VINCENT PRICE: THE SINISTER ROMANTIC
by William Schoell
[author of Martini Man: The Life of Dean Martin and co-author
of The Rat Pack: Neon Nights with the Kings of Cool and Joan Crawford:
The Essential Biography]
NOTE: This article was originally written in 1993
not long after the death of Vincent Price. It is presented to the public for the first time via Quirk's Reviews Online.
|with Joan Fontaine
When Vincent Price died of lung cancer on October 25th 1993 at 82 years
of age, the Hollywood community lost one of its most beloved figures. Although Price could be scary on camera, and was not
without flaws off screen, he was almost universally liked and admired by those he worked with. Price has left behind a legacy
of over one hundred films, numerous play and television appearances, and a lifelong enthusiasm for art and culture that enriched,
and indeed often guided, his existence.
Art played a part from the very beginning, when he would
accompany his mother (who doted on him the most out of her four children) to museums in his birthplace of St. Louis, Mo. Price
was born on May 27th, 1911 to Vincent Leonard and Margaret Cobb (Wilcox) Price, and was soon christened "The Candy Kid" because
his father was president of the National Candy Company. But young Vincent had more than a sweet tooth; he absorbed his mother's
interest in art and began buying and collecting his own pieces at age 11. He would acquire fine art throughout his lifetime
and never tired of his self-prescribed mission to imbue a love of art in the masses.
He had less
interest in the burgeoning film industry, though he would always recall how the film Der Golem (1920) made an impression
upon him when he was a small boy. Like many privileged youths, Price attended Yale University after a trip to Europe at 17.
He went back to Europe with the Yale Glee Club, and wrote for the Yale Record, but ironically, had little to do with
the drama club. After graduating with a B.A. in 1933, he became a teaching apprentice at the Riverdale Country Day School,
but that kind of work didn't sustain him for long. Borrowing money from his parents, he attended London University and worked
in the Archives of the British museum. He had seen many theatrical previews in New Haven while attending Yale, but it was
while he was in London that he began his life-long love affair with the theater.
as an actor began when he was hired to play a cop in a London production of Chicago, a much earlier version of the
Broadway musical. This led to his being selected to play Prince Albert (he also somewhat resembled the man), the queen's German
husband, in a production of Victoria Regina, at the Gate. When Broadway producer Gilbert Miller decided to take the
show to New York as a vehicle for Helen Hayes, he wanted to retain Price in the role, but Hayes at first objected. She was
afraid she would appear much too old beside the 23-year-old Price. Miller was determined to have Price in the cast, and persuaded
Hayes to accept him in the part.
Things did not go entirely smoothly when the play opened on
Price was annoyed by Hayes' obsessive and consummate upstaging. "Helen Hayes is a little tiny woman," he said later, "but
she can move furniture marvelously." Hayes' husband, the alcoholic Charles MacArthur, suspected Hayes of having an affair
with Price, and was extremely difficult to deal with.
During the late 1930's, Price appeared in several other plays, and enjoyed
playing the suave matinee idol as much off-stage as on. His reputation as a ladies man was short-lived, however, as
he met his first wife, Edith Barrett, whom he married in 1938, after joining the famous Mercury Players. Out of the company,
Price also became good friends with Agnes Moorehead, but he had mixed emotions about Orson Welles. He thought Welles was a
genius as a director, but had reservations about the man's personality and acting abilities. Years later Price would
say that Welles "became a caricature of himself," apparently unaware that the same could have been said about Price.
Vincent and Judith packed up for Hollywood when Price got a role in the 1938 comedy Service de Luxe with Constance
Bennett; the film, did nothing for Bennett's or Price's career. Price was thrilled when he landed a role in the prestigious
production, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), but was disappointed by the brevity of his role as Sir
Walter Raleigh. Lawrence J. Quirk, author of Fasten Your Seat Belts, a bestselling biography of Bette Davis, says that
Price's name was bandied about when Davis remarked how inadequate Errol Flynn was as her lover, Essex, but that his name was
hardly "box office." "And Bette would never have permitted it," says Quirk. "Frankly, she thought Price was a 'sissy:'" Had
Price essayed the role of Essex, his career might have gone in an entirely different direction, but the folks in the front
office rarely if ever saw him as a romantic lead. In Private Lives, however, he holds his own with Davis and a host
of heavyweight character actors.
