ANATOMY OF A LEADING MAN : ARTS
Every actor, they say, has one great part in him. It may be his mouth, it may be his knees, or it may be something less tangible. If you could piece together the perfect male lead, which bits of whom would you choose? David Thomson plays fantasy film- maker and zooms in on the Hollywood great who had 10 shoulders, the one who lived in the shadow of his own moustache, and the one who let his walk do the talking
Sunday 19 February 1995
For seven years, from Bonnie and Clyde to Hea-ven Can Wait, Warren Beatty had and did terrific hair. Technically it was long, chestnut and voluptuously waved. But emotionally it bespoke a desire and folly that Beatty the actor was always too shy, ortoo grim, to disclose. Shampoo was the hair's moment of glory: Beatty hurried all over LA, doing lovely heads without ever, by so much as a nod or a wink, leaving Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, Lee Grant or Carrie Fisher as more than a shopgirl next to his Monsieur de Pompadour.
You could count Clark Gable's ears - one, two - without turning him sideways. They stood out from his head like handles on a jug. They weren't very noble or artistic, it's true. But the thing about Gable was that if he hadn't had ugly ears, he'd have been impossibly handsome and svelte for a guy from Ohio or an actor who was set to play regular parts. So the ears were like the handles on a boy's bike. They let you grab hold of the dream. They helped you sit in the saddle.
Look at Errol Flynn before his moustache and there's a man wanted for murder, never mind rape. That simple addition made him as merry as Robin Hood, as playful as the elderly John Barrymore. It served as the smile his rather anxious eyes had trouble
with. Later on, his moustache got a life of its own: Flynn had to order two drinks at a time, and the hairy circumflex usually got the pretty girl while Flynn was left with the sad one, sadder still that there wasn't quite the tickle she'd expected.
Why did Marlon Brando mumble? To make us look at his mouth. This was a mouth that could have played Dracula even if its teeth fell out, a mouth in which the upper lip was like a crest, a supercilious overhang, while the lower lip waited in sensual repose. The mouth was Jekyll and Hyde, and so the voice was always a struggle between different accents, the wish to be heard and the feeling that nothing made sense. The mouth was arrogant and needy, austere and abandoned, a thug's and a poet's. And now it is sneering at us for buying his wretched autobiography.
A medical phenomenon, James Dean had 10 shoulders - for looking over, hiding behind, a place for Natalie Wood's head to rest on, the Californian hill beyond which Eden lay, the promontories of self-pity and peekaboo, a way to mask his 57-year-old eyes, the crest behind which he could always be alone, the barricade for his sly come-hither stare and, one last one, the cold shoulder you might melt, the shoulder as erotic peak.
ARMS AND HANDS
Whenever James Stewart started to go "er - ooh - ah", his arms came up and his hands began to dance. They were the gentle eloquence at which words failed - the kindness that cupped the distraught face of Margaret Sullavan or stroked a rabbit that wasn't there. Later on, these hands grew tougher - they learned to grasp a Naked Spur as well as the telephoto lenses in Rear Window. They played Glenn Miller's trombone and Duke Ellington's piano. They moved the Senate, but they couldn't keep Kim Novak from falling.
Walking, walking, here comes John Wayne, a little like a sailing man, with hips unhinged or needing oil. He had a way of coming at you, a stance to be reckoned with. He stood like a tree in John Ford's open doorway, then turned away, braced against the wind and the solitude. Later, near his end, he came down the Academy's slippery stair-case one step at a time, dying but resolute. "Believe me," he said, "when I tell you I'm mighty pleased that I can amble down here tonight."
These eyes are the eyes of Montgomery Clift and oh, how they lead us astray. They were the eyes you would want to have look at your girl; they were eyes you would dream for in a mirror. They stood up to the early violet glory of the young Elizabeth Taylor, and took in her blancmange breasts, too. The eyes that were filled by the flood of Red River, that gazed on the chance of A Place in the Sun, and saw all the way From Here to Eternity. But they were the eyes left behind when the rest of his face had been broken and wired.
Gary Cooper, as a young man, was maybe the most beautiful male the movies ever had - and he'd have blushed if you said it. Enough women did say it - and maybe he did have other things weighing on his mind - but by the late 1930s he had deep lines of
doubt arcing out like mouth lines, drawing his face down. Some-times they twitched; sometimes they stood out like canyons. But as Cooper grew older so his face stood alone as a monument to what Hollywood dreaded - ageing. By the time of Man of the West, those raised muscles were like scars of pain and wisdom.
Robert Mitchum's chest was like Sir Lancelot's breastplate. It came into the room a second and a half before Mitchum, cavernous, sheer, a rock overhang that no one could climb. Was it the weight that made his eyes seem sleepy or mocking? What could it be that he was pushing before him - a wardrobe? A barrel? A card table for later? No, his drinks cabinet.
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm James Mason, and, sadly, you are not. I know, don't rub it in - and really I won't, but you have to admit that no one else ever talked like this: absorbed Huddersfield, Dublin and Belgravia and ended up transatlantic. How did you like my Rommel? Not as much as Norman Maine? Never raised my voice; never lowered my class. Ladies (forget the gentlemen for a moment, shall we?), how far would you let talk go? And was there ever another voice that could have murmured "Lolita,
light of my life, fire of my loins"?
Cary Grant has to be here; he could have been nominated for every part of the body. But just as Wayne makes it on stance - physical bearing, the promise of movement, a way of crossing space, so Grant is here for what I call sidelong glance, or double-take, an intellectual and emotional promise, the readiness to tease and take things so seriously that you can make a joke out of anything. Cary Grant had attitude, a way of seeing and being seen, not quite full-face, but oblique, askance, between the lines, beneath the beat. He made other thoughtful actors seem solemn and complacent.
There have been two Sean Connerys. One made up for baldness with a peaked hairpiece made of black styrofoam. He was a visual joke in those days, .007 on the human scale, but cruelly attractive. Then he gave up on vanity, and let his dome shine through, compensated by the most natural rugged, salt-and-pepper beard the movies had ever seen. He became himself; he grew warm. Women wanted him and not his brutal edge. And in this second stardom, his unaltered Scots accent seemed exactly what a beard hadto say for itself.
When Wyatt Earp walked to Sunday meeting in My Darling Clementine or when Young Mr Lincoln took steps, the expedition was as perilous and pedantic as Henry Fonda's knees. He was tall, he seemed flat-footed; and he was like a Pinocchio whom Gepetto had not really screwed tight at the knees. There was an alluring prospect of collapse, a gingerliness that made for suspense. And so in The Lady Eve, when Barbara Stanwyck's cardsharp is always tripping up his studious stooge, when he's in a tangle at her pretty feet, the lewd glitter in Stanwyck's eyes means only one thing - arthroscopic surgery.
There `s a part of the anatomy not to be named, at least not by me in a family paper. But Gary Cooper, it was said, was prodigiously hung. Of length and texture so many starlets had sung. Did he have clothes custom- constructed so that it could be concertinaed away? And how many handmaidens were needed to carry his train on formal occasions? No, it can't be true . . . but then think of the titles and marvel, my dear: Beau Geste, Meet John Doe, The Fountainhead, High Noon.
Resolutely refusing body doubles, valiantly giving himself up for the movie, Michael Douglas in recent years has acted his ass off. He has done the thing actresses have had to do for 30 years: show us his bum. For Douglas is the actor who takes on those onerous roles of the more-or-less family man suddenly afflicted by a nymphomaniac. So Michael's rosy cheeks have turned ashen pale at the ministrations of Glenn Close and Sharon Stone. Yet there's a fond family touch for nostalgists, for isn't Michael's cleft the mirror image of the chasm that once split Kirk's chin?
LEGS AND FEET
I won't write, don't ask me;
I won't write on feet or legs;
It won't help if your readers im-
Plore me, or if the editor begs,
There's no point in even asking - With feet and legs, I'm not chancing
My arm, because there isn't any room for
Another when we're dancing!
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Five-year-old Iris Grace is raising awareness of autism through her extraordinary paintings
- 2 Car tax disc changes: Two days to go - and they affect you much more than just not displaying a piece of paper
- 3 The Simpsons death: Creator Al Jean would 'kill himself' before character like Homer or Lisa
- 4 British man raped while urinating in bushes at Oktoberfest beer festival in Germany
- 5 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
Black-ish: America's new 'racist' TV sitcom has had a mixed reception
Cilla, episode 3, ITV - review: Ed Stoppard steals the limelight as Beatles manager Brian Epstein
The Simpsons death: Creator Al Jean would 'kill himself' before character like Homer or Lisa
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'
The Jungle Book: A tale as old as time
Isis, we are told, is a 'clear and dangerous threat to our way of life'. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
'Women, walk wherever you want' posters taken down in Stamford Hill following 'unacceptable' signs separating men and women
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
- < Previous
- Next >