Early Days at the Movies
Real Women in
The Seventh Art's Seventh Heaven
So What Happened
POETRY AND PROSE
REAL WOMEN IN THE MOVIES
Actresses never fooled me into thinking they were imaginary women. I saw the skull beneath the skin with Joan Crawford, and Marilyn Monroe was not Sugar Puss O'Shea in Some Like It Hot (1959), but Norma Jean Mortenson playing at being grown up, tottering out of her mother’s lingerie, not knowing what to do with her bits and pieces. And Rita Hayworth in Fire Down Below (1956) only pretends to dance, and very nicely too, but in her dear heart’s core she’d prefer to take up tatting and needle Orson Welles stepping out from the shower curtain and expecting applause.
‘If you want a
happy ending, that depends where you stop the story’, says Orson Welles. No
hard feelings. He gifted her the lead in The Lady of Shanghai (1952) to
get away from her irony, disguising himself in an Irish accent even stagier
than Brando’s in The Nightcomers (1971), Michael Winner’s travesty of
Henry James’s The Turning of the Screw. Rita Hayworth played the part in
the style of Dolores del
I never believed Belinda Lee, Rank’s answer to Bardot, needed to act. She was a bubble reflecting herself until it burst. Her movies died with her. Vivien Leigh acted to keep sane, and so it wasn’t really a performance. Her life was the unwrapping of an April Fool’s gift. And at the end of it there was the emptiness of Laurence Olivier’s love.
I was not surprised when Ava Gardner, who
wore her cornucopia like Carmen Miranda’s hat, ended up on a park bench in
Gloria Grahame was always herself. I saw her through a glass darkly, a cross-eyed beauty, apologising for making you look at her. She died in a lot of movies, usually violently, a shop-soiled past catching up with her foxy regard. In The Big Heat (1953) she was the gangster’s moll bored with the tawdry meanness of her life, double-timing Lee Marvin with one of his sidekicks, and so it was obvious she had a Carmen complex.
Gloria Grahame badly
wanted to die, and was determined to make it at the hand of the man she most
despised. Instead, Lee Marvin threw scalding coffee in her face. When she took
off her dark glasses to show a not unsympathetic cop (Glen Ford) her scarred
eyes, she looked so beautiful that there was a danger that disfigured faces would
become all the rage. Gloria Grahame passed away in
Of course, what I saw was women changing behind a screen. In the intimacy of their dressing rooms I listened to voices chatting on to no one in particular, and waited for them to appear, fully dressed for the part, which was always larger than the whole. My adoration was unconditional. A bad film with Kim Novak made me happier than a Greta Garbo classic or Joan Crawford at her best in Mildred Pierce (1945). None pleased me more than Arletty, who became her true self as Garance (‘the name of a flower’ as she always added). In Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) she was the street empress of favours dispensed with a frankness rare at the time.
Women then tended to express their desires through euphemisms (Rita Hayworth denuding herself of her gloves while singing ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ in Gilda (1946). Her slink crumpled the fabric of her evening gown). A Garance didn’t need to stand on a manhole and wait for a theatrical wind to blow up her skirts. A raised eyebrow and a stir of the mouth was enough to signal the moment of passion, which you did not need to be imagined. It came into your arms in the dark of the Lee cinema. Garance sauvage (rubia peregrina) is a flower that secretes a red dye. Scarlet women use it for their robes de chambre. It is a deeper dye than the catleya that Odette wore for Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
I am Baptiste,
the mime on the tightrope in Les Enfants du Paradis. Baudelaire saw me
walking on air and called me ‘an artificial man activated by strange strings’.
