VIVIEN LEIGH…A Handy Ten

Tennessee Williams thought she was the finest dramatic actress of her day, Noel Coward the best comedienne (a side that was seen only in her very earliest films and on stage). I’ll have some educated guesses here about what Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando really thought.

She was severely bi-polar in an age when that condition was, to put it mildly, not well understood. She spoke seven languages, had a reputation as a spectacular hostess, won two Oscars and a Tony, and I suspect would have traded every bit of it for a kind word from her peers (“Oh no, Vivien, you mustn’t do that,” John Gielgud once said, when she asked him to read lines with her while she was practicing for Juliet. “That requires a real actress.”).

And that was just her friends.

Like many geniuses who deliver a shock to the system, she got most of those kind words (including from Gielgud) after she was safely dead, at 53, of tuberculosis, having spent years receiving periodic electroshock treatments.

And, like many geniuses safely dead, she remains misunderstood by those who fawn and carp alike.

She is the only person who has ever truly frightened me while giving a performance on screen–and I confess I was frightened both for and of her.

I do not blame anyone for refusing to get her. For those who dare….

1)  Gone WIth the Wind (1939)
D: VIctor Fleming

It’s fascinating to see her screen tests which–despite an early childhood in Colonial India that I suspect gave her instinctive insights into the Plantation South her Hollywood competition couldn’t comprehend–barely hint she would take over the character of Scarlett O’Hara so fully that imagining anyone else in the part was soon rendered not only moot but ridiculous. It was an art-house performance, given not in a Euro-classic masterminded by some bleak or pointilist master like Dreyer or Bergman or Renoir, but in a (make that the) Hollywood blockbuster that stretched to nearly four hours, had at least three principal directors and was micro-managed by the definitive example of that dread antithesis of Art, the Super Producer. And it was a (make that the) star turn given by someone who was not yet a star. Her own screen time ran to nearly two-and-a-half hours. I once watched it without sound and then listened to it with my eyes closed, back-to-back, trying to catch a false note. No such luck. I also developed a habit over the years of counting how many times Scarlett physically assaults someone. It’s somewhere around a dozen but I’ve never managed to convince myself I didn’t miss one or two. In short, there’s nothing else like it. Whenever there is a list of greatest film performances and someone else is on top (there always is–and it’s never her Blanche DuBois, the only real competition), I laugh. People amuse me sometimes.

2) Waterloo Bridge (1940)
D: Mervin LeRoy

A remake of a 1931 weeper, Leigh and co-star Robert Taylor both named it as the favorite of their own movies. Though she had been turned down for Rebecca (after a screen test that was no further from Joan Fontaine’s fine performance than Leigh’s GWTW test had been from her Scarlett) this was an interesting place to land. After Gone With the Wind, Leigh gravitated by hook or crook toward self-destructive characters who increasingly mirrored her own life and personality. This one is a gut-punch, to my mind more subtle and delicate than the fine earlier version, thanks mostly to Leigh’s ability to turn melodrama into the real thing, even if she had to live it. I won’t tell you how it ends, only that, like most of her post-Scarlett adventures, it is prescient and not an easy watch.

3) That Hamilton Woman (1941)
D: Alexander Korda

Does one really need to do more than look at those two shots and realize they are the same actress in the same movie? Or should I add that there is no hint of strain in the transition? She spent the rest of her marriage to co-star Laurence Olivier begging him to do another movie with her (especially Shakespeare, his specialty!). He refused….and kept the reputation as the Great Thespian of the two, which I suspect he knew he had not earned. Clever man.

“After? There is no after.”

I should mention before moving along, that if Hollywood had been serious about having Oscars match Art, she would have won for both of the preceding movies (she was nominated for neither). For better or worse she wouldn’t make another movie for nearly five years.

4) Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
D: Gabriel Pascal

And a curious thing it was. She may have gone after it harder than she went after Gone With the Wind. The resulting film is–like just about every Shaw play that wasn’t based on Pygmaliion–about equal parts maddeningly entertaining and just maddening. (He’s my favorite playwright but his style rarely translated well to film.) The worst part was that Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the filming. It was one of several but this one seemed to cost her the best chance of having a child with Olivier. For someone who was already at least flirting with mental illness, it was bound to leave a scar. The movie reflects some of that. It’s still worth seeing, as a curio if nothing else (and for the impeccable Claude Rains as a definitively Shavian Julius Caesar). But nothing in it matches the photograph of Leigh with Shaw that Kendra Bean dug up for her excellent book of such photos (with insightful essay) dedicated to Leigh’s life and career (which I reviewed here). There are grainy reproductions on the net, but by all means find the book. The picture there of Leigh standing between Shaw and director Pascal contains multitudes. If the old man had still been on his game, he would have written a play about her pursuit of his approval–and I bet it would have made a better movie than Caesar and Cleopatra or perhaps even Pygmalion. Especially if he convinced her to play herself.

5) Anna Karenina (1948)
D: Julien Duvivier

By now the pattern was set. She was a complex narrative actress in a simple narrative medium…so the construction of the connective tissue required to drive home the telling details in stories that took place over years (and, here, miles) was generally left to her. Everyone else could do their thing, as she could play with or against anyone (Clark Gable, Leslie Howard,  Robert Taylor, Olivier, Claude Rains, here Ralph Richardson, all except Olivier just because she was asked–you try it some time). Anna’s not the plum part some make it out to be. I don’t quite buy Garbo in the role (I buy the movie, and Garbo, just not the part where we all know she’s going to kill herself–what you might call the Anna part–though I accept I am in the minority) and it left Keira Knightley lost and confused. How would Gielgud have put it? It requires a real actress. Someone who can make you feel the weight of going under that train that every English major in the world knows is coming for her from the beginning even if they’ve never been within ten miles of Tolstoy. She does that. Mostly, I think, by giving it just a touch of cold and allowing the passion underneath to show through only at the crucial moments. It didn’t win her any friends or awards, but you can start to see why she only made a movie every three years.

6) A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
D: Elia Kazan

“Yes dear, you strike a lovely match. But will you burn down the cornfield?”

Which meant the next one was this, the truly frightening one. I watched it for the first (and so far only) time about fifteen years ago. My response to Brando was So this is where he got that reputation.

My response to Leigh was You can’t do that.

Not because the part required a “real” actress (though it did), but because, when you are living in someone else’s skin, there are places you can’t go and expect to come all the way back–especially if the someone else is having a rape-induced mental breakdown. Leigh, alone among screen actors, went there. I wasn’t the only one who thought so. A few years later, on a visit to New York, I saw an Off-Broadway play called Orson’s Shadow (if it’s ever near you, see it) which is, among other things, about the last days of Leigh and Olivier’s marriage. In the lobby during intermission I wandered around, reading the play notices. One of them contained a quote with which I was previously unfamiliar (as I was with Leigh’s history of serious mental problems):

“She (Blanche) is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

If you want to know what the affect on Brando was, read any story of his sad pathetic life. Like Olivier in That Hamilton Woman, he knew what had happened, even if (as with Olivier) there was an entire cottage industry devoted to insisting it wasn’t so.

He went on to be careful and mannered and lauded in On the Waterfront–prelude to a lifetime of being showered with accolades and represented as the epitome of approved good taste masquerading as revolution.

She was carried off her next film set in a strait-jacket.

One of these days. I’ll watch this one again.

7) The Deep Blue Sea (1955)
D: Anatole Litvak

(No box office you say? With advertising like that? Just one of life’s little mysteries.)

This has apparently never been available in any home video format. I’ve seen it only in a grainy bootleg version which is barely watchable. But there’s enough there to know she had, post Streetcar and post breakdown, mastered a certain kind of fragility which gave her characters a vulnerability everyone else has been forced, for their own protection, to play act. Again, not an easy watch.

8) The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961)
D: Jose Quintero

A good double bill with The Deep Blue Sea. Same train, different time. Similar result. Tennessee Williams insisted she was the only one who could play the part on screen. He knew what he was about. Hell, he probably wrote it about her, even if only subconsciously. Not an easy watch…but you know that by now. Don’t let its fame (or infamy) or good-not-great reputation or Warren Beatty playing an Italian fool you. Beatty’s quite good, she knew how to make this stuff hurt all along–and she only got better at it. Everyone who has walked through the beauty-terrified-of-losing-her-looks narrative since has done so in her footsteps. Maybe someone has filled her shoes, but, if so, I haven’t seen it. Here, as elsewhere, when she destroys herself, you not only believe, you believe there was no other way.

