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  Max von Sydow
(Carl Adolf von Sydow 1929– ). Swedish actor.

Acted in: The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957); The Magician (Bergman 1958); The Virgin Spring (Bergman 1960); The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens 1965); The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek 1971); The Exorcist (William Friedkin 1973); Steppenwolf (Fred Haines 1974); The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse 1975); Exorcist II: The Heretic (John BOORMAN 1977); Deathwatch (Bertrand Tavernier 1980); Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges 1980); Conan the Barbarian (John Milius 1982); Strange Brew (Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis 1983); Never Say Never Again (Irwin KERSHNER 1983); Samson and Delilah (tv movie) (Lee Philips 1984); Dune (David Lynch 1984); Dreamscape (Joseph Ruben 1984); Quo Vadis (tv movie) (Franco Rossi 1985); Ghostbusters II (voice, uncredited) (Ivan Reitman 1989); Until the End of the World (Wim Wenders 1991); "Vienna," episode of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992); Needful Things (Fraser Heston 1993); Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon 1995);Samson and Delilah (voice) (Nicolas ROEG 1996); Solomon (tv movie) (Roger Young 1997); "Fantasma per Caso" (1998), episode of Professione Fantasma; What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward 1998); Sleepless (Dario Argento 2001); Intact (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo 2001); Minority Report (Steven SPIELBERG 2002); Curse of the Ring (tv movie) (Uli Edel 2004); The Inquiry (Giulio Base 2006); Solomon Kane (Michael J. Bassett 2009); The Wolfman (director's cut, uncredited) (Joe JOHNSTON 2010).

Provided voice for animation: Ghost Busters (video game) (Kody Sabourin and David Wheeler 2009); Det Siste Norske Trollet (short) (Pjotr Sapegin 2010); Moomins and the Comet Chase (Maria Lindberg 2010); The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (video game) (Todd Howard 2011).

To follow the conventions of film criticism, one should write this sort of entry about Max von Sydow: here is a dedicated and immensely talented actor, trapped in a decadent industry that fails to provide him with appropriately challenging parts; sadly, then, he is obliged to squander his energies in frivolous movies to support himself while desperately searching for meatier roles like Pelle the Conqueror (1988). But I can't swallow the usual story in this case, for there are far too many trashy movies in von Sydow's filmography to suggest any real aversion to the genre. I mean, nobody accepts the part of Ming the Merciless in a film version of Flash Gordon simply to pay the bills.

Allow me to suggest, then, an alternative interpretation of von Sydow—as a performer who always longed to be silly, who wanted to squander his energies in frivolous movies, but found himself forced into serious roles in serious films because of his gaunt, grim appearance. But later, when Ingmar Bergman finally lost interest in him, and when Hollywood increasingly focused on the production of juvenile romps, the liberated von Sydow wholeheartedly threw himself into whatever absurdity was tossed his way and loved every minute of it, only occasionally returning, as a matter of face-saving duty, to the dutifully acclaimed art-house films where he had originally earned his high reputation.

The evidence for this scenario, I believe, is visible on the screen. In all the films he made for Bergman, the only time he ever appears to be enjoying himself is during his brief appearance as the gas station attendant in Wild Strawberries (1957)—a simple, cheerful man who is the antithesis of his sullen, tormented knight in The Seventh Seal. Although Hollywood initially offered him, respectfully, dignified roles like Jesus Christ in The Greatest Story Ever Told, to which von Sydow responded with respectful dullness, he first came alive as an actor in considerably less dignified milieus like The Exorcist and the spy film Three Days of the Condor (1975); despite his death in the former film, he was brought back for a flashback in the execrable sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic, signaling his perceived importance to the embryonic franchise. Then came the role he was born to play, the Emperor Ming in Flash Gordon, where von Sydow conducts himself amidst all the nonsense with ostensible seriousness and conviction while occasionally conveying, with a twinkle in his eye, that he fully realizes just how ridiculous—and sublimely entertaining—it all is. Bluntly, anyone who believes that it is more rewarding to watch von Sydow in The Seventh Seal is tragically blind to the full riches to be found in cinema.

His subsequent films persuasively reveal that the worse the film is, the more delightful von Sydow is to observe. Thus, while there are no complaints to offer about his performances in more subdued fantasies like Never Say Never Again, Dune, Needful Things, What Dreams May Come, and various biblical epics, von Sydow is especially exquisite in pure drivel, sharing the stage with incompetents or idiots like the hapless Sam Jones (Flash Gordon), an inexperienced Arnold SCHWARZENEGGER (Conan, the Barbarian), an out-of-his depth Tom CRUISE (Minority Report), or comedians Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis (Strange Brew). Best of all, watch the abysmal Judge Dredd only to appreciate how happy the man is to be supporting the comically miscast Sylvester Stallone in a clumsy retelling of a comic book adventure. Even in his eighties, von Sydow has kept up the bad work, enlivening the shlock fantasy Solomon Kane as the hero's father while venturing into another disreputable venue as a voice for video games. In sum, whether his cinematic world is day-glow futurism or lyrical fantasy, Max von Sydow always revels in the experience, and appreciates the company.

Although there are many pleasures to be derived from watching films, one of them is simply to enjoy watching people do the things that they enjoy doing, whether it is Fred Astaire dancing, Bette Davis emoting, Jackie Chan performing elaborate stunts, or Max von Sydow maintaining a straight face while participating in some of Hollywood's most farcically inept productions. Perhaps, in interviews with film magazines, he claims that he is only doing it for the money, and that is perhaps what any actor in such films would feel obliged to claim. However, watching all of his most disreputable films, and absorbing the evidence of a camera that does not lie, we can observe a true, and even touching, story of unusual but genuine artistic fulfillment.

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