Monday, July 29, 2013


A One-Man Movement
Cary Grant Set a Pace for On-Screen Grace That's Left His Followers Mostly in the Dust
(By Sarah Kaufman, Washington Post, 2009)

"North by Northwest," Alfred Hitchcock's sprawling 1959 thriller that takes us to the top of Mount Rushmore by way of a near-miss with a killer crop-duster, begins with the basics. A man is walking down a corridor.  But because the man is Cary Grant, the moment is anything but ordinary. He has us at the first step: that long, brisk stride and its driving rhythm, a ticktock pace that telegraphs purpose, clarity and elegant efficiency. We watch him stroll out of an elevator toward the street, dictating correspondence to the secretary at his side. He's not some stiff, starchy suit. There's a relaxed, easy give in Grant's body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her -- he's so very pleased with his own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He's getting further under our skin with every move.

What Grant's character, advertising executive Roger Thornhill, is actually saying in this scene isn't nearly as important as his movement. It's the movement that hooks us. It always does. Intuition? Training? Astute directors? Whatever its source, Grant knew a timeless truth: There is nothing we watch so keenly as the human body in action, because the way it moves tells a story.  The art of moving well, call it kinetic acting, has nearly vanished from movies today. I don't mean among dancers on the big screen -- that's a different subject altogether -- but among actors. The attention to physical expression, to one's carriage and gestures and their dramatic and emotional implications, has faded. I'm talking about a sense of grace. About acting that involves a meaningful motor impulse. A signature style of moving, bigger than just body language or bits of what actors call "business" -- lighting a cigarette, picking up a drink. Think of Gary Cooper's quick, impatient stride across town to the church in "High Noon," when he thinks he'll be able to round up a posse among the worshipers, folks to join his fight against a group of killers. And then his stiff, pained walk back to town after he fails to find help. He doesn't say a word, but the heaviness he feels is right there in his legs. You ache watching him.

A person's way of moving through space tells us something on a base, primitive level. It's animal to animal. It's something so subtle you may not consciously notice it, but when an actor moves honestly and with intention, your eye will follow him anywhere.  The trouble is, you don't see it that much. The buzz around this year's Oscar favorites got me thinking about how the artistic trend in acting has gone from the external to the internal. We're in the age of the close-up. Realism and psychological truth rule, and you find them in facial expression, in the little muscles around the eyes. The focus has tightened. Sure, there's gobs of emphasis on sexy bodies, but the body as an expressive instrument just isn't much in the picture.  Perhaps this is because actors aren't formally trained in dance and movement much anymore, as they were in the early years of filmmaking. There's also the invasion of psychoanalysis, and the rise of Method acting starting about a half-century or so ago, with its emphasis on emotion, interior motives and lots of mental preparation. Actors started questioning the precise blocking of action -- the choreography of the scene -- that was so prized by Grant, Cooper, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and other stars going back to the 1930s and '40s. For that era, physical elegance signaled inner elegance. Actors today seek more of a warts-and-all approach.

But kinetic acting is wrongly overlooked. It has an undeniable power over an audience. Consider Grant -- and you needn't only take my word on his greatness. He's been famously deconstructed in Pauline Kael's sharp-eyed essay "The Man From Dream City." And film historian David Thomson, writing in his "Biographical Dictionary of Film," describes Grant as "the best and most important film actor in the history of the cinema." Grant's dark beauty, cultured diction and gift for comedy are unmistakable. But what I find most fascinating about him -- and I believe it's the reason he is as watchable now as he was all those decades ago -- is his physical grace, an effortlessness that borders on the surreal.  It's always there, in every role, in the way he walks, the way he slips a hand into his pocket, the way he stands, with his shoulders melting just a bit toward the co-star his character is invariably secretly in love with.

Grant's art was all about physical expressiveness and emotional understatement. He never did musical comedy per se -- no Donald O'Connor-style routines (though you can imagine much of the sophisticated slapstick in the screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby," in which Grant teamed with Kate Hepburn, set to music and a song). But you could say Grant is one of the great musical comedy stars of the 20th century. Like the very best dancers -- think of the versatile perfectionists Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and even the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov -- Grant based each role on an array of physical details. He got into acting that way; the Cockney kid named Archie Leach left England for America as a member of a troupe of acrobats. After he went to Hollywood and became Cary Grant, the acrobat's love of physical play, his feline reflexes and reckless courage stuck with him. 

