Acting requires a couple of different things. Vulnerability. Courage. Vulnerability is courage. This is true whether you are playing a damsel in distress or a black-hatted villain. Acting is putting on a mask, but as kabuki masters know, the mask REVEALS more than it conceals. Revealing is the purpose of a mask. And so good actors put on the mask of their characters, and some sort of truth is revealed. The truth depends on the character. But the concept is the same.
And the thing about this is: You have to REALLY do it. You have to REALLY put on that mask. You can’t PRETEND to put on the mask. Many actors do pretend to put on the mask, and you can clock that kind of acting from 5 blocks away. They are “showing” you how much work they’ve done, how much they are “feeling”, how much they are “revealing”. They make a big SHOW of the mask: look at me cry, look at my different walk, look at my carefully chosen perfect gestures. The end result is like looking at a picture of a tree, as opposed to BEING an actual tree in your yard. Some of that picture-of-a-tree acting is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not sloppy or wrong. It’s well-researched, it’s well-considered. In many respects, it’s TOO “perfect”. It’s too careful. It’s wanting to represent a perfect image of a tree as opposed to BEING a tree, because BEING a tree requires transformation as well as the revealing that comes along with that.
Why would actors PRETEND to do their job as opposed to REALLY do it?
Because vulnerability is hard for all of us, not just actors. And revealing truth is the hardest thing of all. You are not just revealing your heroism, your good qualities. You are required to reveal your ugliness, your shame, your pain, your selfishness. This is the Truth of the human condition.
Also, REALLY doing the job is difficult because you very well might fail. You might reach for that level of reveal and not get there. That’s a risk all good actors take. The other problem is: people might REJECT what you are showing them. You may show that truth, you may show that ugliness or insecurity, and audiences may recoil because it’s a truth they don’t want to face.
So actors approach a part, a good part, and they must be vulnerable and courageous. Vulnerability and courage go hand in hand. One cannot exist without the other.
With that preamble in mind:
Doris Day and James Cagney in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me (the fictionalized true story of singer Ruth Etting) do exactly what I have just been talking about. It’s why the film is so powerful. Both actors are required to reveal things – about themselves personally (as we will see) – and about their characters. When the acting is really really good, as it is here, you can’t tell the difference, the work is so personal. Is Day “commenting” on her own experience somehow? Is Cagney “telling us” something about what it is like for him? Well, it is always dangerous to make that assumption. It’s like biographers pontificating that so-and-so’s great work all came out of the fact that his parents got divorced. Please. Analysis like that makes a POINT of ignoring genius and creativity. But that’s what great work can do: it is so personal that you assume it MUST be true-to-life, it MUST be biographical, right?? (This is one of the errors people made – and probably still make – about Gena Rowlands’ work, as well as her husband’s work. It’s so personal, so raw, that you assume it must be practically a documentary, right? WRONG.)
In Love Me or Leave Me, Day stars as Ruth Etting, a hopeful singer stuck in roaring 20s Chicago, working as a dance-girl in a nightclub, keeping her eyes peeled for her big break. And Cagney stars as Martin Snyder (“Marty”), a small-time thug and strong-arm-man, who runs a laundry and has all these connections with nightclub owners. He sees Ruth one night, kicking the shins of a guy who gets fresh with her during a dance – and consequently getting fired. Marty moves in on her fast. He can hook her up, he can get her a job singing, he can help. But his manner is so peremptory, so rough, that she keeps her guard up. She doesn’t want his hand-outs, although yes, she does on some level – but she senses the huge ropes attached to his offer. And THAT she doesn’t want.
Now here’s where it gets interesting.
The meeting of Day and Cagney (seen in the screengrab above) is the first scene of the film. The film is over 2 hours long and charts the progression of Ruth’s singing career, Marty’s hand in it, and the complexities/dangers of their relationship. Because Ruth’s instincts were right. If Marty helps her, he will feel he is owed something (sex) in return. No matter how clear she is to him (“I like you, but I’m not stuck on you. Is that all right?”), no matter how grateful – he will always feel that she is beholden to him in some way. And the thing is: she IS. That’s where the movie really works. Because he does help her, and make connections for her, and sets her up powerfully so that powerful people can get a look at her. She couldn’t have done that on her own. She knows that. AND: she is a good and moral person, so she is right to feel that those who help her out deserve something back, at the very least gratitude and respect.
Love Me or Leave Me is a devastating portrait of the double-bind women (mostly women) find themselves in. Socialized to be accommodating, judged if we are not, it is assumed that our boundaries are porous. If you want to know what “rape culture” means, that’s it in a nutshell. People resent it when women set their own boundaries. Even worse, is when a woman lets her guard down, and lets a man in once, it is then assumed that the gates are wide-open for all time. She never gets to say “No” again. This is insidious stuff and is at the heart of the horror stories of stalking and creeper-dom and rape. Some men look at women and know they are real people, just like men, with agency and intelligence and decision-making. Others are resentful of this very same fact, and decide to push the envelope, see how far they can get, insist that boundaries cause hurt feelings, and passive-aggressively worm their way in, making SURE that a woman feels beholden. Creepers COUNT ON the fact that women are socialized to be sweet and accommodating.
