Wednesday, September 26, 2012

To Rome with Love and Death: thoughts on aging stars

Two Woody Allen moments, more than 35 years apart. In the newer one, from To Rome With Love, an old man – a shuffling, white-haired version of one of modern cinema’s most recognisable profiles – delivers a quasi-philosophical monologue in a familiar, nervous-tic-ridden style, ending with a little shrug and the remark that, of course, death probably won’t come to him for another 40 or 50 years at least! The line invites laughter, but the chuckles stick in one’s throat.

In the other scene I’m thinking of – from the 1975 film Love and Death – a much younger Allen, playing a character named Boris, speaks directly into the camera. Having just undergone execution by firing squad and now preparing to trail the Grim Reaper into the great unknown, Boris is understandably preoccupied with such subjects as Death, Life, God and insurance salesmen, and he offers us a deadpan meditation on these things (“the key here, I think, is to not think of Death as an end, but to think of it as a very effective way of cutting down on your expenses”). In one of the funniest closing shots of any film - a parody of the final scene of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal - Boris and the Reaper then perform a demented Danse Macabre through the woods together. (See video below, especially the last three minutes.)

One can of course cite countless other similarly toned moments from Allen’s large body of work. (Remember the one set in a biology classroom in Manhattan, where Allen’s Isaac chastises a friend about an extra-marital affair, then points to a particularly ugly skeleton and says, “We’re going to end up just like him – and he was probably one of the beautiful people in his time”?) One could even go back to the 1960s when, as a stand-up comedian, he was trading in self-consciously morose humour on the same set of existential subjects.

And yet, for me, the two scenes mentioned above produce very dissimilar effects. Watching a 76-year-old pontificate about death (as in To Rome with Love) is a markedly different experience from watching the same man doing so in his 30s or 40s. It’s less easy to smile at.

Allen himself would not condone such a treacly attitude – the very idea would probably be distasteful to him – but for a long-time viewer these feelings are inevitable. One can spend half a lifetime admiring certain movie-stars for their (mental or physical) toughness and their lack of sentimentality (“lack of sentimentality” itself being a meaninglessly broad category that can include Woody Allen’s Borises, Alvys and Isaacs as well as Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harrys and Blondies, to name just two venerably aged American actor-directors) – but as time passes they become vulnerable in one’s eyes. They may continue doing the same things onscreen but the way we receive and interpret those things changes. As Pauline Kael wrote in a related context about Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis in 1968, “The two great heroines of American talkies have both gone soft on us, become everything we admired them for not being. They have become old dears – a little crotchety maybe, but that only makes them more harmlessly lovable.” Implicit here is the idea that the viewer’s perception is as important as what the actor is consciously doing.

When actresses begin to use our knowledge about them and of how young and beautiful they used to be – when they offer themselves up as ruins of their former selves – they may get praise and awards, but it’s not really for their acting, it’s for capitulating and giving the public what it wants: a chance to see how the mighty have fallen.
There have been a few exceptions: film artists whose work grew determinedly less sentimental with age – the most notable perhaps being that wily old surrealist Luis Bunuel, who made some of his sharpest films in his seventies when awareness of coming oblivion seemed almost to have fine-tuned his sense of the absurd. And indeed there are Bunuel-esque touches in To Rome with Love, such as a scene where an apparently shy, star-struck young woman accompanies a famous actor to his hotel room and ends up romping in bed instead with a thief who has broken in. But despite these moments – and despite the overall pleasantness of the film – I found it hard to shake from my mind the images of a frail-looking Allen, the skin on his face sagging, the eyes slightly more unfocused and the speech just a little slower than it used to be.

I felt a similar odd sensation a few weeks ago while watching the US Open men’s final, a five-hour marathon between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic that must (partly because of the playing styles of the two men) have been nearly as fatiguing for the spectators as it was for the contestants. In the audience was Sean ConnerySir Sean
Connery – lending his support to fellow Scotsman Murray; he looked as spry and bright-eyed as ever, but I may have spent as much time worrying about his health as I did thinking about the match itself. At some point, as the rallies wore on, he transformed in my mind’s eye from being one of the world’s most charismatic movie stars, the original 007 and a continuing object of adulation (the Twitter accounts of Murray and his team would soon be full of photos clicked with him) to being a crabby old man needing to take yet another toilet break and wishing these kids would get on with it. You can be the fittest 82-year-old in the world but you’re still, you know, 82 years old.

As for Amitabh Bachchan turning 70 next month – that’s such an incogitable prospect for my generation of Hindi-movie viewers, I won’t even address it in this space. It may require a book-sized lament.

P.S. To Rome with Love repeatedly contrasts “ordinary” people with people living in the public glare: two of its four plotlines (including the riotous one about a middle-aged undertaker who can sing like a world-class tenor only when he’s in the shower, necessitating bizarre productions of famous operas) deal head-on with the idea that people are alternately drawn to and repulsed by the celebrity life.

In a way this is a poignant reminder of how those who achieve stardom often cling to it at all costs, past their sell-by date. Some do it with a measure of dignity. The other day I was watching the iconic sequence in Limelight with Chaplin and Buster Keaton on screen together for the only time. Both men were around 60 then and had already been performers for five decades, having begun their vaudeville careers as children. You’d think after a lifetime of this sort of thing the old enthusiasm might have begun to wane, but not a bit of it. On the other hand, perhaps it was the only thing they knew how to do.


