Walker, Alexander Alfred (1930–2003), film critic and cinema historian, was born 22 March 1930 in Portadown, Co. Armagh, only child of Alfred Walker, commercial traveller, and his wife Ethel Linda Harris (née Andrews). The family were presbyterian, though not especially observant. In later life Walker suggested that the failure of Ulster protestantism to produce widespread hostility to the cinema as such (unlike Scottish presbyterianism) reflected a perception that whereas catholics excelled at amateur drama (because of their collective devotions and openness to the works of the Irish Literary Revival) the two communities were on equal terms at the cinema.
He traced his love of film to being taken on his fourth birthday by his mother to a cowboy picture; thereafter he regularly visited the cinema in Portadown or neighbouring towns with his parents or their maid, and was allowed to go as he pleased without restrictions. When his mother broke her glasses (with replacement a problem in wartime conditions), Alexander had to describe for her the films he saw. This – with newspaper film criticism and periodicals – laid the foundations for his later criticism, and his abiding interest in the appeal of cinema for female audiences and the female stars of the thirties and early forties (whom he described in a collection of reviews, Double takes (1977), as a ‘Great Matriarchy’ displaced after the Second World War by the male‐dominated Method). Seeing Citizen Kane on its first release gave him his first appreciation of how cinema narrative could be remoulded; it was always his favourite film.
Walker was a prodigy; he appeared several times on the BBC’s ‘Children’s Hour’ and a radio play he wrote at the age of 15 was broadcast by the BBC Northern Ireland Home Service. He was educated at Portadown College (the local grammar school). Believing something as enjoyable as moviegoing could not possibly provide a career, he studied philosophy and politics at Queen’s University, Belfast, with the intention of joining the nascent European bureaucracy, while ‘taking my pleasures where I could find them’ at Belfast cinemas. He studied at the College d’Europe in Bruges, but decided the prospect of life as a bureaucrat was intolerably boring. Walker then lectured part time in political philosophy and comparative government at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, while researching American attitudes towards Europe. At this time he paid his first visit to Hollywood: ‘De Tocqueville gave me the theory of American democracy, Warner Brothers showed me the practice of it, and Richard Nixon starred in it’ (Double takes, 116). He also experienced Freudian psychoanalysis, noting that he tended to discuss his thoughts and experiences in terms of films he had seen.
Walker’s bureaucratic training contributed to his abiding interest in the structure of the film industry and the ways in which commercial considerations influenced the artform for better and worse. (Several of his star biographies made pioneering use of the MGM archive to explore how the subjects were sustained and moulded, as well as constrained, by the studio’s requirements; he thought the studio system had advantages as well as disadvantages.) His experience of America sensitised him to how Hollywood reacted to and reflected the experiences, hopes and dreams of its audience: ‘to find out about society, I would sooner trust the filmgoer than the party voter. Neither may offer ethical satisfaction, but I know which one approximates the more to awful contemporary reality’ (Double takes, 136). He was also sensitised to the distortions imposed by such forces as the Production Code upheld by the catholic Legion of Decency. As a critic, Walker was an outspoken opponent of this code, writing with insight on how its fundamentally catholic belief in redemption through suffering and repentance enabled a characteristic form of movie industry hypocrisy where characters and audiences could indulge themselves so long as they suffered for it in the end.
In 1954 Walker returned to Britain after a job offer from the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, whom he had met in New York; discovering that such informal offers by Beaverbrook should not be taken literally, he joined the Birmingham Gazette as a feature writer and informally became its film critic also; in 1956 he moved to the Birmingham Post when that paper absorbed the Gazette. He wangled his way into attending London press screenings (rather than reviewing films on their appearance in Birmingham) and in 1960 moved to the London Evening Standard, assisted by a recommendation from the actor Kenneth More. For the rest of his life the Standard was his principal platform. He also had a column in the British edition of Vogue magazine for twelve years (1974–86), and appeared on and scripted many British television (the series ‘Moviemen’) and radio (the series ‘Film Star’) programmes about cinema.
For approximately 20 years (from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s) Walker was perhaps the most influential film critic in Britain; under the system of staggered releases practised by film distributors in this period, films opened in the West End of London some weeks before appearing elsewhere, in the hope of building up ‘word of mouth’ which would make them more attractive in provincial centres; Walker’s Evening Standard reviews were often crucial in this process. He was named critic of the year at the British Press Awards in 1970, 1974 and 1998.
