Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Celebrity deaths are often perceived in a variety of ways; in most cases, we don't know those people, but somehow, they symbolize something which we consider important to our lives. Recent examples would include the singer Barbara Cook (August 8), the actress Jeanne Moreau (July 31), and the playwright-actor Sam Shepard (July 31).

I'll begin with Jeanne Moreau. To anyone who grew up with the movies in the 1950s and 1960s, she was, quite simply, the art house love goddess. She seemed more direct, more elemental, more honest than actresses before her: she seemed to have a frightening access to her emotions and her sensuality. That was the meaning of those close-ups of her face in the throes of sex which filled Louis Malle's "Les Amants" (1958), just as the close-ups of her face as she sulked through the Parisian night in Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows" (1957) revealed so many shades of emotion, from irritation to anxiety to fear to dread to despair. She seemed to be able to register the most quicksilver shifts in emotion. And through it all, she had a commanding presence which made her every move compulsively watchable.

In her heyday, she had an adamant belief in her directors; once committed to a project, she would go to any lengths to ensure the project's completion. In one of the most notorious examples, she and Joseph Losey tried to wrest "Eva" from the producers, Robert and Raymond Hakim, to establish Losey's right to final cut; unfortunately, Moreau and Losey were defeated, and the "Eva" which we now have remains the truncated version foisted by the Hakims. However, in more congenial situations, when Moreau found out that Francois Truffaut could not raise all the money for the budget of "Jules et Jim", she simply signed on to several international co-productions (such as "The Yellow Rolls-Royce") and used her salary to make up the shortfall. She also did that for Orson Welles, and in that way helped to produce "The Trial" and "Chimes at Midnight". When Jacques Demy came to her with "La Baie des Anges", the movie, which came together very quickly, had such a small budget that there was no money for costumes, so since she was intimate with Pierre Cardin at the time, she simply went to him and asked for clothes from his recent collections, thus becoming the most elegantly dressed lady gambler in movie history.

That belief in her directors was the reason she was revered as a cinematic icon, especially in the 1960s, when the politique des auteurs was such a prevalent critical attitude. She put that belief in the director's vision into direct action. She did everything to support those filmmakers she believed in. When she saw "L'Avventura", she was so impressed that she sent Michelangelo Antonioni a note, saying she was prepared to do anything he asked. The result, of course, was "La Notte" (1961), and, once again, she proved her loyalty, because the producers, worried about cost overruns, threatened to shut down production; Moreau simply returned the fee she had received from the producers, and that money was used to cover the cost of the rest of the production. (She never did get her money back.)

Though there were occasions when i met Jeanne Moreau, i cannot say that i ever spent time with her; they were always social occasions with a crowd around. But one thing i noticed: when she was talking to a small group, she would say something, and if she realized you had reacted, she would look in your direction to acknowledge you. It was as if she wanted to draw you in, to make sure that she had made a connection with everyone in her audience. And she carried that ability into the cinema, she made us all complicit with her.

In The Hollywood Reporter, Richard Gere wrote about his relationship to Sam Shepard: Gere had been in two productions of Sam Shepard's plays off-off-Broadway at the beginning of his career, and then the two of them were cast in Terence Malick's "Days of Heaven" (1978). And then i realized, of course, one of those off-off-Broadway productions had been "Back Bog Beast Bait" in 1973, and i had worked on the set! Sam Shepard had a dual career: on the one hand, he was a man of the theater, one of the most renowned playwrights of his generation, with a reputation which was established pretty early in his career; on the other hand, he was an actor, appearing in any number of popular movies, including "Steel Magnolias", "Baby Boom", and "The Right Stuff".

As a movie actor, he was almost a prototype of the tall, silent American, along the lines of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. He never did much, and that riveted attention. In "The Right Stuff" (1983), Philip Kaufman uses Shepard very cleverly, by having him at the beginning, and Shepard's stoic calm as the test pilot Chuck Yeager becomes a contrast to the frenetic preparations which attended the training of the early days of NASA's space program.

It was as a playwright that his legacy will be based. When he first appeared on the scene, i think it should be said that his presence preceded him. He used his presence to create the idea of an American archetype, the American cowboy (and his constant dressing in jeans and boots and cowboy hats helped with the image). His plays were full of outrageous imagery, a surreal American West filled with sex, violence, and florid language.

His career as a writer came into contact with Performing Arts Journal in the 1980s, because he had written occasional prose pieces, and Bonnie Marranca and Gautam Dasgupta decided to publish them in book form. And some of his pieces were quite unusual, because he often allowed direct emotion to be on display, a very tricky proposition because in his plays, there's a lot of obfuscation. Shepard hated direct address: his plays could be torturous in their circumlocation of emotional affect.

One thing that hasn't been much remarked upon was how his career began in the off-off-Broadway scene of the 1960s, in particular, with the more experimental approach of Joseph Chaikin with his Open Theater. Chaikin's approach stressed two things: one was the physicality of the performer; the other was the theater as a medium of archetypes. The intense psychological approach of Method acting, where the nature of the theater becomes the interior workings of the actor, was something that Chaikin was trying to get around, because he wanted to find the essence of theater, which he defined in terms of an archetypal theater of physicality.

And Shepard, along with Jean-Claude Van Itallie and Susan Yankowitz, would be one of the playwrights on whom Chaikin relied. I think it's become lost that Shepard's approach to character and narrative comes from this approach to acting defined by Chaikin in his work with the Open Theater. Remembering some of the early productions of Shepard's plays, such as The Performance Group's production of "The Tooth of Crime", it was easy to see how the productions stressed the surface of the plays, almost as if the plays were live-action cartoons, though trafficking in themes far more extreme and grotesque. But that whole off-off-Broadway scene has long since been dispersed.

Off-off-Broadway really began in the 1950s, when Broadway was becoming rather calcified. During that period, there were a number of musical ingenues who were becoming prominent, among them were Shirley Jones, Florence Henderson, and Barbara Cook. In terms of show business, the movie musical was on its way out, and so there was little interest in these performers from Hollywood. Rodgers and Hammerstein had put their imprimatur on Shirley Jones for the movie versions of "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel" and she was the only one to flourish in Hollywood; Florence Henderson and Barbara Cook never did have movie careers.

What happened in terms of Barbara Cook's career was that, when her heyday as a musical comedy ingenue was over, she spent time trying to redefine her career. By the 1980s, the burgeoning cabaret scene in New York City became the site for her career reinvention. Instead of trying to fit into the new musicals developed for Broadway, she decided on a career as a concert artist.

During the 1950s, there were cabaret/nightclub singers who were called "chanteuses", singers who used the songs they sang to tell stories. And Barbara Cook turned herself into a chanteuse, using the Broadway songbook as her vehicle. By making Broadway songs into "art songs", Cook was elevating the Broadway musical as something more than entertainment.

And that's why there has been such an outpouring of emotion over Cook's passing. Instead of the ingenue of "Candide" and "The Music Man", here was an artist who used her voice to tell a story, to explore the subtexts of the American songbook. She acted the lyrics, not by acting out, but by concentrating on the musical form, imbuing the lyrics with as much emotion as possible. She was also a survivor, in show business terms, and her forthrightness was part of her appeal. (In this, her career was similar to Rosemary Clooney's, though Clooney came to her career through the route of the big band singer, rather than the Broadway musical ingenue.)


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