The Actress
Screened in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of the late Jean Simmons's 83rd birthday.
Director: George Cukor. Cast: Jean Simmons, Spencer Tracy, Teresa Wright, Anthony Perkins, Norma Jean Nilsson, Dawn Bender, Mary Wickes, Kay Williams. Screenplay: Ruth Gordon (based on her play Years Ago).
Twitter Capsule: Off-putting performances from Tracy and Simmons are nothing new to me; sloppy direction from Cukor is. Blobby pudding.

Photo © 1953 Metro Goldwyn Mayer
You would imagine that as someone devoting energy and time to celebrating all of Oscar's 210 Best Actress nominees on their birthdays, I am pretty much the ideal target audience for a 50s-era, George Cukor-directed comedy called The Actress, in which a suburban Massachusetts girl in 1914 cannot wait to begin a career on stage, however strongly in defiance of her father's wishes and, indeed, without his knowledge. Adapted by Ruth Gordon from her autobiographical play Years Ago, this story about the legendary writer-actress setting herself on the road to stardom amounts to an actressexual's version of a superhero origin story. It's like Batman Begins for people who own Inside Daisy Clover on DVD. The Actress has retained a low profile relative to other Cukor projects from that period, despite a Best Actor prize for Spencer Tracy from the Golden Globes, paralleling the Tony award that Fredric March won in the same role on Broadway. The movie also garnered a Best Actress citation for Jean Simmons from the National Board of Review, as part of her big American breakout year, during which she also top-lined Young Bess as Queen Elizabeth I and had a hefty role in the Oscar juggernaut and super-widescreen phenomenon The Robe.

All of that augurs well for The Actress until you watch it. At that point, not only do the laurels for Tracy and Simmons stop making sense, but the film reveals its complicity in several dubious networks of association. The greater Simmons PR push is one of them. She was never a favorite of mine, and I might have suspected I'd have trouble with a movie that held such dramatic investments in her appeal. Granted, neither the writing nor the directing of The Actress attempts to endear us completely to her flighty, impetuous, self-involved Ruth, but still, a softer and more obviously charismatic performer might have won me to the side of this brittle character—the kind who barrels into a friend's bedroom and chatters for minutes on end before noticing that she's lying in sick. From the get-go, Simmons is complaining that her mother (Teresa Wright) won't tailor a skirt to make it more stylish, and that her father (Tracy) won't agree to purchase a telephone, and that no one understands how born she is to fill a spotlight. For one strange shot lasting more than a minute, Mom and Dad fuss over a grocery list and other household budgeting while Ruth, sitting at the same table, reads The New England Gazette, completely oblivious to both of them or to the sacrifices her dreams might require of the two of them, once she's actually told everyone about them. Simmons declines to find comedy in Ruth's churlishness or her apathy or even her fear about coming out as a Broadway baby. Her facial expressions and physical language often underscore Ruth's petulance. But why not trust that dimension to come through for itself and make a case instead for the ardor and the idealistic desperation that inspire and, to some extent, excuse it?

There's something ineluctably hard about Simmons's manner and her face, something that always makes me think about walnut shells. This joyless, closed-off quality serves her portrait of the belatedly loosened-up party pooper in Guys and Dolls and her zealous revivalist in Elmer Gantry. I suspect it was put to still more interesting use in Otto Preminger's Angel Face, where I gather she plays a kind of late-noir woman of mystery. For a small-town girl with center-stage ambitions, though, Simmons is too shrill and too stony-eyed to engage us. The fact that Gordon writes her as an only half-sympathetic avatar of her own youthful self might seem like an invitation to sterner playing, but if anything, this strategy of the script recommends the opposite approach from its interpreters, leavening the characterization with some magnetism, some warmth, and some spark of talent. This girl doesn't need to drown us in pixie dust, but she does need a few alibis in claiming our time or our rooting interest. It's hard to watch The Actress, given its heroine, its setting, and its period, and not think of Alice Adams, where Katharine Hepburn played a somewhat shrill daydreamer whose disdain for her present circumstances often made her seem vain and unrealistic, snobby toward the family servant, even ungrateful to her parents. For all that, though, we love Alice. She's no easier to "like" than Ruth is, and Hepburn can certainly be sharp on screen. But Kate, her director George Stevens, and cinematographer Robert De Grasse all realized that a physically and emotionally angular performer, cast as an unwittingly abrasive character, might necessitate romantic, softer-than-usual approaches from all of them in order to make her more poignant than off-putting.