Price's association with the macabre (if not his solid identification
with it) actually began a lot earlier than most people assume. Also in 1939 he appeared in Tower of London, directed
by Rowland V. Lee, who also helmed Service de Luxe. Although inspired by historical fact, with which it takes many
liberties, the emphasis in Tower is on the grotesque. The picture also boosts one of Price's strongest bits of acting,
his drunk scene with Basil Rathbone. Richard the Third (Rathbone) has imprisoned his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Price),
and told him that he can win his freedom only by besting him, Richard, in his choice of combat. Believing he can hold his
liquor better than his brother can, Price suggests they have a wine-drinking competition. As flagon after flagon is consumed,
Price manages to maintain his comparative sobriety as Richard's head sinks toward the table. Convincingly playing the giggling,
pixillated fool, Price is a wonder to watch as he cackles in triumph one moment, only to giggle, then frown, in fear and disbelief
as the cunning Rathbone comes to life and gets to his feet a moment later.
Although his performance
has been criticized, Price is also excellent in Joe May's The Invisible Man Returns (1940)——and he isn't
even seen for most of the picture. Using his deeply expressive voice, Price lets his personality come through the bandages
and enacts his unseen role with a zest and passion that actually gives him more substance than others we can see. Although
Claude Rains was certainly a hard act to follow, Price does the part justice and then some. Joe May also directed Price in
The House of Seven Gables that year, giving the actor one of his best and most romantic roles. Price gives a vital,
even virile, performance as a sensitive but practical man who is nearly destroyed by vile duplicity. Although pleasant-looking
in the picture, Price was not really possessed of handsome, romantic leading man features like, say, Tyrone Power, and it
is easy to see why no studio furthered his ambitions to that end. The matinee idol of the Broadway stage was doomed, it seemed,
to second leads or character parts.
Rounding out the year 1940 was James Whale's Green Hell, in which
Price plays a philandering husband who's offed by blow gun rather early in the picture; he has little to do but he does it
well. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who starred in the film, remembers "Mr. Price was a charming gentlemen and a splendid actor.
Mr. Whale was a good director but this obviously wasn't his best effort. He had a short temper which George Sanders and I
chose to ignore." Fairbanks agrees with most people's estimation of this terrible film: "I went so far as to say it was the
worst film ever made!" Sadly, it would not be the worst film Price would be associated with. Price also did Brigham Young
- Frontiersman and Hudson's Bay in 194O.
The early 1940's were busy years for Vincent
Price. He had his own comedy play, "Poet's Corner," produced by the Lakewood Players in Maine, worked as a busboy at the stage
door canteen of the USO, opened his own art gallery in Beverly Hills, and appeared on Broadway in the hit melodrama "Angel
Street" (aka "Gaslight"). Preparing for the role by reading the more sensational passages of Kraft-Ebbing's Psychopathis
Sexualis, Price got the evil antagonist (who wants to drive his wife insane for her money) across to the audience with
equa1 parts sensuality and loathsomeness. Price's performance garnered him his finest reviews to date and furthered his unique
image as a " sinister romantic" who could not only appreciate the finer things in life (and kill for them) but could whisper
words of love while holding a knife behind his back.
But if Price was riding high as an actor,
his personal life was taking a beating. His success was causing a serious strain in his marriage; wife Edith's career had
come to a virtual standstill. But while Price may have been the toast of Broadway, he could hardly be said to have been a
major movie star at this point. Edith received a small role when Vincent was cast as the disbeliever in Song of Bernadette
(1943) and for awhile things quieted on the domestic front. But Hollywood had yet to find a special niche for the unusual
In Bernadette Price makes the most of the one-dimensional role of the stereotypical
atheist who seems written-in only to prove the alleged barrenness of a life without God. A deathbed Catholic, Price's character
sinks to his knees, dying, at the conclusion, asking Bernadette to pray for him and intoning that "I'll always be alone because
I have loved no one and nothing——not even myself." Price could be faulted for failing to get across the character's
despair were the role not such a phoney one as written.