In his early films (take "Singapore Sue" of 1932, for one -- Grant plays a skirt-chasing sailor), he comes across as blocky and stiff. His delivery is corny and over-eager. Later, as he refined his athlete's energy and channeled it into a smoother physical bearing, his acting relaxed.  Revisit "His Girl Friday" (1940), one of filmdom's most perfect creations, directed by Howard Hawks. Sparks between newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his ex-reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) pop the whole way through, but in one scene Grant's nuanced physical maneuvering is particularly marvelous. Seated over a polite lunch with his former bride (for whom he still pines) and her new fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), Walter aims to show Hildy just how foolish her fantasy of impending domestic bliss sounds.  "Ah yes, a home with Mother," he enthuses -- then there's a smothered chortle and a little roll of his shoulder -- "and in Albany, too!" It's a picture of devastating mockery, but so slight and slippery that Bruce doesn't notice. Hildy does, and we do, too. Grant orchestrates the moment perfectly. With every move leading up to it, he's drawn our eye to his shoulders, squeezing them together slightly, not relaxed until now, this instant, when that little action that starts in his neck and trickles across the top of his suit jacket shouts out loud and clear that Hildy is making a stupid mistake. It's not flamboyant, there's nothing self-indulgent in that gesture, and it's over in a wink -- but it reveals the calculating trickiness as well as the feelings of his character. That liquid, nearly imperceptible roll of a muscle hangs there like an echo, a ripple in the airwaves, a shiver in the emotional current that encircles Grant and Russell and us.

Grant "accepts performance as a physical act, not just an emotional one," says film scholar Jeanine Basinger, chair of Wesleyan University's film studies department. Grant crafted his roles through movement, she says, "the way a dancer understands the role can be believable only through the physicality of it. It's not just vocal, or emotional, but head-to-toe physical."  Think of the yearning vulnerability in his posture as he leans in to trade barbs with Hepburn, playing another ex-wife who still owns his heart, in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). What his lips can't say, his body whispers -- he stands too close, inclining toward her, yielding in the middle like a surrendering wolf flashing its underbelly. In the scene where he barges into her house just before her marriage to another man, Grant shows how much he wants to reclaim her with that long stride that eats up the space between them, propels him right up to her. His effort to follow (so microscopically beseeching; we get it, though she doesn't) as she backs away becomes a brief tango of pursuit. 

Hitchcock was a master at exploiting Grant's elegance, and "North by Northwest" is the definitive study of Grant in motion. Here, in fact, is film as modern ballet. There is that churning, driving Bernard Herrmann musical score. And the story unspools in a classic ballet structure, moving from the simple to the complex in the buildup of athletic images, revolving around brilliantly restrained duets and -- most delicious of all -- Grant's stylized bravura solo turns that explode with drama and emotion. This is the film, after all, where that nice ad exec runs for his life from a crop-duster, his gait pinched and strained to show us how bewildered and trapped he feels; he makes a splayed-out, elegantly finessed dive into the dust that a Baryshnikov would envy, and later arcs spectacularly backward, up on his toes, even, from Eva Marie Saint's gunshots. All the comedy, tension and romance, the racing pace and the plot twists register on that lean, alive body.

There are no Cary Grants today. But there are a few actors who engage us with performances of luscious physical awareness. Sean Penn's liberating, joyous mobility in "Milk" is a sterling example. (More on this later.) Rarer still, there are those kinetic actors who throughout a career convey a sense of physical intelligence, as Grant had.  Tom Cruise, for one. "Valkyrie" may not be a showcase for his athletic intensity. But whether it's vanity or art, he pays attention to his physical form in his movies. Particularly when he's running. His mad dashes in so many movies have become something of a joke, but the truth is nobody looks better in a sprint than Cruise did in "Mission: Impossible III" (that helicopter in pursuit -- a nod to "North by Northwest"?). There's a blazing efficiency in his stride: relaxed shoulders, no extraneous movements. Well-coordinated limbs translate into a deadly coordinated purpose of mind. 

