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FOX, JAMES: Anna Karenina

British actor James Fox may well be cast as sombre stiff upper lip characters, as in his latest film, Anna Karenina. But older movie audiences might remember a time when a younger, more brash Mr. Fox could be seen dancing and singing alongside Julie Andrews, no less, in the zippy movie musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. But as the former child star recalls, the times they are a changing, writes PAUL FISCHER.

The year was 1967, the so-called swinging 60s were alive and well, and Hollywood was enmeshed in its own sea of romanticism. The movie musical was dying, but straight-laced serious British actor James Fox was singing and dancing into the arms of that mistress of musical comedy at the time, Julie Andrews. The film? Thoroughly Modern Millie, an experience the now 58-year old former child star fondly recalls. "I was NEVER expecting producer Ross Hunter to ask me to do this singing and dancing role, with the likes of Julie, Carol Channing, Mary Tyler Moore and those people. It was thrilling to try and take it on and I absolutely loved doing it.".

"I hope we did it well"

The lanky leading man he played so effortlessly in that bubbly, classic film, is poles apart from the brutal husband Fox portrays in the new film adaptation of Tolstoy's romantic epic, Anna Karenina, a part that he was initially reluctant to take on, especially as it's been done many times before. "I resisted the idea of playing it initially, because I didn't identify too strongly with it, but I think Bernard [Rose, the director] honoured me by inviting me to do it. To do it effectively, you've got to believe in the relationship that Anna is reacting against. I hope we did it well."

"I don't think they understand the film"

The American critics DIDN'T think they did it well at all, and the film received negative reviews, which angers the actor. "I don't think they understand the film. They're just looking at it and comparing it to other films today, not having read or understood the book." Fox is nevertheless pleased with the film and his take on his character. "I like him. I think he's a sympathetic man despite his defects, but at the same time he's got certain integrity and honour."

Fox began his illustrious career as a child actor in the early 50s, beginning with his role as a boy whose life gets complicated once he acquires "The Magnet" (1951), but he soon gave up acting to finish school. "My parents felt it was good that I'd had those early experiences as a child, but they wanted me to get some kind of balanced education as far as it could go. But it didn't go very far." Not surprisingly, Fox returned to acting a decade later, and quickly enjoyed success in the role of a haughty but ultimately malleable aristocrat strangely corrupted by his butler (Dirk Bogarde) in Joseph Losey's striking drama, "The Servant" (1963). This part, one of Fox's finest, typified many of his subsequent roles: classy yet often duplicitous, prone to weakness, decadence, and bad judgment.

Successfully venturing to Hollywood, Fox essayed similar characterisations in "King Rat" (1965), as a POW under the influence of a schemer (George Segal), and in "The Chase" (1966), as Jane Fonda's wealthy but spineless Texas husband. More conventional leading man duties came with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967) and as one of the lovers of "Isadora" (1968) in that biopic of the dancing Duncan. Perhaps Fox's finest work in this period came in the bizarre but galvanising "Performance" (1970), as a vicious hit man on the lam who hides out at a reclusive rock star's (Mick Jagger) mansion and falls prey to a series of bisexual orgies and weird costume changes. Before taking a considerable break from the profession, Fox was considered one of Britain's most in-demand actors working in Hollywood. It was an up-and-down time in his career, but a fortuitous one. "British films were popular in the thick of the sixties, and it was against that background that actors like myself, Michael Caine and Sean Connery came into their own. It was a very good time to be a freelance actor, a very vibrant time, and my career reflected the diversity of cinema coming from both America and Europe."

"People then looked upon me as a kind of freak"

Fox left acting in 1973 when he joined a Christian missionary group, the Navigators, though he did act in the story of a suicidal woman saved by religion, "No Longer Alone" (1978). Then in the early eightie, Fox returned to acting. Returning to movies after such a long absence was tough. "It was difficult, and still is. I think the perception of me dropping out of films and having a religious experience, ran counter to my previous reputation and lifestyle. I was therefore identified in a negative way with NOT doing something for kind of moral reasons (he knocked back French Lieutenant's Woman for instance). People then looked upon me as a kind of freak, not knowing how to place me and whether to cast me in anything at all."

"It was great fun to do."

But he prevailed, and since his return to acting, Fox has been more prolific than ever, alternating offbeat, small-scale efforts ("Pavlova" 1983, "As You Like It" 1992), with mainstream Hollywood fare ("The Russia House" 1990, "Patriot Games" 1992) and prestigious historical epics. With his distinguished middle-aged bearing, Fox has usually incarnated a series of old guard authority figures: David Lean specifically asked for him for "A Passage to India" (1984), and Fox was also effective as a British statesman who misguidedly gives in to his own prejudices and weaknesses while placating the Nazis in the name of peace in "The Remains of the Day" (1993). Fox continues to be busy, and even travelled recently to Australia to star "in a sprawling TV movie about early settlers. It was great fun to do." Fox will next team up with legendary fellow Brit Michael Caine in what he describes "as a wonderful caper film, which I'm looking forward to."

Anna Karenina was released nationally on July 17, 1997

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James Fox with co-star Sophie Marceau

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