Price often remarked that his favorite
among his films was Eve of St. Mark (1944) in which he played one of several draftees who find themselves confused
and adrift in a time of war. He claimed that virtually every soldier he met during World War 2 could quote one of his lines
back to him: "How close does a man have to come to being horizontal before he earns the right to remain perpendicular?" That
same year Price began a life-long friendship with Roddy McDowall on the set of Keys of the Kingdom, in which Edith
Barrett also had a small role. As Polly, who raises the boy who would become a missionary after his parents drown, she is
more than competent, as well as sweet-looking, though perhaps more handsome than beautiful. McDowall says that Price was "a
dear friend and a gentleman whom I admired enormously." As Angus Mealy, a gregarious, worldly and quite openly hedonistic
monsignor, Price is good if somewhat "unreal" and overstated.
"Unreal" is the word for Otto Preminger's famous Laura (1944), which
has never really been more than an artificial B mystery movie with some extra gloss. As gigolo Shelby Carpenter, Price is
good and oily, but both he and the role remain strictly on the surface. Price is fun as he says in the southern accent he
summoned up from his Missouri youth: "I don't know a lot about anything, but I know a little about practically everything."
Judith Anderson is even better, though, when she snaps about Price: "He's no good——but he's what I want." The
picture is stolen by bitchy Clifton Webb as Lydecker.
In 1944 Vincent and his wife decided to
separate, but they were soon reunited ... though not for long. While it would be unfair to label Price a sexist considering
the time period, he certainly exercised his “male prerogative” when he issued Edith an ultimatum (which he proudly
reported to columnists): She must give up all thoughts of her career and stay home to take care of their son, Vincent Barrett.
Price alone would be the breadwinner. Edith swallowed this for a couple of years, but by 1948 the couple were divorced and
in the middle of an enervating custody battle, which Price lost. Decades later Price didn't exactly set feminist hearts a'flutter
when he said that Diana Rigg did a good job as his replacement as the host of Mystery but that the new host really
should have been a man.
Price eventually gravitated toward a new woman, Mary Grant, who was a
former fashion designer, more than willing to give up her career and attend only to Vincent's needs, Mary was found by Vincent
to be far more simpatico than Edith. Although plain and unprepossessing as compared to Price's first wife, Mary's lack of
drive and ego, her willingness to let Vincent be boss, appealed greatly to Price and the two were wed in 1949. They would
eventually have a daughter, Victoria.
As things changed so drastically on the domestic front,
Price remained very busy in pictures. Appearing in A Royal Scandal (1945) with Tallulah Bankhead, he was reminded how
much of an unpleasant martinet Otto Preminger could be. He was reunited with Laura co-star Gene Tierney in Leave
her to Heaven (1945). And the following year he was awarded his first starring role as a murderous psychiatrist in Shock,
a minor B melodrama. It is generally considered that his real first starring role was in his next picture, an adaptation of
Anya Seton's novel Dragonwyck (1946). Joseph L. Mankiewicz' first directorial effort, Dragonwyck was produced
by Darryl F. Zanuck.
There has always been a division of opinion on Price's performance in this
film as Nicholas Van Ryn, the drug-addicted patroon of a gothic estate. Many, including this writer, see the roots of what
would, later, develop into Price's hammy camp histrionics, while others feel that Price strikes the right note of melodramatic
flamboyance, which he probably felt was the only way the part could have been played. (The script for Dragonwyck is
hardly serious drama.) Whatever the case, Price is certainly never boring while he is on camera, and the scene in the bedroom
when his infant son dies features him at his most impressively vile and callous. Turning on the crippled servant girl (Jessica
Tandy) who tries to offer him her condolences, he sneers at her: "Why should a loathsome, twisted creature like you live and
my son die?"