Much of Walker’s influence derived from his willingness to speak his mind (as a Portadown presbyterian might be expected to). On the Birmingham Post he encountered obstruction from censorious editors and printers over his coverage of films such as Louis Malle’s Les amants (1958). On arrival in the Evening Standard Walker took to writing back to Beaverbrook when the notoriously interventionist press baron wrote to him criticising reviews; this amused Beaverbrook so much that he did not sack him. Walker believed it was fatal to second‐guess an audience: ‘I please myself – why else be a critic?’ (Double takes, 26). He possessed a remarkably consistent willingness to annoy and provoke; on one occasion the director Ken Russell (of one of whose biopics of artists Walker wrote: ‘setting out to reveal his chosen genius, he ends up raping him’ (Evening Standard, 2 Apr. 1972, quoted in Double takes) assaulted Walker on live television with a copy of the Evening Standard after Walker denounced Russell’s The devils (1971) as sado‐masochistic, embodying ‘the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman catholic boyhood’ (Double takes, 82–3), and vastly inferior to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels (1961), which was based on the same story.
Walker was an outspoken opponent of film censorship. In books such as The celluloid sacrifice (1966; rev. ed. as Sex in the movies, 1968) he campaigned to relax restrictions on how sexuality could be represented onscreen (and discussed off screen); he spoke scornfully of such censorship advocates as Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford (qv). He was, however, fiercely hostile to glorification of violence for its own sake, especially in sexualised form. He detested the 1970s cycle of vigilante films; he organised a 1971 petition complaining that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw dogs, which he described as misogynistic in its portrayal of rape and quasi‐totalitarian, was passed by British censors (he did not say it should be banned) while Andy Warhol films were banned for depicting homosexuality; he led a campaign against David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996), whose characters derive sexual stimulation from participating in car crashes. (Walker was traumatised by a car crash as a child, and never drove.) He was not always consistent on this point; some commentators suggest his defence of the stylised violence of A clockwork orange (1971) reflected his friendship with Stanley Kubrick.
In 1954 Walker paid his first visit to the Cannes film festival, where he became a friend and admirer of Jean Cocteau. Cocteau and the critic Kenneth Tynan, who advised Walker on the role of a persona in developing communication with the audience, strongly influenced Walker’s dandyism and appreciation of artistic stylisation in the well‐crafted movie. Such attention to decor was exemplified for him by Kubrick, who became a personal friend after Walker complained to a British film distributor that Kubrick’s early films were not given a fair showing; Walker spent six weeks working unpaid on a press‐cuttings album intended for The shining (1980), not visible in the finished movie, and published Stanley Kubrick directs (1971; rev. ed. (1999) Stanley Kubrick, director).
Lunching with a friend, the critic Victoria Mather, at the 1985 Cannes Festival (her first), he waved his arm at the Mediterranean scene and proclaimed, ‘this makes the Pitman’s [shorthand] course worthwhile’ (Evening Standard, 17 July 2003). Walker returned annually to the festival until his death, and became a fixture at the event, renowned for asking awkward questions at press conferences; at the time of his death he was only one of three British film critics to have served on the festival jury and was awarded the Légion d’honneur as a Chevalier des Artes et Lettres. Though Cannes was his forte, he loved the festival circuit (his insistence on attending the Manila film festival under the Marcos dictatorship and accepting the Order of the Golden Eagle for his alleged contribution to the Filipino cinema was criticised) and moved gracefully in the film circles of which he provides anecdotes in his reminiscences It’s only a movie, Ingrid (1988). Peter Sellers was a close friend (he published an authorised biography in 1981, partly based on personal reminiscence). Walker commented that in general he found producers most informative.
Walker wrote many books on cinema, including biographies of Bette Davis (1986), Joan Crawford (1983), Vivien Leigh (1987), Greta Garbo (1980), Rudolph Valentino (1976), Marlene Dietrich (1984), Audrey Hepburn (1995), Elizabeth Taylor (1990) and Rex Harrison (1992); a study of Hollywood Stardom (1970) (he believed the auteur theory, with its emphasis on the director, neglected the contribution of the star persona); an account of the transition from silent film to sound, The shattered silents: how the talkies came to stay (1978); and a three‐volume history of the British film industry from the 1960s to the beginning of the twenty‐first century: National heroes (1974), National heroes: British cinema industry in the seventies and eighties (1985) and Icons in the fire (published posthumously in 2004 – with a memoir by his literary executor Joseph Connolly). These works made him financially secure and allowed him to acquire a fine collection of prints and drawings; these were hung in rotation in his apartment in Maida Vale, with those not on display stacked eight deep against the walls.
He campaigned for various cinematic causes, including film preservation (in publicly available repositories) and greater appreciation of the silent film. From 1988 to 1994 he was a governor of the British Film Institute, and he also served on the British screen advisory council.
With those whom he liked, Walker was a charming and informative dinner companion; he ate sparingly and was a fierce anti‐smoker, sometimes pulling cigarettes from people’s mouths. In his study of Bette Davis, describing the scene in Now, voyager where Paul Henreid lights two cigarettes and hands one to Davis, he comments: ‘what its popularity did for lung‐cancer statistics in the years ahead is unthinkable’ (Bette Davis, 122). In his Who’s Who entry he gave his recreations as ‘ski‐ing, persecuting smokers’.