The ever-relaxed, deadpan Bill Murray is another Grant offshoot. He delivers a Grant-like sense of comfort in his own skin in the masterfully underplayed "Lost in Translation," which is essentially a movie about energy. There's the jangly buzz of Tokyo's night life, and the somnolent unease that brings together Murray and Scarlett Johansson. But it's not just sleeplessness that joins this pair of misfits who meet at a hotel. It's that their motors run at the same leisurely rpm. It's through his slowness, his unhurried, unfussy elegance and languid physicality that Murray creates a character we can trust, who comes across as confident, humble and wise.

Denzel Washington has an especially pronounced sense of elegance, which gives the hostage negotiator he plays in Spike Lee's "Inside Man" an extra dimension of truth. He's so solid and calm, with that loose stride and its soft jazz-cafe rhythm -- you might actually trust him, even if you were a psychopath. This is a fascinating film to watch from the point of view of the body, how bodies (those of the hostages in a bank heist) are dehumanized and robbed of their individuality, and how the characters who seek to control the situation carry themselves. Jodie Foster is a supremely kinetic actor; in her role as a high-powered, behind-the-scenes operator of shadowy origins she conveys deadly sureness with a cold, unyielding physicality. She's as tightly cocked as a revolver. Watch the firm, deliberate cadence of her stroll as she lets Christopher Plummer know who's boss, and you figure she could put your eye out with one of her high heels as smoothly as she takes another step.  To me, it's a woman who is most like Grant today. Cate Blanchett, who interestingly enough plays a dancer in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," has long struck me as an actor with a dancer's energy. There is a reined-in elegance about her, a sense of explosiveness carefully under wraps, which gives her an active presence even when she's not moving. With that comes firm self-possession and a watchful intensity, even in so small a role as that of the elf queen Galadriel in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." She seems to float as she descends the stairs in her midnight scene, breastbone high, a slight arch in her back. She communicates a mystical depth in that taut, gliding physical presence.

There is unlikely to be a return to the prevalence of kinetic acting that you see in the old movies, when stars male and female bewitched us with the transcendent glory of how they moved across the screen. Emotional truths have long trumped physical truth. The emotion-driven Method acting espoused by New York's influential Actors Studio in the 1940s and '50s arose in answer to the more formal, traditional style of meticulously crafting a role, and it rejected accepted standards of bearing and grace. The camera zoomed in close, the actor's face became the canvas. Characters became more emotionally "real," and also more static.  Before Method acting came into vogue, "American acting was much more in line with English acting, where physical grace was a very important thing," says Thomson, the historian. "Approximately with Marlon Brando, we suddenly get physical gracelessness."  "We're still very much in the vogue of the Actors Studio," he continues. "The search for inner truthfulness, abandoning elegance and clarity. . . . We're into a style of more awkward personal truths."  Enter slumping and mumbling, exit agility.

"From Here to Eternity" (1953) is a neat example of the split. On the one hand, you have Burt Lancaster -- onetime athlete and trapeze artist, body cut from stone, forever hot under the collar. Like Grant, Lancaster's acting was rooted in the physical, how his characters moved. (Lancaster didn't have Grant's range, though. He had the power but not the tenderness.) In "From Here to Eternity" he takes the physical to a combustible extreme; his 1st Sgt. Warden is all raw animal power.  Compare Lancaster with his co-star, the young Method actor Montgomery Clift, whose Pvt. Prewitt is freighted with the past, self-absorbed, just this side of a head case. Obsessed with personal truth. Now, remember Lancaster's roll in the surf with Deborah Kerr -- one kiss, one wave, destined to crest forever in American loins? To hell with truth; they wanted contact. They were the body; Clift, the brooding loner, was the soul. 

This is why "Milk" is so interesting. There's a graceful sweep to this film, directed by Gus Van Sant, which echoes the uninhibited expressiveness and the deeply sensual nature of the gay community that it portrays. Penn, the psychologically driven Method actor, is a revelation; his portrayal of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the doomed politician, is thoroughly, exuberantly, juicily physical. And honest. Penn doesn't overplay it; there's nothing swishy here. But to watch him wield his newfound expressiveness -- the outgoingness and vulnerability in his upper body, the little fillips in his hips -- feels like a luxury, and you realize what so many other films are missing: the body with the soul. The physical awareness that Cary Grant perfected. Acting you feel as well as see. And along with it, the stories the body tells.


