A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Oscar Week cont'd: Star Power

If winning an Oscar were all it took to make someone a star, then Paul Lukas, Ernest Borgnine, F. Murray Abraham and Louise Fletcher would have risen higher in the Hollywood firmament than Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Cary Grant and Greta Garbo. But on the other hand it's also true that it doesn't hurt to be a star when you're up for the award: It's what gave John Wayne the edge over a talented newcomer like Jon Voight in 1969, or Julia Roberts over such skilled contenders as Laura Linney and Joan Allen in 2000.

And it may also explain why Ingrid Bergman won three acting Oscars, a record surpassed only by Katharine Hepburn and tied only by Jack Nicholson. When Bergman won for Gaslight, was she really that much better than Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, or just a bigger box office draw? Isn't Deborah Kerr's performance in The King and I the one we remember, and not Bergman's in Anastasia -- or did Bergman really win the Oscar for her return to Hollywood after being shunned by bluenoses for her extramarital affair? And when she won for Murder on the Orient Express, Bergman even apologized to Valentina Cortese for winning instead of Cortese in Day for Night.

Of course, being a star can be a liability. You become overfamiliar. Sometimes the only way a big star can win an Oscar is by deglamorizing herself: Forgo makeup like Halle Berry in Monster's Ball, or submit to downright uglification like Charlize Theron in Monster, or wear a fake nose like Nicole Kidman in The Hours. Bergman's Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express was one of those -- the drab little missionary, a virtual parody of the role she played in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

Cary Grant never won because he was always Cary Grant, even though nobody ever played Cary Grant as well as Archie Leach did. On the other hand, James Cagney was always James Cagney. And he won the Oscar when he was more Cagney than ever (even though he was supposed to be George M. Cohan) in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The nuances of stardom are superbly and subtly analyzed by Jeanine Basinger in her recent book, The Star Machine. They're not so successfully dealt with in the two biographies reviewed here -- the Cagney book review originally appeared in the Washington Post, the Bergman in the Mercury News. But reviewing them gave me a chance to mediate on the appeal of both stars.

By John McCabe
Da Capo, 485 pp., $18.95 paperback

“Caution: Contents under pressure'' would have been a good label for James Cagney, though he needed cautionary labeling about as much as dynamite wired to an alarm clock. A reviewer of his very first film noted his ''fretful tenseness,'' and when that tension was released, Will Rogers once observed, Cagney was ''like a bunch of firecrackers going off all at once.'' For almost three decades his energy and volatility were unequaled by almost any other screen actor. So one turns to his biography to find out where the fire and the fizz came from.

John McCabe would seem uniquely qualified to write James Cagney's biography. McCabe has published biographies of Charles Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and George M. Cohan, whom most of us know chiefly from Cagney's Oscar-winning portrayal in 'Yankee Doodle Dandy. A former actor himself, McCabe has taught acting at several universities, and as a member of the Lambs Club became buddies with Cagney's old Hollywood cronies Pat O'Brien and Frank McHugh. And most important, McCabe ghosted Cagney's 1976 autobiography, Cagney on Cagney.

McCabe tells us his new book is meant to be an ''autobiographical biography.'' This means, I take it, that he's trying to tell Cagney's life story the way Cagney would want it to be told. He also explains that he has kept a pledge not to ''go beyond the limits of confidentiality [Cagney] occasionally set'' in the interviews for the earlier book. In the age of the tell-all biography, Cagney is a ''don't ask, don't tell'' book, an act of posthumous fealty to the man McCabe calls ''Jim.'' (''Jimmy,'' McCabe tells us, was the nickname studio publicists gave Cagney; his friends and family didn't use it.)

Cagney begins darkly, with Jim as a child comforting his agonized, wailing father, ''his brain half rotted with alcohol.'' But denial becomes second nature for children of alcoholics, so in presenting Cagney's life through Cagney's eyes, McCabe is soon forced away from this harrowing experience into the nostalgic picture of life on the Lower East Side that Cagney would create for himself. It's as sentimental as anything a Warner Bros. screenwriter could dream up. Cagney would describe his father as ''the most lovable guy who ever lived,'' his childhood as full of ''songs and laughter,'' and himself as a two-fisted altar boy -- an angel with a dirty face. ''We were poor, but didn't know it,'' he claimed.