Cukor, no stranger to steely actresses, and a famous friend and peerless translator of Gordon's screenplays, would seem exactly the director to bring this needle-sharp girl to life. If anything, his professionalism ought to have spotted the pitfalls in Simmons' approach more clearly than the young performer herself could have done. Sadly, if she was guilty of trying too hard or of trying in the wrong way, Cukor appears totally and uncharacteristically checked out. The problem is greater than how he allows Simmons to emphasize the haughty, debatably talented drama queen in Ruth, favoring broad strokes and unwarranted self-pity over sympathetic enthusiasm. Even as a technical exercise, The Actress exposes the kinds of fraying seams that Cukor was usually so careful to conceal even in tattier projects. He handles Teresa Wright rather stingily as the mother, aging her up without bringing her close or making her funny, and he has not calmed the evident nerves of Anthony Perkins in the role of Ruth's sutior, a boy who wears giant, Zhivago-style alpaca coats when he rides down from Harvard College to come a-courting. Cukor includes at least one blown take of Spencer Tracy flubbing a line, and the dialogue exchanges abruptly assume harsh, cavernous, tin-can reverberations. In the first scene when the family repairs to their kitchen, it sounds like they've crawled into an air duct. That scene plus a later one when Tracy attempts to register his daughter in a teacher-training academy play out in static, uninterrupted group compositions, suggesting master shots that were always intended to be followed with close-ups and other coverage, but everyone gave up and went home before filming them. Neither the depth of field nor the immersion in real time adds anything but lethargic stiffness to these scenes, and you can usually count on Cukor for light elegance.

So... what the hell was going on? Did MGM commit to this vanity project about a difficult woman's coming into being and then pull the plug on its support? Was Cukor having a catty row with his prickly friend, such that he actively undercut the pleasures to be found in her girlhood story? Or did he simply find himself uncomfortable in this transitional moment between a past generation's star vehicles, aerated and elegant in ways he handled so brilliantly, and a new generation's coarser ideas of comic badinage, assigned to women who seemed flimsier than their forebears, despite their tough, "modern" talk. The Actress bowed the same year as Roman Holiday, another vehicle initially intended for Simmons, and the same year as The Moon Is Blue, Otto Preminger's faux-sophisticated, censor-baiting comedy in which Maggie McNamara is torn between two older playboys. Notoriously, the Broadway-born script for that one popped with envelope-pushing words like "virgin," "mistress," and "seduce."

The Actress hails from the same weird Gamine Factory that produced the Hepburn of Roman Holiday, who, I'm sorry, is not nearly as charming or dimensional as Hepburn became in other movies, as well as McNamara in Moon, who pines for the human appeal of Hepburn in Roman Holiday. These gals just weren't flesh-and-blood women like the Garbos and Hepburns and Shearers and Crawfords and Hollidays with whom Cukor so excelled. He even found the living, breathing human being amidst the high-tension semiotic chaos of Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, the year after he made The Actress, but compared to that assignment, Simmons and her ostensible charms appear to flummox him. Meanwhile, Ruth's bluish tongue provides for some of the script's most delicious moments; exploding in frustration with her small-town parents, she apostrophizes, "If I knew one single man who wanted a mistress, I'd go into Boston and be kept!" But did this kind of sentiment sit uneasily with the more cleanly romantic Cukor? Whether yes or no, The Actress doesn't take nearly enough cues from the exclamation point of a moment like that, so that when they do arrive, they feel vestigial from some bolder, alternate film that this one refuses to be. Some combination of disinterest, discomfort, and spite palpably tugs away at The Actress, making it shoddy at some moments and grating at others, like an opera buffa full of B sharps.