Will There Ever Be Another Cary Grant?
(By Whitney Matheson, USA Today)

      I, too, have been struck with Kerry fever this week - but unlike the fellow most people are buzzing about, mine spells his name with a "C."  On Sunday, as Iowa voters were laying out their caucus outfits, Cary Grant would've celebrated his 100th birthday. For some reason, the milestone didn't receive much attention, aside from the release of a DVD box set and a daylong marathon on Turner Classic Movies.  Regrettably, as the product of an era when Ralph Macchio and Michael J. Fox were considered romantic leading men, I'm no Grant scholar.  Sure, I've rented An Affair to Remember - but only after watching Rita Wilson get all weepy about it in Sleepless in Seattle. A few years ago, when the American Film Institute released its list of the top 100 movies of all time, I noticed how frequently Grant's films ranked - and that I hadn't seen most, if any, of them.  I decided the actor's 100th was the perfect time to get acquainted with his work.  (Well, some of it anyway; Grant made nearly 80 movies in his lifetime.)  Upon asking my mother which Cary Grant flicks she recommended, I was answered with a 30-second sigh. "There will never, ever be another Cary Grant," she said, before adding, "And there won't be another Gregory Peck, either."

     Seriously, how true could this be?  While many Cary Grant fans are quick to say how fantastic he was, few can tell me what made him such a legend.  Before I watched To Catch A Thief, Charade, Penny Serenade and The Philadelphia Story, I figured several of the following actors could be considered "the next Cary Grant."  Not only was I wrong, but it appears many of them are stealing his moves! (Madonna, for one, has totally copped that accent, and George Hamilton has taken his tan.)

Cary candidate No. 1: George Clooney:  How very Cary: Like Grant, Clooney shows versatility onscreen, playing everyone from slick-haired bluegrass heroes to suave casino thieves.  (While Grant starred in several plucky comedies, he also graced four Hitchcock flicks.)  Another similarity: Clooney looks mighty fine in a pinstriped suit.  But not quite: Unlike Grant, Clooney has several TV shows on his resume. He also comes from acting stock, while Cary Grant grew up in poverty, the son of a pants presser and an institutionalized mother.

Cary candidate No. 2: Denzel Washington:  How very Cary: Denzel has mastered the smart, effortless romantic lead that Cary Grant made famous.  But not quite: Although he's responsible for some of the greatest films of all time, Cary Grant never received an Oscar for his acting. Denzel has two (and counting).

Cary candidate No. 3: Brad Pitt:  How very Cary: Somehow, Pitt comes across as both adventurous and laid-back - alluring qualities that prompted writer Ian Fleming to create the James Bond character with Cary Grant in mind.  But not quite: If Cary were still around today, he might be surprised at Pitt's one, seemingly stable marriage. Grant was married five times (once to lush-lipped actress Dyan Cannon), and four of the marriages lasted less than five years.

Cary candidate No. 4: Jude Law:  How very Cary: Not only are both Brits, but their handsome mugs feature more angles than the Picasso Museum. And then there's that dimpled chin ...  But not quite: Law's stardom is climbing, but it's still miles from Cary's. He also doesn't convey the same confidence or quick-wittedness onscreen.

Cary candidate No. 5: Tom Cruise:  How very Cary: Both guys smartly changed their names: Cruise was born Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, while Grant's classmates called him Archie Leach. The actors are both charitable chaps, too: Cruise gives his tabloid-lawsuit winnings to charity, while Grant donated his salary for 1940's The Philadelphia Story to the British war effort.  But not quite: In the movies I've seen, Grant portrays his characters with admirable earnestness and intelligence.  I've rarely used those words to describe Cruise.

     Now, contrary to Cary, I generally prefer things on the messy side:  I dig David Lynch movies, mangoes and sloppy haircuts. I don't always want a happy ending.  Men in suits make me lock the door and hide. But for some reason, the films I saw temporarily erased these preferences and, as silly as it sounds, transported me back in time.  Even though he lived until 1986, Cary Grant quit acting in 1966, supposedly because he felt the changing movie industry didn't have a place for him anymore.  Considering the cheap thrills, schoolboy humor and casual slacks prevalent in today's blockbusters, maybe it's a good thing Grant isn't around to experience them.  Then again, if he'd never retired and were still alive today, Hollywood might be a much different, and classier, place.


