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Leonid Bykov — fame and untimely death of an actor

 

The post-Soviet movie buffs find films made in the Soviet times — with a very few exceptions — to be no longer viewable; even the number of those who might watch them for sentimental reasons has thinned considerably though some people of older generations may still find nostalgic value, without being too critical, in the films they saw when they were young. It is probably too early to say whether the sinking of the Soviet films into oblivion is regrettable or providential. Among the happy exceptions are films directed by Leonid Bykov, and some of the films he played in. His films convey a message which is still very much pertinent today. On December 12 2003 he would have turned 75…

 

As a child, Leonid Bykov’s most cherished dream was to become a pilot. The films about the famous pilots of those days he saw as a teenager added fuel to his desire to fly. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Leonid went to an enlistment office and declared he wanted to join the armed forces — the air force in particular. The draft board praised his patriotic feelings but told him that, first, he was too young to be inducted, and second, he looked a bit too puny to become a pilot. “Finish your schooling, son, build up your muscles — and then come again.”

Surprisingly enough, being turned down in such a manner, did not put Leonid off, and a couple of years later, after graduating from school and adding some flesh to his light frame he made a second attempt to become a military pilot by applying to a pilot-training school in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) in Russia. The school was considered to be the best of its kind and Leonid, a wide-eyed, good-natured Ukrainian lad from the village of Znamyanske in the region of Donbas travelled a long way to Russia’s former “northern capital” to apply for admission. The reception he got there was as cold and inhospitable as the weather — again he was turned down, this time the main reason being his small stature rather than age. In fact, he was admitted at first but discharged only a few weeks later, his height being considered “inadequate for an air force pilot.”

Bykov’s second strongest ambition was to become an actor. Having failed in the first, he went to Kyiv and applied to an actors’ training school. He failed his entrance exams. It was a hard blow to his pride. He just could not face his friends and relatives back home and went to Kharkiv instead to try his luck at the Theatre Institute there. This time luck was on his side and he was accepted.

Soon after graduation in 1951, he landed a role in a film that turned out to be a box-office success (Sudba Mariny, or Marina’s Fate, directed by I. Shmaruk and V. Ivchenko), and proved to be a turning point in Bykov’s acting career. His was a small role but he was noticed by those who mattered in the world of cinema, and was invited to play a role in a film that launched him to fame. Ukrotitelnitsa Tigrov, or A Woman Who Tamed Tigers, was one of the most popular films of the 1950s.

 

Bykov was not, at that time, “a movie actor” fully employed by a particular studio — he was a theatre actor at the Kharkiv Drama Theatre who once in a while played in movies. The film Maksym Perepelytsya in which he appeared next after the Tiger Tamer was an ambiguous boost to his career — on the one hand, the young mischievously playful, warm-hearted village lad Maksym who paints the village red was liked by the movie goers very much, but on the other hand, Bykov found himself in a situation when all the roles he was proposed to play began to be of a comedian type. He was sure he had a potential for roles of a dramatic kind as well. But all he got were “Maksyms.” The situation began to depress him.

A breakthrough came when the Russian director Aleksey Batalov offered him the leading role in Shynel, a film based on Gogol’s Overcoat, a dramatic story of a mistreated petty clerk. Bykov was thankful for the opportunity to break the “Maksym” circle and accepted. But his theatre refused to let him go to Moscow for filming — You spend too much time away from the theatre, he was told. Batalov gave the role to another actor.

But something changed and when the next proposal came Bykov made sure nothing would stop him from getting the role. The only hitch was the age of the man he had to play — Bykov was over thirty at that time and he had to portray someone who was barely twenty. The directors from the Mosfilm Studio dispelled the last doubts saying that Bykov was good enough an actor to handle such a minor problem. In Alyoshkina lyubov, or Oleksiy’s Love, Bykov played a young man head over heels in love with a good-looking girl who at first ignores him but gradually falls in love too. Bykov’s friends later said that he portrayed himself rather than a fictional character — he possessed the same capacity to love, lyricism and yet confidence in himself. His Alyosha won the hearts of the cinema audiences and confirmed Bykov’s status of one of the leading actors of his time.

Bykov played several roles portraying cheerful, straightforward, open-hearted and guileless men, that is the type of man not unlike him himself, but in every film he was as different as the roles required, retaining at the same time the basic features. Bykov’s film heroes were men who looked mild and lenient but were powerful personalities who knew what courage and true love is. In real life Bykov did resemble his characters on the screen — considerate, with a gentle smile, and a quiet voice, he turned into a quite different person when it came to making his point of view understood and accepted, or in defending someone who was offended. When he had to be, he was even tough, highly purposeful.

