Sunday, February 17, 2019

Great Performances

What exactly is a great performance by an actor or actress on stage or screen? Or if not exactly, because it involves something words seem unable to express fully, at least approximately.

It predicates a paradox or oxymoron, because it is both unique and universal, something we can identify with without even having imagined. Over decades of theater and movie going, I have  witnessed it not all that rarely, but not all that often either. What one gets frequently enough is good or even very good acting, but short of the prodigious, the unforgettable, the great.

As I look back, I encounter what may be the most often lauded performance by an American actress in all time, Laurette Taylor’s as Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie” (1944). As it happens, I saw it and liked it, but was perhaps too young to sufficiently appreciate it, or able to recall it now. The role certainly boasts writing good enough to attract fine actresses, but none other has achieved comparable glory in it, adulation even on hearsay from persons who weren’t there. And let us not forget that Julie Haydon, as daughter Laura, was pretty great too, but is not half so often cited.

Haydon, incidentally, was of a fragile loveliness seldom equaled in Hecht and MacArthur’s movie, “The Scoundrel,” opposite a likewise remarkable Noel Coward.
Why that film is not rereleased remains a mystery to me. But let me for the moment consider whom I view as the two greatest American male actors of stage and screen, Fredric March and George C. Scott. This despite my appreciation of James Robards, Paul Muni, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, William Holden, Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, John Garfield and certain others, all of whom could occasionally be great.

But, of course, greatness does come more often in great roles, like Scott onstage as Clarence Darrow in “Inherit the Wind.” On film, he was great in “Hospital” (with help from Paddy Chayefsky’s script) as early as 1972, and as late as1986 in “The Last Days of Patton.” He specialized in fanatics whom one could have hated even in good causes, but he knew how to make fanaticism admirable even in poor ones But then, onstage in Coward’s “Present Laughter,” he proved himself just as good in light comedy and British wit.

In Fredric March, too, the genius lay in the man, regardless of the part. He was incredibly handsome in diverse roles; let’s single out “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “Death Takes a Holiday.” As diverse as the quality of their writing were the roles from light to heavy, whether based on Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, Mark Twain or whoever.

Thinking about both Scott and March, I conclude that their greatness lies not so much in individual performances as in their whole careers, in the aura of masterliness adhering to their mere starry presence. Versatility certainly, but personality even more.

Interestingly, more performances by British actors of stage and screen come to mind than do those by American ones, by which I mean born in the U.S. I would guess that this stems from more rigorous training and more frequent exposure to Shakespeare and other classics. Consider the legendary quality of Laurence Olivier’s performances, not only in “Henry the Fifth” and “Richard the Third,” but also in such modern roles as in “Rebecca” and “The Entertainer.”

Or think of John Gielgud, to whom being great in various roles came as easily as a suit of different clothes to a dandy. Hard to pick any one gem from such a treasure trove. but let me settle for the butler in “Arthur,” for which he deservedly got an Oscar. Gielgud was often praised merely for his extremely musical voice , but he could hold is own below that as well.

And what of my perhaps favorite British actor, Ralph Richardson, who had a quality that repeatedly dazzled me. It consisted of endowing a more or less ordinary man
with a core of nobility that transcended looks or mannerisms, as for instance in another butler in “The Fallen Idol,” or the surgeon in “The Elephant Man,” and on and on, even in such an awkward film version as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Great innumerably too on stage, for example in “John Gabriel Borkman” or “Home.”

Let me cite merely performances I have seen from a variety of great British actors. Michael Redgrave (“The Captive Heart”), Albert Finney (“Tom Jones,” “Gumshoe,” “Erin Brockovich”), Michael Caine (“Alfie), Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia”), Robert Donat (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons”). Peter Finch (“Network”), Donald Sinden (“London Assurance”). Robert Morley (“Oscar Wilde,” “Beat the Devil”), Ian McKellen (“Richard III”), Kenneth Branagh {“Much Ado About Nothing,” and “Conspiracy”),  etc.etc.

And what of my beloved Trevor Howard in an undeservedly forgotten film, one of my favorites, “Outcast of the Islands,” and in everyone’s beloved “Brief Encounter.” Also, while we are on Noel Coward, himself as actor in “In Which We Serve,” and Harold Pinter as actor, before he turned, less felicitously in my view, into a playwright.

But enough of men. Let me turn now to American actresses, at least those who weren’t deformed by the Actors’ Studio or really British, as, for example, Vivien Leigh and Gertrude Lawrence. This would include exceptional achievements even by, as I see it, undesirables such as the later Judy Garland, except very fine in the seemingly forgotten, underrated “The Clock,” and also an early version of the continually reinvented “A Star Is Born.”

