Alan Bates ‘78
The British film actor Alan Bates stated that his favorite screen performance was as Michael Henchard in the BBC television adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge (1978). This video essay considers why The Mayor of Casterbridge was so meaningful to Bates, offering four answers to that question: it struck a balance between stage and screen; it resonated with the rural and pastoral aspects of Bates’ star persona; it negotiated tensions between his public and private life; and it contained a subtle poetic commentary on the fraught relationship between actor and star image. In this accompanying written statement, I situate this approach to Bates’ career within a particular theoretical framework.
‘Alan Bates ’78’ is an analysis of what Pierre Bourdieu calls a career trajectory; a category that encompasses the structure of specific works – in this case, The Mayor of Casterbridge – as well as the structure of the artistic field in which it was made. To consider a career trajectory is to make good on Bourdieu’s recommendation to examine individual biographies, the field of cultural production, the individual work, and intertextual dynamics all at the same time. From this perspective, Bates’ affection for the role of Henchard can tell us something about the ways in which the actor’s dispositions intersected with the positions available in the field of cultural production at this time. To explore that configuration of positions and dispositions requires organizing a constellation of knowledge about a range of topics, including Bates’ training, his relationship to other actors and stylistic movements of the era, and even technological developments in television production.
From this perspective, the interview material from Bates’s agent Michael Linnit illuminates a period when the relationship between the actor’s inclinations and the structure of the cinematic field circa the mid-1970s became legible and consequential. For example, Linnit talks about how some of Bates’ ‘competitors’ took advantage of his departure from Hollywood after The Rose (1979). At one point during my interview with him, Linnit mentioned Michael Caine as an actor who moved into roles that were left untaken by Bates. With regard to Bates’ individual biography, ‘Alan Bates ’78’ documents a time when, to use Howard Becker’s terminology, Bates rejected the status of an ‘integrated professional’ who is fully immersed in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and instead opted for the position of the ‘maverick’ operating on the peripheries of that art world.
Videographic criticism is a powerful tool for the investigation of career trajectories since individual audiovisual clips allow for the close analysis of style and performance, while montage enables a succinct overview of a long career. Moreover, juxtaposition and superimposition visualize the traffic between text and intertext, as well as between an actor’s onscreen and offscreen persona. In ‘Alan Bates ’78’, superimposition brings The Mayor of Casterbridge into dialogue with Women in Love (1969) and An Unmarried Woman (1978), and so draws out the complex performance of masculinity embodied by Bates at this time. I hope that ‘Alan Bates ’78’ will demonstrate the potential for further videographic work on career trajectories in the field of media production, extending to other kinds of creative labor besides acting.
Jacob Smith is Professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film and Director of the MA in Sound Arts and Industries at Northwestern University. He has written several books, most recently Eco-Sonic Media (2015), ESC: Sonic Adventure in the Anthropocene (2019), and Lightning Birds: An Aeroecology of the Airwaves (2021). ESC and Lightning Birds are experimental audiobooks that can be heard for free at the University of Michigan Press website.
1. Zucker, Carole. 1999. In the Company of Actors. New York: Theatre Arts Books, p. 29. See also O’Hallaren, Bill. ‘Alan Bates of The Mayor of Casterbridge‘, TV Guide, Vol. 26, No. 35, Sept. 2 1978, p. 14; and Spoto, Donald. 2007. Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates. London: Hutchinson, p. 158.
2. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The Field of Cultural Production. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 181.
3. Ibid., p. 9.
4. Ibid., p. 61.
5. Becker, Howard. 2008. Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press.
6. See Williams, Linda Ruth. 2013. ‘Bad sex and obscene undertakings: Ken Russell’s Women in Love‘, in Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance, Vol. 6, No. 3, p. 348; Lowenstein, Adam. 2014.’“Horror’s Otherness and Ethnographic Surrealism: The Case of The Shout‘, in Benshoff, Harry ed. A Companion to the Horror Film. John Wiley and Sons, p. 522-523; Starr, Paul. 1978. ‘Hollywood’s New Ideal of Masculinity: The New Masculine Hero’, New York Times, Jul 16, 1978, p. D1.