Natalie Portman, Great Actor Or Is She Just An Excellent Special Effect?
(By Tom Shone,, Feb. 14, 2011)

Is what Natalie Portman doing in Black Swan great acting? It's certainly spectacular, whatever it is, and audiences have been eating it as they used to eat up the sight of Pete Townsend smashing up his Rickenbacker during Who concerts. Here, of course, the Rickenbacker is Portman herself, laying siege to her physical frame, nicking, cutting, snipping, and plucking, until she stands before us transformed, her eyes a devilish red, her back puckered with dartlike feathers, her pale white face contorted into a snarling death mask. A few telltale signs of CGI augmentation should not distract us from Portman's achievement in the film, which is essentially to have turned herself into her own species of special effect.

During last year's debate over whether the blue people in James Cameron's Avatar were delivering actual performances or not, it was a commonly heard opinion from the acting community that "acting is the best special effect." The actors meant it as a way of pulling rank, but what if the statement were actually true? What if what lay behind our current fad for physical transformation in our actors was a desire to keep up, not with the illustrious example set by Marlon Brando, but with that set by Industrial Light and Magic? You've read the statistics, proudly trumpeted by the stars' publicists during the run-up to awards season. How Hanks lost 55 pounds for Cast Away. How Clooney put on 30 pounds for Syriana. Crowe gaining 63 pounds for Body of Lies.  Bale losing 70 pounds for The Machinist… Think of the language critics use to praise these performances—"immersive," "transformative," "revelatory"—and you hear distinct echoes of the way we talk about special effects.

Or think back to the godfather of these performances, as Bale himself made clear with his shout-out to De Niro at the Golden Globes last month: De Niro's turn as Jack La Motta in Raging Bull. De Niro went up from his usual 140 pounds to 160 to play La Motta as a young man, then up to 215 to play him in decline, sunk in the rolls of fat around his neck as he hammily declaims Brando's monologue from On The Waterfront to a green-room mirror in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel. "By the end it became evident that much of Raging Bull exists because of the possibilities it offers De Niro to display his own explosive art," wrote Richard Corliss in Time, although precisely what explosive art he was displaying was another question. "What De Niro does in this film isn't acting, exactly," wrote Pauline Kael in The New Yorker. "Though it may at some level be awesome, it definitely isn't pleasurable."

The key word here is "awesome" (in the romantic-poet sense rather than the rad-skateboarder sense), for the real creative progenitor of De Niro's performance in Raging Bull, arguably, was not Brando but Star Wars, released just three years earlier, obliterating all in its path at the box office with the ruthlessness of one of Lucas' imperial star destroyers. "Star Wars was in, Spielberg was in," Scorsese told author Peter Biskind. "We were finished." Were they? In many ways, Raging Bull feels like Scorsese and De Niro's response to Lucas' space epic, an anti-blockbuster built to resist the gravitational pull of the death star by means of a spectacle no less visceral or intense: You give us exploding planets, we give you a ballooning Robert De Niro.

Movie stars had transformed for their roles before, of course—Lon Cheney in the Wolfman movies, Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution, Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress—but the studio system existed to hold actors in place, as eternal and unchanging as the stars themselves. Audiences went to a Bogart picture to see Bogart be Bogart. Once the studio system began to come loose in the '50s and '60s, stars began to take control of their image, as Tony Curtis did for The Boston Strangler (1968), dulling his baby-blue eyes with brown contact lenses and gaining 20 pounds, or Rod Steiger, soaring past 230 pounds on two dinners a day during the shooting of In The Heat of The Night (1967). But De Niro's performance in Raging Bull was something else again, another level of centrifugal force, pulling the entire drama into his orbit, as if the only way actors could compete in the age of multimillion-dollar special-effects spectacle was quite literally to make a spectacle of themselves.

It's telling, for example, that the current vogue for actorly metamorphosis didn't really kick in until after the release of Jurassic Park in 1993. The brave new world of digital effects that movie ushered in was described recently by David Denby in The New Yorker:  “Gravity has given up its remorseless pull; one person's flesh can turn into another's, or melt, or become waxy, claylike, or metallic; the ground is not so much terra firma as a launching pad for the true cinematic space, the air, where bodies zoom like projectiles and actual projectiles (bullets say) sometimes move slowly enough to be inspected by the naked eye. Roll over Newton, computer imagery has altered the integrity of time and space.”