Although his role in Dragonwyck led to a contract with Universal-International,
it did not turn Price into a major star. Usually cast as a second lead or supporting player, Price found himself in vehicles
that were either mediocre, failed to promote his talent, or both. Throughout the late 1940's he found his career ambitions
slipping away——his days as Broadway's popular matinee idol seemed a distant memory——and wife Mary
undoubtedly made a more sympathetic listener than would have ex-wife Edith, who had her own ambitions and concerns. Price
had always wanted to model his film career on that of Ronald Colman, the smooth, cultured, urbane movie star who proved that
a man could be polished and sleek in manner and appearance, and still be considered manly, heroic and romantic by approving
audiences. The trouble with Price was that he came from a country where men were supposed to cherish baseball and football
over art and culture. The very qualities that he got across so vividly in Dragonwyck (for better or worse), that certain
theatrical flamboyance, proved his undoing. Wives and children he may have had, but his image still lacked an essential virility.
"He was simply too florid," says Lawrence Quirk, "to be taken seriously as a romantic leading man by the major players in
Ironically, Price got to work with his idol Colman in two pictures, the first of which
was Champagne for Caesar in 1950. Price later commented that the first day of shooting was "abject misery." Being co-star
to Rona1d Colman "was not as ego-building as it should have been," and he was "overcome with a kind of humility." Price played
Burnbridge Waters, head of a soap company. Also in the cast, as a radio show's master of ceremonies, was Art Linkletter, who
today says, "Vincent Price was one of the easiest actors I have ever worked with. He is a great raconteur (during waits for
the shots) and has a pixie sense of humor which got us both into a lot of trouble since he would break me up with some ad
lib as we were just about to shoot and caused a lot of retakes! His own persona was definitely not the menacing character
he played in so many horror films."
Price's next film, Samuel Fuller's The Baron of Arizona
(1950), contains one of his best performances, as James Addison Reavis, a con artist who actually tried to claim that all
of Arizona belonged to his wife. Whether pitching the woo to a gypsy woman or his own wife, or screaming at an angry mob to
"Go ahead — hang me!", Price is authoritative and powerful, commanding the picture and every scene without ever getting
really hammy. Although he demonstrates real star charisma in this film, that unfortunate florid, almost epicene, quality,
is too much on display as well. Another trouble is that Baron's interesting story and fine acting aren't served by
the sub-par production values.
|Price not at his best
|The Bat (1959)
Price signed a two year, non-exclusive contract with RKO but the pictures
didn't get any better. Still, he decided to opt for a 3-D remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (House of Wax/1953)
instead of starring on Broadway in a new play, “My Three Angels.” Price may have longed to be taken seriously
as an "artist," but the fact remained that he enjoyed the high life and if he also wanted to keep adding to his art collection
he would require much more money than Broadway could pay. He did, however, appear as Buckingham in a limited run of “Richard
III," produced by the distinguished Jean Dalrymple at the New York City Center Theater. Dalrymple says that "Price was the
first choice for the role and he was wonderful in it. He's a very fine actor and a real gentleman."
Andre de Toth's House of Wax is an effective, delightfully "gruesome" horror flick that seems to good-naturedly mock
the audience's obsession with tragedy and gore, equating the movie-going public with the people in the film who want waxworks
genius Price to concentrate more on a chamber of horrors and less on images of beauty. This Price does -- but only after he's
disfigured in a fire started by his evil, corrupt partner. Price's post-fire make up is well-done, but oddly, he has never
looked better than in the second half of the picture when he has supposedly "covered" his scarred features with a waxy duplicate
of his original face. Price is rather good as the artist, more restrained than he would become in later pictures. The enormous
success of House of Wax led to Price staring in one more 3-D horror film in the early fifties (Mad Magician/1934),
but generally he was back to his usual supporting parts in B movies.
In Irwin Allen's 1954 production
of Dangerous Mission (directed by Louis King) Price turned in a rather good performance as, of all things, an aging
lothario gunman. In Cecil B. Demille's epic remake of The Ten Commandments (1956), he scored as the sadistic master
builder, Baka, who whips the bare-backed John Derek and winds up strangled to death by a vengeful Moses (Charlton Heston).
Hardly euphoric over his film career, Price turned back to Broadway for inspiration, but his vehicle, “Black-Eyed Susan,”
was a bomb that garnered Price the most blistering reviews of his career. It was up to television to give Price's career a
needed lift. Pitted against jockey Billy Pearson (also an amateur art enthusiast) on The $64,000 Challenge, Price had
millions of viewers riveted to their TV sets as he answered question after question over a period of many weeks, and finally
split the jackpot with his diminutive competitor.