  1. Sudipta Bhattacharjee6:57 PM, September 26, 2012

    Nice post, Jai - somehow there is a heightened sense of melancholia in your recent posts, (understandably)which makes them more touching/relatable than your more clinical posts. I sincerely hope that you would take up the book-sized (or atleast a 3-4000 word blog sized) lament on Amitabh's 70th - he himself doesn't seem to be bothered though :-) (except for the occasional rant that he would have loved to be a hero in these times, when there are more exciting scripts etc). The Woody Allen scenes referred by you somehow didn't induce the differential reactions in me - it seemed like usual Allen. I guess, in my mind, he has always been old (like A K Hangal :-)

  2. Sudipta: melancholia?! Didn't you see the Love and Death scene? I think I may have written this post just so I could put that up. Love that dance.

    About Bachchan, no - I think more than enough will be written in the coming weeks, and I may need to take a break from the Internet just to avoid seeing it...

  3. Just as an aside, have you read this?

  4. Sudipto: no, hadn't read that Rosenbaum piece - thanks. Some interesting thoughts there on the whole copying-vs-homage subject too, which, as you know, is much in the news these days in the context of India's Oscar submission.

  5. Tangentially...have you read Chaplin's autobiography? I am not that fond of autobiographies in general, but couldn't help not liking it. It read more like a Dickensian tale...or maybe it was because one cannot but not like Chaplin.
    Your thoughts?

  6. ReadnRyte: yes, read it a long while ago (and not with full interest, I have to say - wasn't much into Chaplin at the time). There certainly is something Dickensian about his early life.

    I don't know about "one cannot but not like Chaplin" though. If you read some of the things other people have written about him, he can come across as highly unlikeable in some ways.

  7. Sudipta Bhattacharjee6:46 AM, September 27, 2012

    Jai: That scene was indeed very far from melancholia :-) I was making a generic comment on the overall tone of your recent posts.

  8. Sudipta: yes, I got that. One can't claim to know everything about one's subconscious imperatives, of course - but I wasn't in an especially melancholic mood (or not more than usual) when I wrote this. And it wasn't meant to be "just" a sentimental/nostalgic post (as a couple of other people I know have suggested) but a genuine attempt to touch on an aspect of the movie-going experience. I'll be using a version of this for my Business Standard film column anyway.

    P.S. that reference to a book-length lament for Bachchan was meant non-seriously - much as AB has meant to me as a viewer over the decades, I'm certainly not gutted about him turning old.

  9. Just curious, but doesn't "one cannot but not like Chaplin" mean that that one cannot help disliking him? At least, that's the way I would have interpreted that statement, but I could well be wrong.

  10. Woody Allen's obsession with death. Its there in Stardust Memories two. A bear or some animal is gonna kill Woody.

  11. Radhika: yes, of course - my mistake. But reading the original comment again, I'm not sure if that's what ReadnRyte intended. "Couldn't help not liking the autobiography" would mean that he didn't like it.

    Pessimist Fool: the death-obsession is in pretty much all his work (usually filtered through Bergman tributes or parodies). The bear-like creature isn't going to kill Allen in Stardust Memories - I think it's a manifestation of his suppressed anger.

  12. I realised what ReadnRyte meant to say, but when I saw you saying the same thing, I started doubting my own interpretation.

    Your English is far superior to mine, so... :)

  13. I found this article to be patronizing; i know you mean well but Woody allen and sean connery have achieved greatness and although their physical prowess may have diminished i suspect that they would like to be treated as individuals and not as old men past their prime making public appearances and movies to invoke nostalgia. Stop ageism, and not just because it is the politically correct thing to do.

  14. Jai: yeah its manifestation of his anger. i tried finding on your blog. if i am not mistaken, this is the first time you have dedicated one full post to Woody Allen. Isn't it?

  15. Pessimist Fool: probably not about his films, but I may have mentioned some of his published writings at some point.

    Anon: they are also public figures and it's the most natural thing in the world for a fan (or someone who has seen them over a long period) to write a personal reflection on how they - and our perceptions of them - change with time. Nothing patronising about it.

  16. And while we are on the subject of death, please, please, pretty please do share your thoughts on this piece of cinematic history at this youtube link:

  17. Winter: nice, but can't compare with the great Hindi-movie death scenes.

  18. Jai: I now wait with bated breath for your post on fabulous Hindi movie death scenes. Please please please do one. :D

  19. At some point, as the rallies wore on, he transformed in my mind’s eye from being one of the world’s most charismatic movie stars, the original 007 and a continuing object of adulation

    Talking of Sean Connery, don't you think he aged real quick?

    I've only seen him in 3-4 films. But he looked quite old by 1975 in the Huston film The Man who Would be King

    Regarding Allen's monologues - I don't like them very much. He seems very pretentious and self-indulgent when he starts to address his audience. He is at his best when he makes his characters talk. The best monologues on life and death in Allen's work are not by Allen but by that Professor character in Crimes and Misdemeanors - my favourite 80s film by far.