Tribute to Sir Derek Jacobi

Sir Derek Jacobi is the least pretentious knight you're likely to encounter.
Although he has a reputation as one of the great actors of the English stage, he's best known stateside as the major player in I, Claudius, the popular PBS series. Claudius, the slouching, limping, stuttering chronicler of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, survived imperial intrigue, murder, and Caligula, eventually becoming emperor himself. Playing the fool had its rewards: The role made Jacobi an “overnight sensation” and opened the magic door to the large screen. He enjoys a mutual admiration society with Kenneth Branagh, who directed him in Dead Again and cast him as another Claudius — Hamlet's murderous uncle — in Branagh's four-hour film adaptation of the play. Jacobi invested the character with a humanity so palpable one could feel his body temperature.

Jacobi will be honored Monday, Oct. 5, in a special tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival. His Mill Valley appearance coincides with a promotional tour for his latest film, Love Is the Devil, which is a portrait of the notorious painter Francis Bacon and his tempestuous S/M relationship with his working-class lover. As with some creative people, Bacon's talent was for art, not life. “He was a masochist in his sexual being and a sadist in his emotional relationships,” says Jacobi.

Early in his career, Jacobi was anointed the next John Gielgud — largely because of his most distinctive attribute, his expressive, clear, slightly ethereal voice. However, Richard Burton once took the young Jacobi aside after seeing him in a student production of Hamlet and told him that his mellifluous voice would put audiences to sleep unless he “roughened it up.” Thanks a lot, Dick.

Jacobi has benefited from the fact that the British entertainment industry embraces a wide range of physical types. The cult of beauty that tyrannizes American casting is mercifully absent in Britain, where one doesn't have to be an Adonis to get parts. “In American movies, the leads are always lookers. It would be nice if there were more room for the uglies and the oldies,” he says.

Above all, Jacobi is a creature of the stage, and he evinces an affinity for his fellow actors. “I admire actors' nerve, their courage, their skill, and the fact that they have to live with constant rejection, criticism, and self-doubt.” (A pregnant pause.) “Fortunately, it's also a profession where you don't have to retire.”

— Sura Wood

Love Is the Devil screens as part of the tribute at 6:30 p.m. at the Sequoia. Admission is $20 for the film and tribute; $40 includes a reception with Jacobi. Love Is the Devil opens commercially Oct. 9.

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