February 17, 2016

Love Stories on the Road Between Valentine’s Day and Oscar Night

I fell in love with Shakespeare watching Richard Burton play Hamlet. If there was a specific moment when I “lost my heart” (you could as easily say “found my heart”), it came in the scene where Hamlet tells the players to “speak the speech” the way he pronounces it, and “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”

In an essay about his youthful love of the plays, William Dean Howells recalls feeling that “in his great heart” Shakespeare “had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.” I was in my early 20s when Hamlet’s rousing speech to the players brought me into Shakespeare’s “great heart” and made me feel that the man who wrote the play was in the room speaking directly to his creations.

Mark Rylance

Hamlet’s directorial precepts came to mind while I was watching Mark Rylance “use all gently” suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action” as the captured Russian spy, Rudolph Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. If you’ve seen the film, you may remember what Abel says whenever his lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) observes, “You never worry,” or asks “Aren’t you worried?” Rylance turns Abel’s “Would it help?” into a balanced, benign haiku of nuance at the heart of the relationship between a passively steadfast spy and an actively steadfast lawyer, the poetry of Rylance and the prose of Hanks.

Losing It

When I was at W.D. Howells’s “time of life when a boy begins to be in love with the pretty faces” of the real world and “the ladies of that Shakespeare-world,” I found love in the Federico Fellini-world of La Strada. As moved as I was by the director’s atmospheric vision of roadside Italy and the revelatory performances of Richard Basehart as the clown and Anthony Quinn as the strong man, the object of my affection was Gelsomina, the doomed waif played by Giulietta Masina, whose wide-eyed wonderfully expressive face lit up the screen and my life. The English title of Nino Rota’s poignant theme song was “Stars Shine in Your Eyes,” and so it seemed when I saw Masina smile in the darkness of the theatre. I was at the emotional mercy of the Chaplinesque innocent beating the drum, blowing the trumpet, and shouting at every village, “Zampano is here!” What was actually going on probably had more to do with the medium than the touching messenger, La Strada being the film that opened my eyes and my heart to cinema. That said, the folly of my search for a real-life equivalent of Gelsomina among southern Indiana schoolgirls resulted in several unhappy relationships with small, short-haired gaminesque females who gave me puzzled, pitying looks when I ventured anywhere near the subjects of art or life or film or Italy. It seems that Howells had a comparable experience with the “pretty faces” of the real world, since he admits that “upon the whole” he “much preferred them in the plays, because it was so much easier to get on with them there.”

Being James Dean

Before La Strada, there was a comet called James Dean. I was only one among a multitude of teenagers spun, shaken, and carried along in the blowback of his blazing passage from unknown actor in the spring to legend in the fall of the same year. When I saw East of Eden’s opening image of Dean huddled on top of a freight train on his way to Monterey to visit his prostitute/madam mother (Jo Van Fleet), I saw a romanticized version of myself. Hey, I even had a sweater just like the tan one Dean was wearing. What I felt wasn’t love; it was fascination of a pathological intensity. All my love was for Julie Harris’s Abra, who embodied everything I dreamed of in a female in that pre-Gelsomina time: Harris wasn’t beautiful but she was sweet, smart, pretty, caring, and had a lovely, throaty laugh.

In that brief spring-to-fall interval and the posthumous aftermath, based on multiple viewings of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean became at once tortured alter ego, hero, anti-hero. While I didn’t go as far as the fanatics who conducted seances or wrote letters to Jimmy in heaven, I did begin a novel based on his life (in that sense, he’s one reason I decided to be a writer). I also bought the fan magazines, read the quickie paperback biographies, and clipped and saved Dennis Stock’s photographs in Life (the N.Y. Times website contains a nice video reminiscence by Stock), particularly the shot of Dean on Times Square bundled in a black overcoat, bare-headed, his cigarette the only spot of white in view, the pavement gleaming with rain, giant movie billboards and marquees, and electric signs of the “Crossroads of America” looming behind him. It was as pure an image of fame as any I knew. That was my dream. Me, the famous writer, and my pal Jimmy walking down Broadway side by side.

