Today is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.’s birthday. Here’s a re-post.
Some actors seem to believe that unless they SHOW all the work they have done, their job is not worth doing. And if you don’t congratulate them on all the work up there on the screen, they will most definitely remind you of all that work. “I worked with a Latvian lute-player for 8 months, and I also gained 30 pounds which really helped me get into the character.”
More power to ya.
An interesting and frustrating aspect of this (if you let these things get to you) is that the actor who shows his work is more often appreciated and applauded than the dude who strolls around making it look easy.
Ease is something that has always been under-rated because it doesn’t make a show of itself, and it doesn’t look to be congratulated or noticed. The more splashy parts get the most attention because they DEMAND the attention. That’s all fine. Many great performances are of the “splashy” variety.
However, I really love the actors who stroll through their parts nonchalantly, charmingly, easily, making it look as natural as breathing.
Morning Glory gave Katharine Hepburn the first of her four Academy Awards. It is really a vehicle for her. I’ve seen the performance criticized, and I can understand the criticisms, although I think Hepburn is actually doing more subtle work than she is given credit for. This character is a broken woman. Although the film ends in triumph, the triumph is mitigated by the fact that Hepburn’s final monologue (she’s not afraid of “being a morning glory”) is said to a woman who is a washed-up actress now working as a wardrobe mistress, a woman who had once been an up-and-coming star like Hepbrun.
Fame is fleeting. I don’t believe that Eva Lovelace’s fame will be of the long-lasting variety that Hepburn herself enjoyed. Lovelace is too fragile, she is not destined to be the next Ellen Terry or the next Sarah Bernhardt. Those women had thick skins. Eva Lovelace very well might end up as a wardrobe mistress herself, a forgotten “morning glory.” The ending of the film feels more ominous than happy, despite the swelling positive music. Hepburn does not play the triumph. She plays the defiant, almost mad belief in ONLY the moment- lovely, sure, but on deeper examination it is what will be her downfall. Eva Lovelace is a showy part for Hepburn: it has a naive open-faced beginning, a cautious and sad middle, interspersed with a big drunk scene at a party where she does not one but TWO Shakespearean monologues, and then a sudden rise-to-the-top ending. The role capitalized on Hepburn’s strengths: her somewhat mannered way of speaking (much more marked early in her career), her blinkered ambition, her intelligence (she could not play dumb, and when she tried she was terrible), her self-centeredness, her theatricality and the vague sense of unreal-ness that Hepburn had back then, perfect for the playing of an actress-wannabe who lives primarily in a fantasy world. Hepburn was born to play such a part.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays a New York playwright named Joe Sheridan who takes a shine to Eva Lovelace. He senses talent in her, but he’s not sure if it can be used. He keeps bringing her up to his friend, the manager: “She’s got something, don’t you think?”
Nobody agrees with him, really. Everyone thinks she’s a bit cracked (when a young actress tells you in your first meeting that her goal in life is to eventually take her own life – onstage – you can be forgiven for thinking she’s batty.) But Joe Sheridan isn’t sure that there isn’t something else there, a difference, a beauty that could be transformed into genius on the stage. He keeps her in mind. He does not forget her after their first meeting.
Fairbanks, with ease and grace, plays multiple levels of this somewhat thankless role. He’s not just an earnest “artist” looking for a muse for his next play. Joe Sheridan is a nice man, a sweet intelligent man, who has his own uphill battles to fight in his artistic journey. He’s a success but he remembers what it was like to be a beginner, like Eva, and her hope and belief and enthusiasm touch him, touch him in a very deep place, that place where he remembers who he really is.
He knows, or he can sense, that life is going to be tough for someone like Eva. He senses it from the moment he meets her. That is why, months later, when they run into each other at a party, he says, “You know … I worry about you sometimes.” It’s quite an intimate thing to say to someone you barely know. He senses (unlike anyone else in the film, who either take advantage of her, or snicker at her theatrics) her fragility. He thinks she should be protected.
Fairbanks plays that type of man: a man who doesn’t sneer at weakness, but worries about it, for no reason other than he is a nice person.
It is a deceptively simple part: The “nice” guy who loves the girl, but she’s not interested in him except as a friend. You want to shake Eva and say, “PLEASE consider Joe Sheridan and put that horrible manager out of your mind!” But life isn’t like that. Love is messy and one often falls in love with horrible people who don’t treat you well, especially once sex is involved, as it is with Eva and her manager.
Fairbanks could have played the part as a milksop, a weak guy, a lapdog. He doesn’t. Niceness is one of the hardest things for an actor to portray, in the entire cornucopia of qualities. Insanity? Piece of cake compared to niceness. What is “niceness”? What does it mean? What does it look like? And if all you’re doing is playing “nice”, will your work even be discernible? Shouldn’t you make it at least a bit dark and twisty so you will be memorable? Fairbanks is above and beyond those ego-driven concerns, and manages to show the essential character of Joe Sheridan, his decency, his sense of honor, without seeming weak or ineffectual. This is no easy task. He emerges as a friend, really the only friend that Eva’s got in the shark-fest that is the world of the play.
