Thursday, May 31, 2012

White by you (get it? bayou? see what I did there?)

  Elia Kazan almost completely dismissed his studio films made prior to Panic In The Streets (1950), but Pinky (1949) deserves better, and certainly is worthy of more attention than the cringe-inducing Gentlemen's Agreement (1948), the plot of which was summarized perfectly by one cynic (I paraphrase):  "Don't be mean to Jews, because they might turn out to be Gregory Peck."

But indoors or out, Kazan put his trust in actors, even when he didn't care for them or their training, and he was almost always repaid for that trust.  Pinky might be the great exception.  In the book-length interview Kazan:  The Master Director Discusses His Films, Kazan talks about his pleasure in working with Ethel Barrymore, how he learned to overcome Ethel Waters's hostility and racism, and his disappointment at the blank quality of Jeanne Crain's performance.*  Crain, a lily-white young woman from Barstow playing a mixed-race woman from a Deep South backwater had neither professional nor personal resources to draw on to create her character.  Kazan is quite right, that her work has a blank quality.  But this is an example of his misapprehension of the quality of film acting.

Kazan liked strong, demonstrative actors like Brando, Dean and Clift.  They give carefully worked-out performances, with explicit psychological through-lines and subtexts.  Contrast them with the Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks actors -- John Wayne, James Stewart, Cary Grant.  We're not talking about charisma and star persona here, I'm talking about acting.  All of these actors have a sense of incompleteness in their acting, of something missing, unexplained, even undefined which is supplied by the audience.  They leave room for the film audience, which a tense and detailed actor like Clift never does.  Many of the best actors in film do work that was undetectable to the people watching them being filmed, that only the camera could see, actors such as Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo and Steve McQueen.

In Pinky, stage vets Barrymore and Waters are acting up a storm.  Paradoxically, Barrymore playing an imperious tyrant is far more charming and loveable than Waters as a sweet Aunt Jemima grandma.  Given that Barrymore was a nice person and Waters was not, this effect might be attributed to film's X-ray qualities.  But in both cases, the actresses are visibly, palpably acting.  Crain simply performs the actions, speaks the word the story requires.  The audience has the opportunity and ability to provide the emotion.  Moreover, it is only logical that a black woman who has spent her adult life passing as white would have developed a mask, a cosmic poker face; she would avoid displaying reactions that would be a telltale giveaway of her identity.  The suppression of her selfhood is the greatest tragedy of her situation.  Acting in the Actors Studio sense of the word would have damaged the film.

Yes, the picture is shot on obvious stages and Joe August's lighting is quite theatrical.  But it suits the folktale nature of the story -- there are aspects, questions of inheritance and the transfer of property that are pre-echoes of Ossie Davis's play Purlie Victorious, which is explicitly meant to ape the modes of folktale and fable.  Pinky may have arrived at that style by inertia and indirection, but that does not make the film's creative choices invalid. 

Pinky ought to be a lot more dated than it is.  I was especially impressed with the character of Pinky's white fiancee, played by William Lundigan, doing some of his best work.  The man is unafraid to be seen embracing and even kissing a woman who is perceived as black in her hometown, but is nonetheless eager to move to another city in which her racial identity can again be secret, and they can live "normal" lives.  The film is remarkably frank that there is no "normal" path for a black person who looks white, and that is, for the most part, as true (if for different reasons) in 2012 as in 1949.
* Kazan did not cast the film, having taken it over from John Ford as a favor to Darryl Zanuck.  Various reasons have been given for Ford's departure, from his disaffection with the script to clashes with Waters.  It was probably not racism, as Ford was a secret progressive, and made an explicitly anti-racism film, Sergeant Rutledge in 1960.

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