In the 1960s, at the peak of his acting career, he moved to Leningrad where he was offered by a local film studio to try his hand in directing movies, a thing he had wanted to do for quite some time. His debut in the capacity of a film director, Zaychik (“Little Rabbit”) about a theatre makeup man who wanted to right the wrongs and prevent injustice but failing in his futile efforts, was not exactly a flop, but it did not achieve the level of success that had been expected of him.

Bykov’s interest in the life and plight of “the man in the street” was probably one of the reasons the Soviet authorities were dissatisfied with him, and his career of a director was interrupted for many years. “Socialist realism” in the cinema required portrayal of “heroic personages in heroic circumstances proving the advantages of the Soviet way of life.” Bykov wanted to show life as it really was, not as the official propaganda wanted it to look. Bykov loathed all pretence and falsehood.

His career of a film director stalled, Bykov moved with his family to Kyiv where he was employed by the Dovzhenko Film Studio, but from the mid sixties up to the early seventies he appeared only in a couple of films. In a letter to a friend from his Kharkiv theatre days he wrote: “I have not played in a single film yet. Don’t want to play. I’ve turned down 9 roles. I just can’t participate in making all those false films devoid of any artistic merits. I realize I cannot go on refusing roles to play. Technically, I’m an employee of the studio and the studio has a plan to fulfil. I feel like returning to Kharkiv, to our theatre, but I’m afraid the atmosphere there is no better. Something must be done — but what? How to live in dignity?”

In another letter, Bykov wrote: “Couldn’t sleep the whole night. I wish I could tell the truth about the way things are. Why did such [prominent] directors as Alov, Naumov, Khutsiyev, Donskoy and Chukhray leave the studio? … Will the time ever come when we’ll hold the authorities responsible for mistreating and humiliating people? Indifference is the most harmful social blight. Obsequiousness and servility come next — they lead to what is called ‘the cult of personality’ [evidently, reference to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the top communist party bosses who followed him — tr.]”.

 

Bykov eventually did get through to movie directing. In the early nineteen-seventies he made his probably best known film, V boy idut odni ‘Stariki’ (“Only ‘Elders’ Go into Battle”). He wrote the screenplay, he played the leading role and he directed the film. It took him quite some time to persuade the studio management the film was worth making [in the Soviet times, it was the state that was the producer of all the films made in all the studios of the former Soviet Union, and the decisions and permissions to make this or that film were taken and given by an hierarchy of bureaucrats and party officials; the final approval was often given by the big party boss “in charge of ideology” — tr.]. When Bykov submitted his screenplay for approval, he was told “it was not heroic enough” but finally he got what he wanted.

In a sense, the film reflected Bykov’s thwarted ambition to be an air force pilot — it is about the tragic fate of pilots of a fighter squadron during WWII. The film turned out to be different from the usual Soviet productions of war movies in the way war was shown — not just a series of dog fights in which some of the heroes die but the enemy is always vanquished, with little attention given to how it really felt, on the purely human level, to be in the midst of the most devastating and cruel war in the history of humankind. The pilots in Bykov’s film were recognizable as “lads from our neighbourhood” — thrown into the inhuman circumstances they retain their humanity. “Elders” were twenty-year old kids. The film makes the viewers cry but it is not a tear-jerker — there is enough heroism and determination in the face of adversity in it to give hope.

The acting was very convincing, the situations the protagonists find themselves in are very real and poignantly disturbing but the first official reaction to the film was negative: “The film is naive to the point of being so artless that one wonders whether the director gave himself the trouble to seek for a more dramatic or elaborate approach. The poorly written screenplay does not allow for penetration into the human psychology and that is why all the characters are of an operetta kind.” One wonders today how could anyone be so blind not to see the most compelling and appealing feature of the film — its profoundly humane character.

Tamara Borodacheva, then assistant director, tells a story from the days of the filming: “Leonid was to ‘drive’ a replica of a war-time fighter plane over a stretch of ground without taking off. One of the wheels of the plane got caught in a hole in the ground and for several moments it seemed the plane that was moving at a high speed would tip over. I panicked, but Bykov managed to right the plane and bring it to a halt. I started running towards the plane. Bykov climbed out of the cockpit, and by the time I had reached him, picked a wild cornflower and offering it to me, said with a smile, ‘Why do you look so frightened? Everything’s all right. Life goes on.”

Thirty years after its release, the film is still a hit with all kinds of audiences as it touches something in the human soul that cannot leave anyone indifferent. Bykov received several prizes for the “Elders” — one of them was at the All-Union Film Festival and another one at the International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia.

Several years later, Bykov made another film which also became “a classic” in its genre — Aty-baty, shli soldaty (“Hep-two, Hep-two, Marched the Soldiers”). It was also a war film, and once again Bykov found a way to show the human side of the inhuman tragedy.

