January 09, 2010
About nine years ago I saw The Man with the Golden Arm for the very first time. I was only a year or so into being a huge movie fan, and so for almost every film I watched I was seeing the stars acting for the first time. My first encounter with Eleanor Parker was as a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging wife to Frank Sinatra -- who was the be-all and end-all of my movie obsession at the time. Having seen none of her other performances, I immediately determined that she was a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging person and I'd avoid all of her films from there on in.
What I failed to realize at the time (don't worry, it didn't take me nine years to discover this) was that if an actor irritates you, creeps you out or disgusts you in a movie it might just mean that they are a really good actor, perfectly playing the role in which they were cast.
The character of Zosh in The Man with the Golden Arm is supposed to be hated by the audience-- she is supposed to be low and despicable. And Eleanor Parker did a marvelous job of portraying that. But because of my sheer ignorance, I assumed that Eleanor Parker was Zosh.
Each of us probably has had this happen with one or two actors -- sometimes it's simply a subconscious association of an actor with a specific part that turns us away from their entire filmography. Sometimes we assume that an actor or actress exhibited the traits they portray in film in real life -- for instance, many people are usually shocked to find out that Boris Karloff was a real teddy bear of a man offscreen-- one of the sweetest Hollywood has ever seen -- because he was typecast as monsters onscreen.
In my experience, the one person who has become a victim to this psychology more than anyone else is Anthony Perkins. His name goes hand in hand with Psycho-- mention it and people automatically picture him wearing a grey wig and a matronly stuffed dress, or wrapped in a blanket with a fly buzzing around his head. Unfortunately, this mental roadblock prevents people from realizing what an amazing actor he was. He played Norman Bates so well that the character seemed real. But watch him in Goodbye Again, playing a totally different sort of man, and you'll see no trace of Hitchcock's villian.
Another fine example is James Mason. (Casey, Millie & Terry... pay attention!) He was awfully good at playing the creepy guy in Lolita and Georgy Girl, but he was equally adept at playing relatively normal characters in The Wicked Lady, Julius Caesar and Odd Man Out. It is because he was such a fine actor that his pedophelia in Lolita is believable. In reality, Mason was a caring, sweet man with an enormous soft spot for animals. He and his wife co-wrote a now out of print book called "The Cats in Our Lives" -- something I'm dying to own one of these days!
In the end, I think we need to realize - and remind ourselves- that the people in the movies we watch are actors. They are reading a script and performing. If their character is dastardly, or even sticky-sweet, that doesn't neccessarily mean that they were in real life. And if they play a psychopath in one film, it doesn't mean that they will in all of their others.
This doesn't mean we can't not like certain performers... I for one have at least a dozen or so least-favorites. But I've watched their films often enough to realize that it is them -- their mannerisms, their style of acting or their personality that bothers me-- not the character they were playing.
You might discover more fantastic actors and actresses out there, if you just keep in mind that Eleanor Parker was not Zosh, Boris Karloff was not Frankenstein, James Mason was not Humbert Humbert and Anthony Perkins was not Norman Bates.