9) Ship of Fools (1965)
D: Stanley Kramer

After? There is no after.

She was dead in two years.

10) Vivien Leigh with Kenneth Tynan, Sam Goldwyn and Edward R. Murrow.

Permit yourself to time travel. Their like, good and bad, are with us in every age. Her like, we won’t see again.

Except for Kazan, she worked with no director who could be mistaken for an auteur, though none were less than solid professionals.

John Gielgud was a fine actor, by many accounts a wonder of the stage. By every account superior to his dear friend Vivien.

Today, though, when we hear her name, we think of Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche Dubois, of Gone With the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire.

When we hear his name, we think of Arthur, if not Arthur 2.

Talent abides.

Genius finds a way.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Audrey Hepburn’s Lesson in “Authenticity”)

(NOTE: Possible spoilers for Wait Until Dark and Panic Room contained herein.)

The times they do keep changing. Frequently not for the better.

This week’s cheery news (news to me at least) was that my area’s last good video store–which happened to be the first store I ever rented a video from back in the early eighties and has for years been the only vid-store in town that wasn’t fronting a porn-shop–went out of business.

So no more cheap fixes on movie night.

No more browsing long shelves for interesting things I missed and probably never would have known about otherwise.

Oh well.

For now, at least, there’s one chain record store left (I notice everyone still calls them record stores even though they’ve now sold mostly sell CDs and DVDs for nearly as long as real record stores actually existed).

This record store is in the mall, right next to the biggest movie theater.

Between ten bucks and a quarter for Liam Neeson’s latest and a run through the used DVD rack where I could pick up three movies for seven bucks (at least as cheap as the rental option, actually, just nowhere near the selection), I decided on the latter.

The best of the three movies I bought was Panic Room, David Fincher’s auteur-ish 2002 take on the vulnerable-actress-trapped-in-her-home-by-psychopaths genre which reaches back at least as far as noir-ish items like The Spiral Staircase (1946, where the actress was the estimable Dorothy McGuire and the director was the minor auteur Robert Siodmak) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1949, where the actress was the more-than-estimable Barbara Stanwyck and the director the minor auteur Anatole Litvak) and which remains defined by 1968’s Wait Until Dark, which was directed by Terence Young (reliable but nobody’s idea of an auteur) and starred Audrey Hepburn.

I haven’t seen The Spiral Staircase and it’s really been too long since I’ve seen Sorry, Wrong Number for me to make a fair comparison. However, as I, like all people of quality, am a huge fan of Stanwyck, I’m guessing there’s a reason I haven’t revisited it even once. Something to do with an excess of artificiality if memory serves. And believe me, as a fan of artificiality in the old Hollywood manner, it had to be pretty excessive to leave me cold.

There’s a lot of artificiality in Wait Until Dark as well. But I watch it on a regular basis, including this week….right after I watched Panic Room.

It’s well made, of course. No movie is worth re-watching if it doesn’t meet that test. But Sorry, Wrong Number was well made, too (I do remember that much). For that matter, so is Panic Room, although, even as a fan of its two stars, Jodie Foster and Forrest Whitaker–two actors who I really wish worked more–I doubt I’ll bother seeing it again.

Actually, I should qualify that “well made” slightly for Panic Room.

It’s well made by modern standards and, seeing it side by side with one of Old Hollywood’s last gasps in nailing-down-the-basics, it certainly suffers by comparison.

Wait Until Dark keeps its physical and psychological spaces firmly fixed. It’s easy to know where everyone is–in body and mind–at all times, a quality I actually find pretty handy in a thriller. Panic Room’s spaces are, like those of nearly all modern thrillers, hopelessly confused. A standard walk-through of the space that’s about to be invaded at the very beginning–in this case a four-story Manhattan apartment–feels like a tacked on device where Dark’s similar meet-and-greet is integrated and organic. Worse, Fincher’s “device” does nothing to help the viewer stay oriented as to what’s going on later when the action starts–that is, the opening scene fails to serve its only good reason for existing.

Doubtless the subsequent confusion is meant to make some sort of statement (I mean, I’d hate to think it was merely incompetence, what with all that showy camera work going on) but it’s the sort of statement a director typically makes when he doesn’t have faith in his ability to disorient us any other way.