Over the next few years, Price seemed to develop
a split personality. On one hand, he became a top speaker on the lecture circuit, put together readings of such as Van Gogh's
letters, Whitman's poems, and Tennessee Williams' plays, published a “visual autobiography" entitled I Like What
I Know, about his love of art (he later published cook books, other volumes on art, and an autobiography for the young
adult market), and spoke out for the cause of the American Indian. On the other hand, he was the host of a short-lived TV
series entitled ESP, and appeared in a series of silly, low-budget horror films that can best be described as "creepy
Nevertheless those pictures are more fondly remembered
than such as The Big Circus (1952), in which Price appeared with Steve Allen, who recalls that "Price's personality
had a somewhat low-key, playful element to it." Price's generally perfunctory, hammy performances in his late fifties horror
films betray his contempt for the material. Kids of all ages may have lapped up The Fly (1958) and The Bat (1959),
not to mention the William Castle productions of House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959), but Price
only wanted the money. In each film ho plays virtually the same amused, calculatedly disinterested “sensuous asexual."
Price is amusing and slick in the low-key scenes (bantering with his sexy wife in House on Haunted Hill, for instance),
but in the more dramatic moments rarely bothers to work up any convincing distress or passion. Discussing a theft and
plotting murder with his patient, a bank trustee" in The Bat, Price's acting is so understated that the scene resembles
a high-school play rehearsal.
Although Price was given a much worthier vehicle in Roger Corman's
House of Usher (I960), the first of his Poe adaptations, his acting is only slightly better. As the demented Roderick
Usher, he plays with a certain panache, and is still a touch away from self-caricature. Unfortunately, his high, fruity voice,
which had been one of his greatest tools in younger days, works against his being particularly scary. The irony is that Price
is one of the weaker elements of a very creditable horror film (Daniel Haller's production design adds class to a low-budget
production), and is out-acted by his much younger co- stars, Mark Damon and Myrna Fahey. Price is even worse in the follow-up
The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), offering a performance that is at its worst amateurish (collapsing into supposed tears
at the thought of his dead wife), and at its best unbelievable (Price's turn as his own "father" is more laughable than frightening).
|The Conqueror Worm (1968)
Throughout the sixties, Price made several more lush, colorful Poe films
(Masque of the Red Death /1964 is perhaps the most memorable after the first entry), appeared in supporting parts in
a score of B movies, and finally descended to bottom-of-the-barrel foreign cheapies such as Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs
(1966), a strong contender for worst Vincent Price film of all time. Why the acting decline? In part it might have been a
reaction of disgust and disappointment from a man who had begun on the stage in the company of fine artists, fancied himself
the next Ronald Colman, but wound up sharing the screen with flies with human heads, untrained young actors, and being directed
by Hollywood Hot shots who wouldn't recognize a Rembrandt if it fell on them. Certainly Price enjoyed acting ——
but not in the movies he was making. Not that he wasn't having fun at times, but he loved his expanding art collection much
more than most of his movies.
Price hadn't entirely forgotten his craft, of course; he just needed
the right motivation. Ray Walston, the excellent character actor who starred as My Favorite Martian and now appears
as the judge each week on Picket Fences, recalls working with Price on Convicts 4 in 1962: "He had a scene when
he walks into a room where Resko (Ben Gazzara) has a lot of paintings on the walls." The extreme close up given Price to show
his reaction was "one of the most beautiful things I ever saw in terms of relying on the actor for conveying the emotions
that are going through his mind, what he was seeing with his eyes." To Walston it illustrated the "wonderful power of screen
technique combined with good acting."