And indeed I am at one remove from the action. I like to stand back and adore
what I behold. And I have eyes only for Garance. There she is being chatted up
by Frédérick, the barnstorming actor. He will enjoy her favours, only to become
possessive, and therefore sincere. ‘Sincere people are boring’, she thinks, and
sends him packing. But I know nothing about that. I give half the rope that I
intended to hang myself with to a little girl who skips off. And the other half
to my everyday love, Nathalie, to put up her washing. She makes me stand like a
tree to hold it up. But I do not have the strength of heart to stay rooted, and
the washing falls into the mud. Meanwhile the Comte de Montray puts his opera
glass to his knowing eye and, with a glance and a man-sized bouquet of lilies,
Garance is his (‘
Les Enfants du Paradis has the same plot as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, only the other way round. In the opera the innocent bud (Tatyana) offers herself to the connoisseur of deflowering (Eugene Onegin) who sniffs at it and walks away. When the bud blossoms and is the nosegay of everybody, the decadent wants to put the flower into his buttonhole. But the opportune moment has been let pass and mutual regret forever is the outcome. In the film it is the innocent (Baptiste) who misses the moment. ‘Love is simple’, Garance murmurs to the young Baptiste, meaning ‘Why do want to complicate it with moral considerations?’
At sixteen I wanted to be Baptiste, but knew I was more a Frédérick, the chatterbox actor. I talked too much. Now three score plus, I’m more inclined to mime my feelings. So I could be a Baptiste. But one grown arthritic and cynical. I would prefer to be Frédérick, speaking buckets with my body language to accord with what I want to say. But I’m no actor and stutter and contort myself into knots that cannot be untied. If I could find myself again as Frédérick I would accept Garance’s caprices. She now loves Baptiste but it is too late. Eugene Onegin come back to kneel before Tatyana, who sighs for what might have been and turns her back.
Though Jean-Louis Barrault played Baptiste so absorbingly that he became him for life, it’s Jean Renoir’s brother Pierre in Les Enfants that now is more personal to me. His character was Jérico, the Wild Boar, and Bad News. The ragman with more aliases than Alec Guinness had smiles. Baptiste kills him in effigy every night in his performances, a gratuitous act. Pierre Renoir arrives in the wings and castigates his stand-in as a body snatcher. ‘You’re drunk’, the body double says. ‘I may be drunk’, says Old Joshua, ‘but I have my principles.’ When Old Misery confronts Nathalie, ‘What has Baptiste against me?’, she replies, ‘You interfere with everyone’s business’.
‘I may’, he says, ‘but I live alone, I always have, and I take an interest in others. It’s a poor way to live, but.’
She is not
interested and he tells her Baptiste is seeing Garance again. Every night in
in Gilda (1946) borrowed Baptiste’s look of ineffable anguish in the
dying moments of the film to attract Glen Ford. But it was met by a piggy
indifference. Barrault’s Baptiste enchanted all around him with the melancholy
of love lost. Poor Rita merely drew attention to her declining looks and Glen
Ford’s moral lackings. It brought them together. The wilting fun lover and the
cocky loser walk into the small hours with nothing except each other to expect
in the gray dawn ahead.
Les Enfants scramble up the slopes of Garance’s living statue. She shrugs her shoulders and fifty thousand Frenchmen fall down (laughter from the gods). Going on forty-six and tired of men who won’t stop talking. ‘All over the world lovers say nothing to one another and are happy’, said Garance. She is ready to betray her own people with a Luftwaffe pilot who had enough French to know when to shut up.
disaster by trying to be witty. ‘Mon con appartient aux
Allemands, mais mon cœur appartient à
When Léonie Bathiat’s death was announced in 1992 nobody believed it could be Arletty. The body left to the nation was six years short of a hundred. Nobody wanted the essential organs. The heart, already spoken for, had long been rejected. Only the kidneys could have been recycled. But potential recipients preferred their colostomy bags. There were parts missing. The teeth and the hair, of course, but most sadly the eyes. They had been pecked out by the gods twenty years before so that she could not see herself in the mirror. A statue with empty sockets is her tomb.
I owe Belinda Lee (1935-1961) an apology. Recently in Venice I turned
on late night television and there she was in a Francesco Rosi film, I Magliari (The Weavers, sometimes known as The Swindlers,
1959), playing the highclass bait for a ring of Italian conmen in
Germany. In the faded black and white print she glowed in the gathering
dusk like the shrub ‘snow in summer’. A jaded blond twenty
four year old being herself as a failed bimbo, making the best, with a
wry ruthless humour, of a bad job. The businessmen were so in awe of
their hostess that cocktails was as far as she needed to go.