Some actors seem to believe that unless they SHOW all the work they have done, their job is meaningless. And if you don’t congratulate them on all the work up there on the screen, they will most definitely remind you. “I worked with a Latvian lute-player for 8 months, and I also chopped off my pinkie toe, which really helped me get into the character.”
This isn’t a new phenomenon.
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. Cary Grant has no Academy Award. EASE is not congratulated. Or, that’s an overstatement, because obviously Cary Grant was the biggest movie star in the world and didn’t exactly suffer in obscurity. Measuring WORTH by Academy Awards is a ridiculous thing to do, although it is an interesting discussion – just in terms of the industry, how it works, and how it likes to see itself. But, you know, many of my favorites don’t have Oscars.
But 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, where people limp and wear buck-teeth and apprentice with Latvian pig-farmers to get into character, get the most attention, because they DEMAND the attention. And that’s fine as well. Not placing a judgment on it. Many great performances are of the “splashy” variety. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice.
I really love, however, the actors who stroll through their parts, making it look as natural as breathing.
Morning Glory, which gave Katharine Hepburn the first of her four Academy Awards, 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 here. This character is a broken woman. Although the film ends in triumph, it’s mitigated by the fact that her monologue about how she is not afraid of “being a morning glory” is said to a washed-up actress, who is now a wardrobe mistress – a woman who had once been an up-and-coming star. Fame is fleeting. I don’t believe that Eva Lovelace’s fame is built to last – she is too fragile – she is not destined to be the next Ellen Terry or the next Sarah Bernhardt. Those women had thicker skins than Eva. She very well might end up as a wardrobe mistress, a forgotten “morning glory”, and to me the ending is more ominous than happy, despite the swelling positive music. Hepburn, in my opinion, is NOT playing the triumph. She is playing the defiant belief in ONLY the moment – which is lovely, sure, but on deeper examination it is what will be her downfall. The part is a showy part, with 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 capitalizes on Hepburn’s strengths – her somewhat mannered way of speaking (much more marked early in her career), her blinkered ambition, her intelligence (she could never 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.
But why I think it is a really good performance is that she is playing the fantasy world, yes, but she gives us glimpses of her despair, her lost-ness, even in the moment of her greatest triumph. This woman is not going to be okay and Hepburn gives us that uneasy sense without telegraphing it too strongly. First of all, she has fallen, and hard, for her manager – played by Adolphe Menjou, a kindly father figure who unfortunately takes advantage of her when she is in a vulnerable moment (and it’s pretty blatant – she has obviously stayed the night), and from then on her heart is his. This is another way that Hepburn suggests Eva’s essential brokenness. It is my perception that Eva Lovelace STARTS the picture broken. She is not okay, although she talks a better game at the start, because she hasn’t been wrecked by life yet. Delusions are a healthy thing, they help you through the loneliness, the dark nights of the soul. Eva still has all of that. But it is a shaky foundation, and with a couple of uneasy glances here, a couple of subtle hand gestures there, Hepburn shows us the scarcity from which Eva operates. Hepburn is over-doing it on all counts, Eva is a theatrical emotional showoff, and so it is a highly mannered performance (why it is criticized), but again, I think it’s appropriate. The surface is there to hide the broken interior.
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 (as she is. I mean, 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 Fairbanks 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. Not at all. He plays a nice guy, 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 first 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. Now that is a rare thing indeed. Fairbanks plays that type of man: a man who doesn’t sneer at weakness, but worries about it.
It is a deceptively simple part. Parts like these are a dime a dozen. 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 Menjou out of your mind!” But you know, life isn’t like that. Love is messy and one often falls in love with inappropriate people, 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. He plays a truly nice man, and niceness is one of the hardest things for an actor to capture in the entire history of acting. Insanity? Piece of cake. Tragic sadness? Walk in the park compared to niceness. Because 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 this man – his sense of honor and niceness – 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 theatre.
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. What a shock. If you want to see what real listening looks like – take a look at his 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, who really does SEE Eva. He stands out in that world already.
If you watch a lot of old movies you get used to the different acting style, the pre-”Method” style. You get used to the vaudeville voices and some of the schtick – and you not only get used to it, but you LOVE IT. Things changed in the late 40s and 50s, a true revolution in the craft of acting, and that old style has faded away. But thank goodness we still have a record of it in all of these old movies.
However, there are these strange out-of-time performers, people 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’re strange birds. Outside of time. They came out of the same tradition as the great vaudevillian players of the time, they had the same training, the same context. But it didn’t matter. 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 the technique. They are not nailed down, their “style” does not place them in a specific time. 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 style, the modulations of voice and gesture that dominated acting training for centuries until, well, Marlon Brando came along. There is nothing ‘lesser’ about their work. I love it too. But when you see someone like Gary Cooper or John Wayne in their early days – you know you’re looking at something new, something different.
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has that in Morning Glory. When he smokes a cigarette, he doesn’t have a theatrical attitude about it. He’s just smoking a cigarette AS he’s listening to Hepburn, conscientiously blowing the smoke away from her face. Totally normal naturalistic behavior. When he listens, he listens. You can watch the responses and thoughts flicker over his face, even if he has no lines. This is the modern approach to acting, having an underlying emotional subtext running all the time, regardless of the words that you say. Fairbanks Jr. was doing it back then.
There’s one moment he has in a scene with Menjou where he starts to laugh and he actually snorts while laughing. It’s so real, so normal – not a studied “ha ha”. It is startling to see someone who actually seems INCAPABLE of “creating” anything on purpose. It all just looks like life, with this guy. Most of us snort from time to time when we really laugh. But actors back then didn’t. He did. I love him for it! And I love that he seemed to slip 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 will not 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 here, so at ease in his own skin. It’s fascinating (and part of the tension of the picture) that Eva is blind to him. Again, life is often like that.
But what I am really left with is Fairbanks’ ability at creating a man who truly 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 party – 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, pausing, waiting for a cue that will never come. That’s the kind of man Joe Sheridan is).
The best part of all of this is how easy he makes it all look.
At the end, I ached for him. I ached for her, too, sensing the tough road ahead of her – triumph or no – but I really ached for him. Because 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 walks out of the room. No self-pity, no martyr-ish attitude.
He’s a nice man. And he just lost.
And Fairbanks Jr. does it all with such a grace that we may not even notice how effective his 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.