Christopher Lee died recently. I think I first saw him in back 1967, in The Avengers ("Never, Never Say Die"), where he played an android.
His breakout role was, of course, the Hammer horror flick Dracula (1958). In my misspent youth, I think I saw all his Dracula flicks.
Other notable roles I saw him in were the Wicker Man and LOTR.
He was more of a presence than an actor. A towering, glowering presence. 6' 5," with a sepulchral bass voice and a saturnine appearance.
That worked well for certain parts, like Saruman. He was uneven as Dracula.
He was an interesting man. A linguist who knew Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Russian, German, Spanish, and Danish. During WWII, he was a spy.
I think that interesting people tend to be inferior actors, while less interesting people tend to be superior actors. People with strong, interesting personalities find it harder to submerge their own personality in a role. By contrast, people without much personality are like an Etch A Sketch. A blank slate on which to write the character. And they can erase that from one role to next.
For instance, Orson Welles was a sometime actor as well as director. He can be fun to watch in certain roles (The Third Man, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight). But his own personality is so dominant that he can't disappear into a role. Rather, the role disappears into him.
In addition, the English acting tradition takes the theater as the standard of comparison. Especially in the past, many English actors who starred movies were originally stage actors. I think that makes their acting less naturalistic. Enjoyable, but not as convincing.
For instance, I thought Olivier's performance of King Lear was predictably impressive, but I can't forget that he's acting. I can see the gears moving. From a technical standpoint, his acting in Othello is one of the all-time-great performances. Fascinating to watch. But you're watching what Olivier can do with a role. It's the actor, rather than the character, who commands attention. Laurence Fishburne is more believable. And not just because he's really black. Rather, he doesn't seem to be acting.
On the other hand, I thought Olivier was more convincing in Marathon Man. Perhaps that's because, for many of us, the villain isn't far below the surface. It's easy to tap into our inner villain. That comes naturally.
Likewise, I found him quite credible in The Entertainer. That's because the character is more like Olivier in real life–as he himself admitted.
When he was younger, I found Gielgud unlistenable. His delivery was quivering with strained sentiment. Terribly self-conscious. Later in life he loosened up. He gave a strong performance as Cassius in Julius Caesar. And he was very entertaining in Brideshead Revisited.
I enjoyed Ralph Richardson in Dragonslayer. Otherwise, I found his performances flat.
Michael Redgrave was great in The Browning Version and the Dead of Night. Otheriwse, I didn't care for him.
My favorite English actor was Alec Guinness.
I think another reason English actors used to be more stagey is because many of them adopted an Oxbridge accent. In fact, even for English aristocrats to the manor born, the persona is intentionally artificial.
That changed with the younger generation of actors. I think Michael Caine was a working-class actor from the start. Always used his native Cockney accent. He broke the mold.
James Mason was an English actor of the older generation who was more naturalistic. That's because he wasn't really a stage actor. He was just one of those people who's good in front of a camera. Compelling to watch.
I once saw an interview with an English actress who talked about the impact that Marlon Brando had on the younger generation of actors. Historically, English acting was very word-centered. The tradition of Shakespeare and Congreve.
By contrast, Brando's acting was more about body language. Projecting emotion. Nonverbal communication. According to her, that had a revolutionary effect on younger English actors. As a result, contemporary English actors are more naturalistic.
Most American film actors were never in the theatrical tradition–although a few had a vaudeville background. They were often bland.
An exception was Robert Mitchum. A naturalistic actor who was great in films like Farewell, My Lovely and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
American actors who came of age in the 50s and 60s were more naturalistic. That was partly due to method actor–although that could be very studied–as well as how the counterculture loosened things up in the Sixties and beyond.
Circling back to Lee, I think there are several reasons he was good as Saruman. Because LOTR is fantasy rather than verismo, with archaic dialogue and archetypal, histrionic characters, it's more suited to his operatic delivery. Also, by then he had so much life experience under his belt that I think that made him a better actor. Mellowed him. Made him more expressive.