Tuesday, August 07, 2018

This summer, PBS showcased a new miniseries based on "Little Women"; it was, in many ways, rather lackluster, without the sharp narrative focus which could be found in the best adaptations (the 1933 version, and the 1994 version). But one thing: though she was wildly uneven, Maya Hawke as Jo was the only actress since Katharine Hepburn to have the proper tomboy quality. And this pointed out the fact that, no matter how skillful a performer may be, if that performer possesses the right qualities for the role, that may be more important than acting skill per se.

This summer, Dan Callahan's book, "The Art of American Screen Acting 1912-1960", was published, and it featured twenty chapters on a range of American screen stars from Lillian Gish to James Dean. At his best, he is one of the most acute and sensitive chroniclers of screen acting that i know. The chapter on Marlene Dietrich, for example, is unparalleled: it might be the best thing i've ever read on Dietrich as an actress. One reason his writing on Dietrich is so insightful and original is that he doesn't try to define her in terms of "acting": he notes the ways in which her work with Josef von Sternberg ran through various modes of presentation, not just "acting" in the classical theatrical sense of the word, but the ways in which photographic representation could redefine acting, and this is very important in considering Dietrich's work in von Sternberg's films.

In her essay on Marlon Brando, Pauline Kael had defined Brando as "the major protagonist of contemporary American themes in the fifties" and explained, "I mean by protagonist the hero who really strikes a nerve - not a Cary Grant who delights with his finesse, nor mushy heartwarmers like Gary Cooper or James Stewart with their blubbering sincerity (sometimes it seemed that the taller the man, the smaller he pretended to be; that was his notion of being 'ordinary' and 'universal' and 'real'), but men whose intensity on the screen stirs an intense reaction in the audience. Not Gregory Peck or Tyrone Power or Robert Taylor with their conventional routine heroics, but James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson in the gangster films, John Garfield in the Depression movies, Kirk Douglas as a postwar heel. These men are not necessarily better actors, but through the accidents of casting and circumstances or because of what they themselves embodied or projected, they meant something important to us. A brilliant actor like Jason Robards, Jr., may never become a protagonist of this kind unless he gets a role in which he embodies something new and relevant to the audience." It was in this sense that Kael defined Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis as the "two great heroines of American talkies". And it is in this sense that Katharine Hepburn "means" something that Miriam Hopkins does not.

As time has gone by, and Brando's centrality as a representative of America in the 1950s has become timeworn, it is important to remember his versatility: with his first film role, (in "The Men"), he played a crippled veteran, and there was a great deal of publicity around the fact that Brando had spent time in rehabilitation wards, closely observing the various therapies and treatments for these veterans. His second film role was, of course, his recreation of his famous stage performance as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named  Desire"; he followed that with his portrayal of the Mexican rebel Emilio Zapata in "Viva Zapata!", and then he did Marc Antony in "Julius Caesar" as well as the biker in "The Wild One", and then he did "On the Waterfront". With those roles, he showed his range as well as his mastery, from contemporary drama to Shakespeare, from biographical drama to ripped-from-the-headlines stories. And he succeeded in all these roles, and brought the audiences with him. Though Montgomery Clift and James Dean were also "Method acting" stars, neither showed the range that Brando showed, nor did they take the chances that Brando took. People always mention the fact that, by 1955, after Brando had done "Desiree" (done to fulfill a contractual agreement with 20th Century Fox; he'd already passed on several other roles, and if he didn't do this one, Zanuck was threatening a lawsuit) and "Guys and Dolls" (to prove that he could do musical comedy), his career started its decline. What few people seem to realize is that Brando's life was profoundly disrupted in 1955: his mother had died, and he had counted on her as the one he wanted to make proud. Without her guidance, his career fell apart. But the strength of his image (culled from "A Streetcar Named Desire", "The Wild One", and "On the Waterfront") as some sort of inarticulate "rebel" superceded the actual evidence of the work he had done. (On the stage, his first Broadway role was as Nels, the brother in "I Remember Mama", then he did his famous turn as the person who has the seizure in "Truckline Cafe", then he played Marchbanks in Shaw's "Candida" opposite Katherine Cornell - this was the role that most people saw and remembered, because "Truckline Cafe" had a very short run, but "Candida" had a fairly good run, and then the production went on tour, and that's where most of the country got to see Brando; when Brando returned to New York from the national tour of "Candida", his next project was "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.) But it's important to remember that Brando had done Shaw and Shakespeare, both to great acclaim, and so he had proven that he could be a "classical" actor as well as a star, and he had done contemporary material which had galvanized the audience. In all these ways, Brando had been an important actor as well as a truly popular star.

And though there are any number of actors who have shown such versatility and skill since, there have not been any to have become that central a figure in American culture. And a lot of that has to do with the ways in which our recent media landscape has fractured. And that's why it seems (at times) as if (to quote from "The Shop Around the Corner") "we might be in the same room, but we are not on the same planet."


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