Yesterday was actor Peter Cushing‘s 100th birthday, and I wish I was able to schedule this to run earlier in celebration of it. Thankfully, I have something to bring to the table, regardless, in the form of the biography Peter Cushing: A Life in Film by David Miller. I’ve seen snippets of Cushing’s work, but Miller creates a survey course worth reading if you want to jump into the actor’s oeuvre, as well as read up on history of the early Hammer films. It’s brevity in personal details is underscored by a heartfelt tribute to the actor, some amazing quotes (including a tenderhearted prologue by actress Veronica Carlson), and awesome photos.
Peter Cushing, to many, is the definitive Abraham Van Helsing of the Hammer series of vampire pictures starring Christopher Lee; you might also know him as Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars (which I didn’t remember until seeing his photo!). Cushing worked at a feverish pace, creating an output of films that typecast him as a horror icon, but also showed off his range and diversity. Miller emphasizes several times that no matter how hammy the role could be played, Cushing took everything seriously – whether he was staking a vampire or playing the snooty Beau Brummell. If you’re hoping to gain an overview of Cushing’s life, especially his personal life outside of film, then skip this work. Unfortunately, at a brisk 192 pages – with column style so the chapters are very short – Miller is interested more in presenting a survey course of Cushing’s work, his motivations, and how he jumped from role to role. I was a little worried it would be a simple rehash of his IMDB page, and there are sequences where Miller just mentions roles and plot summary, but that’s few and far between. If Miller is mentioning plot summary he’s also analyzing for content and how the role connected back to Cushing, personally.
In place of personal details, is the voice of Cushing himself. There’s a melancholic tone that sits over the book from the minute you read Carlson’s introduction. Cushing was devoted to his wife, Helen, and after her death in the 1970s he freely admitted that a part of him died as well; knowing that makes the read a bit sad because his wife is a constant presence, living or dead. Even after her death, Cushing still signed letters “Helen & Peter” and utilized her picture in a few movies where a wife’s photo was required. The book doesn’t harp on it, but there’s mention that Cushing tried to commit suicide, a sad note for anyone but even sadder since Cushing comes off as the sweetest man who walked on the planet. At its core, the book has a lot of heart because Cushing gave his heart to another. If you ever needed proof of life-long romance, A Life in Film emphasizes that Peter Cushing had it.
For a man who worked extensively in horror, Cushing never felt bogged down. Sure, the book details the changes in Hammer throughout the years as well as Cushing’s attempts to work outside of the studio, but the actor never had bad thoughts for his roles; in fact, he appreciated the fans that came out and appreciated his horror film. Also, and I might be considered dumb for not knowing this, I had no idea Cushing had taken on the mantle of Doctor Who (Dr. Who and the Daleks)! The man went from horror to action to costume drama, all with his “tongue removed from his cheek.” When the book focuses on the work, you can feel the happiness that Cushing gave to the author, himself. It helps that there are photographs covering almost every page, including two sections of full-color advertising material for all Cushing’s films. I love exploring what different countries sought to highlight through promotional materials. I did wish that there were a few photos of Cushing’s life outside of the movies, but that would undermine the title of the book.
Overall, Peter Cushing: A Life in Film is an excellent introduction to the actor who came to vanquish children’s fears. While light on the personal details, you can’t be surprised considering the title of the book emphasizes the showcase of Cushing’s life via motion pictures. With that, the pictures are amazing and author Miller presents the eloquent voice of Cushing via interviews and segments from the actor’s autobiography. Short, sweet, and worth reading for fans who want to gain more information.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.