Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Great Pretenders

I'm watching the supplemental materials on the Criterion DVD of Ingmar Bergman's Summer With Monika, a 1953 film about two teenagers who run away together for the summer.  One of the most interesting features is a 2012 interview with Harriet Andersson, the film's female lead and one of Bergman's actress-muses.  At eighty she still looks wonderful and vivacious.  The interviewer, Peter Cowie, evidently knows Andersson pretty well and wants to let her shine, which she does, but he asks two stupid questions.

First he asks Andersson if, when she first read the script, she "identified" with Monika, and thought that the girl was like her.  (Monika is a rather wild young woman, with a Bad Reputation, as they used to call it.)  Andersson says no, rather the opposite, but she was excited by the prospect of her first leading role and she thought it would be fun to play.  A little later, Cowie asks her if Lars Ekborg, who plays her love interest, was a "dreamer" like the character he played.  No, Andersson replies, he was a very serious and disciplined young actor -- nothing like Harry.

This is a long-standing peeve and perplexity of mine, though I suppose that like most movie watchers I'm not free of it myself.  On one hand, it's a commonplace that movies are the land of make-believe, that acting is fakery made of greasepaint and false beards; on the other, people want to believe that actors are the characters they play. I've noticed that many people talk as though they believe that actors make up their own lines as they walk through their scenes.  From the way Cowie poses the questions, I think it's obvious that he's not acting: he wants to believe that young Harriet was a wild (or free-spirited) young woman, impulsive and ready to run away from home, and that young Lars was a bohemian wannabe in search of freedom from bourgeois respectability.  So I thought, What the hell is this?

I haven't done much acting myself, though at times over the years I thought about getting involved in some of the local theater troupes.  I just remembered that a friend of mine and I went together to an audition for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, probably in the early 80s.  Neither one of us made the cut.  I think both of us wanted to play Lady Bracknell, though I'd have enjoyed playing Jack or Algernon if given the chance.  This is not because I identified with any of these characters, but I loved the idea of speaking Wilde's brilliant lines on stage.  Playing the Gorgonly Aunt Augusta would have been tremendous fun, simply because I would never have dared to behave like her in real life.  (Not then, anyway; I think I may have somewhat grown into her as I've aged.)  It would also be fun to pretend to be someone I'm not, someone meaner or kinder or more assertive or more eloquent than I am.  That is what acting is, nu?  Pretending.  Trying on someone else's identity for size.  Behaving as you might like to behave, but couldn't offstage.

Of course, another aspect of this is that the actor playing the role turns the character into a version of him or herself, if the performance is successful.  Edith Evans, in the 1953 film version of Earnest, is imposing and indeed terrifying.  Some of the other grand English dames I've seen in the role (Joan Plowright, Judi Dench) seemed by comparison to be little girls wearing gowns several sizes too big for them.  I've also heard some of a version with Evans as Lady Bracknell but John Gielgud playing Jack, instead of Michael Redgrave as in the 1953 film.  Gielgud is fine, but he lacks the slightly manic comic style Redgrave has, and his Jack seemed dull.  This, by the way, is another benefit of stage performance as opposed to film: film actors often are associated with their parts forever, because the much-maligned remakes are relatively rare, while many different actors may get to play well-known characters on the stage, and it's interesting to see what each one brings to the characters.

But back to my peeve.  Do most people really want to believe that actors are the characters they play?  On the American DVD of Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, Chow is interviewed by a guy from a martial-arts movie fan magazine, who asks him shyly if he can really fight, like he does in his movies.  Chow dodges the question somewhat, since he's a choreographed movie kung fu fighter, not a street fighter.  I think I may have first become aware of the syndrome I'm discussing in connection with martial arts films, come to think of it, with articles trying to persuade readers that Jackie Chan is a real fighting guy.  But he learned his kung fu in Chinese Opera school, for heaven's sake, as did many stars of his generation.  And even performers like Bruce Lee or Jet Li, who studied actual combat and can really fight, are performing carefully worked-out sequences of moves in their films, not fighting as one would off-screen with someone who hadn't been coached what to do and when to lose.  It's one thing to suspend disbelief, and another to believe that "gullible" really is being spelled with an R now.