Naturally, though, there is more. He is also in love with her.
To play a man in love, who is also interested in the quality of life of his beloved, and to be concerned over her welfare and how she is treated, is a delicate thing. It requires subtlety and attention to detail. He could have mooned and sighed and pouted. He does none of these things. He seems like a good and serious playwright who keeps his eye on the ball, in terms of his career, but he sees in her a freshness, a humor and fragility, a charming unselfawareness, that touches him. He loves her. It’s that simple.
Let’s get down to specifics.
How does Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. DO all of this?
Surprise, surprise, it’s all about listening. If you want to see what real listening looks like, watch Fairbanks’ performance in Morning Glory. In his one-on-one scenes with Hepburn (the one at the party, in particular), he listens to her with a sensitivity and subtlety that seems quite modern, from another movie, another acting style all together. Nobody else in the film is listening quite like he is. And that’s right for the picture: he really is the only person with integrity, he really is the only one who SEES her. His way of listening helps him stand out.
There are these strange out-of-time performers whose work never dates, never seems like another style. They are timeless. They not only would “fit in” now, but they would dominate now as they did then. Cary Grant. Bogart. Wayne. Cooper. Judy Garland. Barbara Stanwyck. They came out of the same tradition as the great vaudevillian players of the time, they had the same training, the same context. Film was a new medium. These people figured it out early, and worked it to such a degree that they are still the gold standard of film technique. Many great and wonderful actors (Ronald Coleman comes to mind, although there are so many more) are placed firmly within a specific acting tradition, the old-school more classical style, the modulations of voice and gesture that dominated acting training for centuries until, well, Marlon Brando came along. There is nothing ‘lesser’ about that kind of work. But when you see someone like Gary Cooper or John Wayne in their early days, or John Garfield, or Bogart, you know you’re looking at something new, something different.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has that in Morning Glory. When he smokes a cigarette, he conscientiously blows the smoke away from her face. Totally naturalistic behavior. When he listens, he listens. You can watch the responses and thoughts flicker over his face, even if he has no lines. There is a spontaneity to the performance.
There’s one moment in a scene with Adolph Menjou where Fairbanks starts to laugh and he actually snorts while laughing. It is startling to watch someone who actually seems incapable of “creating” anything on purpose. It all just looks like life. A lot of us snort from time to time when we laugh hard. But actors back then, in general, didn’t. He did. I love him for it! And I love that he slipped into this really nothing part with a sensitive purpose, an understanding of where he might fit in, what his real role was in the story.
If we don’t feel like Eva Lovelace is missing the boat by not choosing Joe Sheridan, then the picture doesn’t work. We are aided in this by the casting of the manager, the rotund fatherly Menjou. If the manager was, say, Clark Gable, we’d have a very different picture. Fairbanks is so handsome, so at ease in his own skin, it’s fascinating (and part of the tension) that Eva is blind to him.
What I am really left with is Fairbanks’ ability at creating a man who understands kindness. (Think of how, during her potentially embarrassing meltdown at the party when she decides to perform Juliet’s balcony monologue for the entire crowd, and he, from his spot in the room, throws one of Romeo’s lines up to her … so she won’t have to sit up there, waiting for a cue that will never come. That’s the kind of man Joe Sheridan is).
At the end, I ached for him. I ached for her, too, sensing the tough road ahead, but I really ached for him. She will always be the one that got away. And he must let her go. That’s the gentlemanly thing to do, first of all, but it’s also the right thing to do. He does not pout, or bemoan his fate. He just kisses her hand, lingering there, and then walks out of the room.
He’s a nice man. And he just lost.
Fairbanks Jr. does it all with such a grace that we may not even notice how effective the performance really is.
I did not aim to supplant or rival my father nor to outdo my grandfather as a business tycoon. I did believe, quite as a matter of fact, that I would be better at whatever I put my hand and heart to than most people and that any shortfall would be due as much to my own lack of interest as to anyone else’s superiority. I wanted very much to be my own self, well clear of anyone’s shadow, but I had no very specific goals in mind.
I have never lacked awareness of the diversity and potential of my talents. By the same token, I have never been burdened with the conceit that I was another Noel Coward or Chaplin or even a carbon copy of my father. I have, since maturity, known full well the limits of my capabilities (which I’ve never quite reached), the perversities of my personality, and precisely how much self-discipline I should, could, and would apply to get whatever I had to do done well. I may have exaggerated myself to other people, but I have rarely deceived myself. That is probably my only real virtue.
Reading that passage, it doesn’t surprise me at all that such a man could so convincingly and with such great ease create true niceness onscreen.
Because it’s the genuine article.