This time Bykov used the screenplay written by others and his initial intention was to devote himself only to directing, but his colleagues, who read the screenplay began telling him in one voice that the leading role must be his and nobody else’s, that he was the only one who could handle the role properly. And Bykov gave in.

The film was shot in the vicinity of Moscow in the winter of 1976. It was so cold that even the cameras and other equipment kept breaking down. There were also problems with financing the film. Filming caused a great psychological and physical strain. But thanks to Bykov’s great determination, the film was completed successfully. When Bykov returned to Kyiv, he had a heart attack, his second infarction.

The film eventually won a state prize and was both a critical and popular success, but at the first screening for a restricted audience when a special commission was to decide whether to give a permission for the film to be shown to the general public, one of the commission members fell asleep, announcing his slumber by stentorian snoring. When he woke up at the end, he began asking why the film was called so improperly for a war movie. He was outvoted and the film was okayed for “the Soviet people to see.”

Remembers Lyudmyla Holdabenko, makeup director: “One day, during the filming of Aty-Baty, when the winter was waning, it began to snow heavily which was actually what was needed for the episode. The cameras rolled but right in the middle of the action the snow turned into rain. Not only it was not in the screenplay — there was a danger the makeup which was not meant to withstand pouring rain would be ruined and we did not have any makeup good for that kind of weather. However, Bykov did not suspend the shooting — he just went on acting! He looked at the other actor who was with him in the scene — it was that special Bykov look — passed his hand over his wet face and said dreamily, ‘Oh, the spring’s coming!’ The sequence is in the movie.”

The next film Bykov began to make was something entirely different from all of his previous films. It was to be called “The Extraterrestrial.” Everyone around Bykov could see that he was depressed most of the time. Those who knew him closely say that the main cause of his depression was the general atmosphere of sycophancy, toadying, and corruption that affected him badly. Incidentally, not being what was called “a dissident,” he nevertheless refused to join the communist party in spite of being almost coerced into it. It was his way of expressing his dissatisfaction with the state of things in the country in general and in movie-making in particular.

Even as early as in 1976, in his letter to a friend when he was recuperating after an illness, he wrote: “…I just don’t want to go on living. I say it not like a young man keen on dramatics might…I just see no valid reason for me to go on living…Life is a play which I don’t feel like watching any longer. I’m like a spectator who has understood what’s it all about and wants to leave — but he feels he mustn’t because he’ll make too much noise getting up and groping his way in the darkness to the exit. Besides, it’d draw too much attention. But the play is really bad! …All’s so grey around. That’s the word — grey. Dull, drab, gloomy and grey, as an old sock. Your optimistic L.B.”

The same year, he wrote a letter addressing it to his friends, Mykola Mashchenko and Ivan Mykolaychuk (about the latter WU wrote in its earlier issues) which was nothing short of a will. The letter said in part: “I’ll be gone in the nearest future, I just can’t go on like this… Please help my family, sell the car… I don’t want anyone at my funeral except for my friends, no officials, no orations at the grave… just say “Farewell” and sing my favourite song, ‘Oh, the Swarthy-faced Beauty!’ And mind you — if you don’t do as I ask you to do, I’ll rise from that coffin and leave.” He did not send the letter then but by a very strange twist of fate the letter found its way to those to whom it was addressed on the day he died.

After his death, those who knew him well or worked with him, reminisced: He went red in the face like an innocent child when he heard somebody swearing; he felt very awkward when he had to put on a tie and a decent suit, preferring “his good old jacket”; he had a car, nothing fancy, but always looked embarrassed when he used it — there was this look on his face: I’m sorry you don’t have a car and I do, but it’s not a luxury, it’s just a means of transportation; he was completely honest in everything and with everyone, refusing any promotion over somebody else or any shady dealings; he gave his support to others to the detriment to himself; he was physically fit though no one had ever seen him doing exercises or having workouts; he could walk quite a distance on his hands; he was an excellent swimmer; he knew how to dance, he knew the right steps that is, and he could outdance anybody.

 

On April 12 1979 Bykov was returning from his country house to Kyiv in his car. In a head-on collision he was killed. On December 12 1978 he had turned fifty.

There was a lot of speculation following his death whether it was a suicide or an accident. The investigation revealed that Bykov did not attempt to brake or slow down. But in his letter which was rightly regarded as his will, he said that “Never believe anyone who will say I’ve taken my life. If I die it is only because I’ve reached the end of my tether.”

Two years later, his cinematographic friends made a documentary about him …kotoroho vse lyubili, or “…whom everybody loved.” And one of the hitherto nameless asteroids was named after him.

 

More photos

Based on the material provided by Svitlana Abakumenko

 

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