Destiny Calls: Defining Roles

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Contributed by Greg Orypeck

      Over the years, especially since actors began to talk, there has been a general consensus among both movie-goers and critics that certain stars, able to submerge themselves in the personalities of an historical or fictional character, become entirely transformed—new—individuals.  Bordering on a cliché, but true nonetheless, they were “born to play” their parts.

      These roles are forever thereafter associated with them, and all subsequent attempts by other stars pale by comparison.  In some cases, an individual star/role may be unsurpassed, even unchallenged; occasionally, as with F. Murray Abraham’s portrayal of Salieri in Amadeus, though it rates the “born to play” category, a star may rise from obscurity for just one moment of glory.

      How many “born to play” stars come to mind?  Fifty, maybe?  Hardly.  Far less.

      First, the elimination from the running of those who, though Oscar winners, were simply playing themselves, however well: Gary Cooper in Sergeant York (was he not just as good in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town?), Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry (conceivably, Spencer Tracy seared us more that year in Inherit the Wind) and Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (James Stewart’s absolute best role in Anatomy of a Murder topped Heston’s standard stiff mannerisms and stony expressions).

      The stars who transcended their own psyches to create once-in-a-lifetime roles might be numbered on the fingers of two hands, depending upon how severe the criterion.  Among the possibilities, there are—and we speak, always, in the present tense, since these stars live and breathe on film—Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. and Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons, to name two.  Olivia de Havilland rightly won an Oscar for The Heiress, a broader, more three-dimensional role than her nominated Melanie in Gone with the Wind.  Orson Welles was nominated for Citizen Kane but did not win.  He should have.  The list, if not endless, is varied and tantalizing—and some deserving stars were not even Oscar-nominated.

      For the moment, and for this one view, the approach of a star per decade, from the 1930s to the ’70s, does narrow the list, with maybe a doubling in some decades.

      1930s   The ’30s?  Hey!  Can there be any doubt?  Who comes to mind?  Especially for women and lovers of soap operas on the grandest scale.  The obvious: Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.  Her Scarlet O’Hara—originally named “Pansy” in the book—is strong-willed, even for, in reality, a frail, diminutive, not always healthy English woman who had dreamed of playing the Southern belle, and had read and reread the book before coming to Hollywood.  In her second scene—with Thomas Mitchell, her father in the film—she appears weak and simpering at the prospect of losing a beau.  But that night, during family prayers, she abruptly becomes adamant and resolute—and remains so for the remainder of the film, maintaining that selfish, proud, deceitful, coquettish, materialistic, charming, self-centered nature that disgusted and shocked family and fascinated and disarmed her male admirers.  Leigh may be the quintessential example of a star born to play a role.

      GWTW was a product of that unsurpassed year of great films, 1939.  Before examining the next decade, in that same year there was, not one, but, in fact, two films which solidified the career of an actor who became the ideal Sherlock Holmes and came the closest, many think, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s image of his detective creation.  The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes thrust into movie history, almost casually by 20th Century-Fox, the personage of Basil Rathbone.  Despite having already established himself as one of filmdom’s greatest villains (in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood), his incisive diction, calm demeanor, intelligent delivery, even his dramatic profile, lent credence to his becoming, after all, Sherlock Holmes himself, in the flesh.

      1940s  –  From the abundant choices of “born-to-play” roles in the ’40s, Humphrey Bogart’s defining moment comes rather early in the decade, in 1941.  His Rick in Casablancahas earned him immortality, he was nominated for The Caine Mutiny and won an Oscar for The African Queen.  But, no, his archetypal role is in The Maltese Falcon, still the greatest detective film, even if some feel his Sam Spade is an extension, to a degree, of his gangster roles of the ’30s.  Thanks to an irresistible supporting trio of Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, screenplay and direction by John Huston and cinematographer Arthur Edeson, Bogart and the film, both, practically jump from the screen.

      1950s   1954 was not, generally, a banner year for Hollywood.  People had begun to watch TV, and two films, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Three Coins in the Fountain didn’t deserve Oscar nominations, especially when a film like Rear Window was overlooked.  And another effort, better than either of these “number” flicks, features a character who dominates the action—and action there is in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  The subtlety of James Mason’s Captain Nemo, his subdued gestures, his commanding presence and that habit of entering a room like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (or, more accurately, suddenly “being there”) are every bit superior to Kirk Douglas’ in-your-face flamboyance.  Although that year Mason was nominated for A Star Is Born (losing to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront), the Englishman’s powerful, underplayed acting as one of those evil intellectuals has sadly been overlooked by practically everyone, perhaps because, “Hey!  A Walt Disney movie?  Since when is a Disney movie supposed to be taken seriously?”

      1960s   The 1960s was a decade of extremes.  On the one hand, there were Oscar winners whose credentials were definitely suspect: Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, 60), for the reason already suggested; Cliff Robertson for Charly (68) in deference to Peter O’Toole’s The Lion in Winter, though shouting often passed for acting; Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8 (60), a role she didn’t relish and an Oscar given out of sympathy for her near-fatal illness; and Katharine Hepburn’s first award of the decade, for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (67), though the best actress category was not especially strong that year.  On the other hand, there were legitimate and deserving winners: Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night (67), only marginally out-acting Sidney Portier, who wasn’t nominated for the film, though Portier had won four years earlier for Lilies of the Field.  And, too, Patricia Neal for Hud (63) and, again, Hepburn, now for her tragic role in The Lion in Winter, both deserved their Oscars. 

      Admitted, a roundabout introduction to a “born-to-play” role of the ’60s, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (62).  Never regarded, and perhaps rightly so, as an actor of great depth or dimension, though he attempted diversity, Peck the man off screen, the persona which came across so forcefully on screen, provided a basis for the character he played, a father who quietly taught his two children the need for dignity and integrity, qualities of the actor himself.  Like the citizens in High Noon who passed their responsibility to Gary Cooper, the judge (Paul Fix) in Mockingbird passes to Atticus the responsibility of defending a black man.  In each scene, Atticus conveys the love and compassion necessary to raise Scout and Jem, teaching them the pitfalls of bigotry, the simplicity of not hurting others, like Mr. Cunningham’s payback of the collard greens, the quiet strength of hidden talents, like his shooting the rabid dog, and that, after all, “ . . . it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

      1970s   When asked by a chaplain if he found time to read the Bible beside his bed, the title character replies, “Every goddamn day!”  Thus, yes, the ’70s are off with a bang the second year—and larger than life are both General George S. Patton and the man who plays him, George C. Scott.  Not truly a “war movie,” Patton is a big-canvas portrait of the flamboyant WWII personality whose words shock and whose phrases ring grandiose.  “I thought I’d stand up here and let you people see if I am as big a son of a bitch as some of you people think I am!”  “If we’re not victorious, let no one come back alive!”  “Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whore house would carry a pearl-handle pistol.”  “All my life I’ve wanted to lead a lot of men in a desperate battle.”  Nothing more be said, except: Scott dominates the film as few actors have.


    At the risk of anticlimax, a parting nod to two more stars who created once-in-lifetime roles, one who was Oscar-nominated repeatedly and another who never was.  Their respective roles were about the sea and roughly the same historical period.  Charles Laughton was nominated for his dastardly Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (35).  Robert Newton, who went to sea for Walt Disney as the “sea-cook” in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (50), became immortal as Long John Silver, the prototype pirate, the ruffian of the cocked head, the rolling, squinted eyes, the crooked jaw and the rag-toned voice, which is, as well, an appropriate end to the foregoing: