Montgomery Clift Archive

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The Actor’s Body

I was fixing dinner one night recently and the television was on. Even though I wasn’t watching it, I liked listening to the dialogue–I think that’s the only way I ever watch network TV; I am interested in speech, in the rhythms of speech, particularly scripted speech: writing as talking, talking as writing.  In any case, television serials are, for the most part, plot and dialogue driven, and one can often tell what’s happening by what is being said rather than what is being shown. A variation on radio stories, TV as “anti-cinema.” While washing some spinach, I could tell–I could hear–that the show’s protagonist and his wife were at a theatre–a “first night”–and, seconds later, I could tell they were watching Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “America Hurrah.” This I knew less by what the actors were saying, than how my body reacted to what they were saying. I had appeared in the “Interview,” section of the three act piece when I was a drama student at the School for the Performing Arts. And before I quite knew what was happening, I was saying the words–my part–and I wasn’t washing spinach, I was that character again, on that stage again, trying to put the writer’s ideas, and my character’s, over. Montgomery Clift, to my mind the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, once said that acting was hard because your body didn’t know you were acting. And that is, perhaps, the most precise definition I’ve ever heard of the actor’s machinery: to make a character or situation real, your body, and the emotions and thoughts it contains, has to infuse it all with their real blood, and tendons. That may explain the jitteriness one sometimes encounters with actors in what passes as real life: they are filled with words and situations their bodies can’t forget. That is, they are “themselves,” in the world, buying overpriced necessities or crap in supermarkets like the rest of us, but they’re past lives, as other people feeding on their real nerves and blood, trail after them like old tin cans. Or Marley’s chains. They take on a part, and it will not let them alone. (Nina Simone once wrote that part of her madness at a certain point was the direct result of not being able to forget song lyrics.)  That is where their training comes in; Sandy Meiser, Stanislavsky, Strasberg, not only helped the performer free themselves, but to build up their internalized shrink’s office, a place where they can gain some distance, perspective, on the fictional skin they inhabit for real. In a wonderful book called “Bergman By Bergman,” the great Swedish director talked about a particular shot featuring Liv Ullman–a close up. Bergman’s interlocutor asked if he used a special filter to capture a certain look on Ullman’s character’s face. And Bergman said, no, he told the actress to put all her character’s emotions in her lips. Ullman did. Bergman said, This was only something that a great actress could do. It couldn’t be unexplained. I had a similar feeling–about my old actor’s body, about Ullman’s lips–when I recall two film performances I have yet to recover from. The first was Rachel Weisz’s truly uncanny work in “The Deep Blue Sea.” Terence Davies directed this small, beautiful film, by wrapping it around Weisz’s character–a posh Englishwoman living in World War II London who catapults herself out of her class and into the arms of a working class man who cannot and will not meet her demands to be loved now and forever. She is in love with him because he has loved her once, can’t he love her again? Sharing a small flat situated in a sad little courtyard, the grime on the lovers windows is the grime of death: we meet Weisz’s character after a failed suicide attempt. Working backwards, Davies more or less narrates the story through Weisz’s eyes, which are often filled with desire and panic; we hear it in her voice, too. Why can’t her lover stay? Why can’t love kill you and bring you back to life? In one beautifully choreographed sequence, Weisz runs into the underground, and pauses on the platform. A train rushes by, she leans towards it. (A major influence on the piece is clearly David Lean’s “Brief Encounter.”) She has everything and nothing: her understanding of England’s class distinctions, the turn on that comes with flouting the rules, loving down, her body. But she has only grown to know her body because of her passion for a man who does not have her language or, more specifically, the language she acquired because of her background, her access to the life of the mind, a closed world where she could not call her soul her own. Last year, Glenn Close was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of “Albert Nobbs.” She should have won. As with Weisz, Close has an amazing command of her face, which is the film actor’s stock in trade: they must convey thought with relatively little language. But whereas Weisz’s ripe blooming lips and Vivien Leigh-like dark lushness only adds to her character’s tragedy–she luxuriates in small rooms and in a cold grey England  that cannot contain her beauty–Close’s Nobbs is trussed, like a mental patient who has committed himself not to his madness, but to society’s: the world will not allow him to be who he is, so he will pose as the very image of rationality even as his soul grows wilder, quietly wilder. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, one of the best young directors out there–his cinema is a cinema of women without relying on obvious “drama”; his pacing is remarkable, and Isak Dinesen like in its love of the tale unfolding in its own time–Albert Nobbs fills Close’s face with that character’s genius for survival, in addition to the ambitious performer’s.

