Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Joan: Memoirs, Early Days and an Early Film

If there is one standard acting-analytical vacuity that the Siren would like to see permanently retired, it is the old "well, she always played herself." Read even a modest number of Hollywood books and you will discover that the actor who actually played anything close to his/her actual personality was rare indeed. (Carole Lombard comes to mind, but of course her earthy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary could not be reproduced on screen.) Archetypal tough guy Humphrey Bogart came from a well-heeled Manhattan background. Bette Davis often played self-sacrificing heroines and Davis was anything but that. Henry Fonda played warm, compassionate roles and we have the testimony of his children that in life he was quite closed-off and difficult to know. The Siren could go on with this parlor game for quite some time, but let's bring it round to Joan Fontaine; she wasn't much like the timid second wife in Rebecca or the terrified bride in Suspicion.

Read Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and what you get comes close to something said by her sister, who said "Joan is very bright and sharp and can be cutting." The woman who published the book in 1978 seems witty, confident, possessed of a wide range of interests and, perhaps, not nearly as fascinated by her Hollywood past or even by acting as she once was. It must be admitted that this isn't the best star memoir the Siren has read, nor is it even one of the best. There is something rather perfunctory about it, a sense of oh-gosh-I-guess-they-want-to-hear-about-this-now. Social life is covered in more detail than most of the movies, although this may have little to do with Fontaine. Like most star memoirs it was ghost-written and it's axiomatic in the publishing industry that people want gossip from Hollywood books, not moviemaking analysis. The Siren has to believe that Fontaine would have preferred to write more about Letter from an Unknown Woman (which gets one--one!--brief graph) and less about her ghastly stepfather and his pawings or about her celebrated feud with her sister.

About that feud--the Siren wrote once before about the difficulty of peering into family matters, and she reiterates that here. The Siren, who has enormous admiration for Olivia de Havilland as well as her sister, does not presume to understand what seems to be quite genuine bad blood between the two. One explanation Joan offers in her book is strikingly simple, however. They got along badly because they were raised to do so. The Siren spends a good part of her day trying to patch up sibling rivalry; Joan and Olivia's mother, a frustrated actress herself, spent her days fanning it. She raised the two in perpetual competition with one another, and the habit stuck. No matter what is behind the rift, it's a shame to think that these two women, with so few people alive who remember the years and the people they do, are still cool toward one another. The Siren has this bright little fantasy that they actually call each other regularly and keep the "feud" alive in the press for the sake of appearances--it's part of their legend, after all, darlings.

Anway, the book has plenty of examples of Joan's lively sense of humor. One instance got her in considerable hot water avec Olivia, when a reporter called to ask Joan's opinion of Olivia's new husband Marcus Goodrich. Joan replied, "All I know about him is that he has had four wives and has written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around." The Siren found this quite funny. Olivia, predictably, did not. Here's Joan's summary of filming A Damsel in Distress: "I tripped over fences and stepping stones to the tune of 'Things Are Looking Up.' George and Ira Gershwin also wrote the haunting 'Foggy Day in London Town' for our film. I also fell on my face."

She fell in love with George Stevens during the filming of Gunga Din, but nothing came of it, nor did she learn much about acting from him. Speaking of multiple-take directors--Fontaine says Stevens' basic direction was "I don't know what's wrong. Let's shoot it again." Stevens would sometimes halt filming cold to go off and pace or stare into the middle distance. Joan reports that "it was Carole Lombard who solved the mystery of George's brown studies. 'You know what that s.o.b. is thinking about when he's in one of his trances? NOT A FUCKING THING.'"

Reportedly Joan's first husband, Brian Aherne, quipped that the book should have been called "No Shred of Truth." But the ex-husbands and lovers don't come off all that horribly, though none of them emerge with much credit either. Take Conrad Nagel, for example. Surely no man wants to think that when he is dead and buried, a woman whom he deflowered will contribute to keeping his memory alive by saying the whole thing reminded her "of when I had to stand up in class as a child and be vaccinated."
Aherne, for his part, went off to knock back a few with director Jean Negulesco the night before he was to marry Joan, then had Jean call for him to say he was too afraid to go through with the marriage. Joan told Jean that she'd be at the church the next day and wasn't about to call off anything, no matter what Brian did subsequently. Brian showed the next day, they got married and apparently this didn't come up later on in their marriage. The Siren isn't sure whether it's this part of the book that upset Aherne, or the part where he spent much of their wedding night dancing around their hotel room in his dressing gown. The Siren suspects most men outside of a professional corps de ballet do not want the word "pirouetting" to show up anywhere near a description of them, not to mention the word "tassels."