Love Me or Leave Me is practically Star 80-ish disturbing on that level.
A normal man (I use that word deliberately), a real man (ditto), will court a woman on his own power, will make the case for himself and his good qualities, presenting them to her in a manner where she knows what she will be getting into if she picks him, and then he waits to see if the woman wants in. It’s her choice. If she doesn’t want in, he’ll move on, no harm no foul. This is how the courting game SHOULD work. A piano player at the nightclub, Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, in a beautiful performance) is that kind of man. He sees Ruth, and he asks her out for a cup of coffee after the show. She is so used to men pawing her, wanting things from her (more on that in a bit too), that she’s not into it. She also is focused on her career and she’s not into romance at that moment, which – from what I can see in the early sections of the film – is totally true. A lot of men don’t believe what women tell them. They should stop doing that. But Ruth is sweet when she turns Johnny down, and they become good friends.
Johnny is not the classic Nice Guy, who becomes a woman’s friend and then expects sex in return. He truly cares for her, and is concerned about her, especially when Marty starts moving in. Johnny says to Ruth at one point, “You KNOW what he will want from you. I mean, I asked you out for a cup of coffee, and you knew how to handle my routine regular pass – so you KNOW what’s coming with THIS guy.” (It’s a very well-written script by Daniel Fuchs and Isobel Lennart.) Johnny’s line acknowledges the truth in the room, the truth of her behavior, and that’s what I want to talk about next.
Doris Day is so good in this. It’s one of her best performances. A powerhouse performance. She’s a gleaming glittering pale blonde. She’s nice, and she knows who she is. She gets a job as a showgirl and she’s awful (the dance number of Doris Day awkwardly trying to keep up with her fellow showgirls is hilarious. Especially because Day COULD dance, but Ruth CAN’T.) She admits later, laughing, “I’m no dancer.” There’s a beautiful freshness there, an understanding of her own strengths. She knows what she wants and that’s to be a singer. And she’ll go it the slow way, if she has to. But the real power in her performance is that you know – even though there’s no language to support it – that Ruth has been “messed with” by men probably from the first moment she started developing breasts. She’s had years of harassment, pawing, dealing with entitled men who think because she went out with them, she should “put out.” Every other date has probably ended with her wrestling with a guy in the back seat trying to get him off her. And probably she has “lost” that battle from time to time. She couldn’t get the guy off her, he was too strong. Again, there’s no direct language to support this (although it’s in Doris Day’s behavior: watch her body language when men touch her). But Johnny sees it in her anyway, understands why she doesn’t want to go out with him. Instead of resenting it, he gets it. This woman has been batting men off for years. Of course she thinks I’m just another one of those guys.
In those opening scenes, Day gives us the full scope of Ruth’s personality. There’s the sweetness and openness. There’s also that backbone of steel, a strength of spirit that she knows she will need to “make it.” She’s tough, man. She is not a naive ingenue. This is very very important. Love Me or Leave Me is not the story of a young innocent girl corrupted by her association with Marty. Ruth, in the first scenes, is a woman strong enough to kick a guy who gets fresh with her, knowing that that action will get her fired. When Marty approaches her in the dressing room, and she’s standing there in her slip, she snaps at him, not making an attempt to cover herself, “You gotta good LOOK?” This is a woman who has been around, who has some miles on her, battle scars. She can handle men who move in on her. Get out of my way. I’ve fought off worse guys than you, buster.
BUT. Because Ruth’s boundaries have been compromised in the past, because she comes from a specific place of near-constant creeper-dom that has probably tipped right over into sexual assault, she misses the signals in Marty’s behavior. Or, she sees the signals, but she thinks she’ll be able to handle it. She’s tough. She’s been through a lot.
But Marty is more than she bargained for.
She gets trapped. Trapped by him because he is terrifying, he scares her (and Cagney is very very scary in this) – but also trapped by her own feeling that he HAS done a lot for her, and he IS owed something.
And then there’s Cagney.
Cagney was over 30 years into his career at the point of Love Me or Leave Me. And with Martin Snyder (also one of his best performances), he brings out a level of rage and envy and threat that makes an audience member (i.e. me) truly uneasy. Red flag, red flag, run, Ruth, RUN. Any person who acts this entitled after HELPING you is bad news.