The success of the Poe films made Price a ""bankable" star,
one whose participation could ensure financing for any film, as long as it was in the horror genre. Exhausting Poe properties
for American-International, Price agreed to appear in virtually every horror flick he was offered. Undoubtedly he felt that
if he couldn't appear in prestige items, he might as well make as much money as possible while his appeal with the fickle
teenage audience lasted. He also pursued his mission in bringing art to the American public (as if in penance) by agreeing
to choose works of art to be sold through outlets of the Sears store chain, an idea that was surprisingly successful. (He
was also asked to serve on a committee to redecorate the White House.) In 1969 Price appeared in the British production of
Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm), about the real-life exploits of the notorious persecutor of “witches,”
Matthew Hopkins. Many fans consider this one of the actor's best latter-day roles, and indeed young director Michael Reeves
managed to get Price to deliver a relatively straight-forward serious performance, after many awkward, and ultimately angry
encounters. Price was not ideal casting for the role to begin with, but at least Reeves prevented him from hamming it up.
The end result is still below the level of Price's great performances (one of which was still to come), and the movie, while
not without its moments, is too low-budget and schlocky to do real justice to its subject matter.
|Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
In the 1970s some wise producers took advantage of the fact that Price
was too "lovable" and campy to be really scary and that a combination of horror and comedy might be the best milieu to make
use of his particular abilities. Price had already done a couple of Poe parodies in the 1960's, which made good use of his
peculiar sense of humor, so he seemed a natural to enact the part of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) in that picture
and its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). As the doctor driven mad by the death of his wife, Price gives odd, dubbed
line readings (he never actually moves his lips but "talks" with the aid of a device in his throat) emphasizing certain words
for no reason, as if to denote the discombobulated state of his brain. Carrying out his grisly, imaginative executions with
his usual panache, Price as Phibes seems the perfect union of screwball and serial killer. It was hardly “great”
acting, but you couldn't imagine anyone else in the part.
Like other co-workers before him, Robert
Quarry, who co-starred in the second Phibes film, found Price "to be a charming man but an incredible pinchpenny.” Quarry
told an interviewer that when he and Price visited a museum together, Price offered to buy him a cup of tea and then asked
if he would also like a danish. Price paid for the tea, but Quarry had to pay for his danish. Quarry was completely cut out
of Price's social circle when a tactless reporter let slip that AIP was thinking of grooming Quarry to replace Price as their
Price's next film, Theater of Blood (1973), was along the same lines as
the Phibes films, but with a different story and characters (if the same revenge-driven plot line). In this Price is Edward
Lionheart, who fakes his suicide and comes back from the grave to murder off one by one the critics who ignored and lambasted
his performances. Since he's playing a bad, hammy actor (no matter what Shakespearean character he portrays before killing
his victims, Price sounds exactly the same), Price's campy emoting is perfectly appropriate, never more so than when he impersonates
a hairdresser named "Butch" to kill off future wife Coral Browne. Sporting what might be described as a, huge, red “Little
Orphan Annie” Afro, Price is very amusing as he charms Miss Moon (Browne) before sending her to the hereafter by means
of a specially-rigged hairdryer. What makes the scene even funnier is the realization that off-screen Price's manner wasn't
much "butcher" than the homosexual caricature he was lampooning. [Of course in Gay Lib terms this sequence is certainly regressive.]
Speaking of Coral Browne, she and Price began a friendship-romance on the set of Theater of Blood that Diana Rigg now
claims she helped instigate. This could hardly have set well with Mary Price, who did not divorce Price until midway through
the year of the picture's release. When it came to disposing of unwanted wives Price may not have been on the level of Bluebeard
—— or John Derek —— but he certainly preferred different kinds of women at each stage of his life.
During his first marriage to Edith Barrett he hadn't been mature enough to appreciate a woman every bit as talented
and cultured as himself. With second wife Mary he got the traditional wife and mother that he'd wanted at the time, but now
their marriage had grown stagnant and boring. He was ready for a woman like Coral, sophisticated and worldly and bitchily
amusing. Mary Price cited her husband's workload as the reasons for her wanting a divorce, but there were clearly other problems.
She won custody of their daughter, who was eleven at the time. Price and Browne later married.
