THE THREE FOR ALL

At the Cinema: Tom Shone reckons that great films arise when director, star and protagonist all merge into one

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, MARCH/APRIL 2013

"I'm gonna smoke everybody involved in this op," snaps Maya, the cool-headed CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty", Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Rattling off Arabic names like someone ordering takeaways, her room plastered with mugshots of the men she seeks, Chastain’s Maya is the Christian soldier heading up the Western jihad — Joan of Arc in cargo pants. She has no love interest, no back-story, and sheds no tears until the final reel. They steal over her like an almost physical reaction, like a bout of flu that hits you the minute you stop working. She makes Clarice Starling look like Oprah Winfrey.

Is Chastain channelling her director? At the New York Film Critics Circle awards, I was struck by the visual rhyme between the two women: two tall beauties, their long hair tented and swaying as they talked afterwards. It wouldn’t be the first time. I’m teaching a course on the history of film at NYU, which means I’ve spent the last few months getting up close and personal with classics like "On the Waterfront", "Vertigo", "The 400 Blows", "The Graduate", "The Godfather" and "Raging Bull". I have come out with three observations to share: 1) "The 400 Blows" is as close to perfection as anything touched by a human hand. 2) James Stewart can’t kiss a woman convincingly. 3) Great films arise when there is a triangulation between director, actor and protagonist — when all three share a spiritual umbilicus.

Budd Schulberg believed "On the Waterfront", as first written, to be the story of the priest, but Kazan knew it was the younger brother Terry’s film. In a letter to Brando which should be read by anyone curious about directing actors, he singled out Terry’s orphan status, and struggle for recognition: "Marlon this part is much closer to you and to myself, too." A Greek immigrant who had ostracised himself from Hollywood by testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Kazan saw his own knotted history in the part, and stayed on Brando’s side of the camera in rehearsals. "‘On the Waterfront’ was my own story," he said. "Every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go and fuck themselves." 

This goes beyond certain actors becoming a director’s alter ego. Scorsese worked with De Niro many times but it was only on "Taxi Driver" (pictured) and "Raging Bull" that they seemed to take up residence within the same lost soul, on loan from the writer Paul Schrader. Two people must tell their most intimate story through a third. Mike Nichols struggled for long months to cast Benjamin in "The Graduate", written as a blue-eyed, blond-haired, southern-Californian wasp. For a while, Robert Redford was in the frame. "Are these people having a breakdown?" Dustin Hoffman wondered when he was approached. "The guy’s name is Benjamin Braddock. He’s like six feet tall, he’s a track runner." Nichols told Hoffman, "Maybe he’s Jewish inside."

And of course he was: "The Graduate" is all about spiritual misplacement, about being a stranger even to your own family, so Hoffman’s feelings of being miscast — which persisted right up to the film’s opening — were crucial. Nichols, the displaced Jewish boy, the lone observer, had finally worked out why the part had been so hard to cast: "without any knowledge of what I was doing, I had found myself in this story." The list goes on: the Godfather is Coppola’s shadow-King as much as he is Brando’s; "One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest" is Milos Forman’s kiss goodbye to soviet Czechoslovakia as much as it is Jack Nicholson’s middle-finger salute to Hollywood. This also explains the airlessness that hangs over "Citizen Kane", whose star, director and main character are 
already united in the singular frame of Orson Welles. What was never sundered cannot coalesce.

Among recent films, "Zero Dark Thirty" benefits most from this. Does Spielberg see himself in Abraham Lincoln, as he did in that old showman, Oskar Schindler? He feels strangely absent from "Lincoln", which is largely Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Tony Kushner’s show. During the Battle for Wilmington, represented entirely through telegrams, the most naturally gifted visual storyteller of his generation was sitting on his hands to restrain himself. If Lincoln offers a self-portrait it is not of Spielberg the director, but the producer, the mogul: his Lincoln is a master pragmatist, a shrewd practitioner of realpolitik, who sees his moment and takes it.

I only hope that Baz Luhrmann has given himself and Leonardo DiCaprio room enough to digest Gatsby. He has had the time: his adaptation of Fitzgerald’s novel, due last December, was pushed back to May, prompting tongues to wag about it being in trouble. It’s space that is the issue with Luhrmann, who has the most cluttered imagination this side of Terry Gilliam. He must find a line that cuts cleanly through the "spectroscopic gayety" of the book. "There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life," sprung "from his platonic conception of himself." That’s Gatsby, but it could equally be Luhrmann, or DiCaprio. With luck, it will be all three.

Zero Dark Thirty in cinemas now

Tom Shone writes for New York and the Sunday Times, he is the author of 'Blockbuster' and 'In the Rooms'.

Image Rex