But what is so extraordinary about Cagney’s performance is that he does not swagger about “showing” us he’s a “bad guy.” (Of course he doesn’t. He’s James Cagney. He’s a great actor. But I’m trying to break down what it is that great actors do and WHY they are so great.) Martin limps, for unknown reasons. An injury from his shady past. He wears flashy suits, and overcoats draped over his shoulder, so he looks a bit Babadook-ish, his silhouette wider than his actual figure. He’s a small man, but the bulking-up of those layers makes him seem bigger, a deliberate choice on his part. Cagney brings to this role all of the actor’s vulnerability of showing us this man’s insecurities, WITHOUT making a plea for our sympathy. There are expressions that flash across his face that are so full of pain and self-loathing (that immediately turns to explosive rage) that I want to weep. Yes, I look at his face in this picture and feel like weeping. This is all done without Cagney TRYING to make me feel bad for him. Because Martin Snyder would kill (literally) anyone who DARED to feel sorry for him. He barges into any situation like he owns the joint. He starts to ruin things for Ruth. She is moving beyond him, which was supposed to be the plan all along, right? To help her become a star. But Martin can’t bear to watch other people have influence over her. ESPECIALLY because those other people – like Johnny, like Mr. Ziegfeld who casts her in his follies, like the Hollywood director in charge of her first picture – all of these men treat her with respect. They love her talent but they don’t feel they own it, or her. Martin looks at these men with rage and sneering contempt, but Cagney shows us that it’s because Martin CAN’T do such a thing. He is INCAPABLE of respecting others, so to be confronted with people who know how to respect others is an indictment of himself. And he knows that, and he feels that shame. And he will punish ANYONE who makes him feel ashamed.
It’s a masterpiece, his performance. He’s awful (it is suggested that he rapes her to put her in her place, get her under his control. He attacks her on the bed, jamming himself on top of her, and she does fight him off, running out of the frame, crying – but the scene ends there. The next scene tells us what she does next. And so we understand that she has accepted his assessment of her. Why does she do so? Because of where she has come from, what she has endured. She is not allowed to set her own boundaries. The world – and men – have taught her that.)
His awfulness, though, also comes from a place of vulnerability. Cagney has to be vulnerable to show how awful he can be. The role could very easily have been played by someone who could not show us the insecurity and self-loathing beneath the bullying. We see acting like that every day. But this is Cagney. He was always personal in his work. (Acting teachers talk a lot about “personalization.” Make it personal. Not that the role is about YOU, but that you have to find a way to “personalize” it, through imagination, empathy, choices along the way, etc. The great stars do it naturally.) So Cagney knew that Martin Snyder operated from jealousy, rage, and entitlement. And beneath that was a self-loathing so acute that the man probably has a hard time looking in the mirror.
It is quite a cocktail of personality traits. And watch Cagney play them all. Watch him play them all in the same moment.
You have to believe that Ruth, as street-smart as she is, would be trapped by such a man. Cagney helps us understand. So does Day.
Love Me or Leave Me is practically a two-hander, although Cameron Mitchell is extremely important as well, a reminder that not everyone in the world is like Snyder. Johnny’s outsider status, the fact that he cares about Ruth but is forced to look on from the outside, is essential. When they meet up again after a couple of years apart, he is shocked at the change in her. It pains him deeply.
There are multiple production numbers, and Doris Day sings throughout, classics like “Mean to Me”, or “10 Cents a Dance”, with her to-die-for phrasing and gorgeous pliable voice. Director Charles Vidor knows how to film dance numbers (as seen in Gilda, in Cover Girl). He keeps it simple. He doesn’t cut a lot. He films in medium or wide-shot, so we can see the action happening in full. In scenes where Day stands on a stage, singing a ballad, often he shows the entire song in one take. A bold choice, and it also shows a tremendous respect for the actor. Don’t insert yourself, as the director, reminding us that you are in charge. The moment is Doris Day’s, so let her have it, let her play that shit, let her tell the story.
Day and Cagney have so many tremendous scenes together, and the relationship is so twisted, so terrifying, so awful that neither of them can see a way out. Martin does not understand why she doesn’t like him more, or love him. Hasn’t he given her everything she wanted? He’s FURIOUS. But swirling underneath that, molten-hot, is that self-loathing essential to the performance: What’s wrong with me? What do other guys have that I don’t? Why doesn’t she like me??
And this goes back to my initial point.
Letting people SEE that, letting people SEE that you UNDERSTAND what that feeling is like – the smallness and ugliness of it – is the essence of vulnerability. Regular people AVOID showing that to others, and for good reason. But actors MUST show those things and that takes courage. And you can’t fake it, you can’t pretend something like that. You have to really DO it. Otherwise, the audience is left outside the story. Here, we are drawn inside, pulled in, even though we might not want to go there. We might resist feeling sorry for Martin, we might resist the knowledge that this man hates himself so much that he will ruin his life and the life of others in order to be Top Dog. But that’s the story being told. And that’s what Cagney can provide, like no other.
Martin is terrifying, but he is also tragic. Cagney shows us that in glances, interior looks of pain/insecurity, shaking those off, getting back to Tough Guy, the way Martin turns on a dime, his terrible impulsivity, his violence. Talk about a man who understands being battered. What has his life been like? What is it like to be so furious constantly? What happened to him to make him this way? The film doesn’t care so much about that. It is Ruth’s story. But CAGNEY cares about that.
His performance is a master-class in how to work.
And their scenes together, so many of them, so many, over the course of their association, are nothing less than extraordinary. These two actors, who understand TOTALLY where both of their characters are coming from (due to personalization/imagination but also due to their own similar experiences in life), are the ultimate in vulnerability + courage.
They are not afraid of what they reveal.
The mask reveals. That’s the point of the mask. That is the magic of acting.