Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A Double Life: A Review (Review #1740)



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Ronald Colman.

Long before the Method style of acting became embraced, if not abused, by generations of actors, the idea of getting too much in character was brought to life in A Double Life. With eerie effectiveness both in front and behind the camera, A Double Life weaves its story of madness and murder exceptionally well.

Anthony John is a Broadway legend best described by others thus: "he's a good actor but he's no good". No one questions his talent. It is his inability to separate himself from his roles that makes him both brilliant and maddening. He's fine when playing comic roles such as in his latest hit, A Gentleman's Gentleman. However, John is now offered the lead in Othello, which has him worried.

Also worried is his ex-wife and acting partner Brita (Signe Hasso). They've maintained a good working relationship on stage and are friends off. She, however, knows that John can get too involved in his performances to where fact and fiction blend into his reality. Despite some misgivings, John agrees to play the Moor of Venice, much to the delight of his press agent, Bill Friend (Edmond O'Brien). John, for his part, has taken to Pat (Shelley Winters), a pretty, somewhat tartish waitress he is starting a romance with.

It is not long before Anthony John has another triumph on the Great White Way, with Brita as his Desdemona. It's such a wild success that the show is extended going on two years. However, John is slowly becoming Othello to a dangerous degree. Growing more jealous of Bill's not-so-secret love for Brita, John once comes close to literally murdering Brita on stage to an unsuspecting audience and a terrified ex-wife. Will John's growing inability to separate stage from self in turn lead to murder? 

There is a story about the making of Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman, very versed in the Method, allegedly stayed up awake for days to replicate what a deeply sleep-deprived man would experience. His costar, the anti-Method actor Laurence Olivier, reported told him, "My dear boy, why don't you try acting?". One might imagine an actor like Anthony John being more from the Laurence Olivier school. He would unlikely be so into character that he would run around murdering people to experience what Othello went through.

However, Anthony John is already a troubled person who has managed to channel his mental health issues on the stage. A Double Life reveals that for some, reality and fantasy can easily blend dangerously close together. We see this both in George Cukor's directing and Ronald Colman's performance. More than once does Cukor show Anthony John facing his reflection, an overt symbol of John's growing split with himself. Cukor also uses sound effects and voiceovers exceptionally effectively in the film. Both reflect John's growing instability along with his understanding that he is losing his grip on reality.

We see this when during a montage of John fleeing into the night after a row with Brita, he hears his own thoughts mixing with his Othello lines. Soon to John, he is no longer able to tell which ideas are his and which are his character's. It is not often that someone acting via voiceover works. Here though, Colman and Cukor did brilliantly in bringing that to life. Colman's voice, separate from his mouth, but also coupled with his face show the man coming apart. As he himself says in a long montage of how Othello is coming together, "You're two men now, grappling with control".

A Double Life is surprisingly modern in its take on actors giving themselves too much to their roles. The scene where John is so lost in character that he starts to literally strangle Desdemona/Brita is a fine piece of acting from both Colman and Hasso. To be fair, I think Hasso at times was more theatrical than I think she should have been. However, as she played a theater actress, I can allow for a little leeway.

A Double Life is certainly a showcase for Ronald Colman, who won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance. He not only plays the disintegrating Anthony John, but also plays both Othello and the lead in the faux comedy A Gentleman's Gentleman. He does exceptionally well in all the roles he plays, his face and voice working to bring the viewer fully in. 

The Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin script has a little bit of this comedy performed on the stage, and it's a curious thing that the fake play looks rather good. Here, Colman is light and amusing as the manservant who manages to elegantly run off with an elegant lady. Colman and Cukor did an interesting thing when Pat is in danger. As John's grip is undone, he does not rage or go on a tirade. Instead, it is a quiet madness that overtakes him. Colman's performance and Cukor's direction make this sequence effective and terrifying.

Shelley Winters for years claimed to have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for A Double Life until future Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne corrected her on the Dinah Shore daytime show Dinah!. A slightly dotty Winters replied, "Are you sure?". While I would have said her part was rather small, she did well as this somewhat trashy but ultimately tragic figure. 

The film also even allows for a bit of comedy, such as when actresses are auditioned to impersonate someone else. It's amusing to see how these three women despite the seriousness of the situation are concentrating only on selling their abilities to those trying to prove John is dangerous. Another scene with cynical reporters reporting on crime also reveals that A Double Life does have elements of black comedy.

A last point is Miklos Rosza's Oscar-winning score. In turns moody and modern, shifting from traditional pseudo-Elizabethan music to almost noir like, the score worked in tandem with the sound effects brilliantly.

A Double Life is a brilliant film on the dangers of going full Method when acting. 


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