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When the forgotten star fell in love again ...



The sun was shining when James Mason walked out of his Hollywood lawyer's office on a warm June day in 1962 but he didn't notice. So far as he was concerned the sun had stopped shining a long time ago. For the star of such classics as Lolita and The Wicked Lady, was a bitter and broken man.

His 21-year marriage to writer Pamela Ostrer had finally ended that day with a settlement which, according to Mason, "totally cleaned me out apart from the clothes I stood up in." He had no home, no assets, and it seemed, no career. To the Hollywood moguls, James Mason was a forgotten star. He swore on that day that he would never marry again, that he would turn his back on the movie industry which had treated him so cruelly, that he would, at 53, look for another career, perhaps, like David Niven, as a writer. It had all started off so differently. He had met the beautiful dynamic Pamela in 1936 when she was married to director Roy Kellino and was instantly attracted to her. He moved in to Kellino household as a lodger.

Kellino put up with the increasingly bizarre situation for two years before divorcing his wife and she married James Mason in 1941. With her encouragement, Mason developed as a matinee idol, hitting the headlines with swashbuckling epics like The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight and Thunder Rock. It was after Carol Reed's classic suspense thriller The Odd Man Out made Mason's Britain's most popular movie star in 1947 that, with Pamela's urging, he took his biggest gamble and moved to Hollywood to take up a million dollar contract.

From the start, Pamela loved Hollywood and her husband loathed it. Their house, Buster Keaton's former home in Freshwater Canyon, became a regular party haunt for Pamela's movie star friends, who soon became used to James sitting in the corner reading, or going to bed after supper without even saying goodnight. It took him three years to crack Hollywood in 1950 he made  Rommel Desert Fox which to his surprise became a major hit and led to a lucrative seven-year-contract from 20th Century Fox. But life in Freshwater Canyon attracted more headlines than James Mason's movie career.

Roy Kellino had arrived in Hollywood and now lived permanently in the Masons' guest-house. And their two-year-old daughter Portland, broke all Hollywood child behaviour rules, by being a guest at all dinner parties and seldom going to bed before midnight.

Wrote one gossip-columnist: "The home life of the Masons is more like the plot of a sophisticated comedy." In fact all traces of comedy were fast disappearing as Mason's Hollywood career flourished with movies like Hitchcock's North by Northwest so life with Pamela became intolerable and finally ended in divorce.

It was a bitter and expensive break and without his wife and family, Mason became a virtual recluse for the next seven years. He had a highly publicised fling with actress Donna Greenberg, his co-star in North by Northwest but the couple drifted apart and Mason sank deeper into lonely introspection. That was until, in the spring of 1969, he was to meet the woman he was to love for the rest of his life. While making Age of Consent with Helen Mirren, Mason, now 60, met actress Clarissa Kaye, 36, who had a small part in the movie.

She remembered: "I didn't think he had even noticed me and then weeks later I got this marvellous letter saying how much he had enjoyed working with me. From that moment I knew I had to be with him..."

Which was more difficult than it sounded. Mason, convinced his film career was over, now roamed the world making low-budget movies in which he had little interest. Clarissa set about tracking him down and eventually found him in Hong Kong.

"Soon he was spilling out his anguish, his bitterness about the divorce and how he'd made a tremendous mess of his career. We got on so well and I thought he was a wonderful man who deserved some happiness.

"I started to travel with him and in 1971 we got married. He insisted that we did it secretly but everyone guessed that something had happened he actually started smiling again..."

With his new-found happiness came a new interest in making movies. With Clarissa's encouragement, he returned to the Hollywood big-time, making the blockbuster Heaven can Wait with Warren Beatty and Sydney Sheldon's Bloodline co-starring Audrey Hepburn. It was for Sydney Lumet's picture The Verdict that James Mason, with Clarissa at his side, finally accepted an Oscar. He had another triumph co-starring with John Gielgud in The Shooting Party, but at 75, his health was failing and he died, holding his wife's hand, in July 1984.

"He never wanted to grow old," Clarissa said, "and to me he wasn't. He always said he wasn't much of an actor but the movies he's left behind make a nonsense of that."

James Mason left his own epitaph. Shortly before his death he told a friend: "I could have happily died at 60. Then when I met Clarissa I wanted to live for ever..."  
(Susan French/Tony James Features)      

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