Friday, March 23, 2012

Nearer the Bound of Life

This post is a contribution to the March in March Blogathon hosted by Jill at the excellent classic movie blog, Sittin' on a Backyard Fence. The blogathon celebrates the career of Fredric March. Please check out all the excellent contributions so far.

A little over twenty years ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance about acting. Both of us were involved in theatre and the conversation turned to those actors we most admired. I mentioned several but only one elicited a response that took me aback: Fredric March. The mention of his name evoked the response, "Who's Fredric March?" This was a fellow actor and I couldn't believe he didn't know March but he didn't and twenty years later probably do fewer still. Somehow, I don't think that would have bothered March.

What mattered to Fredric March, and what matters most to fans of great acting everywhere, is the performance. Fredric March didn't give bad performances because Fredric March didn't give false performances. He didn't engage in elaborate constructs like fellow actor Paul Muni to convince us of the sincerity of the performance. He simply gave a performance, sincerely. There's a difference.

Paul Muni, make no mistake, was a great actor. He employed accents and make-up and mannerisms and all form of other tools he felt necessary to make the character work for him and thus, work for us, the audience. That's something to admire and as an actor, I've long admired Muni for just that. But March didn't go that route. Of course, he employed an accent on occasion and certainly used make-up for some of his most famous roles (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Inherit the Wind) but for the overwhelming majority of them, he used the most necessary and simple tool he possessed, his sincerity. Fredric March didn't become the character; the character became him. This has always been, in my experience, the best way to wring a testament of truth from a character: Make it personal.

What do I mean?

Let's say Fredric March had been given the role made famous by Muni in Scarface, the lead role of Tony. While we can all agree March's look and stature would have worked against such strange casting I use it simply as an example of an actor making the character himself and not the other way around. March would not have wondered how Tony talked or walked or acted out his desires. March would not have cared how a small-time hood would deal with sudden power and wealth. March would have, instead, asked himself, "What if things had worked out differently for me and I had been a small time hood? How would I deal with this? How would I act and talk and walk and carry myself?" Once an actor makes the character himself, rather than the other way around, the actor instantly knows the character to his very soul. It is bound up to the life of the actor, inextricably.

Throughout his career, March played characters that could have been him under different circumstances: Al Stephenson, the returning veteran from World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives who sinks into alcoholism feels like Fredric March showing us an honest portrayal of how he would be under the same circumstances. His characters in so many movies, from I Married a Witch to Executive Suite, whether the character was good or bad, felt like March and that honesty sometimes made us confuse the character for the man himself. In The Desperate Hours, held hostage with his family in his own home, he does what he can to survive and save them. He isn't heroic and he isn't a coward, just an average man trying to deal with an uncommonly anxiety-ridden situation. Separating March from the character is almost impossible.

March did step outside these boundaries on occasion. His method wasn't an all-or-nothing equation. Playing a character like Mr. Hyde requires something more, it's true, but still the actor can imagine himself turning into a monster rather than imagining what a monster would be. Here, too, March feels true to the character. It feels like a man who has let all inhibition, all common decency, all consideration of the social contract purge from his system as he devolves into the worst of his primal instincts. It's hard to imagine Fredric March, the man, acting so monstrously but there he is, just as he is with all the other characters.

Later in his career, Fredric March walked into one his greatest and yet least celebrated roles, that of President Jordan Lyman in the expertly done thriller, Seven Days in May. That Lyman's decency, sense of fairness, intelligence and compassion feel completely at home in the body of Fredric March is a testament to how finely March had honed his craft. When Lyman scolds would-be usurper General Scott (Burt Lancaster) it may just as well be March himself giving someone a lesson in decency. It seemed the culmination of the decency he brought to bear upon his minister William Spence in 1941's One Foot in Heaven, and one could easily imagine Spence and Lyman as the same character, separated only by time and career.

Fredric March achieved more than most actors in the history of film and he achieved this by not achieving eternal superstar status. Not being a superstar allowed March the luxury of playing roles honestly and sincerely and true to his soul, even if that meant exploring the dark side of that ethereal region. He didn't have to worry about audience expectations, aside from expecting a great performance. But playing roles in such a direct and honest way while affecting no method or manner to entice the masses also meant that being a superstar never stood much of a chance anyway.

So when I think back to that day my partner in conversation expressed ignorance of March's career I can't be disheartened. You see, when I named Inherit the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my acquaintance did know March, he just didn't know the name behind all those brilliant portrayals. I think Fredric March would have laughed at the knowledge that his name didn't evoke any recognition but that his performances did, and when viewed by anyone, fan or first-time viewer, still hold up as some of the most beautifully expressed realizations of characters the silver screen has to offer. March probably would have smiled gently and thought to himself, "I did my job."