Why Benedict really stinks in role as Cowboy in his latest Western film
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He told director Jane Campion: “I need whittling lessons, I need riding lessons, I need banjo lessons, I need dude camp [tourist ranch].” And he got them all.
Cumberbatch has become an Oscar frontrunner with his mesmerising role as a bullying, tormented rancher in 1920s rural Montana, in the film that debuts on Netflix on Wednesday.
He learned to roll perfect cigarettes with one hand, confessing: “That was really hard. Filterless rollies, just take after take. I gave myself nicotine poisoning three times.When you have to smoke a lot, it genuinely is horrible.”
He spent months before filming becoming skilled at steering cattle, hay-stacking, blacksmithing, even ironmongery: he hammered out a lucky horseshoe for Campion. He even learned to carve miniature furniture, making a set of tiny perfect chairs.
To fully inhabit the role of rough-hewn Phil Burbank, who rarely washes off the prairie dust, Cumberbatch shunned bathing.
“I wanted that layer of stink on me,” he says. “I did things like not washing for a week, getting up at all hours to tend to the animals, muck out stables, put together every part of the saddle. I needed it to be like second nature.”
He remained immersed in his character while on set, refusing to answer to any name but “Phil”, maintaining a simmering anger and contempt for his co-stars.
At the start of filming director Campion assured the cast: “Benedict is really nice, and you’ll meet him at the end of the shoot.”
It’s typical of the dedication to his craft from the actor who shot to fame as TV’s Sherlock in 2010, and won an Oscar nomination for 2014’s The Imitation Game.
In addition to The Power Of The Dog he has three more films poised for release: Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness; Spider-Man: No Way Home; and The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain. “It’s just a lot of me,” he concedes.
Yet despite his best efforts, one skill eluded Cumberbatch: “I really wanted to become world class at the banjo. And I’m very much not.”
Before heading to film in New Zealand, which stood in for the American West, Cumberbatch spent a month working on a Montana ranch.
It was there that novelist Thomas Savage penned The Power Of The Dog in 1967.
“It’s been optioned by Hollywood at least eight times in the 54 years since it was written,” says Professor Alan Weltzien, who wrote the novelist’s biography Savage West.
“It was to star Paul Newman, then Randy Quaid, but now finally Benedict Cumberbatch has delivered a deeply luminous film.
“Intriguingly, behind the story of the novel and the film lies the real-life struggle and torment of its author, Thomas Savage, who put much of himself into the characters.”
The Power Of The Dog title is borrowed from a verse in Psalms (look it up) is a psychological thriller that follows sadistic macho cowboy Phil Burbank and his quieter, introverted brother George as they run their ranch together.
When George marries young widow Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, Phil torments her and her effeminate teenage son Peter. Yet – spoiler alert – Phil’s rough and cruel exterior hhy hides a secret self-loathing for his hidden homosexual longings, which clash with young Peter’s barely hidden gay inclinations.
“Novelist Thomas Savage was a closeted homosexual torn by inner turmoil,” reveals Weltzien, who helped advise on the movie. “He masked his gayness in a heterosexual marriage, but he was tortured and at war with himself.”
Savage, known as Tom, wed fellow novelist Betty Fitzgerald in 1939 and had three children. “When they were engaged he told Betty that he was gay, and she said, ‘That’s OK’, so they married anyway,” says Weltzien, in Dillon, Montana.
“Then in 1961 he met a young lover 19 years his junior, Tomie dePaola, aged 27, ran off and deserted his family for 18 months. He and Tomie even exchanged rings at a church. But Tom’s oldest son, Brassil, beat up his father’s lover.
“Realising his gay romance wouldn’t work, Tom returned to his wife. With amazwhose ing generosity and forgiveness, she took him back. But Tom Savage had to hide his homosexuality for much of his life. In 1964 he wrote his only gay novel, but his agent said it wouldn’t sell and couldn’t be published. Savage threw the manuscript into the Atlantic ocean, lost forever.
“That frustration at hiding his true self led him to write The Power Of The Dog, and burns at the heart of the story. It’s Savage’s protest against the impossible conditions for sexual minorities in the rural West.
“Phil’s bottled himself up, and his selfloathing exudes all over the screen in his sustained cruelty.”
In the film Rose, wilting under Phil’s emotional violence, becomes an unhappy alcoholic.
“In real life Tom Savage’s mother was an unhappy alcoholic and Tom himself was a functioning alcoholic,” says Weltzien.
Savage also saw much of himself in the character of Peter: both lost their fathers infancy and were thrust into rural Montana’s rugged masculinity when their mothers remarried ranchers.
“Tom’s father disappeared quickly when he was young,” says Weltzien. “His mother remarried when Tom was five-years-old, so that he would have a father figure.”
Savage suppressed his true sexuality until his wife died in 1989.
“Tom immediately moved to San Francisco and moved in with a boxer,” saysWeltzien. “He even reunited briefly with his former lover Tomie de Paola.”
‘In Savage gay novel told it published… threw it Atlantic’
Like Cumberbatch’s character in the film, Thomas Savage was a consummate cowboy in his youth.
“He was good at breaking horses, and worked at a dude ranch,” says Weltzien. “He could have been a rodeo star. He did all the ranch chores, feeding and mucking out the horses in minus-40 degree winters.
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“Yet his daughter Elizabeth says he hated Montana, which he felt constricting. Tom said that if you had any brains or talent, you’d get the hell out of a place like that. He left for Maine in 1937, but spent the rest of his life writing about Montana.”
Savage won critical acclaim in his lifetime, and sold the film rights to his second novel to Columbia Pictures for $50,000 in 1948, to star Rita Hayworth.
But the film was never made, and his novels sold poorly. He died in 2003, aged 88.
“He was never wealthy from his novels, and was under-appreciated, yet he was happy, despite being split at the root,” says Weltzien.
Cumberbatch believes that the film’s story “still bears relevance. There are still angry, toxic masculine character traits writ large in world leaders of late, let alone other kinds of domestic abuse or abhorrent male behaviours”.
The film is “a lesson in… how toxic masculinity can become if your true identity is not allowed or tolerated or celebrated or accepted”, he says.
While women are increasingly being heard, the happily married father-of-three says: “We should also be looking at men – why are men like this?”
Adds Cumberbatch: “Sure, I’m a straight man but I’m extremely in touch with my feminine side.”
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