In the following years, Price kept very busy, writing, touring,
a one-man show on Oscar Wilde entitled “Diversions and Delights,” as well as a lot of TV work: Hollywood Squares,
a telefilm with Alice Cooper, hosting the classy PBS series Mystery with aplomb, anything and everything. He appeared
in Michael Jackson's rock video Thriller, and was honored to be the inspiration for Tim Burton's short Disney film,
Vincent. (Burton later put Price in Edward Scissorhands in a small role.) But for a few highlights, his film
work was undistinguished. Price should have been excellent as a shattered has-been who travels to England to work on a TV
series based on a movie character he made famous, Dr. Death, in Madhouse (1974), but Price plays the role strictly
on a surface level, as if afraid of showing the depth of emotions the man must have been feeling. Scenes that could have been
moving are tossed away by his perfunctory playing. However, in Bloodbath in the House of Death (1985), a much worse
picture, an even older Price is right in step with the parodic proceedings and gives a very fine, funny performance. Dennis
Hopper, who had known Price for years, didn't do his old friend much of a favor by casting him in his artsy-awful Back
Track (1989) as a mob boss who's on screen for perhaps three minutes total; perhaps Price felt he was doing Hopper a favor.
Through it all Price kept his sense of humor and charm and professionalism.
Terry Black, screenwriter
of the imaginative Dead Heat (1988), recalls that "one of the things Vincent had to do was to lie on his deathbed,
reciting a long and involved speech about the disposition of his estate. The crew was amazed when Vincent, looking more than
half-dead, did the entire speech in one long, unbroken and flawless take." Black was also impressed with Price's "instant
finger-snap transformation from a decent and charming gentleman to the very essence of conniving evil, as soon as the director
yelled 'Action!' He may have been vile on-camera, but he was so popular that when he left the set, a double line formed to
say good-bye!" Price's first words to Black "were calculated to win the heart of any first-time screenwriter: 'Great script!'"
|Price plays the old lech in "Madhouse"
Perhaps Price's best latter-day role was in The Whales of August
(1987), in which he gives his finest performance since the early days of his career. He may have walked through many projects
that he felt were unworthy of him, when he was among people he had no respect for, but this time he was appearing alongside
screen veterans Bette Davis and Lillian Gish, with Ann Sothern thrown in for good measure, and he'd been handed a part that
was dignified and quietly touching. Price's "Mr. Maranov" is a genteel Russian immigrant who must find a new place to live
when the woman whose home (and heart) he occupied has passed on. Davis thinks of him only as an aging gigolo (shades of Shelby
Carpenter) and cruelly snaps that he can not expect to find refuge with her and her sister, Gish. "I have learned one thing
in life — expect nothing," he says. When he remarks that "I have often been adrift but I have always been afloat," Price
could have been talking about his own life and film career. Watching Price emote so convincingly and without a misstep in
Whales, a haunting picture about loneliness, loss and uncertainty, about accepting death or choosing life, it is sad
to think of how Price wasted his talents with so many hammy portrayals in dreadful exploitation films. At least before he
died he was given the chance to make the most of a substantial part in a serious picture that gets better with each viewing.
David Berry, who based the screenplay of Whales on his stage play, says, "I have only the highest respect and affection
for Vincent, for his professionalism, his talent, his performance, and his quintessential gentlemanliness. One could only
wish that [director] Lindsay Anderson could have found the same degree of grace in dealing with those three legendary actresses.
Vincent was kind, supportive, and completely considerate to Bette, Lillian, and Ann, always; He [was one] of the favorites
of the island community. No one was more accessible to the public than Vincent or [was] more fondly remembered on Cuff Island.
He [was] a star with a genuine ease and openness with and to people from all life's walks."
|Price as Oscar Wilde in his one-man show
After the death of Coral, life wasn't much fun
for Vincent. It was only a matter of time before he would follow her, and some friends were surprised that he lasted as long
as he did. He won awards and honorary degrees, but these were certainly secondary to the fact that he lived his life as he
wanted to live it. Although he made movies primarily to finance his lifestyle and art collection, he did enjoy the art of
acting. Brenda Vaccaro, who worked with him on the 1971 telefilm What's a Nice Girl Like You...? recalls him coming
up to her on the set and putting his arm around her. "I just love what I'm doing," he told her. "I'm in love with acting."
"I will never forget how enthusiastic he was about everything!" Vaccaro says.
As you think about Vincent Price a line from Whales
of August goes through your mind: "You must accept this last gesture of a doomed and ancient cavalier."
Price was the last of the great cavaliers.