Also, of course, Mary Martin, especially in “South Pacific,” Claire Trevor (“Key Largo,” “Murder, My Sweet”), Gloria Grahame (“Man on a Tightrope,” “The Big Heat”). Uma Thurman (“Henry & June”), Sono Osato in anything she touched, Julia Roberts (“Pretty Woman” and “Erin Brockovich,”) also in an abundance of parts too numerous to catalogue, the wonderful Jan Maxwell (“House and Garden”), Lauren Bacall, Elaine Stritch, Julie Harris, Evelyn Keyes, Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Meryl Streep, Patricia Neal, Katharine Hepburn, Janice Rule, Ina Claire, Elizabeth Ashley, Lynn Fontanne, Donna McKechnie, Dee Hoty, Marian Seldes, Dorothy Dandridge, Halle Berry, Lena Horne, and a good many others of whom I cannot think at the moment. But there are two ladies I want to particularise here, namely Alexis Smith and Lee Remick, two incomparable stars, both of whom played one of the leads on different occasions in “Follies.” I quote from “John Simon on Theater”: “Were there ever two more maturely beautiful women on our stages, more ladylike and sexy, more aglitter yet accessible, more totally theatrical and not the least bit stagy? Where are you now, Alexis and Lee, you two marvelous Phylisses of the 1971 premiere and the 1985 concert revival? You are built into the accruing glory that is “Follies,” as surely as Daphne lives in the olive tree, as Andromeda lights up in the night sky.

I will not even try here to go into great performances by men beyond those by two actors’ already mentioned. Rather let me try to develop my notions what constitutes greatness in theater and cinema.

Let’s turn to John Howard Wilson’s book “All the King’s Ladies: Actresses of the Restoration” for the pages about the magnificent Anne Bracegirdle, who lived from presumably 1663 to 1748 and played in more shows than any dozen current actresses rolled together. It takes Wilson 3 ½ pages just to list them. Included is this description by Anthony Acton:

She was of a lovely height, with dark-brown Hair and Eye-brows, black sparkling Eyes, and a fresh blushy Complexion; and, whenever she exerted herself, had an involuntary Flushing in her Breast, Neck and Face, having continually a cheerful Aspect, and a fine set of even white Teeth; never making an Exit, but that she left the Audience in an Imitation of her pleasant Countenance.”

That essentially translates as good looks, felicitous stage presence and natural charm, producing delight in her audience even after she has made her exit. This may be the place for my tribute to Jane Fonda in “Klute.” “As irresistible as a surfy beach in July, her performance washes over you like a tartly cooling, drolly buffeting liquid benediction, bringing wave after wave of unpredictable, exhilarating delight. There is a perfect blend here of shrewdness, acerbity, toughness, anxiety, and vulnerability. A quintessential femininity is caught in transition between a badly dented girlishness and a nascent womanliness as innocent of its past as a butterfly of its larva. Note the play of Miss Fonda’s febrile hands when she is sweating it out with her therapist, the dartings and hesitancies of her voice, with its sudden leaps and falls of temperature, the faint seismic tremors of her facial play, indicating turbulences valiantly repressed.”

Now compare this with what I wrote about a German actress, Ingrid Ernest, in Hauptmann’s “Before Sundown,” as reprinted in “Acid Test.” “She gave herself in every form of giving: a girl’s, shyly proud; a woman’s, quietly eager; a tomboy’s, a small child’s, a spoiled princess’, an unknown somebody’s—unknown even to herself; astonished, frightened, and very, very sure. We were confronted with a reality so overwhelming that life would have found a way of diluting it, just so as to get us over it and beyond. But in the theater it was there, pure and immutable and ours.

From both of the above, we conclude that great performance consists of layers, contradictions reconciled or not, emotions and actions that intensify reality recognized or not, components we realize as ours, but not ordinarily proffered in such abundance. Make of it all great performance. Sadly, we lost track of Ms. Ernest, but Ms. Fonda, still active, still radiant, is with us still.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Curse Words

Persons of extreme sensitivity or puritanical leanings might as well stop reading right here; others might find, as I do, each language ‘s choice of curse words and  purported profanities as revealing national characteristics of its users.

Anglo-Americans favor mostly innocuous or childish CW  (to initialize curse words henceforward) by way of a potty mouth, itself a bit of a euphemism. A big favorite in America is ”Your mother wears army boots,” about as housebroken as CW can come. I am going to focus on Hungarian and Serbian ones, both rich in gusto, compensatory for belonging too small or too highly regimented nations.