The comedians were first to wake up to the possibilities. The year after Jurassic Park (1993), we got Jim Carrey in The Mask (1994), and the Farrellys' Dumb and Dumber (1994), as if the only way comedy could hold its own against giant dinosaurs were knockout physical gags that rocked the audience back in their seats—a collective "eew" to match the collective "wow."  The comedians led, the dramatic actors followed. Soon we had such role as Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000)—"the best special effect a director could ask for," said director Robert Zemeckis. But what turned the metamorphosis fad into Hollywood's acting style du jour was its first contact with Oscar Gold: Nicole Kidman's fling with a prosthetic nose in The Hours (2003) was followed, a year later, by Charlize Theron donning prosthetic teeth and abjuring hair conditioner for her role as a lesbian serial killer in Monster (2004). "What Charlize Theron achieves in Patty Jenkins' Monster isn't a performance but an embodiment," wrote Roger Ebert, a polite reframing of Kael's complaint about De Niro.

Today's actors have definitely found a way of adding pleasure to the awesomeness: to see Johnny Depp cantering through the Pirates movies, or Heath Ledger equally antic in The Dark Knight, is to see method acting spliced with a welcome burst of comic madness. But there's no denying the uptick in self-consciousness to these performances—our consciousness of them as performances—and the element of celebrity brinkmanship. Trying imagining a lesser-known actor in The Hours, or Cast Away, and you begin to see that Kidman and Hanks' performances are as much adjuncts to their status as celebrities as to their skills as actors. They might best be understood, in fact, as a form of cinematic trompe l'oeil, wherein the audience is both fooled and not fooled at the same time, for we never forget that it's Theron under that make-up, or Hanks that's lost all that weight—indeed, to do so would be to defeat the point of the exercise, which is to marvel over the distance traveled by a well-known face or name.

The Method's arrival on the A-list red carpet has thus resulted in a curiously quixotic new art form, tangentially related to the actor's craft but equally drawing on the fumes of celebrity, aiming not so much at verisimilitude as a kind of self-vandalizing coup de theatre. Natalie Portman's turn in Black Swan is a sensational instance of celebrity self-graffiti, a stunning instance of performance-as-special effect, and a fascinating palimpsest of meta-casting taken to the nth degree: The posters might as well read "Come see Natalie Portman earn her Oscar." But great acting?

Just as it is possible to exit the latest blockbuster going, "The special effects were great, but the movie blew," so it's possible to find Portman's performance exactly the kind of stunt that wins awards but be unsure what it connects with, emotionally, besides Nina's intense desire to be given the part of the Swan Queen and her determination to do anything to get it. This may be vividly rendered but it is not what you would call "a stretch." Nor does it deliver very strongly on one of the principle pleasures of great acting, which is interaction and reaction, for everyone in Black Swan is, to lesser or greater degrees, a projection of Nina's subconscious. She ends up in the same place De Niro ended up in Raging Bull, opposite a mirror, which should serve as a warning to all the Mickey Mouse Club refugees who will doubtless follow in Portman's footsteps, as well as a gloss on the movie's one scene of genuine physical tenderness: What price your dedication to performance, if the only person you end up playing with is yourself?


Who’s Afraid Of Richard Burton?
(By Dick Cavett, New York Times, July 2009)

He was sitting in front of his dressing room mirror after a tiring performance of “Camelot,” removing his make-up for the who knows how many thousandth time. Paler, with the greasepaint cleansed from the famous face, he managed to look, simultaneously, handsome, vibrant and worn.  “Richard has been entertaining the idea of doing your show, Mr. Cavett,” a man who appeared to be both valet and companion said.  “And letting the idea entertain him,” the Welshman intoned in that unmistakable voice.  In fact, Richard Burton was still pondering whether to do my show, and it was thought that my visiting him backstage informally might help.

I tried to imagine what fears or hesitations Burton might have about appearing with me. Could he be afraid that the rich voice, those rugged good looks, the manly erotic charm, the hypnotic blue eyes, the articulacy, the fine wit and the ready storehouse of classical and modern literary quotations and allusions were not quite enough to qualify him for sitting next to Cavett? (Did anyone think, just now, that I was describing myself?)  Could he really think that maybe a boy from Nebraska — who had only been to Yale and not, as he had, Oxford — might outshine all those charms? As my Aunt Eva would say, “The very idea!”   Hoping for the effect of light humor, I said, “I hope I don’t frighten you, Mr. Burton.”   “No, Mr. Cavett, you do not. I do that to myself.”  I liked him immensely.

