "Toyer," has, on the surface of things, a decidedly West Coast scent. Opening Saturday in the Eisenhower Theater, it is a two-character psychological thriller by Gardner McKay, the glossy actor who starred on "Adventures in Paradise" back in the days when both he and TV were younger and who now, according to his official biographical note, "lives among his dogs and African lions in near seclusion in Beverly Hills, a community he detests." It stars Brad Davis and Kathleen Turner--he of "Midnight Express," she of "Body Heat"--and it starts with the late-night confrontation of an ominous motorcyclist and a beautiful woman stranded near an L.A. tennis court.
Is he the Toyer, the headline-grabbing psychopath, who rapes women and neatly lobotomizes them afterward? If he is, is she the next victim?
"Truly weird!" whistled one observer, leaving a recent rehearsal.
Richardson doesn't see it that way at all. He snaps up a few more grapes, folds his lanky frame into a chair, and says, "Gardner sent it to me, typically, without the last seven pages. But right away I thought it was wonderfully written and a terrifically effective piece of theater. I told him I wanted to do it. But since there had already been some workshop productions, it's taken a year to clear the rights."
This is Richardson's first Broadway production since Ibsen's "The Lady from the Sea," which he directed for the Circle in the Square in 1977 and which starred Vanessa Redgrave, his ex-wife and the mother of two of his three daughters. That was a classic, however, and to hear Richardson tell it, there haven't been a lot of new plays he's seen in the past 10 years that he's really yearned to direct.
"Either in New York or London," he adds. "I don't think it's happening anywhere in the theater at the moment."
He pops another grape.
"Do you? . . . That's what's wonderful about 'Toyer.' I've never really done anything like it. It's like directing a tennis match or a prize fight. The play operates on two levels, if you will. On one, it asks, 'Is he or isn't he the Toyer?' But on a deeper level it's also about the potential for violence in any kind of relationship. I think it's the kind of play that's either going to hit it big for a long period of time . . . or come off very quickly."
The last is swallowed, which is something Richardson tends to do with his words, making him occasionally challenging to understand. He also continues to use British theatrical expressions like "come off," where an American would say "close." A moment later, though, he is prompted to say of Kathleen Turner, "I think she's going to be a big, big star." That, of course, is how they talk in L.A.
Richardson filmed "Sanctuary" there in the early 1960s, when his reputation and, some say, his professional arrogance were at their peak. Although he will not divulge what he thinks his best film is, he suggests that "Sanctuary" is a good candidate for the worst. He and Hollywood parted company with a severe case of mutual bad feelings.
Now he sounds like the Chamber of Commerce. "L.A. is the only place I don't get bored. It's as simple as that. Of course, I've always been much happier in this country than in England. I've never liked England. I don't like the whole English attitude. I don't like English society. I don't like anything about it, really. These days, L.A. is one of the few places you can still get money for movies, and that's what I'm primarily about. I mean, the British film industry is nonexistent . . . David Hockney the painter and I were born in the same town in northern England, and he's crazy about L.A., too."
Richardson, who loathed playing sports as a kid in what he once described as "a terrible, horrible, off-white sort of public school," now plays tennis every day and has pretty much permanently traded shoes for white Adidas. He has his own tennis court and a swimming pool in the Hollywood Hills high above Sunset Boulevard. When he bought the adjoining piece of property, he accidentally discovered, long buried by a mudslide, another swimming pool. "They dug it out for me. So now I have two. I suppose it's rather eccentric," he says.
So much for the old fulminations against the class system, the bitterness and the bite that animated such Richardson-directed plays and films as "Look Back in Anger," "The Entertainer," "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning." As codirector (with George Devine) of the English Stage Company and copartner (with John Osborne) of Woodfall Film Productions, Richardson led an artistic charge that had the effect in Britain of a stink bomb lobbed into a vicarage tea party. The first performance of "Look Back," on May 8, 1956, has long since passed into history as a seminal date, a theatrical Bastille Day.
"I don't know that I was an angry young man," he shrugs. "That was just a journalistic term, although I knew what was meant by it--a kind of vitality wanting to break through. But I wasn't angry. My father was a pharmicist and we were firmly in the lower middle class. On the British scale, I was one notch above John Osborne. John was on the brink of the working class. I'm lucky in that I come from the north, which has far less class prejudice and social snobbery than the south. Money was the value in the north. Crass. But I grew up with no complexes. My family wanted me to go into the foreign service or diplomacy, but I always knew what I'd do. At 10, I said I'm going to be a director. That was that."
As for the movement he helped launch, he notes, "You can't calculate those theatrical explosions. Originally, George and I had wanted to start the English Stage Company three years earlier, but we didn't for a number of reasons. But if we had, we would have failed miserably, because the playwrights weren't there. The playwrights all came along three years later. These things are just accidents of timing. But this is always the case. That incredible period of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama disappeared as quickly as it came. The Restoration was two or three good years. Then it was over. The theater comes up and flowers at certain moments, and no one knows why."
By the mid-1960s, Richardson was convinced that the energies he had tapped were spent, and the revolution, for all practical purposes, was over. Theaters that had earlier closed their doors to the new English dramatists were scrambling for them. "But the vitality wasn't the same. It seemed to me that people were treading water, repeating themselves without a great deal of feeling," he observes.
Besides, Richardson was seeing himself more and more as a film director, a self-view that was only enhanced by the worldwide success of "Tom Jones" in 1963 and has not been unduly dampened since then by the catastrophic fortunes of "The Sailor From Gibraltar," "The Charge of the Light Brigade" or "Joseph Andrews." After "Toyer," Richardson goes behind the cameras again to film John Irving's bestseller "The Hotel New Hampshire." Work is scheduled to begin in late April in Canada, where costs are, apparently, one-third less than they are in New Hampshire. Jodie Foster and Nastassia Kinski will star, and Montreal will play the City of Vienna.
Richardson has put his legs up on the coffee table. Forget looking back in anger. It is hard enough just to get him to look back. If he were American you might call him laid-back, but he's still a British citizen, so "philosophical" is the word that springs to mind. The past seems to concern him less than his tennis game and the dozens of exotic birds--down from the hundreds he owned when he was married to Redgrave--that flit over his L.A. property.
"Back in the 1950s, the theater was stuck in a very definite, dead mode, and you couldn't get new or interesting stuff done," he says. "Now everyone is searching for material. The world is wide open for anyone or anything new to come along. And the people just aren't coming along. But you never know when there won't be a change again. Maybe in three years there will be a whole new crop of writers. I'd like to be part of that again. But who can tell? Oh, sometimes you sense that a particular place is where things might happen. It's sort of an animal instinct. You feel you're in the right place at the right time and it's exciting."
Like L.A., maybe? Richardson laughs. "No, I don't think there's a big explosion about to happen there. But I do know that L.A. is incredibly right for me. I love the style and the outdoor living. I feel happy there. Ten years ago, even I would have had trouble imagining myself saying that."