The identification with Dean could be dangerous. Heading home one night from a drive-in viewing of an Eden and Rebel double-feature not long after Dean’s death, I floored my father’s red Buick Special convertible, top down, 120 miles an hour on a two-lane road, at one point swerving wildly in and out of oncoming traffic, close to a crash, as if making a morbid connection with what happened to Dean on that California highway.

If you were in high school during the Dean craze, life in the classrooms and hallways could be a bad dream of tortured-teen Actor’s Studio histrionics, a plague of would-be James Deans. He was everywhere. You’d see versions of the haircut, the white t-shirt and red windbreaker from Rebel. I wore my replica of Cal’s sweater incessantly, or until my parents complained. In time, the striking of James Dean attitudes descended into farce as my best friend and I cracked ourselves up performing ludicrous parodies. Certain of the insanely over-the-top scenes in East of Eden energized our relationship, and more than a half a century later, we still call each other “Aaron” from our custom of playing out the scene at the end where Dean’s Cal drags his naive “good” brother to Monterey (“You wanta see your mother, Aaron? I’ll show you your mother, Aaron!”) and more or less throws the poor guy (he’s already lost Abra to Cal) at the feet of the whorehouse madame.

Shakespeare Blushes

Assuming that Hamlet’s instructions to the players concur with Shakespeare’s opinions on the subject of acting, I can imagine the Bard writhing, or at least blushing, were he to witness James Dean “tearing a passion to tatters” in East of Eden (blubbering at his father’s feet before staggering howling into the night) and screaming “to split the ears of the groundlings” in Rebel Without a Cause (“You’re … tearing … me … apart!”).

Of course those were the very moments that fascinated and captivated us even as they embarrassed us, and for all I know, Shakespeare might have seen a potential Hamlet or Mercutio in Dean’s willingness to throw himself into the fire of a scene. Hamlet does add, “Be not too tame neither,” before returning to his point that “anything so overdone” is not “the purpose of playing.”

Master of Romance

Some 40 years ago watching the Late Late Show on an 11-inch Sony TV, I discovered the films of Frank Borzage, the director who above all others holds his players to the Shakespearean standard: “to use all gently,” and “in the whirlwind of passion” to “acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness,” and above all, “to never o’erstep the modesty of nature.” The beauty of Borzage is that he kept faith with nature, held the mirror steady in a genre — the romance, the love story — that tempts even the most accomplished directors into areas of excess such as to “make the judicious grieve” and think that “some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.”

Having already devoted a number of columns to Borzage classics like Moonrise (1948) and 7th Heaven (1927), winner of the first Academy Award for direction, and Man’s Castle (1933), one of the best American films of the 30s (or any other era), still shamefully unavailable on DVD, I’ll mention only the Late Late Show moment (it was 3 a.m.) when I saw an actress I’d never seen before. Or so it seemed until I realized that the woman on the screen was Joan Crawford, who, even at her characteristic best, always struck me as off-puttingly shrill and artificial. In Borzage’s otherworldly yet luminously earthly Strange Cargo (1940), Crawford would have made Shakespeare proud, as would her co-star Clark Gable. In the mirror Borzage was holding up to nature, both players transcended themselves.

With Hollywood’s big night looming, for better or worse, it feels right to end a column about love and film with a director who was born on Shakespeare’s birthdate, April 23, and ran off at the age of 13 to join an acting troupe performing Shakespeare in saloons before finding his way to Hollywood, where he would make more than 100 films between 1912 and his death in 1962.

Note: W.D. Howells’s essay can be found in the Library of America’s anthology, Shakespeare in America. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Both James Dean and Giulietta Masina were born this month (February 8 and 22, respectively). An Oscar nominee for his supporting role in Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance just won Best Supporting Actor in the British Academy (BAFTA) awards.