Irrelevant though this next bit is, Siren can't abandon this phase of Joan's life without a favorite anecdote, told by Joan and quoted in Boze Hadleigh's Hollywood and Whine:
[During] a trip under the aegis of a British War Relief campaign [in World War II] we were at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. It happened to be the anniversary of a college sorority and all the girls celebrated by coming to meet the handsome actor. Microphones were thrust in front of us. Brian [Aherne] was to deliver a message to the RAF pilots who would be listening to a shortwave rebroadcast. Did have to anything in particular to say to these brave airmen?

Brian said yes indeed, he did. 'Chaps, keep your peckers up!' Silence...the girls fled in embarrassment. The president minister blanched. Only when I got my English husband back to our hotel did I inform him that in America 'pecker' did not mean 'chin.'

Yesterday on the TCM Birthday tribute the Siren caught one early Joan movie, Blond Cheat. In her autobiography Joan showed her opinion of this one pretty clearly by failing to mention its existence. The Siren can't say she disagrees. Joan is exquisitely pretty in the movie--more slender than other stars of the day, perfect bone structure, skin so dewy it seems to come with its own inner key light. Unfortunately this is part of the problem. One characteristic of an inexperienced but beautiful actress is that she will often play to her loveliness. By that, the Siren means that every move will show the young lady is excruciatingly conscious of how she looks. (Amy Irving was frequently guilty of this early in her career, and Scarlett Johansson still is.) You can see that she feels the lipstick on her lips, the mascara on the lashes. She knows how beautiful she is, but she doesn't own that beauty yet. She is trying it on in front of the camera--pirouetting, if you will. Every aspect of the character becomes subordinate to this physical effect. On top of this, Joan is saddled with one of those lead-balloon imitation screwball scripts--where the leading man declares "whatever it is, I'm not going to fall for it," and then falls on his face.

The most fascinating part of this movie was the date on it--1938. One year removed from respectable performances in Gunga Din and The Women, and just two years from Rebecca, one of the best performances Joan ever gave. Olivia was right, Joan was bright and sharp indeed.

Postscript: Do check out this birthday post for Joan at JJ's place, As Little as Possible. It includes a fab clip of Joan, wearing Pucci or something close, and stumping the panel on What's My Line.


Patrick Wahl said...

I actually have nothing useful to say, I just wanted to compliment you on the nice job you do with your movie star write ups. Joan and her sis were a couple of my favorite actresses from that era, Joan (and Jimmy) even made the otherwise not very good You Gotta Stay Happy watchable.

Dan Leo said...

Imagine my disappointment last night when I went into my local great video store (TLA, Philly)) and asked for "Letter From an Unknown Woman" and they didn't have it!

I wound up taking out "Gun Crazy" along with a couple of new flicks, so the trip wasn't a total loss.

But on the way out I noticed that one of the employees had added three or four Fontaine movies to her "Employees' Faves" picks. Now that's a good video store.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

These are some terrific essays on Joan Fontaine (and your personal story was great). Looking forward to more.

As for "Rebecca", I think it's the only time when I saw a film after first reading the book and thought the actors and the sets were just what I had imagined.

Alex said...

Though it's interesting how absolutely stunningly horrid almost all biographies and autobiographies of actors/actresses are. The entire genre is completely worthless. And Camp's writing begins the noble task of actually doing the work we really need to have done.

What we need from the genre is essentially not much different than what we need from a biography of a political leader: an analysis of the problem (whether political or dramatic), a description of the methodologies of proposed solution(s), a history of the working-out of the attempted solution in actuality, and so on.

Effectively, an actor's biography should come to resemble a philosopher's: an intellectual biography, a biography of ideas.

Instead we get these crap-filled tomes that focus on triviliaties like the actor's social life, interior decoration activities, pets, random travels or real estate deals.

The Siren said...

Patrick and Dan, thanks so much! Letter is not on Region 1 DVD yet; I first saw it on VHS many moons back and for a long time I had joint custody of a VHS copy with a work friend.