You know, by doing something like actually scaring us.

And that’s the trick with these things.

How exactly do you scare an audience which knows good and well that no actress big enough to play these parts in a big-budgeted script that elicits our sympathy–not Jodie Foster, certainly not Audrey Hepburn (Stanwyck died, but, assuming memory serves at least a little, with her character it came more as a relief than a tragedy)–is ever going to be killed on-screen by murderous psychopaths.

Especially not if one of the criminals (Richard Crenna in Dark, Forrest Whitaker in Panic Room) turns out to have a conscience that can be appealed to (and here, Panic Room burns the narrative basics again by having the man with the conscience play the bigger role and by playing out the final confrontation that is built into the structure–the vulnerable actress/star finally pitted, one-on-one, against the real murdering psychopath, as something other than the climax). Not that Dwight Yoakum, good as he is here, was ever going to match Alan Arkin, but there’s no way for the air not to go out of the thing just when the tension should be mounting if you play that crucial element off to the side.

So, if Panic Room–which, all complaints about the modern-ista technique of trashing basic narrative in order to be-different-for-the-sake-of-being-different aside, really is well-acted and directed–didn’t hold my interest all the way through the first time, why does Wait Until Dark hold my interest every single time?

Arkin’s certainly part of the reason. The lessons he gave in quiet menace–lessons which, he reveals in the DVD’s making-of documentary, made the producers very nervous during the first weeks of shooting because they had no idea what he was up to–have never really taken hold in modern Hollywood. I mean Yoakum’s character, by no means the worst example of overkill even in my relatively limited experience, comes into the invasion-space wearing a ski-mask while his two partners (thinking the place empty) are showing their faces.

Sinister!

No really.

After all, there’s nothing wrong with marking the real baddie in this situation. Heck, Arkin’s character enters wearing a leather coat and dark glasses.

But, going back to narrative basics again, the subsequent “reveals” should amount to something–something which deepens the terror rather than disperses it.

Something more disturbing, perhaps, than finding out Dwight’s not wearing a hair-piece for this role.

Yeah, something more than that.

If you want me to stay interested all the way through, anyway.

So there’s that for a reason to watch–Arkin becoming more terrifying as the movie goes along. And more terrifying still (as opposed to more pathetic) when his own moment of vulnerability finally does arrive.

Plus all that about using the narrative basics because the basics really do work.

Pretty good reasons on their own.

But the real reason I watch Wait Until Dark regularly is because it has a moment at the end which I haven’t seen in any other movie of this type or, come to think of it, in any other movie at all.

It has a moment–a moment that lasts exactly as long as it takes to shout “Oh God!” and resonates far, far beyond the echo–in which Hepburn conveys real physical terror.

In that single moment, she achieves a feat I haven’t seen (or, more particularly, heard) in any other movie.

She sounds like someone who genuinely fears for her life.

She sounds that way every single time.

She sounds terrified in a way that actresses as great as Barbara Stanwyck and Jodie Foster (fair claims for the very best of the respective generations just before and just after Hepburn’s own, in which exactly no one thought she was the very best) could not approach–could not approach, in Stanwyck’s case, in a movie where her character actually was going to die.

And Hepburn sounds that way–a way Barbara-freaking-Stanwyck and Jodie-freaking-Foster couldn’t sound–even though she’s Audrey Hepburn being stalked by a psychopath in a set of movie-land circumstances where there’s no possible way her character is going to die.

So I guess the main reason I watch Wait Until Dark once a year or so is the same reason that makes any art worth revisiting as something more than comfort food.

Every now and then, I want to stand in awe.

(Now, such a scene as I’ve described can’t arrive in a vacuum…so here’s the “reveal” scene–one of many memorable moments that precede the finale (which I’m not linking on the chance somebody might want to watch the movie). It’s highly theatrical and, I think, all the more effective for being so.

Incidentally, this is the second time in the last few weeks I had to upload my own video to YouTube so I would have something to show. Not sure yet whether this will develop into a habit.

Anyway, this mostly quiet scene is about a thousand times as effective as Dwight Yoakum getting his hand caught in a “panic room” door that isn’t supposed to let such things happen and screaming his head off–the equivalent confrontation moment in Panic Room.)