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?”
The first time I saw it I was in high school, in my parents’ bedroom with their 13” black and 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.
Practically 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?
All 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?
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.
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.
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. There’s a scene near the end of “Guess 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.
For 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 with 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.
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?