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A Train Story

Email to a friend:

I’m on the train on my way back to NYC, and there are a couple of white boys in front of me, adolescents, who were giggling over something on the smaller boy’s computer when I came back to my seat after I’d gone to the bathroom. And as I took my seat (they didn’t see me for a second) I saw the screen: the smaller boy was pointing to a picture of a black woman and, next to that, an image of a baboon. After they saw me, the boy slammed his computer lid shut very quickly, but it was too late: the blood had gone to my head. I’m sitting here with another forty minutes left to the trip wondering if I should say something without being sent to jail once we get to the station, or not forget this and write it down again and again.

*     *     *

I want to thank you for your e-mail. I didn’t have a chance to write before now because I had to lug all this stuff home and I wanted a moment with my thoughts—and to replay the movie that was that particular train ride.

I sat behind those boys for a while, watching, incredibly enough, ” The Three Sisters”—the Actor’s Studio version, with Kim Stanley, and Sandy Dennis, and Geraldine Page. I learn more about writing from performers than a lot of other things, including some books. In any case, Kim, as you know, is a perennial favorite. Along with Montgomery Clift, Kim manages to find elements in text and space—to fill the poetics of space—with a subtlety that rivals and often makes trite the experience of reading established, generally self-conscious-as-verse, verse. Kim and Monty are the white space between lines of poetry.  I sort of can’t believe Kim’s IMMERSION in a role: the role is real, and she isn’t. That is the humility art demands: the evisceration of one’s body the better to show the fucked up human soul. In any case, there are those lovely speeches in the first act in the Chekhov, where the sisters say they’ll know they’ll be forgotten, replaced by other sisters in different houses, and Verishinin, the visiting army officer, says they will, in fact, be remembered—that they are traces of reality that will stay in memory, and on on and on.

I didn’t want to be torn away from this very real invention by the reality sitting in front of me, and how Irina’s talking about the warm air reminded me of the warm air beyond the train windows but, still, I had to perform in this play I didn’t want to perform in. But Vershinin’s words really worked on me: our lives mean more than we know. (I just read a fabulous quote, attributed to Jane Bowles: “Life has more imagination than we do.”) And who was I not to let my life lead me to its various starts in conclusions. I have no “power,” over how my destiny will effect or not effect someone else; all I am is an image in someone else’s mind. At least, that’s how the Chekhov, and these various performers were affecting me. As the black and white images bounced along on the bouncing train, I knew I had to do: tell those boys about themselves, as the elders used to say in Brooklyn. I couldn’t look the memory of my mother in the eye if I didn’t say something; indeed, I couldn’t look at my inner eye if I didn’t say something. And I hated what I became as I waited to say something: a person who clocked the uniform of the offenders (docksiders, cranberry-colored chinos, Lauren shirts worn down at the collar and cuff), thus sizing them up as “privileged.” I didn’t want the class twinges we all suffer from—despite the long journey from England, Americans and especially New Yorkers can read privilege in a second–but there it was. And there I was. Is the computer screen a private space? If you open your computer screen on a crowded train an invitation to look at what you’re looking at? And there I was, wondering for a minute about all that when I heard myself say, leaning over those boys seats as we all prepared to enter Penn Station, but before we got our bags: “You know, if you look at a picture of a black woman, laughing, and then point to a picture of a baboon, people might take it the wrong way. Racism hurts. It’s not an abstraction. Sexism hurts. And people use both things to belittle people. Fortunately for you, you’ll probably never experience any of these feelings.”

The boys were silent for a moment. I turned back to my bag, and started to pack up. A white woman behind me said: “Well done.”

The older boy said: “Sir, that had nothing to do with sexism or racism!” And I said: “Well, it looked that way, you guys were laughing and pointing to those images, and why did your friend shut his computer screen when he saw that I saw?”

The older boy: “Sir! That wasn’t about anything racist—or sexist!”

And the white woman behind me said: “Kid, why don’t you just apologize and shut the fuck up?!” I turned to her. Our hands touched. I said: “Did you read that mess about Obama at Barnard, and how idiots in the Limbaugh sphere are now using his support for women to slag them off?!” And she said: “I think the world is going crazy!”

A black man further down the aisle started to walk toward us; I don’t know if he heard any of the exchange, but blood hears blood—especially if there’s a chance it’ll be spilled. But I nodded that he shouldn’t come any further. For obvious reasons: if there was going to be harm, he should be spared harm.

The car got quiet. We started to collect our bags. My suitcase, though, was on the rack at the front of our car, so, I had to wait for those boys and their friends to get off the train to collect it, my legs pulsing with that strange adrenalin that the minority faces in the company of the status quo, and there was the realization, too, how, sometimes, the action can not only change the atmosphere, but allow other people to speak, too. As we walked out of the train, a white man who had been sitting across from me and the woman gave us the thumbs up gesture. Outside of the station, the air was warm, and people were going about their night time business. As in a play or story by Chekhov.