What a life Brian Cox has had. The weird zaniness of some of his memoir, Putting the Rabbit in the Hat (Grand Central Publishing, 2022, $14.99 on Kindle), is amplified by the fact that the “Editorial Reviews” section on the book’s description page is currently filled with info about the notable scientist Brian Cox! (Will the publisher even notice? God knows.)
There’s a lot to smile at here, with some frowns. First off, I reflected halfway through the book that Brian must have given the legal department at his publisher a lot of headaches. Some of the material in here is not flattering, to say the least. On the other hand, actors are known to have messy lives. For all of his judgments on others, freely cast around, Cox has had a messy life too. He admits it, but there must be many sordid episodes that he prefers not to dwell on that he fills with garrulous chatter.
One of the things I picked up immediately is that the memoir has a “dictated to” quality. It rambles and circles back, again and again. The most formative thing for Cox was his birth, first of all, which nearly killed his mother. She was forty and had already had four children and several miscarriages before he was born, in 1946, so Cox was the youngest of the family, and indulged. But his fairly placid childhood in Dundee, Scotland, was over pretty quickly after his beloved father died when he was eight and his mother spiraled into mental illness. The family then lurched into poverty. Cox makes us care about his tight-knit family background and his difficult early life. (His love of American movies also shines through.) He seems to have dealt somewhat, now, with his abandonment issues, but he married young in the late 1960s and unfortunately made his wife Caroline, another actor, pay for his childhood traumas. He touches often on his guilt about the way he treated his first wife, with many affairs, but then moves on quickly to another funny story.
A phrase that came to mind as I was reading this long book was “high-octane bitchery.” Cox probably doesn’t think of himself as a bitchy, judgmental guy, but the theatre world is all about that, and some of the stories and put-downs have a bitter edge. Cox hated working for Peter Hall at the prestigious National Theatre in London, for example, and describes one harrowing rehearsal scene where an elderly actor is strung up on stage above the other actors while they spray blood onto his crotch, amid much taunting and laughter. This goes on for *an hour.* Cox wanted to show how messed up and disorganized the National Theatre was during the 1980s, and he does, but he ends up having little good to say about any theatre he worked in, except Dundee Rep, his first, where he started as a fifteen-year-old jack of all trades. He describes the theatre scene in the U.K. as “feudal.” It clearly is, but Cox’s break to Hollywood at the age of fifty also seems a bit mercenary. He doesn’t care, clearly, and has left the theatre world behind to some extent, which is probably why he’s a lot more cautious in what he says about Hollywood. (He’s currently in a very successful HBO show, as most people know.) I did feel badly for him when he reflected that he got $10,000 for his mid-’80s role as Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter while Anthony Hopkins later got $1 million for The Silence of the Lambs. The understandable resentment came through loud and clear.
Basically, I had mixed feelings about the book. You can’t help but enjoy it, and Cox puts some meat in there about the craft of acting which is actually very interesting… A vein of melancholy runs through the book, which saves it from being silly, maudlin stuff. But boy, does Cox have a chip on his shoulder! I’ve had a bit of a crush on actors all my life, and reading this feels like it has cured me. (I also felt sad that while Cox clearly likes women, the anecdotes about the female actors he’s encountered are much more perfunctory than the male actors.) Even his attitude to “Me Too” stuff is odd: while Harvey Weinstein made his flesh creep, he seems blasé about Woody Allen and Bryan Singer, perhaps because they both helped his career.
While he’s been happily married for twenty years, Cox is at the age where he can’t really write about his relationship with much romantic conviction or intensity, though he tries. Mostly, he seems apologetic about how he failed women as he single-mindedly pursued his career. So the book ends on a bit of a whimper. It must have been cathartic for him to write (or dictate!), and it was mostly very enjoyable to read, but the “rabbit” that gets produced is a bit moth-eaten and damaged…