But obviously they did know it. William Cagney, more candid than his brother, said of Jim, ''All the unhappiness of his childhood was inside him.''

It's elementary psychology that what's inside is trying to work its way out. Bottled up in Jim Cagney were the characters he would become on screen. Tom Powers and Rocky Sullivan and Cody Jarrett and Martin ''The Gimp'' Snyder -- the vessels of wrath that made Cagney an icon. Shortly after Cagney became a star in The Public Enemy, Lincoln Kirstein noted that he expressed ''the delights of violence, the overtones of a semiconscious sadism, the tendency toward destruction, toward anarchy which is the basis of American sex appeal.''

You can't be a star without sex appeal, but of all the major movie actors of the '30s and '40s -- Gable, Cooper, Bogart, Stewart, Fonda, Tracy, Grant, Wayne, Boyer, Astaire -- Cagney was the only one who never paired up memorably with a leading lady. We may think of Gable with Crawford or Harlow or Leigh, of Bogart with Bergman or Bacall, of Tracy with Hepburn, but there's no comparable pairing with Cagney. Given the right script, Cagney and Bette Davis might have sparked an inferno, but they were teamed only twice, in two of the worst movies either ever made. Usually he was matched with forgettable players like Margaret Lindsay or sweet ingenues like Joan Leslie. Though he had two major female co-stars in The Strawberry Blonde, they only showed his limitations more clearly: Rita Hayworth was too much the goddess for a scrappy mortal like Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland seemed more like his sister than his wife.

''Funny, he never liked to kiss leading ladies,'' Virginia Mayo recalled for McCabe. ''He'd grab you and kiss your forehead but almost never on the lips.'' Most of our enduring images of Cagney with women are perverse ones: shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face, roughing up Mayo in White Heat, brutalizing Doris Day in Love Me or Leave Me.

Elia Kazan, who played a supporting role in one of Cagney's films before becoming a director, wrote, ''Scenes with men came naturally with Jimmy; his love scenes with Ann Sheridan, a lovely girl, were perfunctory. I don't know if Jimmy had a problem with women.''

To that McCabe responds, ''Jimmy's 'problem' with women was a simple and traditional one: He adored his wife.'' But does McCabe really mean to imply that Cagney allowed his marriage to seriously handicap him as an actor?

In any case, Cagney seems to be the only one who adored Frances Willard Vernon, known as ''Willie,'' whom he married in 1922. Their union lasted till his death in 1986. She gave up her own stage career to become Cagney's ''unofficial agent'' and pushed and prodded him on his way to the top.

The Cagney family disliked Willie, McCabe tells us, but he backs off from suggesting why. The antipathy obviously stemmed from a rivalry as old as the human family: Cagney's mother, Carrie, was also a formidable woman. Mated with a feckless drunk who died when Jim wasn't quite out of his teens, Carrie became the driving force in her children's lives.

If Willie usurped Carrie's role in mothering Jim, that seems to have exhausted her maternal impulse. After 18 childless years of marriage, McCabe tells us, the Cagneys discovered that Jim was sterile, so they adopted a boy and a girl. ''Of the two parents . . . the one closer to the children was Jim, although he saw them less. Willie devoted herself to making her husband comfortable.''

One of the ways she made Jim comfortable was by treating the children as distractions: ''In view of Jim's need to study his roles -- he insisted on being letter-perfect in his lines, even though he knew he tended to paraphrase them -- Willie decided that it was impractical to have the children live in the house. Accordingly she had another, smaller house built on their property, perfectly fitted out, where James Jr. and Casey would be raised.'' The kids weren't allowed to have friends over when Jim was home learning his lines. Not surprisingly, the Cagneys and their children were often bitterly estranged in later years.

Between Carrie and Willie, then, James Cagney had no lack of mothering. It's easy to feel the resonance here with the oedipal attachment of Cody Jarrett, the character Cagney played in White Heat, and Jarrett's mother, played by Margaret Wycherly. McCabe shies away from exploring even that rather obvious point. Cagney, McCabe keeps reminding us, detested method acting, so McCabe rejects the notion that Cagney's own emotional experiences went into his performances.