Thus the Croats, constrained by both Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Roman Catholic restraints, have come up with ludicrous terms for parts of the body, based mostly on the German Scham meaning both shame and the vagina, i.e., “stidljivost,” shamefulness, a chickenfeed CW compared to Hungarian and Serbian popular parlance. Which Croatian ones are the subject for laughter out loud by Serbs and Hungarians, going in for far saltier things.

Take, for instance, walking in the streets of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, or in the so-called korzo, the favored universal promenade, where the prolific, loud expletives  are “jebi ga,” fuck it, or “jebesh mu” fuck his (something or someone), expressions with which the parlance of even many educated speakers is laced raising almost no eyebrows. Rather more problematic is the Serbian “idi u pichku materinu,” or the Hungarian version, “menj az anyad pichajaba,” go into your mother’s cunt. ” Serbian even has a popular alternative for that organ, “pizda.” Neither form has any truck with something as infantile as pussy.

Moreover, elaboration thrives, as for example in “I fuck your mother’s black whorish cunt,” in either Serbian or Hungarian, still fairly routine stuff. But I must confess to a certain abstemiousness myself, not using any of the above, but contenting myself with much milder utterances, such as “Go to hell” or “Go to he devil,” even though I am aware that neither hell nor devil exists. This restraint despite the fact that even the highly civilized French has the tougher “va te faire foutre,” coming from that neither small nor a powerless nation. But consider that even in literature, such wildly unhampered practitioners as Rimbaud and Lautreamont made no use of expletives. Yet, as always, there are exceptions. The poet Apollinaire’s celebrated comic-pornographic work, “Les cent mille Verges” which is S&M, but turns into Vierges (rods into virgins), which is comedic sacrilege. think of Saint Ursula and her retinue.

To my eternal regret, I don’t know or read Italian, so I can’t say what obtains in that language  beyond the rather ungracious “porca Madonna,” and the totally anodyne “porco di Baccho.” For Spanish, I depend entirely on Hemingway, from whom I get “cojones,” pricks. I would be particularly interested in what gives in Scandinavian languages, as well as in other Slavic ones, of which I am ignorant. However, there is a Russian fiction by Mikhail Arcybashev, in a translated scene from which a man pays a poor young woman quite handsomely to let him whip her naked buttocks a specified  number of blows.
Most writers even in, say, Hungarian, make no use of CW, not even, such as the wonderful Frigyes Karinthy or the less wonderful Peter Esterhazy. To be sure, I have neither read nor heard very recent performances in foreign languages, and cannot speak conclusively to anything but English.
Even there, I have avoided such writers as Hubert Selby (“Last Exit to Brooklyn”) and note that even in most of them, as in Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, there is little or no CW. There are others, so-called Beats, typified by William Burroughs with his “Naked Lunch,” and the once ubiquitous Charles Bukowski., neither of whom I have read at all. In speech, my friends and I have remained essentially chaste. The same goes for most recent British writers.

But not so, strange to say, for the theater, as wallowingly spearheaded (if that is the word for it) by David Mamet, with any number of contemporary playwrights having made use—some more, others less—of his CW. What I find interesting is that the verb for sex and the four-letter version of excrement are profusely employed, but the grant almost never includes the sexual organs, I don’t quite know why. It may be out of some last-ditch effort at respectability that cannot be sloughed off, like the verb, which, through frequency of use has come to pass as practically inconspicuous.

Things used to be different in Restoration England, as for example in the writings of that remarkable rake and poet, Lord Rochester. In his only once performed play “Sodom,” he apostrophized the female organ brilliantly as “This is the warehouse of the world’s chief trade,/ On this soft anvil all mankind was made.” In the play, Rochester’s patron and butt, King Charles II, is satirized as saying (using the contemporary pintle for penis) “And with my pintle I shall rule the land.” More rowdily we get dear “Industrious cunt shall never pintle want,/ She shall be mistress to the elephant.” (Was that about poor dear Nell Gwynn?)

To this day, few publications are allowed to print anything like that, although The New Yorker does permit the verb for sex. I myself do not advocate unrestrained use of CW, lest it, too, lose its sting. Nudity in the theater is permitted, more often of men than of women, make of it what you will. There has also been simulated intercourse, though not the actual thing as in “Sodom.” In Germany, there was something called “Nacktballet,” from a leading female dancer-choreographer, Marie Wigman. it never crossed boundaries, although I for one wouldn’t have found it unwelcome anywhere.

And what about the future of CW? Having no crystal ball, I cannot predict it. I am , however, all for it as long as it is used judiciously  and not indiscriminately. As for my own limited, personal future, there is no telling what can prevail. I daresay that neither angels nor devils espouse nudity and uncalled-for CW.