Monday, September 25, 2023

From deification to “what if” – the power (and vulnerability) of the screen persona

(From my Economic Times column)

A few recent encounters – with a still image, moving images, and an excerpt from an old story – led to intersecting thoughts about star-actors: about career longevity and careers abruptly cut off; about our perceptions of performers who have been enshrined as legends.

The exhibits:

A. In a witty bit of casting in the new season of Only Murders in the Building, Meryl Streep plays – wait for it – an unsuccessful actress. The character is approximately Streep’s age (she is first shown as a little girl in 1962, yearning to be on stage) but with one big difference: Loretta has spent the past six decades trying to get a break, not getting it, and carrying on regardless — showing up for thousands of auditions, making do with what comes her way.

B. A photo I hadn’t seen before, from 1955, shows Dilip Kumar sitting with Alfred Hitchcock during the latter’s trip to Bombay. It was a triumphant time for both men, with more glories to come soon: the Indian actor had just played the lead in Bimal Roy’s Devdas, while Hitchcock had three films out in the previous 12 months, including Rear Window and To Catch a Thief.

On the face of it, this is a sweet document of two giants from different cultures on equal footing; but here is a dampener from Donald Spoto’s Hitchcock book, condensing the director’s trip into a sentence: “For seven weeks they endured airplane delays, foul weather, uncongenial menus, and the demands for attention by hopeful Asian actors.”

So here are iconic performers in a new context, where it’s possible to imagine them just a little diminished, or not fitting into another exalted realm. I’m a bit of a Meryl Streep sceptic (which is not to say I don’t think she’s a fine actor, just that the level of worship — especially at major awards which seem to pencil her in for a nomination the minute they hear she is in anything — has reached ridiculous proportions), but her Loretta is such a marvellous conceit, it almost makes you think about that parallel universe where even someone of Streep’s talent might not have been dealt the right cards. Similarly, Dilip Kumar doesn’t become any less of a legend because a Hollywood filmmaker didn’t mull working with him – but it’s a reminder that greatness doesn’t always transcend place and time, and an icon in one context might be a supplicant in another.

C. A scene from the 1935 screwball comedy Hands Across the Table. The lovely young Carole Lombard is in conversation with a wheelchair-bound Ralph Bellamy. He used to be a pilot, he says ruefully, looking at a model of a plane. “Flying is safer now than it was then.”

In real life, Lombard will die in a plane crash a few years later, aged thirty-three – one of the big “what ifs” in film history since she could well have had a long career across mediums, including TV. Meanwhile Bellamy, a charismatic supporting actor, will work in films for nearly six more decades, all the way till Pretty Woman in 1990.

D. Speaking of longevity, most people couldn’t hold a candle to Lillian Gish, who was one of the first and biggest movie stars and would play her last role (in a big film, The Whales of August) when she was ninety-six. (Imagine a cinematic career spanning 1912 to 1987! The equivalent in the history of literature might be from, say, Homer to Hemingway.) I was pleased to find Gish appearing as an inspirational figure in a PG Wodehouse story of the 1920s – “The Love That Purifies”, which pivots on an unruly boy with a crush on Gish, causing him to become alarmingly well behaved. As a screen persona Gish exuded inner strength and purity; even the brilliant Jeeves only just manages to rescue a child from her saintliness.

E. But then an image can cast a long shadow, as a Hollywood columnist in Damien Chazelle’s recent Babylon – a delirious, bold, polarising, grand folly of a film – knows very well. In one scene she speaks to silent-movie star Jack Conrad (played by Brad Pitt) about the power of film and film personalities; about how these images are ephemeral, delicate, but also indelible. “Someone born 50 years from now might see your image flickering on a screen, and see you as a friend,” she says, bringing some solace to a depressed man who knows his time in the sun has ended.

As someone who became obsessed with old cinema as an adolescent, watching films made decades before I was born, I identified with that scene. But with time, and with knowledge of the sinuous workings of film history, it is also easier to see how fragile many of those screen personas are, and how dependent on chance.

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