Still, it seems pretty clear that Kazan was onto something: Cagney had a problem with women. Whatever this problem was, it seems not to have involved philandering. The only instance of marital infidelity that McCabe reports is a one-night fling with Merle Oberon when she and Cagney, along with other stars, were on a tour entertaining troops during World War II. McCabe's source is ''one of Cagney's closest friends who does not wish to be identified in this instance.'' (Two guesses will do: McCabe tells us that McHugh and O'Brien were on this tour.) As his source tells it, the story, in which Oberon is the sexual aggressor, sounds like a teenager's fantasy about making it with the prom queen, except for Cagney's claim that in the midst of the act ''he thought of his wife and felt sick with shame.''

As for the ''outing'' tales that no celebrity can escape these days, an old rumor links Cagney with Noël Coward, who is said to have written the song ''Mad About the Boy'' for him. McCabe dismisses this, perhaps rightly, as a case of ''wishful thinking,'' citing Cagney's ''hearty heterosexuality.'' Though plenty of gay men have been able to maintain an image of ''hearty heterosexuality,'' if Cagney had any homosexual impulses it's likely they remained as bottled up as the rest of his off-screen emotional life.

In fact, it's the sense that something's bottled up in Cagney that gives him such a dynamic image on screen. The well-timed release of repressed energy in his best pictures -- The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Heat, Love Me or Leave Me -- made him an enduring model, acknowledged by actors as different as John Travolta and Kenneth Branagh. Watch Joe Pesci erupt in GoodFellas or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and you're seeing the Cagney legacy.

This controlled explosiveness also made Cagney a terrific dancer, earning him the admiration of Mikhail Baryshnikov. One abiding mystery of Cagney's Hollywood career is why he didn't make more musicals. Here again his failure to connect with leading ladies may have played a part: There weren't a lot of female dancers with whom he might have teamed successfully; only Eleanor Powell comes to mind. He worked with Ruby Keeler in Footlight Parade, but though she was charming, Keeler danced as if she were wearing Doc Martens.

What Cagney really needed, as his duet with Bob Hope in The Seven Little Foys shows, was a male partner. It would have been great to see Cagney in the right vehicle with Fred Astaire. As in another Astaire partnership, Cagney might have made him look sexy, and he might have given Cagney some class.

In the end, McCabe doesn't let enough of Cagney out of the bottle. In his overprotectiveness of his subject he seems determined to reduce Cagney to simple formulas -- superlative actor, consummate professional, devoted son, loyal brother, faithful husband and affectionate father. This only serves to make him dull, which is something the scowling imp on the cover of Cagney surely can't have been.

AS TIME GOES BY: The Life of Ingrid Bergman
By Laurence Leamer
Harper & Row, 423 pp., out of print but available

In the glossy studio portrait on the jacket of Laurence Leamer's biography, Ingrid Bergman's eyes are focused somewhere in the middle distance -- on what? A lover? A departing train? A piece of photographic equipment? The mouth hints at something: Desire? Sadness? Or is she wondering how long it is till lunch?

If Leamer's account of her life is to be believed, what the portrait really captures is Bergman's essential self-absorption. She seems to have been one of the most self-centered people who ever lived, though not an intentionally destructive one. (One of her least successful stage roles was Hedda Gabler, Leamer suggests, because Bergman didn't have a fund of maliciousness to draw on for the part.) She was inclined to shut out unpleasant realities. She blinded herself to political evil, finding no reason why she shouldn't make films in Hitler's Germany before her Hollywood career took off. She also blinded herself to physical ills, postponing a breast examination, which might have stemmed the cancer that eventually killed her, because she was in a play with a long run ahead.

But her weakness could also be her strength. She also blinded herself to the course of the disease, working on her final film, the TV movie A Woman Called Golda, until a few months before her death. When the last scene of Golda was being shot, she forgot her lines because, she said, she didn't want the film to be over. When it was over, so was her life.

Above all, she loved to work. Her abandonment of her husband, Dr. Petter Lindstrom, and their daughter, Pia, when she eloped with director Roberto Rossellini gave the innocence of the '50s a profound shock. But her act may have been sparked not so much by love as by her sense that it was a good career move. Three of her Hollywood films in a row -- Arch of Triumph, Joan of Arc and Under Capricorn -- had bombed. As a director, Rossellini could at least promise her a continuing career. And later, the failure of the films she made with him may have hastened the end of their relationship and led her to return to Hollywood.

