Thursday, June 25, 2009

Best Actress Of 1928-29, Part Two: And The Winner Is ...

[To read Part One of this essay, click here.]

So who was the best actress of 1928-29, Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc or Lillian Gish in The Wind?

As I was saying yesterday, movies are such a collaborative process that trying to figure out where one person's contribution ends and another's begins is as difficult as trying to separate out the ingredients of a cake once it's been in the oven. We look at what we think we see on the screen, we read (often self-serving) anecdotes from the set and we make some guesses.

In close cases like this, it helps (to my mind) to look at the actor's work in other movies, with other crews and directors, a process of triangulation if you will, and if you keep seeing great work from an actor regardless of the director, script, editor, etc., then maybe you're looking at a great actor. So while it is certainly true, for example, that the director and editor had a great deal to say about what work of Brando's showed up in On The Waterfront, I'm comfortable in saying based on the whole of his career that Brando was a great actor (at least when he wasn't phoning it in, that is).

When I read behind the scenes stories of The Passion of Joan of Arc and The Wind and I look at the careers of Maria Falconetti and Lillian Gish, this is what I see:

Maria Falconetti's work on The Passion of Joan of Arc, while great, was the only significant film appearance of her career and was collaborative only in the sense that director Carl Dreyer said, "Give me tears," and she gave him tears or said, "Be a saint," and she was a saint. While the character works brilliantly, it was Dreyer calling the shots and it was Dreyer who assembled the performance in the editing room out the raw footage. Falconetti made no speeches (obviously), appeared in no long scenes that revealed shifts in character, had limited interactions with her fellow actors. She may well have been a brilliant actress but she had no real opportunity to prove it here and since she made no other feature-length movies, it's impossible to draw any inferences about her talent.

Gish, on the other hand, who turned in more great performances in more great movies during the Silent Era than anybody else, and then after her return to the big screen in the 1940s, continued to give great performances until her retirement in 1987, gave the best performance of her career in The Wind.

The Wind rests on Gish's shoulders in a way that The Passion of Joan of Arc never rests on Falconetti's. While legendary writer Frances Marion laid out the psychological components of the story in her screenplay, without Gish on screen to convey that psychology with a single look—for example, a glance that reveals her desperation, knowing she's not welcome in the house of a childhood friend when the only other choices are a loveless marriage or death in the desert—the story as it plays out would make no sense.

I don't have to draw inferences about her talent—her talent is an established fact.

Gish was also stretching herself as an actress in The Wind. She commissioned the project in part to play with her established screen image. For years, as D.W. Griffith's favorite actress, Gish played the passive victim of any variety of men looking to relieve her of her treasured virginity. In The Wind, perhaps the single biggest threat to Gish's virginity is her own desire, a marked departure from her established screen image. And to see Gish—not just the character she plays, but the artist and the actress—choose to take up a gun and kill an attacker after all those years of playing the long-suffering, passive victim is liberating in a way Thelma and Louise only pretended to be.

The auteur theory holds that it is the director who is the author of a movie. It's a popular theory that has shaped film criticism for decades now, but it's one of those theories that is more normative than descriptive (i.e., recommending what should be rather than describing what is), for in motion picture history, movies have in fact born the stamp of any number of people involved in their creation—producers (David O. Selznick), writers (Paddy Chayefsky), actors (Fred Astaire) and yes, directors (Alfred Hitchcock).

In the case of The Wind, the driving force behind the movie and the hand controlling every aspect of its production was clearly Lillian Gish. Gish alone picked the director, the stars and the story. She alone decided to take her screen image and play with it and deepen it. And she alone was the one who signed off on the final product and paid the price with her career when The Wind failed at the box office despite its creative brilliance.

Frances Marion later said of Lillian Gish, "She might look fragile, but physically and spiritually she was as fragile as a steel rod. Nobody could sway her from her self-appointed course. With a Botticelli face, she had the mind of a good Queen Bess, dictating her carefully thought-out policies and ruling justly, if firmly."

Am I giving Gish credit as an actress because of her role as a producer? Probably, but why not? Her choices as producer help reveal the choices she made as an actress—that process of triangulation again, trying to separate the sugar from the flour of the baked cake.

So my choice for best actress of 1928-29 is Lillian Gish in The Wind. For me, I would rather reward Gish for the most complete performance of a long career than Falconetti for what is in fact a one-hit wonder, no matter how great that one hit was.

Note: As I have said, despite its brilliance, The Wind was a box office flop. This was no doubt due in large part to the arrival of sound movies. But silent era actress turned film historian Louise Brooks also believed there was a concerted Hollywood effort to destroy Lillian Gish's reputation and box-office appeal and that a box office was exactly what the studio was hoping for. It was a simple matter of economics, says Brooks. Gish was making $400,000 a year and had complete creative control of her career. Emerging star Greta Garbo was making $16,000 and wholly dependent on the studio to solve the visa problems that would allow her to work. Brooks lays out evidence of the studio's manipulation and then posits the studio was tired of paying big money to an actress with the power to map her own career when it could pay a younger actress a lot less money to do exactly what it wanted.

Ironically, the studio eventually did to Garbo what it had done to Gish—undercut her career when cheaper actresses came along.

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