...or Why the Stars shone brighter in the Forties
Mae, Rita, Lana, Barbara, Marlene, Vivien, Gloria, Veronica, Myrna...
In my mind Hollywood Actresses, in the main, no longer have the power to hold us in their thrall as they used to, no longer inspire awe and intimacy in equal measure, no longer turn our eyes heaven-bound, demanding to be called stars.
This piece is based, unapologetically, on this generalisation, this assumption, this challenge: Why is it so rare in modern Cinema for a performer to wear an aura as comfortably as they do their character? I am not sure, but I am going to offer a couple of thoughts as to why this might be...
Below I have plotted a graph using data collated at Cinemetrics. It shows the number of Close-up shots in a film against the date the films in question were released (click to enlarge).
As you can see, there is a clear trend. The later the film, the more Close-Ups. In terms of answering my question, the reasons for this are unimportant. It's the effect that matters.
The natural assumption would be that closeness would add to the intimacy an audience feels with its character and that a ten-foot high face would be (literally) larger than life and represent an overwhelming imposition of the actress's personality.
I don't believe this to be the case. Fewer Close Ups mean more Medium and Long Shots. With distance, albeit with the use of a few judicious Close Ups, comes mystique. At a distance you may not see the eyes glowing or the lips trembling but, it goes without saying, you see more. At a distance, movement becomes more important - the sway of the hips, the curve of a wrist. Relationships and moods are subtly expressed in the commanding of or retreat from the space in which the scene takes place. At a distance we see the deportment of these women, the way they hold themselves. We get the whole picture, a person in the round.
And when we do see her in Close Up it is often pointed and startling, a portrait in melodrama. In Modern film Close Ups are forensic - we study the emotion in minute detail. Many decades ago, we could do this without sticking a lens in their faces, but rather by scenting the sweet perfume of a hand pulled back, a recoil from horror, a poignant rejection.
Black and White
Black and White are the colours of a different world. A different world of a past caught in old photos, a past seemingly less real than the technicolour now. They are the colours of fiction. They are the colours of mystery and of preservation.
However, this cannot explain the hollow presence of Cate Blanchett in The Good German or of any number of Actresses in stagnant modern Black and White films. These works labour under the impression that the magic of old lay in the surface, as if the great Film Noir directors had a choice over their palette.
Black and White is a factor but only in conjunction with other, perhaps more pertinent, factors.
Clothes maketh the woman.
There can be no doubt that female characters of the films of the 1940s were beautifully dressed. This begs the question: Are modern characters normalised? Are we making the most of our actresses? Were the characters of the 1940s glamorised? Perhaps. I think the Cinema of the Golden Age meant not so much to glamorise as to emphasise - emphasise a role, a trait, an emotion. To fight a little harder and to love a little fiercer.
Modern films set in the Art Deco period such as The Black Dahlia understand style as a cloak that can be worn and discarded. A surface. They think a period can be evoked through the most superficial of means.
Twenty-first Century movie-makers fail to realise that, in the films of the Golden Age, the characters were as designed as what they wore. They were crafted and loved.
The Studio System
From the 1930s/40s actors were contracted to a particular studio. They were prize assets. The nature of this arrangement logically entailed the cultivation of a certain brand, a personality, a performance carried over from film to film.
I think it's fair to say that Actresses found themselves freer to be themselves and indeed encouraged to act with the force of their own individuality.
Now there is a compulsion, particularly in the pursuit of awards, to show one's versatility, to bury oneself in a part. Before, the Director would bend to their will (the will of the star's image) and any acting 'inadequacies' could be ironed out by the power of a dignified, natural charisma
I am dismayed by the absence of intelligence, of poetry and, most of all, wit in recent Cinema. It is preoccupied with the visual and the political but not with the most verdant, fecund landscape of all - language.
One no longer reveals character through a phrase turned as elegantly as a cabriole leg. One no longer lets the character free, or lets the actress revel in a game of verbal oneupmanship.
Concepts of Beauty and Femininity
The women of Golden Age cinema, even when they were being grabbed, shaken or slapped, were strong. Their presence was strong. Supremacy was less important. Self-control and self-knowledge.
Female characters weren't loaded with the baggage of the politics of employment, motherhood, relationships. It was all there, beneath the surface, but what counted for something was the woman at hand, not what she stood for.
Beauty was in the temperament. In 21st Century Cinematic parlance pretty and sexy are purely visual terms. In the Golden Age they were about spirit, where the tangible slips into the intangible - the way they spoke, the way they walked, what they made of themselves. In the eyes of Directors today, people are commodities, tropes, archetypes. Characters are tokens to be pushed into a slot machine. The heart and soul tumbles out with the cash.
In the Forties there was an inner class, a humanity, to the most classless of creatures. In the phrase Femme Fatale people may believe the accent is on Fatale. It isn't. It's on Femme.
A Distorted 21st Century Perspective?
It can be argued that a fair comparison cannot be made by someone of my age, someone who hasn't lived through both periods. While it is possible that I am unwitting prey to the way in which Golden Age Cinema has become inextricably synonymous with star power, I think there is more to it than a second-hand Pavlovian response.
You see, new films can replicate the look, the colour, the music, maybe even the mood. They cannot, even with the utmost care, replicate the star quality of those actresses. I am not wearing rose-tinted glasses.
It was a combination of things that made the stars shine brighter. It could simply have been that the culture and the society of that time created these personalities, personalities that the studios could turn into icons, icons that the Directors and the Ad Men could sculpt into legends.
I look about me now and I see only a couple of stars, and they 'imported' into Hollywood. They have the talent and the verve, the charisma and the style. They are the only ones who may yet be remembered in 7o years time by their first names: