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Someone Else

by on November 21, 2016

                                                                Someone Else

                                                             by Marco M. Pardi

“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Cary Grant (1904-1986) 22 September 1985 

All comments welcome.  To those readers who have been hesitant to comment or ask questions, please be assured you may do so freely. In recent days several new people have signed on as followers, enabling them to comment freely, and it is hoped they will. All previous posts are open for comment by clicking on “uncategorized”. Reader participation keeps this site vibrant. MMP

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As the holidays approach the film companies are rolling out their holiday “blockbusters”.  Presumably, these are aimed at the ubiquitous family gatherings wherein families, not finding anything interesting among themselves, decide to find interest elsewhere.

My first substantial experiences with live theater came in prep school with attendance at Shakespearean plays.  The movements and dialogue intrigued me not so much in themselves but in wondering how these actors, who performed flawlessly,  stepped in and out of character on and off stage. Were they a pain in the ass around the house?  Did they play games like everyone else, engage in dating or social outings with nary a hint of their day job? Or did their romantic partners ever wonder if it was all an act, that they were props in a play.

Thinking it would be fun I accepted roles in some school plays.  I began suspecting something when, among several available roles, I always got assigned the “heavy”, the tough guy or the bad guy. I was muscular but I thought my face looked like anyone else.  This was before Harrison Ford came to the big screen so I had yet to encounter people who identified my face and voice with him.  Years later, a shop clerk in Montreal, Canada actually smirked at my credit card and said, “Clever cover name, Mr. Ford. Is this card good?” Shoppers, unmindful that I would need a stool to talk to Ford, had heard me talking to my woman companion and spread it through the store that Harrison Ford was on a secret shopping trip. For years after Raiders of the Lost Ark came out people insisted on calling me Dr. Jones.  

Some plays I disliked not because the plots were bad but because the actors were acting to the audience, what I came to refer to as round acting – acting as if they were acting, wink, wink. To me, that defeated the whole purpose of playing a role.

As I took more interest in going out and seeing films I heard people say things like, “You’ve got to see (name of film), it has (name of actor) in it.” I could agree that some actors did a better job than others. But I felt something was wrong.  I, then and now, had the opinion that if an actor really does his job it doesn’t matter who it is.  In fact, the most satisfying films were those for whom I had to think hard to name the actor.  After all, I’m there to see the role being played, to immerse in the situation as if it were me in that situation, not to see and judge the person playing the role.

Given that some actors, and I include males and females here, are indeed excellent at lifting me from my everyday circumstances I began to wonder how they detox, how they come back to being themselves, how they maintain their selfhood especially when they consistently play certain parts to the extent the public completely identifies them through those parts.  Yes,  once they are paid enough many actors retain psychotherapists.  Perhaps loss of selfhood is a significant cause. 

I’ve had two opportunities to explore these questions with professional actors.  On a mid-1960’s trip to see my family in Rome, Italy I encountered movie stars on the Via Veneto and the Via Babuino,  the former being something of an Embassy Row and the latter a Roman Rodeo Drive.  But just encountering someone on the street or in a restaurant is not to my liking.  Instead, I took a couple of weeks at our casa in Positano, a resort village on the Amalfi Drive, which had been in my family’s possession for generations  Stepping seven levels down the mountainside, it looked out on a pair of small volcanic islands very close in.  Rumor had it Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were out there trying to buy the islands from the “Russian prince” who had a ballet school there. The mega-yacht moored near them suggested truth to the story.

One of my cousins and I took our motor launch out to the yacht to have a look.  After running a few laps around the yacht and getting yelled at by the crew – we took turns answering in several different languages to confuse them – we motored back in. No sightings.  But, as I was walking up from the shore I noticed a man sprawled on a beach chair beckoning to me.  Since I was wearing only swim trunks, I was sure he had not mistaken me for bar staff, so I went over.  Asking me if I spoke English, he asked me to take the chair next to him. He was Rex Harrison.  He had been watching us circle the yacht and was curious whether we had a sighting.

I had seen a couple of his films and assumed he was an interesting person.  But my questions regarding the retention of one’s persona were paramount (no pun intended).  I explained my reasons, watching plays and being in plays, for my questions and felt welcomed in asking.  Indeed, he was quite forthcoming and seemed to welcome such a conversation.  This being before the age of ubiquitous drugs, he said some actors do retreat into alcohol. And, some, not sure of quite who they really are, have relationship problems as they drift from one fan produced persona to another. Some who can afford it do have therapists, though (at that time) it was a heavily guarded studio secret.

We talked for a couple of hours as he explained that he chose roles carefully, trying to stay as close as possible to who he thought he was. And, he welcomed what he called a rare opportunity to converse with someone as a person, not as a role. As we parted we each expressed hopes of meeting again.  Unfortunately, I was called away for another trip to Germany which took longer than expected and never saw him again as I returned to our properties in Rome instead. Nor did I ever meet Richard Burton, which was a great disappointment.  In every role he played his tortured soul came through; even his humor was crafted to keep people at arm’s length.  A kindred spirit.    

The other actor I was able to seriously converse with was a college student of mine who had been a child actor in a long running television series. Getting past my awkwardness at not having seen his program, I asked him my questions.  In this case he answered, “It’s just a role.” I attribute that self saving perspective to his youth at the time and to his admittedly minor role as part of the cast.  Children play roles constantly, experimenting with who they are, having fun with imagination.  And, the series focus definitely was not on him.   

When I read fiction I do so not to escape being me but to examine how I would act in the circumstances facing the main character. Thus, I restrict my reading to authors I am certain know the subject and the variables involved.  Admittedly, sometimes my intolerance of ignorance or mistakes may seem extreme.  In the early 1980’s a friend gave me a copy of James Clavell’s Whirlwind, a novel about the Iranian revolution. She had an inkling about my persona.  I had read several of Clavell’s Asian themed books and found them accurate.  But, a few pages into Whirlwind he has the character riding over Iran in a jet helicopter when it is hit by groundfire.  As Clavell tells it, the bullets pierced the fuel lines, spewing gasoline throughout the cabin.  Jet? Gasoline?  I re-gifted the book to someone else and never looked back.

We have recently been through a Presidential election cycle which, on the Big Screen would have had people running for the aisles. Who knows how many home televisions perished as the players in this seemingly endless Punch & Judy show went at each other?  But now that it’s over we are asked to accept that the vitriol, if not exactly in good fun, was all a part of the grand act political hopefuls play in their roles as candidates.  

Unspoken in this shambles of an aftermath is a central question: If we award the lead role to a person who is a gleefully self admitted misogynist, an assaulter of women – whom he sees as assemblages of body parts to be judged, a man who boastfully recounts barging in on naked 15 year old girls in his “beauty pageant” – because he was entitled to, who claims to be “smart” by dodging taxes, a racist, a person who reneges on contracts for work done, who lies to one’s face, who creates a fraudulent “university” to bilk people out of their savings, encouraging them to “max out” their credit cards, who evaded the draft but claims to be “smarter than the generals”, and a person who incites his audiences to armed violence should the Grand Finale not go his way, should we expect that person to become Someone Else when he takes center stage?

Just how foolish can audiences be?    

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12 Comments
  1. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    Very thoughtful piece. The list of Hollywood (read: moviemakers in general) stupidities, or more likely just laziness, could go on for days; one of the most egregious is action movies’ and TV shows’ implicit assertion that automobile doors will stop bullets. But I digress. The question of acting and identity is a fascinating one; it was said with Peter Sellers that “there was no *there* there, that the man had little personality or identity of his own, which was at least part of what made him so good. I’ve often wondered about the best of the best–for me, Martin Landau (who made me forget that he was NOT Bela Lugosi), Helen Mirren (ditto for Elizabeth II), and most of all Meryl Streep. In her case there is very definitely someone very real there, so how she becomes someone else remains a mystery.
    With Trump, it’s a much more important question; his style is–when he’s in a lesser position, that is, candidate instead of president-elect–to say whatever anyone wants to hear, regardless of whether it contradicts something he has said already. As far as I can tell, Trump has no convictions beyond the primitive one that the best is to be found in whatever is best for Donald Trump. He hasn’t even been inaugurated, and he already made lies out of a significant number of major campaign promises; when he is actually in office, I suspect we will see something new and possibly dreadful. The system as it exists will keep that in check–until such time as he can dismantle the system, which he will unquestionably work very hard to do.

    • Thank you, Mike. Your comment about Sellers reminded me of his The Gardener. Indeed, what have we brought to the most powerful role in the world?

      One of my favorite Burton films was Hammersmith is Out!, a little known but also highly pertinent portrayal of the mad quest for power.

      All the world may be a stage, in which case I’m looking for the exit.

      • Correction: That Sellers film was Being There, in which he played a gardener.

  2. Ray Rivers permalink

    Very good piece Marco – but Trump wasn’t acting. He is the bombastic racist that he showed himself to be – it’s apparent by his Cabinet pickings. It is the audience that has bored with the family channel and was looking for a Black Mirror or a visit to the Twilight Zone. I have acted extensively as well as written plays – But as far out as I can make my characters, none of them come close to your president-elect. Again – well done and so timely.

    • Thank you, Ray. You are precisely correct. Trump wasn’t acting. I think at least a generation of analysts will work to discover what the audience thought they saw. The most discouraging conclusion would be that they saw him correctly and loved it.

      One thing I regret is not being close enough to personally enjoy your singing and acting career. But I’m so glad your economic analysis comes through in your column.

  3. A writing assignment in high school had me creating an exaggerated word-picture of my brother. I was accused of going too far, when in fact I had only painted the truth with a wide brush. In the case of our new president-elect, I find it difficult to find a brush wide enough to paint the truth, much less a widened version of it.

    My daughter and granddaughter have plans to join in the Million Women march in DC in January. They did not invite me to join them. I fear for their lives.

    • Thank you, Rose. Your insights into building characters, as you did so well in your story about Thorn, assure me of your competence in analyzing the mess we are now in.

      I share your concern for your daughter and granddaughter. Hopefully, there is safety in numbers.

      • It’s not the new fiction that I worry about, but the reality of what we are all facing now. He said he wanted to be unpredictable, and that he is; better to expect the worst and be prepared. It worries me that the Dalai Lama isn’t worried about him; I certainly am. If what we have been subjected to thus far has been an act, heaven help us when reality sets in.

      • Thanks, Rose. Some are saying this is a needed wake-up call. I dread the day after.

  4. When I read your stories about being in Italy, I can’t fathom how you left and ended up in the South.

  5. A reader asked me privately if the seven levels referred to our casa or to the village. It referred to our casa.

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