Underrated Actors: Malcolm McDowell

Malcolm McDowell, one of the worlds most underrated actors [Source: ITV]
Malcolm McDowell, one of the worlds most underrated actors [Source: ITV]

Today I want to spotlight one of the world’s most underappreciated actors, Malcolm McDowell. In this article, I’ll give a brief biography of McDowell before stating why I feel he is underrated. Lastly, I will recommend five great performances of his for you to watch.

Who Is Malcolm McDowell?

Born Malcolm John Taylor in Leeds, England in 1943, McDowell caught the acting bug in his school years. Later he joined a touring repertory theatre company before moving to London. There he landed work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, several television bit parts, and was meant to make his big-screen debut in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow but his scenes were deleted. Regardless, he received an impressive debut as the lead in Lindsay Anderson’s If…. a year later. Across his career, he has worked with many notable creatives in many different genres; over film, TV, videogames and theatre.

Why Is He Underrated?

McDowell is underrated because despite having a career spanning over five decades, with a vast catalogue of credits, most people only mention A Clockwork Orange when talking about him. And McDowell deserves appreciation for the great work he’s done outside of Kubrick’s masterpiece.

McDowell belongs to the old crowd of British screen actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, who kept working even if the projects weren’t the best quality. And, like Cushing and Lee, McDowell never sleepwalks through a performance. Often being the lone bright spot in many films he appears in.

McDowell said he doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he just loves acting. In the age of prima donna actors, actors concerned about image over craft and method acting to a fault, it’s refreshing to see someone simply acting because he likes it. And the fact that someone so talented is willing to do so many different types of projects is honestly exciting. You never know what film you’ll get with McDowell, but you know he’ll be great.

Five Great Malcolm McDowell Performances

1. Alex DeLarge – A Clockwork Orange

The story of a psychotic teenage thug who loses his free will after a government experiment, A Clockwork Orange works so well because of McDowell’s performance. Not only does he make the Burgessian dialogue sound natural, but McDowell allows us to alternately feel frightened of and sympathetic for a truly despicable character, thanks to his charm and superb physical performance. There’s a reason this is considered McDowell’s best role.

Alex enjoying a nice cold glass in the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange

2. Mick Travis – If…, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital:

The only constant in Lindsay Anderson’s thematic trilogy was everyman Mick Travis. Travis helped audiences navigate Anderson’s surreal worlds. Whether he was a revolutionary, being chewed up, and spat out by arms dealers only to become a film star or being transformed into a Frankenstein’s monster, McDowell made you feel for him every step of the way.

Mick Travis looking ready to start a revolution in If….

3. Caligula – Caligula

As Caligula, McDowell looks right at home, committing horrendous acts and losing himself in hedonistic abandon with childlike glee. But beneath the tyranny is an affection for those close to him that gives him a layer of depth rather than simply being a madman. McDowell is brilliant at giving even his most monstrous characters in humanity.

Malcolm McDowell as the third Roman Emperor Caligula

4. Dr Samuel Loomis – Rob Zombie’s Halloween Duology:

Love or hate Rob Zombie’s Halloween films, McDowell is the perfect replacement for Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. Through both films, McDowell makes the role his own. Bringing class and gravitas while offering a more emotional and flawed interpretation of the character. Even if the scripts don’t work, McDowell gives the role dignity and dimension.

McDowell would have made Donald Pleasence proud in Halloween (2007)

5. Thomas Pembridge – Mozart in the Jungle

In this series, McDowell plays the New York Symphony Orchestra’s stuffy ex-conductor. Initially antagonistic towards those around him, we soon realise his attitude comes from not accomplishing everything he wanted to in the spotlight. So, he tries to amend himself. McDowell’s perfect comedic timing, curmudgeonly attitude, and ability to weave between comedic and heartfelt make him an enjoyable presence in the Jungle.

Thomas may be cruel sometimes but he is one hell of a maestro in Mozart in the Jungle

Even this barely scratches the surface of McDowell’s great roles. But hopefully, this article has encouraged you to check out and appreciate more of McDowell’s work. Be sure to tell me your favourite Malcolm McDowell roles below.

Also Read: The Anatomy of a Christopher Nolan Film

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Posted by
Josh Greally

Writer and filmmaker. I have a masters in directing film and television and have written film reviews for several smaller sites in the past. Films are my life, but I also enjoy writing, reading, listening to music and debating.