Her real life was in her art. And that frequently meant she had no time to attend to the emotional needs of her family, or no interest in doing so. But if she neglected her children, their comments about her in Leamer's book are not resentful ones. They seem to regard their mother as a kind of natural force, as impossible to resent as the wind. Her daughter Isabella Rossellini even played Ingrid in a made-for-TV movie. One could joke that it's as if Cheryl Crawford took the lead in Mommie Dearest, except that it isn't really. Joan Crawford was maniacally obsessed by motherhood as a role, as a part of her image. Bergman seems to have had no interest in it at all.

While Leamer's book is well-written and painstakingly researched, it ultimately falls on the problem that undermines all movie-star biographies: Nothing the author can tell us about his subject is as interesting as the Ingrid Bergman we have come to know from watching her films. The Ingrid Bergman of the biography is a real person, but she's not Ingrid Bergman the archetype.

Bergman, after all, helped make Casablanca our definition of what movies are all about. While Casablanca is skillfully directed and edited, wittily written, and brilliantly performed by an ensemble of wonderful character actors, it lingers in the memory because of images such as that of a tearful Bergman listening to Bogart tell her what the problems of two little people don't amount to in this crazy world. Bogart and Bergman never made another film together, yet they remain the quintessence of Hollywood romance.

Casablanca's status as a classic wasn't hurt by the fact that Bogart's and Bergman's private lives resonated with their on-screen personae (even though Bogart is one of the few leading men with whom she didn't have an affair). Eight years after the movie, its romantic dilemma was somehow echoed by Bergman's flight from Hollywood, as if Ilsa had finally decided to forsake the suave Victor Laszlo (Lindstrom) for the rougher-hewn Rick Blaine (Rossellini).

Bergman is unquestionably one of the great stars, but in fact she made only two movies -- Casablanca and Notorious -- that rank among Hollywood's greatest classics. She became a star not just by virtue of her beauty; more beautiful women have failed to launch legends. Nor because of her acting: She won three Oscars, but that award is usually bestowed more for charisma than for acting skill. She was a sensation on the stage, but largely because audiences were thrilled to see a screen legend in the flesh. Some of the stage actors with whom she co-starred, such as Colleen Dewhurst and Wendy Hiller, whose devotion to acting as a craft and a profession runs deep, were astonished by Bergman's inattention to the script and stage direction. When Hiller ventured a rebuke one time, Bergman replied, "Oh, Wendy, it's only a play." Even the tears that glistened in her eyes as Bogart bade farewell in Casablanca were put there by glycerine, not by her ability to imagine and project some deep sorrow.

The older Bergman gave some wonderful performances, ranging from the delicious self-parody of Murder on the Orient Express to the harrowing psychological drama of Autumn Sonata. But even in these movies, we are never free from the sense that we are watching a legendary figure whose personal image transcends any role she might play.

In the end, I think, it is Bergman's self-centeredness that made her so fascinating. Her most memorable moments, at least in her earlier films (which are, after all, the ones that define Bergman's image for us), are the ones in which something intrudes on her exquisite self-enclosure. All three of her Oscars are for victim roles: the put-upon wife in Gaslight, the amnesiac manipulated into being a claimant to the throne of Russia in Anastasia, the mousy missionary in Murder on the Orient Express. Even in her classic films, she is most memorable when the role calls for passivity, for reacting to something happening to her. She could never have played most of Bette Davis' or Katharine Hepburn's roles, for she's almost absurd when she's called on to assert herself -- as when she draws a gun on Bogart in Casablanca. But her little shrug and downcast glance when Bogart asks her to accompany him to the station as the Germans march on Paris are eloquent. And she wastes away touchingly under the poison administered by Claude Rains and Madame Konstantin in Notorious.

It was most of all the face, the downcast and slightly distant gaze, the almost pouty mouth, in which we could find emotions that she had no need to project. She was not a woman of a thousand faces, but a woman of one face, which acted like a mirror for any emotion the viewer might want to find there.

''Poor Ingrid. So beautiful; so dumb," Alfred Hitchcock once maliciously commented. But Hitchcock, who was neither beautiful nor dumb, was a very unhappy man. Ingrid was happy. Poor Hitch.