Jeff Lundenberger

ART IMITATES LIFE IMITATES ART IMITATES LIFE IMITATES…
Posted ~ January 4th, 2016

I love my TCM Now Playing guide but I don’t really use it to keep track of the day-to-day TCM schedule. It’s more of a reference I’ll turn to mid-movie. Who directed that? What year? Truth is, if I’m turning the television on I’ll turn it to TCM regardless and watch whatever is screening at that time. It makes for some great surprises, like the other night when I got home from a rough day at work and turned on…Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

VIRGINIA WOOLFElizabeth Taylor, George Segal, Richard Burton and Sandy Dennis

The first time I saw it I was in high school, in my parents’ bedroom with their 13” black andVIRGINIA WOOLF ( II ) white TV, mom hosting her card club downstairs. I remember loving it, or loving what I could see of it through the snow storm on the screen: rabbit ears. I last saw it at the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival, introduced by Haskell Wexler, the cinematographer responsible for the gothic yet realistic look of the film. It was a last-minute addition to the schedule in honor of the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor and I’ll never forget it.  

VIRGINIA WOOLF - IVPractically a comedy for the first 10 minutes (until the claws are sharpened and the booze kicks in) I’m always riveted by this film: the four spot-on performances by Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis; the emotional and physical violence, the psychic squalor. But what, I wonder, is it really about? The tragedy of a marriage based not on love but ambition? The capacity for human cruelty? The monsters created by our mistakes and unchecked illusions? The ruinous effects of alcoholism? A childless marriage sucks?

HERE'S LUCY w:LIZ & DICKAll of the above, I guess, but maybe it’s also about its two stars, Taylor and Burton, who led their gloriously messy lives in the public eye for the length of their relationship. Kardashians take note: Liz and Dick lived the tabloid lifestyle with a style and ease long before you did, and they did it without the use of social media. Married, not married, married, jewels, yachts, Here’s Lucy, and the fights! It’s no stretch for me to imagine Taylor braying at Burton off the screen, or Burton leveling Taylor with a few neatly packaged, well delivered words. Do the lives of the stars impact our perception of the characters they play in their films?

SUNSET BOULEVARD

                                                      The mysterious intersection of actor and creation was already on my mind, having watched Sunset Boulevard recently, another mesmerizing film featuring troubled souls, characters trapped in worlds they’d once hoped to control, now powerless in the face of their own unleashed instincts. Gloria Swanson gives a devastating performance, so realistic and knowing you can’t help thinking she must be playing herself. She does bring to the role the exaggerated facial expressions and flourishes of movement of the silent era and, of course, she had been a popular silent film star. She’d made a few talkies but her film movie career eventually fizzled out, this being something of a comeback. Unlike Norma Desmond, she was able to continue her life as a businesswoman and performer, and go on to create this marvelous character, vain, self-centered, and flawed, but sympathetic. We care about her despite her manipulating need, and her final scene is tragedy.

SPENCER TRACY and KATHARINE HEPBURN

Another couple, both on-screen and off, blurs the line between actor and character, particularly in their final film. Spencer Tracy smooth and effortless, his characters often uncomplicated and pragmatic. Katharine Hepburn regimented and sharp but oh, that face, playing women determined, self-sufficient, in charge – until the final reel. Were they simply playing themselves? I tend to imagine their off-screen personalities to be mirror images of some of the couples they played in their movies.

TRACY - HEPBURN ( WOMAN ) TRACY and HEPBURN

Does that lessen or change my perception of those characters? Does it matter? After all, what a joy it is to watch them skate delicately through movie after movie like Olympic champions. TRACY - HEPBURN ( DINNER )There’s a scene near the end ofGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Tracy giving a climactic speech that sums up the entire film while Hepburn watches in soft focus, the glint of a tear glowing in the corner of her eye. We now know that this would be Tracy’s last film. Could Hepburn sense that while filming the scene, watching his final grand moment on screen? Did that inform her performance? I have a feeling she’d say she was simply acting.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON - IFor me, the ultimate instance of an actor’s personal life intruding on the presentation of their screen character takes place in another Billy Wilder film, Love In The Afternoon. Its star, Gary Cooper, plays an international businessman/playboy who woos and beds a young Audrey Hepburn. Cooper was in his mid fifties when the film was made and Wilder tried to make him younger, but Cooper looks old in the film, too old to be having an affair GARY COOPERwith a girl young enough to be his daughter. But this adds to the poignancy of the story. Watching it, I think of the young, beautiful Gary Cooper playing naive, uncertain men who are totally oblivious to the fact that they are gorgeous, now an older man, handsome still, but faded, fading, playing a character sympathetic but unappealing in many ways, enhancing the tender ache of the story, my ache for a star now mortal. The train station ending is as romantic as “Sunset Boulevard’s” is doomed.

LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON - II

 

Character, actor, truth, illusion, George, Martha, Liz, Dick. Would we care about their lives without the movies? On the flip side, would we care about the movies without their lives?

 

[  GUEST BIO  ]   [   H O M E   ]

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7 thoughts on “Jeff Lundenberger

  1. Great read, Jeff. Classic film stars had such strong personas that they carried around with them from film to film to film, always bringing a little bit of themselves to every role they played. It’s no wonder the public wanted more. Were they like the characters they played? In a lot of cases, at least part so. It’s hard to imagine whether anyone would care about the tabloid stars of today if they weren’t getting arrested or posting pictures of their ass.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Chris. You made me think of the Bette Davis tribute Meryl Sreep does on TCM for some reason. Davis tends to overwhelm nearly every character she plays, which is part of her appeal. Streep, on the other hand, can disappear into some roles. Still I’ll see anything either one of them is in, Streep being one of the few current actors I feel that way about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for the insightful reviews I think in terms of Love in the Afternoon art imitated life how many handsome film stars finally “settle down” in the autumn of their years from George Clooney to Warren Betty the list goes on and on My cynical take is that they are beginning to realize that won’t be the chick magnet forever
    Again I thank you for your review

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved this article, Jeff. That question is still making me think, and I know on so many levels that the personal lives of the actors does affect the way we respond to their screen performances. Life does imitate art and art imitates life. They are inextricably bound, but to what degrees? I think it varies, but the effect always lingers. Beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

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