To Play the Part

         Throughout the course of this class, I saw many films that portrayed many different types of people and ways of looking at life. It is interesting to consider how the actors in the various movies chose to play the different characters. I think there were several actors that were more successful at achieving the task of portraying certain characters. Yet, as a viewer, I witnessed some atrocities in which actors effectively murdered a movie by merely playing themselves, instead of really working to portray the character as imagined by the author of the original work.

         I particularly enjoyed watching Audrey Hepburn in the role of Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 musical adaptation of the 1913 play Pygmalion (by George Bernard Shaw) titled My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor. Audrey Hepburn really became the true picture of a common flower girl. She was a believable character, and it was evident how hard she had worked to really "become" the part. She used a Cockney accent in the beginning of the film, and so it was interesting to watch as Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) slowly transformed her into the ideal English lady. Audrey Hepburn really portrayed the passion and headstrong nature of Eliza Doolittle, and provided the right amount of opposition to Professor Higgins. Audrey Hepburn was not afraid to be dirty or "deliciously low," as Professor Higgins puts it at one point. This is what made her such a stunning Eliza Doolittle.

         I think another actor who was successful in transforming himself for his role was Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend in the 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler. This film, based on Washington Square (1880), by Henry James, is a story about how Catherine Sloper comes to fall in love with Morris, who Dr. Sloper (Catherine's father) thinks is only out to get Catherine's inheritance money. Montgomery Clift transforms himself truly into the role of Morris through various means. Clift portrays Morris as I imagined him while reading Washington Square. Clift as Morris is dashing, charming, and friendly, yet something lies beneath the surface of this appearance. Throughout the movie, Clift (as Morris) becomes ever more suspicious, deceitful, and unkind. I love the scene in which Morris is talking to Mrs. Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) in Dr. Sloper's house. Morris smokes one of Dr. Sloper's cigars while he is in Europe with Catherine, and essentially acts as if he already owns the place. This really captures the true character of Morris as portrayed by Henry James in the novel. This is why Montgomery Clift struck me as providing such an excellent transformation for his character.

         Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in director Elia Kazan's 1951 version of Tennessee Williams' 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire really transformed into his character. In fact, Brando's portrayal of Stanley caused me to absolutely love the movie adaptation. Brando perfects Stanley's explosive attitude and the inner rage that drives him to do the things that he does. Brando's screams for Stella are an indicator of just how much Brando comes to embody the role of Stanley. The Stanley of Tennessee Williams' play is the same Stanley that I see portrayed by Brando. Brando seems to perfectly match Stanley's working-class background, as well as his disdain for not getting "his way." Brando as Stanley truly shows Stanley's need to be the dominant figure and be in control at all times. I think this is why Brando gave such a convincing performance as Stanley.

         Vivien Leigh in the role of Blanche Dubois struck me as an actress who may have played herself more than transforming into her character. In the movie adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Vivien Leigh as Blanche portrays a woman who is wrecked from a life of pain and heartbreak. Insanity creeps over Blanche as the play progresses, because of the various bad situations that Blanche experiences or is forced to relive. I think that Vivien can be considered to be playing herself more than transforming herself into the role of Blanche because of the fact that Vivien Leigh's life was probably as complicated as Blanche's life. Vivien Leigh suffered through divorce from Laurence Olivier, and sickness and pain (from tuberculosis) that eventually claimed her life. Maybe it is not so much that Vivien Leigh was "playing" herself necessarily, but she did have a lot of experiences from her own life in which to base Blanche upon. I do not think this fact took away from the role of Blanche as portrayed by Vivien Leigh, but I think it did have an effect on her performance. The portrayal of Blanche might have been very different if Vivien Leigh's life had been different, which makes this portrayal of Blanche all the more interesting.

         I cannot consider the question of whether the actors portrayed in the films I have seen most overtly played themselves without mentioning Jane Fonda. Fonda, who portrays Nora Helmer in director Joseph Losey's version of Ibsen's A Doll's House, most definitely did not transform herself into the role of Nora. Jane Fonda simply used Nora as a tool to make a movie about the issues that she felt she wanted to make a statement about. Nora is portrayed as somewhat silly and girlish, but Fonda took this to extremes. She also made Nora into the epitome of the saying, "I am woman; hear me roar." In order to communication her feminist beliefs and portray her ideals, Fonda made Nora in a character that I, as a viewer, had very little compassion or sympathy towards. This caused the role of Nora to be wrongly portrayed. The Nora character as presented by Henrik Ibsen was very much different in the way that she approached her situation. I think the way that Fonda approached Nora really brought down the true meaning of the movie as a whole.

         Whether the actors transformed themselves into the roles of their characters or merely played themselves, all these actors left an impression in my mind. It is interesting to consider how the performance of one actor can so change one's feelings towards a film, and in effect, make one either love or hate a particular movie. On the whole, I was pleased with most of the acting throughout these movies because most of the actors truly seemed to care whether the character was accurately portrayed. Yet, there are always a few actors who seem to be more likely to portray themselves more than a character in a film, for various (usually bad) reasons.

Megan Locke

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