Walker had many friends, though he preferred to compartmentalise his friendships and keep them from overlapping (one reason why he never wrote a full autobiography). He was an insomniac who spent the early hours of the morning writing correspondence, including extensive remonstrations to British government ministers in charge of film and replies to numerous cranks. Friends experiencing late‐night crises often rang him and found a sympathetic audience.
Walker’s influence declined as simultaneous release across many screens became more commonplace. He was also somewhat dismayed when capsule reviews of individual films replaced the more discursive essay covering several films at once (as practised by such figures as Graham Greene and Pauline Kael), but he adapted to these new requirements. In the last years of his life his film reviews appeared in the Thursday edition of the Evening Standard, while his weekly column discoursing on general matters appeared on Tuesdays.
Walker retained an interest in Northern Ireland in later life. In 1985 he contributed a foreword to Michael Open’s history of Belfast cinemas, Fading lights, silver screens. He regularly revisited Portadown for holidays, riding around the town on an old Raleigh bicycle. He left a bequest of 1,000 (non-specialist) books to Portadown Library; this bequest was refused by the chief area librarian (without notifying the council) on the grounds that Walker’s request that the books should be kept together and never disposed of was contrary to library policy. This decision (only made public after the books were disposed of by Walker’s executors) aroused considerable local criticism.
Walker’s pro‐unionist views on the northern conflict (at the 2002 Cannes Festival he protested about the Northern Ireland Film Board being located in the Irish, rather than the British, pavilion) and his complaints about films which misrepresented the Northern Ireland situation as he saw it attracted much attention, particularly Hidden agenda (1990, dir. Ken Loach) which Walker described at a Cannes press conference as IRA propaganda and tried unsuccessfully to have excluded from consideration as a British entry for the festival, adding that the film’s RUC villain ‘demonstrated a firmer grasp on reality than anyone else in it’ (Evening Standard, 17 May 1990). But his views on Troubles films were less monolithic than this might suggest; for example, he praised Karl Francis’s Giro city (1982) although its treatment of newspaper constraints included a plotline implicitly sympathetic to the IRA; he disliked Edward Bennett’s Ascendancy (1982) for implicitly equating the War of Independence with the contemporary Northern Ireland conflict, but praised Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (possibly because of his general admiration for Jordan’s work as a conceptual director with an eye for decor). Although he might have sympathised with the ‘plague on both your houses’ treatment of paramilitaries in Divorcing Jack (dir. David Caffrey, 1998), he thought comedy–drama about the IRA ‘an insult to the 3,000 victims who found plenty of drama, and no comedy’ (Evening Standard, 17 July 2003). He generally praised Loach’s neo‐realist films, saying the Marxist director excelled in handling lost causes.
Walker’s political views were generally right‐wing, though he was hostile to some of the more authoritarian aspects of Thatcherism and bitterly critical of the post‐1979 Conservative governments’ destruction of many of the British film industry’s support structures and its mismanagement of the system’s commercial regulation.
He was a lifelong bachelor: ‘responsibility for others is something I have always rejected and fortunately avoided suffering from myself when I was growing up … The only responsibility is to oneself and the cinema’ (It’s only a movie, Ingrid, 5), lines Walker wrote in explaining his opposition to censorship. This principle seems to have governed his private life, which he kept firmly private (though his 1984 edition of the diary–memoir of the actress Rachel Roberts, No bells on Sunday, describes a casual sexual encounter between her and ‘a London critic, a passionate and intelligent man’, possibly Walker himself (No bells, 216.). Like the stars whom he analysed, Walker’s image included a certain sexual ambiguity based on consciousness of the responses of both sexes, which provoked deliberately unanswered speculation. His generally liberal views on homosexuality did not prevent accusations of homophobia when he criticised Derek Jarman (whose work he generally admired) for adapting Marlowe’s Edward II (1991) as a one‐dimensional gay liberation protest and excluding the play’s treatment of class and ambition.
Alexander Walker died of a brain haemorrhage at the London Clinic, 20 Devonshire Place, Westminster, early on 15 July 2003; hearing he was in a coma, two friends went to the clinic so he would not die alone. He left his art collection (more than 200 works) to the British Library department of prints and drawings. An exhibition of the works under the title ‘Matisse to Freud: a critic’s choice. The Alexander Walker bequest’ was held in 2004. He lived the life he chose, and he celebrated his lifelong engagement with the cinema as his great passion. ‘“Communicate” was the only obligation laid on me: the only rule I observed was “Please yourself”’ (Double takes, p. xi).