The Films of Stephen Boyd, Part I

July 18, 2011 | By

There’s a moment in the 2011 documentary Stephen Boyd: The Man Who Never Was [M], produced & broadcast by BBC Northern Ireland, where director John Turtletaub quips ‘Stephen who?’ but he’s being only half-serious, and yet most film fans – certain younger film fans – may not connect the name with the actor who co-starred in Ben-Hur (1959), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and Fantastic Voyage (1966), because unlike co-stars Charlton Heston, Christopher Plummer and Raquel Welch, respectively, Boyd didn’t want to be a part of the star machine, and perhaps his love of golf overtook time he could and perhaps should have spent seeking out better roles, or at least returning to his stage roots to maintain a profile connected with quality.

Whether Boyd was a great actor is debatable; he was perfectly suited to play charismatic characters, but there was the odd grand physical gesture which could render a role a bit too grandiose, and yet physically and vocally he was tailor-made for the movies. Imposing with a chiseled jaw, a smile that could be warm or hideously sadistic, and a voice armed with precise tonal power, Boyd worked his way up the contract system, playing small roles and supporting parts until Woman Obsessed (1959), his first big starting role where he held his own against Susan Hayward, fresh from her Oscar win from I Want to Live! (1958).

A contract actor with Fox, Boyd also appeared in The Best of Everything and the brooding western The Bravados (1958), but it was MGM’s international blockbuster Ben-Hur that made him a star… and yet within 10 years the roles weren’t so good, and Hollywood was struggling to figure out what audiences wanted, sometimes succeeding with trippy epics by independent-minded directors such as Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), or making giant duds like Dr. Doolittle (1967), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and Star! (1968).

He was well-cast in The Oscar (1966), but one wonders if he realized his energetic, hypnotizing performance was part of the fromage that made the film one of the best worst films ever made, and a sublime guilty pleasure of perfectly realized awfulness.

Like many former contract actors and stars, Boyd appeared in international productions, TV, and Italian genre efforts during his final years, but it’s his death at a young age which makes his career so tragic. Among his 61 credits in film and TV (1954-1978), there are genuine nuggets of gold, but it’s like his acting colleague from Ireland says at the end of the BBC doc, ‘If he’d been alive today he’d be my age,’ and he should’ve had a few more good performances preserved on film.

While the BBC doc is currently unavailable on DVD, it probably does the rounds on U.K. TV stations, and is worth catching, if not making its way to home video as a worthy bonus to accompany one of his films.

Ben-Hur, in turn, is slated for a massive Blu-ray release this fall via Warner Home Video, but I get a feeling the attention among any new extras will go towards Heston, director Wyler, composer Miklos Rozsa, and the chariot race sequence, which is all justified, but it means fans wanting some background on Boyd’s career will have to track down the BBC doc, and scour merchants (or TCM) for the actor’s other work.

Actually she won the Oscar LAST YEAR, snapphead.

Luckily his best films remain in circulation, but we’ll begin this peek at his celluloid C.V. via Woman Obsessed [M], newly (and exclusively) released by Twilight Time on DVD in a swanky anamorphic transfer with Hugo Friedhofer’s excellent score isolated in bouncy-bouncy stereo. (Stereo is bouncy, whereas mono is simply not.)

One thing I should point out for film fans curious about why they can’t find TT’s products on Amazon or in stores: they’re available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment. I’ve seen many posts where people say films such as The Egyptian ‘are coming’ or ‘will be out ‘or are available’ but few follow up and are aware (or bother to mention) the titles are exclusive to SAE’s online website.

Yes, they ship internationally, and yes, they ship to Canada. I’ve been using them for their other business streams – mail order soundtracks – since the company began operations with a pair of Albert Glasser LPs in 1986, and they have excellent customer service. This isn’t advertorial. Just a confirmation of where you can get the TT DVDs and their new line of BRs, and confirmation the company is legit. People get funny ideas when message boards are filled with vague comments and assumptions, so call this a point or two for clarification.

That is all.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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