Jacqueline, I am working on a Rebecca post right now. And I agree that it is one of the few movies from a famous novel that seems to get everything just right. Which is quite the accolade, considering the huge change made to the ending.

Alex, I am laughing so hard, because when I read your comment I was tired and I actually went to Google to find out who this "Camp" was. Thanks for the vote of confidence. :) I have read oodles of star bios and I always enjoy them but I would say they are junk food, for the most part. Lee Server has done a good job with Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum, but he still can't peel back the mystery of the process (part of that may be that Gardner didn't have much of one). If the actor himself is dead then you are going largely by guesswork and dealing with the fact that a lot of actors don't like to discuss their inner thoughts while working on a part. Even a show like "Inside the Actors Studio" where you are allegedly focusing solely on the work tends to devolve into cute on-set anecdotes. I love on-set stuff (obviously) but it is not the same as looking into an actor as artist.

The one book that I felt really, really tried to get inside an actor's head was Simon Callow's book on Charles Laughton.

Dan Leo said...

I've noticed that sometimes (emphasis on "some") you can get an idea of the weird wonderfulness of a good actor's way in DVD commentaries. I just recently watched the DVD of "Straight Time", which is not so much a great movie, but which contains one of Dustin Hoffman's greatest performances, maybe even (for me) his greatest. I was delighted to listen to his voice-over commentary. He was quite open and thoughtful, and modest, in talking about his research for the role, his methods, his problems with the role, his work on the story and with the director. It was the sort of stuff you wish you could actually read in an actor's autobiography.

Wouldn't it be great if we had Fontaine commentaries for some of her great roles? Or some commentaries from Montgomery Clift?

Alex said...

Yes, I would agree that Callow's towering Laughton biography is perhaps the only existing example of what I am thinking of.

But, actual filmic varieties of the same are relatively plentiful: much of Rivette's work is explicitly an examination of acting, as are many of Rohmer's films (where the acting will appear under the guise of playing a role within love affairs). Similarly, Cassavetes, Bellochio, Chabrol, Resnais, Makavejev, Welles, etc.

Something also to be well noted is Mark Rappaport's From the Journals of Jean Seberg. The DVD documentary on the acting within Peter Watkins' La Commune is also worthwhile.

Larry Aydlette said...

Hey Siren: Big congratulations on being named a finalist for the 2007 Weblog Awards, as Best Culture Blog. That's quite an honor!

Larry Aydlette said...

Of course, they also nominated your dreaded Libertas, but you can't have everything!

Alex said...

"If the actor himself is dead then you are going largely by guesswork and dealing with the fact that a lot of actors don't like to discuss their inner thoughts while working on a part."

I don't know how certain we are about that. Just now, Katherine Hepburn's script collection is being exhibited, and every script page is entirely covered by her analytic comments. All of this material has been available to scholars for quite some time. Yet, the biographers of Hepburn instead spend their time trying to figure out how many times Hepburn slept with Spencer Tracy or Howard Hughes or some other inane triviality.

Obviously, some actors probably had no coherent thoughts whatsoever while doing their work, and probably are no more capable of analyzing that work than even the most casual viewer. But the assumption should probably run in the other direction: certainly, after the popularization of the Method, it's more likely that the converse is true.

Patrick Wahl said...

What the Shamus said. If someone wants to vote for Siren (or Libertas), here is the place.


Unknown said...

What a nice post. I have the Hitchcock collection but for whatever reason, can't get ahold of The War Correspondent. I digress, I am a huge fan of Joan and love that all the oldies are being released on this side of the pond as well. Yes, she's breathtakingly lovely and lives that part, excruciatingly so...
A friend of mine was just down in Nice, with one of Grace Kelly's best friends, looking at pics of her as bridesmaid back then, etc. This women is my friend's 'aunt' and my friend wanted her to write a book about all of these fantastic stories she's shared w/G. Kelly, but she won't do it. She'll commit to a petite self publshing kinda thing, but not the real deal.
Makes me think we'll never know the story, I suppose it'a all perception anyway.
And why has Sophia defied all logic and stayed drop dead gorgeous/sexy, as w/Tippy Hendron and even La Liz still illuminates, when she chooses to care, which fair enuf, she doesn't.
Well, modern beauty feels different to me, but I must be running outta space here.