Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 17, 2013
Having studied theater for years, and performing in many a play, I have always had a fascination with actors who become personas. There are character actors who take on a thousand different roles in the course of the career and lead actors who weave in and out of hundreds of different characters, each one unique, each new and alive. And then there are actors whose persona overwhelms and informs who they are beyond their acting. Where their private life becomes their public life and each role they take is already half-understood by the audience before they even see it because the actor’s persona is so strong.
Now, here’s the tricky part: This isn’t about an actor playing himself, a phrase I despise. First off, go ahead, pick up a play (no improvising your lines, that’s easy), memorize the lines of a character, say Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire or Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, and then proceed to “play yourself.” When people say an actor plays himself, they are lazily saying, even if they don’t know it, that the actor in question is so comfortable with who they are, and their delivery, that they have the amazing ability to make any written character fit them! Cary Grant and John Wayne did it most famously (oddly enough, actresses rarely receive this accusation) and, trust me, it’s a hell of a talent to possess.
So it’s not about actors playing themselves, so to speak, it’s about when an actor becomes something bigger than the actor, bigger than the character. It’s when the actor becomes a recognizable persona and the roles start reflecting who they are.
In the early days of films, movie stars were few and far between but by the teens and twenties, they started to pick up steam. Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, Rudolph Valentino and others were big stars and many of them had famous personalities, too. Fairbanks and Chaplin were known for specific characters. Fairbanks, the swashbuckler and Chaplin, the tramp. Their public personas grew as well, and this now approaches what I’m talking about. Some actors, say, Paul Muni, were actors, period. What was Muni’s private life like? What was his temperament? Oh, I’m sure we could look it up and find the answer but he never really developed a public persona. Years later, other famous actor’s actors like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Dustin Hoffman, also gave consistently good performances but didn’t really develop any kind of recognizable public persona. Fairbanks and Chaplin did. Add John Barrymore to the list, too.
Fairbanks, Chaplin and Barrymore became famous for who they were, personally, as well as being stars. Hell, beyond Modern Times, Chaplin’s name in the press was associated with controversy, sex scandals and politics far more than movies. Errol Flynn also comes to mind.
But back then, without paparazzi everywhere and television still not a viable gossip tool, personas were limited to fan magazines and the Style column of the local paper. No, it wasn’t until the studios started to crumble and the actor became a free agent (free to wreak havoc?) that the persona actors really started to emerge. Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda all became personas as well as actors and the dividing line got fuzzy fast.
If this were a game of “which of these things is not like the other” you’d win by picking out Bette Davis’ name. Yes, she was a studio actress for decades before the studios crumbled but no one bothered to tell Bette she couldn’t stand on her principles and she became as famous for being Bette Davis as for her acting talent. She walked off sets (but returned because she was a professional) , demanded better conditions from studio bosses and generally didn’t take crap from anybody. She was known for who she was long before the studios lost their grip. By the seventies, Bette Davis was a well-known persona and when she made her last (and sadly, awful) film, Wicked Stepmother, she was cast not on the basis of her immensely formidable acting skills but her persona.
So when did it happen? It’s an inexact science, to say the least, but I’d say All About Eve pretty much sealed the Bette Davis persona. That’s the movie that for most people, whether true or not, seemed to about Bette Davis as much as Bette Davis playing a role. It was when the movies acknowledged they were casting Davis based not just on what Davis would bring to the role but what moviegoers would bring, too, in the form of their expectations. The expectation that you’d be seeing a little of the real Bette in there when you saw the movie.
Marlon Brando started after Davis but wasted little time becoming a persona himself. For the first ten years or so he was a dedicated actor but by the early sixties, Brando was becoming known for being Brando much more than anything going on up on the screen. His role as Fletcher Christian cemented the deal. When Mutiny on the Bounty was released, people went to see Brando as the trouble-making mutineer because it seemed like he was mixing reality with fiction. In a way, that phrase I despise, “he always plays himself,” actually does apply to the persona actors but not in the way people mean. When people use that phrase, they mean the actor plays each role the same (even if that’s not true). Like I said, Cary Grant made the characters fit him. With the persona actors, the characters they play have personality traits very much in line with themselves.
Elizabeth Taylor went from child actress to full-fledged persona in just a few short years. In her first real adult roles, like Giant and Raintree County, she was a well-known actress playing a part. By Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, fans were beginning to the see the real Taylor and the Taylor characters intersect and by Cleopatra, that lady was one of the biggest personas of all time. Everyone knew they weren’t going to see a dramatization of Antony and Cleopatra’s love affair, they were going to see Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s personas battle it out (Burton might make this list, too, but he seems more of a persona in connection with Liz than one on his own).
Jane Fonda came next and, like Liz, was initially just a well-groomed actress playing her parts. Then she got involved in anti-war activism with the war in Vietnam and her persona became intertwined with her roles, though not at first. When she won her Oscar for Klute, the audience gave her a mixture of cheers and boos thanks to her activism but by the mid-seventies she began to consciously choose roles based on playing off that persona, roles like The China Syndrome. A year before, when she was cast as the Vietnam war wife in Coming Home, her casting alone made a statement as powerful as her performance. That’s when you know an actor has become a persona: When the act of casting them becomes half the message. Like Davis in All About Eve, like Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty, like Taylor in Cleopatra, like Jack Nicholson in…
Jack Nicholson. He might be our last great persona. But where did it start? He’d been in so many movies, and for so long, before finally breaking into the big time with Easy Rider that it’s difficult to say. The fact is, he went from unknown to well known persona in record time, because after only four years of fame, The Last Detail was already playing off of what the audience knew about Jack Nicholson. He followed that up with Chinatown, a masterpiece of cinema and perhaps Nicholson’s best, and most complex, performance. But the very next year, in 1975, Nicholson got the all-time persona role: R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Again, it was clear that by casting Nicholson, producer Michael Douglas was already making the case for that year’s Best Actor. His casting alone was a sweeping gesture. Jack the man would be right up there on the screen with R.P. McMurpy, or so the audience imagined. And the persona roles kept coming (The Shining, Terms of Endearment, The Witches of Eastwick, Batman), with Nicholson’s persona role period lasting longer than most actors entire careers.
Who are the great persona actors now, the ones whose casting in a movie makes a statement more powerful than the movie itself? The ones who give the audience a wink and let them know they’re glimpsing a bit of the real person up there as well? It’s a fine line between gimmicky casting and really playing off of who the actor is. For one thing, it requires the actor be extremely talented, not just possessing of a bad boy/girl image. Those are a dime a dozen. No, it’s quite a different thing to have actors inhabiting roles by letting the roles inhabit them, and letting the audience in on it, often times before the movie’s even made.
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