Even under regression hypnosis, Richard would probably not have recalled how we had briefly met about a quarter of a century earlier when only one of us had a familiar name, but more of that anon.   
Memories of that night backstage: Richard’s expertly flipping a single, long Marlboro — the mendaciously advertised “light” version — from its box, contemplating it for a moment in a manner that brought to mind an actor holding Yorick’s skull, and saying, as if a little embarrassed to be lighting up, “Looks like these lethal goddamn things will be with me to the end of my days.”  “And hastening them,” I decided not to say. Later, with us knowing each other better, he wouldn’t have minded and would have had a wry response.  Then came the best thing.

Leaving the theater by the stage door required crossing the wide New York City Center stage. The “Camelot’ sets had been struck for the night and the house and stage were dark; dark except for the murky bulb in a cage on a stand downstage center — the thing known in the theater world as “the ghost light,” an aptly named light that somehow manages to make a vast, dark space seem darker and spookier than it would with no light at all. 

What happened next was in the too-good-to-be-true category. Burton stopped near the light, his coat draped over one shoulder, gazed out at the empty house, tilted his head back and, with the famous, full chiming resonance, began, “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention . . . ” — and went right on through that ringing prologue to “Henry the Fifth” (known to actors as “Hank Cinq”).  Goose flesh manifested.  He was standing no more than a yard from me, and I thought, “Talk about front-row seats!” Unforgettable.

Maybe our meeting did the trick. A day or two later, Burton agreed to do the show. But, sadly, requested that there be no studio audience. I felt sorry for a bunch of strangers I would never meet who would never know what they missed.  You can do a good show without an audience, but I knew from experience that audiences sometimes buoyed guests who at first feared them.  “What if I made a deal with you?” I dared. “Since they already have their tickets, why don’t we start with them and if you feel uncomfortable we’ll tell them there’s a technical problem and we have to stop for that day and see them out?”  This gambit could accomplish one of two things: (a) he would feel sorry for the disappointed folks and relent, or (b) I would learn how to say “bugger off” in Welsh.  He accepted the offer.

I introduced him with a glowing quote from a prominent British critic about a past performance, never dreaming- since I didn’t know that Richard had disciplined himself to shun all reviews, good or bad-  that I was bringing it to him for the first time. He confessed to enjoying it.  At his entrance — which, you’ll see, he artfully delayed for just a few anticipatory seconds — my usually sedate PBS studio audience went nuts. The mikes didn’t truly report the intense burst of applause. (Happily, this was taped before the later craze of piercing, high-pitched cries and shrieks from talk show audiences that have replaced applause as we knew it. Today, when a guest — of whatever high or low consequence — steps out, the air is ripped with screaming. Why? Who started this?)

I love to watch audiences when famous figures appear. Burton’s charisma radiated. At the moment of his entrance, I watched a highly respectable looking lady in the audience slap her hands to her cheeks, let her purse slip to the floor and slide down in her seat. A staff member reported seeing a woman grab for smelling salts.  I once had a guest hate the audience, lean over to me and whisper, “Let’s dump the creeps out front.” I knew Burton still might opt for that, although in somewhat classier terms; probably whispering something more like, “Richard Cavett, I’m experiencing a modicum of discomfort. Let us enforce our gentlemen’s agreement and politely dispense with the assembled onlookers.”

It didn’t happen. When he got that all-important first laugh, every muscle in the Burton face relaxed visibly and I knew we were in for a good half-hour.  Don’t be surprised if the show seems to go by too fast, leaving you wanting more. The man who wasn’t sure he’d do the show at all agreed to do a second one. At the end of that one, I asked if he thought he had one more in him. He did. And, definitely pushing my luck (and in some sense yours), I snagged a fourth.  Sadly, I was too chicken to ask for the one that would have made a full week. Downing his sixth Diet Coke, Burton talked away a fifth show backstage in the green room. I owe you one.  There’s a lot more to say about this man, but I’m electing to withdraw for now and release you to some real viewing pleasure.  Ladies and gentlemen, R. B.





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