Maybe the biggest irritant in Cukor's direction, though, is how overtly he keeps trying to hand the movie over to Spencer Tracy, semi-comically galumphing for the first 75 minutes, making a comical boob of himself in one odd, extended set-piece where his pants keep falling down, and settling into a low, angry boil in the last quarter-hour for some melodramatic disclosures about suicidal mothers and childhood poverty. None of this has he ever told anybody, including his wife. Movies where Spencer Tracy bemoans the stupidity of his daughter and the enabling tendencies of his not-terribly-interesting wife are a genre unto themselves, spanning at minimum from Father of the Bride (1950) to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). There are few actors whose performances of chauvinist contempt are simultaneously less endearing to me and more suggestive of genuine acidity, especially since unlike Gable or Cooper, Tracy didn't fold his masculine arrogance into the complex charm of the rake or the staunch individualist. None of these disdainful-daddy movies in the Tracy canon seems sure whether his impatience is to be laughed at or tsk-tsked, and The Actress's tone is hard to gauge in this very way. But look how Cukor blocks the scenes to discount everyone but Father, whether or not he knows best. In the scene where he lays into Ruth to "finish her schoolin'," he glowers from the left side of the frame while Simmons is represented in the right side by her ponytail alone. When she returns home humiliated from a quasi-audition she has lied about, an emotional crux in young Ruth's story, all three leads are encompassed in the shot but only Tracy is initially in focus. Neither his wife's nor his daughter's reactions are visible or, by extension, presumed to be interesting to us while he exhumes the details of his unenviable past—details that he has suppressed from them for two decades. Even after he walks out of the room, they crane their necks away from the camera, facelessly awaiting his return. The same pattern crops up in later scenes, which I'll omit in order to protect the plot (such as it is) but which gesture just as clearly to the movie's paternalistic slant. In that climate, the slightly ungenerous portrait of Ruth and the refrigerated performance of Simmons stop feeling so much like bravely unsentimental autobiography and more like an extension of a narrow-hearted, even sexist movie that only has eyes for Dad, often literally, flawed though he may be. Even if March's triumph on Broadway had made the role famous as a plum one, and even if Gordon's own memories of this period in her life consigned her to satellite status in relation to a father she loved and flouted, it still feels like we're watching this story through the wrong window—to say nothing of having insufficient fun while we're doing it.

A relic of that Life With Father/I Remember Mama era of domestic encomiums that always elevated one parent over the other; a record of Simmons' wobbly emergence and of Tracy's unbecoming arrogance; a tree-ring from a Hollywood epoch when quaintness and what then qualified as boldness were duking it out in vehicles too slender to support such weight: The Actress is all of these things, with all the demerits they imply and too few of the virtues that ballasted them in other contexts. Granted, Gordon always had a way with a line. Who else would describe a broken furnace as being as cold as "a whale's hind fin," or the luminaries of Roman oratory as "all kind of bughouse"? She squeezes a funky laugh-line out of a dim-bulb side character, responding to Ruth's plans to upset her own stomach as a tactic for getting out of school. "I'll throw up!" Ruth decides. "Oooh, that'll be wonderful!" her buddy coos. Beneath The Actress's laughs, and sometimes bumping up against them, is a plausible tale of a functional family's pains and their unprocessed regrets. If the movie didn't feel so awkwardly assembled and stridently expressed, Tracy's memories of his seafaring teens or his final line of advice to his daughter might carry the delicate glimmer of subtext, as might the mother's allusions to having been valued more in her past than she feels she is now. In this movie, notes like these feel unearned and nearly adrift, weighed down by going-nowhere storylines about valentines of the past, and by a majorette exposition with glittering bowling pins, by Anthony Perkins demonstrating the latest fad in World War I-era dancing, and by Simmons, in her big audition to her own family, giving a bad recital of an actress giving a bad recital.

Whether The Actress represents a missed opportunity or a tale better confined to a memoir than a movie, I couldn't quite work out. Rather than reacting grouchily to pleasant piffle, though, I think I just inhaled the air of ill-tempered indecision that already wafts through the film. Grade: C–

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design (Black & White): Walter Plunkett

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Actor (Drama): Spencer Tracy

Other Awards:
National Board of Review: Best Actress (Simmons; also cited for The Robe and Young Bess)

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