Essays (book reviews)

The Man in the Ironic Mask

Warren Beatty: A Life And A Story
by David Thomson
(London: Secker & Warburg, 1987)


The great show is as furtive, and as bound by loneliness, as every voyeur’s pleasure must be.

– David Thomson


I think there are two kinds of cinephiles, or perhaps two conflicting tendencies within every true cinephile soul. On the one hand, a deep attraction to states of solitude; and on the other, a celebration of community. The movies allow, and encourage, both tendencies. I can go home and have sad dreams about Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984) as if the film had been made only for me; and I can also whoop it up with the gore hounds at a matinee of Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987). I have a suspicion that, as critics become more dedicated and professional – as they alienate themselves from the mainstream theatre complex and end up dividing their time between secluded preview rooms, the VCR and the writing desk – melancholia inexorably sets in, and the whole experience of film becomes intensely privatised.


Of all the great writers on film, David Thomson seems to me also the most melancholic. He cultivates his sense of solitude and pursues it relentlessly through each film, motif or star that comes into his view. Whether writing about telephones or moustaches, Cary Grant or Warren Beatty, Wetherby (David Hare, 1985) or Mike’s Murder (James Bridges, 1984), Thomson sees in each the signs of a sad shadow play: lack of fulfilment, loss, separation, desperation. No matter what fleeting joy or whimsy flickers across the screen, for Thomson it is all ghosted by recognition of an unavoidable, solitary end. Although one could fairly object that Thomson ends up rigging most of his subjects in order to produce such a reading (and what film criticism doesn’t ultimately do just that?), there’s no doubt that he is the most eloquent spokesperson for the melancholic aspect of the filmgoing experience.


Prospective readers of Warren Beatty: A Life And A Story should be forewarned of that which Thomson lays on the table in the first few pages of the book: this is a biography by someone who has never met, spoken to or corresponded with his subject. Thomson’s trick, in fact, is to write about Beatty as if he is already dead. This corresponds to the book’s ideas about stardom and glamour alike: the screen actor as ghost, myth, blank screen upon which the viewer projects his or her own tortured desire. We cannot ever know the real Beatty; he exists only as a fiction of the imagination. This lengthy exploration by Thomson of the key tenets of what could justly be termed his theory of popular film – a theory of desire and imagination – will delight cinephiles in tune with this no-so-hidden agenda; but it may well disappoint readers in search of a more conventional (and conventionally informative) biography.


There are in fact two books in one – the life and a story, the latter being a novel which runs in alternate chapters with the biography. Thomson offers his story as a reflective counterpoint to Beatty’s life, “a part fit for him to play” (p. 5). It concerns a naïve outsider to the movie world, a writer named D, being brought into the mysterious, duplicitous kingdom of a reclusive superstar, Eyes. This literary gambit (or conceit) does not work as well as it should for Thomson; it weighs the book down mightily. The story is somewhat monotonous and lifeless – coming to it straight after reading Rudolph Wurlitzer’s not dissimilar novel about New Hollywood, Slow Fade, I found myself wondering whether it is a rule of the genre for the innocent narrator to have his cock sucked by the producer/star’s secretary by page 25.


In the context of the parallel parts, this story fails particularly insofar as, while trying to expand and delve more deeply into the themes thrown up by Beatty’s stardom (particularly the sinister Howard Hughes’ style secrecy), it ends up merely illustrating and re-iterating them, over and over.


Another reason the story doesn’t work is that, finally, I don’t think Thomson is too good at stories. He understands them and their magic – he even provides his own version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous “I’m just making pictures” lesson from The Last Tycoon (see Elia Kazan’s film rendition in 1976) – but his deepest sensibility lies elsewhere. For Thomson, rattling good yarns are only important for the moments of reflection they create, the pauses, the echoes. Movies always provide a sad revelation for him; he cherishes the dark, frozen moments of silent watching, waiting and listening. The cinema – and particularly that cinema based on a system of glamorous stars – is a spectacle of interiority, of private thoughts and hovering, luminous faces (here Thomson meets the very different theorist Jean Louis Schefer, for whom films reveal “the unknown centre of ourselves”).


The subject of this book is Beatty – rather than Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino – because he is an actor who “prefers to be invaded by the perplexity of a moment”, who arouses doubt and speculation whilst performing/being, rather than one who projects. Thomson is fond of the notion of worrying – and Beatty is someone who worries at his roles, rendering them strangely opaque and ghostlike.


It has to be said that, because of Thomson’s affinity for the pregnant, frozen moment, the most successful counterpoint he provides to the life is not the story but the immaculately selected and often tantalisingly mysterious still photographs – everything from Beatty’s face at its most inscrutable to haunted highway vistas.


The book comes equally alive when both the biography – and the numerous reflections on what it is to write biography – give way to what Thomson does best and what few biographers can do at all: the analysis of films. In a few brief pages, Thomson brings Lilith (Robert Rossen, 1964), The Parallax View (Alan J Pakula, 1974), Mickey One (Arthur Penn, 1964) and McCabe and Mrs Miller (Robert Altman, 1971) alive in ways, and from angles, that one has never read or imagined before. Thomson can grasp, in a truly exciting way, the interplay of an actor’s contribution, the part he or she has been called upon to play, the persona that has accrued to the star, and the total semantic field of the film as a film: where all this holds together and where it flies apart.


When it comes to the question of glamour in the cinema, I think there are (again) two traditions, two tendencies. The first would be signified for me by the chapter in Robert Benayoun’s book Buster Keaton called “The Mask of Glamour”, a letter of love truly without limits. For Benayoun, Keaton’s face is a mask, a perfect work of flesh, an imperishable image. Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale his infinite variety. In Alfred Appel Jr’s Signs of Life, on the other hand, a rather darker variation on the theme of the mask works itself out: the mask as façade, as the picture of Dorian Gray, the real decay and the genuine complexity lying beneath the surface.


Thomson falls somewhere between the two traditions, playing them off against each other. His story gives full vent to the grim ironies, the fatal contradictions of the condition of stardom. But his interest in the life is the emotion of someone fully seduced, who sees in the face of the actor and the fancy it inspires “the ultimate transcending of history”. For Thomson, transcendence, too, undoubtedly leads in the end to pure melancholia. But for me, for you? We are not through yet with the cultural complexities of desire and imagination.


© Adrian Martin 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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