Saturday, September 28, 2013

O'Hara and O'Toole/Lawrence and Leigh - Thoughts on the twin titans of movie acting

For me, the two greatest achievements of film acting are Vivien Leigh in "Gone with the Wind" and Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia."

If you were to rank every performance in every film (if such a list could even be useful), I don't know what exactly would be number one, but it would begin with these two and then everyone else. You could teach whole classes on acting just based on them.

And there are a surprising number of similarities between the two.

Both were not-very-well-known British stage actors who were given starring roles in giant Hollywood productions, beating out big name stars for the part.

Both were young, in their 20s. Leigh was 25 during filming, O'Toole was 28.

Both movies are epics. I mean LONG, about 4 hours.

Think about how important their voices are to the characters: Leigh's Southern belle drawl with its "fiddle-dee-dee" rhythms; O'Toole's watery, wavering tenor. And their trademark facial expressions: Leigh's calculating pout, O'Toole's withering stare.

Both incorporate what Jung would call their anima and animus: the expressions of their feminine and masculine inner personalities. Scarlett O'Hara is a lady, yes, but not a proper one, bristling at the assumptions of the Southern patriarchy, taking charge, not relying on a man, but using them for her own goals. Lawrence is the military hero of the British empire, but he preens and admires his perfect white robes, bonding with his men with a tender devotion not shared by his cold-hearted superiors.

Both show arrogance, and total despair. They're both despicable and admirable. Villains, heroes, victims, oppressors.

These two roles, in their dynamism and their depth, represent the complexities of cinematic acting, the role of the human being in film art. They're our Hamlet.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

And One Day There Will Be No More

Apropos of nothing in particular...



"The frontier moves with the sun and pushes the Red Man of these wilderness forests in front of it, until one day there will be nowhere left. Then our race will be no more, or be not us. [ . . . ] The frontier place is for people like my white son and his woman and their children. And one day there will be no more frontier. Then men like you will go, too. Like the Mohicans. And new people will come. Work, struggle. Some will make their life.

But once . . .  we were here."

-- The Last of the Mohicans (Expanded Version), screenplay by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe.

These are the last words spoken in the film. The old chief Chingachgook, both the last father and the last son of a proud and dying nation (played with weight and authority by Russell Means, a real life indigenous rights activist making his acting debut) looks forward into what he believes to be the future of his people, and of all peoples.

The director's expanded version seen on DVD was the cut that introduced me to this film, and it absolutely confounds that anyone (director Mann, editors Dov Hoenig and Arthur Schmidt, or even 20th Century Fox executives) could have thought that a version of the film without these lines would be preferable to one with them. But someone must have felt otherwise, as the film was released theatrically with this quote admitted.

Regardless, these lines are out and available now, and thus are completely vulnerable to my dubious praise.

As someone who has had considerable background in the study of history and has worked in the museums, and as simply a lover of history and all its glorious paradoxes, I can hardly think of a better, more succinct way of describing the appeal of history, of the vast past that rests behind us but refuses to recede from us. In this moment, as Means and actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeleine Stowe, huddled together for warmth and comfort, look out over the fog-covered mountains, mountains older than any one of them, older than the French or British Empires, older than the Mohican Tribe, mountains that will continue to exist until the day man hubristically decides he has no more need for them, the film perfectly captures that unique sense one has of history, that the past -- and all it consists of -- remains both entirely impermanent and inescapably present.

In short, Michael Mann needs to make another period film. Get crackin' on Azincourt, Mike.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Sorry of the lack of posts lately. But soon enough I'll be back with more new material.