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Friday Noir: A Double Life

Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin
Directed by George Cukor
U.S.A., 1947

The actor. The thespian. Living, thinking, breathing a character is what actors do, some more intensely than others. Certain professionals, such as the recently retired Daniel-Day Lewis, are notorious for their methodology, remaining ‘in character’ even off camera, imbedding their mind, heart, and soul into the role. Much like with undercover detectives, how deep is too deep? When do actors dedicate themselves to their craft a bit too thoroughly, to the displeasure and possibly disruption of their co-star even or loved ones? Such is the basis of George Kukor’s off kilter, occasionally delirious 1947 drama, A Double Life, which itself takes inspiration from one of the greatest dramatists of any generation, William Shakespeare.

At the tail end of an incredibly successful comedic theatrical run, actor Anthony John (Ronald Colman) is approached by producer Max Lasker (Philip Loeb) and director (Victor Donlan (Ray Collins) for a new project, or rather, the revival or a very old one: Shakespeare’s Othello. While Lasker thinks it’s high time an actor of Anthony’s calibre and renown reinvigorate his talents with something weighty, others, such as his ex-wife (but still close friend) Brita (Signe Hasso), have misgivings about the proposition. Anthony is very much the method actor. When working on something light, everything is gay, but when tackling hefty material, he grows difficult and stressful. After much contemplation, Anthony accepts the lead role. The play earns rapturous acclaim, encouraging the producers to extend the run for as long as possible. The longer it goes, the more Anthony’s behaviour turns sour towards those around him, in particular to Brita and a cute restaurant waitress (Shelley Winters) he sees on the side. Suspicion, violent outbursts, the words of the play and the words he speaks slowly become one. Soon enough, Anthony and Othello become one too!

When dissecting a film of Double Life’s nature, certain caveats should be considered. The most obvious point of contention is the unavoidable fact that Othello is of African descent. The film’s star, Ronald Colman, is not. Yes, makeup is applied to lend him a darker, slightly foreign complexion. Does this make the film odd? Certainly it does, even more so by early 21st century standards. That said, the movie was made in 1947. Precious few films of the era took such realities into consideration. Being conscientious of race, ethnicity, or religious specificities were not top priorities for filmmakers back then (and, arguably, still aren’t today, albeit to varying degrees), nor were they probably priorities for most moviegoers either. As such, the ‘social justice critics’, those that choose to watch this film at least, need to keep certain instincts in check. No, the movie doesn’t address the angle of the white chap pretending to be black. If this element is an unshakable sticking point, the most polite response one can offer is to skip the film and come back for the next Friday Noir review.

With that out of the way, lest it be overlooked that this film takes a spin in crazytown starting in the second half, although a level of patience is required from the viewer. The picture’s first half is predominantly set-up, presenting the character of Anthony (referred to as ‘Tony’ by his friends and acolytes) as a man in love with acting, probably still in love with Brita, replete with dry English humour, sometimes passionate, other times strangely aloof. Director Cukor and the team of screenwriters require a sizeable portion of the run time before delivering thrills in the latter half in order for viewers to acquaint themselves with two crucial aspects. First, Anothny’s  intellectual and emotional investment into preparing for a role such as Othello. Second, viewers need be familiar with the play itself. For as old and revered as Shakespeare’s drama is, many have yet to read or attend a presentation. As such, Cukor and company actually have a key sequence of the final act played out by the thespians (acting as thespians within the film) for anything that follows to make sense.

While it does feel as though the sequence pads the run time, it is equally fair to argue that the strategy ultimately pays dividends. Once the film has gotten across a crucial turning point in Othello, that when the titular Moorish general finally murders his beloved wife Desdemona, whom he accuses of infidelity, then A Double Life can begin engaging in malicious fun. Anthony appears especially affected by this pivotal moment, to say nothing of the fact that none other than Brita plays his Desdemona. All the ingredients are present for Anthony, clearly not as mentally stable as he’d like to claim, to fall into the depths of Othello the man. The more presentations shown to sold out houses, the more irritable and suspicious the actor becomes. Brita and good friend and press agent Bill (Edmond O’Brien) become the target his scorn, believing his ex-wife and Bill to be lovers behind his back.

There would be little point in arguing that A Double Life is not melodramatic. More to the point, the picture wears its melodrama loudly on proudly on its sleeve. Ronald Colman displays crazy bug eyes whenever words or sounds remind him of the play, his two psyches battling it out for supremacy over his person. Melodrama is regularly frowned upon, but in this instance it works quite splendidly given the context. Theatre, when played in front of large crowds inside even larger rooms, requires actors to play up the parts, to heighten the emotions in order for everyone watching and listening to feel them along with the characters. As such, theatricality frequently requires for loud, very expressive acting, the type many would describe as melodramatic. Given that Anthony is falling prey to something malefic within him that seduces his mind into becoming a real world Othello, it feels right that Colman should exaggerate his character’s mannerisms.

Director Cukor cleverly peppers various details of Othello into A Double Life’s proceedings once Anthony begins to lose himself. Character names, bits of dialogue that harken back to the aforementioned murder, situations the actor encounters that mirror events in the play, such details only worsen the protagonist’s mental health. It begs the question: is fate somehow conspiring to drive Anthony to madness, or has he already lost his fight, and as such misinterpreting the ordinary?

A Double Life certainly goes for broke in the latter stages. Its success or failure rests on what the viewer is willing to accept or not. The film itself does not shy away from the theatricality of its plot, both figuratively and literally. Conversely, it never fully explains why this is happening to Anthony. Is he utterly mad, was there a monster laying dormant within him all this time, waiting for a project the likes of Othello to be unleashed, or is this just macabre fantasy? That is for the viewer to decide. Set design, lighting, and supporting cast aside, the main reason to seek out the film is Ronald Colman, who goes the whole nine yards with his performance.

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