Do you think George Sanders could have played Bernard Madoff?
Perhaps this unanswerable question is just the result of the Siren's two current obsessions, colliding. The Siren is superglued to the Madoff case, gobbling up each new detail and discovering, to her chagrin, that somehow friends and family do not share her fascination. Well, they're crazy. This is amazing stuff. It's Dickens, it's Balzac, it's Trollope.
But, perhaps, despite the actor's affinity for 19th-century material, not ideal material for the Sanders touch. The secret to why George Sanders is still loved is no secret at all--it is the same wit and sophistication that makes Ernst Lubitsch an enduring pleasure. Only, with Sanders, the wit becomes a stiletto.
If Bernard Madoff ever made a single witty remark, the Siren has yet to hear of it. Mark Seal's wonderful article for Vanity Fair strives to give you a picture of what the company of Bernie would truly be like. The answer: boring as all hell. This is a man with a world of ill-gotten gains at his disposal, who spent his spare time meandering from country club to country club, playing golf. Who went out on boats and just sat around. Who wore silly hats at parties, but never drank. Who could have purchased the best seats in the house, but who seldom went out at night and whose stereo was, unless better taste intervened, tuned to Neil Diamond. Who dined at the same restaurant, where he sat at the same table and ordered the same thing.
This isn't a Sanders character. This is the butt of a Sanders character's joke.
And there is little evidence that Madoff ever felt the self-knowledge, let alone the self-loathing woven into Sanders' best roles. Bernie had the soul of a smug, sociopathic burgher. He liked himself.
But then again...
With Sanders, the sophistication comes with a lip curled at the less wised-up. ("I know nothing about Lloyd and his loves. I leave those to Louisa May Alcott.") What pleasure did Madoff have in life, if not the ability to smirk at his own deceptions?
Alas, the Siren will never answer her first question with finality, unless the afterlife turns out to be a perpetual casting call. And she sweeps her eyes over the present-day acting profession and still has trouble casting Madoff. (Alan Rickman? Too elegant. Robert De Niro? Too menacing. Richard Gere? Hmm, maybe...) Someone should be cast as Madoff eventually, though. This is a saga begging for a screen treatment, provided the director has the requisite subtlety and can avoid turning it into the favorite American genre, the crime caper. This requires an eye not for criminal behavior, but for social dissection. You need Mikio Naruse--someone who can examine the role of social class and money, what people will do to claw out a piece of either, how they behave when both are snatched away.
Any movie about Madoff will have to answer the most important question about the scandal. In life, that question is "What happened to the money?" On screen, it would be "Why, Bernie?" And when it comes to that screen question, the Siren keeps thinking of two scenes that come late in two very different movies, made around the same time in the late 70s.
The first scene is from Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. A group of schoolgirls in turn-of-the-century Australia go on the picnic of the title, and disappear. Only one, Irma, is found alive, but Irma has no memory of what happened.
It is late in the term. Irma has come to say goodbye to her classmates, before her parents take her away to Europe and they never see each other again. The schoolgirls, dressed simply in uniform, are lined up to bid farewell. Irma enters, wearing a fancy red cloak. She tries to smile at her old friends. They don't smile back. Instead they approach her, then suddenly surround her, and finally begin to attack her, asking a question that rises from a request to a half-crazed shriek: "What happened? Tell us. TELL US!"
The second scene is from Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery. In 1855, the theft of a shipment of gold from a moving train has been executed in meticulous detail, only to go wrong at the very end due to the simple fact of a torn coat. The mastermind of the robbery, played by Sean Connery, has been arrested and is on trial. The judge, indulging in the lawyerly vice of relishing his own oratory, thunders at the prisoner in the dock: "Now, on the matter of motive, we ask you: Why did you conceive, plan and execute this dastardly and scandalous crime?"
And Connery's reply comes back, delivered with a tinge of contempt for such obviousness: "I wanted the money."