In my most recent little squabble with the commenter Fuzzy Bastard, he brought up, albeit in a fashion that initially vexed me, an interesting point about moviegoers and/or cinephiles conflating well-known actors with the parts they play, and, further in the case of an actor-turned-director such as Clint Eastwood, conflating their varied screen personas with their perceived filmmaking virtues. This is a theme that is not without interest, and it's certainly a knotty one, and it's one that gains complication if one has worked successfully as a film journalist, which on occasion provides opportunities to have some sort of social or quasi-social interaction with the "real" "people" who are these actors and directors.
Would we be as impressed with Eastwood's directorial work had he never acted, and had he, in real life, say, looked and spoken like his mentor Don Siegel? Or his other mentor Sergio Leone? In several respects the point is moot. In other respects, I can't help but believe that a picture such as Bird, as objectively wonderful as it is, gains something in aura by having been directed by Eastwood as we "know" him. And Eastwood as we "know" him is not just defined by the glimpses of penetrating intelligence and movie love that we get in interviews with him, but by the roles he's played. A friend recently pointed me to a little website which invites its viewers to imagine what certain famous films might have looked like had they ended up with the casts originally envisioned for them; and here we are reminded that Frank Sinatra was supposed to have been the man to play "Dirty" Harry Callahan. It's easy enough (in part courtesy of Sinatra's Tony Rome films) to imagine Old Blue Eyes pronouncing the San Francisco detective's choicer bits of dialogue. But still. All of these factors enable a particular kind of familiarity to take hold of our imaginations concerning Eastwood. Whereas an actor such as Robert DeNiro remains dauntingly opaque as a human being, in spite of having directed two films that can only be considered personal projects. Here's where one's—well, specifically in this case, my own—experience as a journalist affects my perception; I've attended one or two private or semi-private social events at which DeNiro was obligated to speak, or glad hand a bit, and the thing that came across most palpably was his extreme discomfort with his circumstances. One sensed a person who was not a social animal, and perhaps someone who was only truly at home when working. One also sensed that to speculate any further would be to enter a realm of pop-psych fatuity that is the inevitable swamp nearly every journalist unlucky enough to be assigned to profile DeNiro wades into.
One cannot, then, necessarily "see" Travis Bickle or Jimmy Conway in the person of DeNiro the way one can see, or choose to see, Harry Callahan or Ben Shockley or Red Garnett in Eastwood. In a recent blog post about the recent Tom Cruise actioner Knight and Day, Richard Brody notes that the film "looks back longingly at an actor who was made to fill the role—the Tom Cruise of yesteryear. And I suspect the movie's commercial failure is due, in large measure, to the gap between that earlier Cruise and the one present here, both on- and off-screen." Brody then cites another everything's-gone-to-hell article by his colleague David Denby (not available in its entirety online except to New Yorker subscribers), bemoaning a time when, as Brody puts it, "actors used to be"—hey, here's that word again—"opaque." Perhaps so, but just because moviegoers have a great deal of access to information about Tom Cruise's unusual private life, does that mean that they actually "know" Tom Cruise? I don't believe so. The Tom Cruise in our mind is just as much of a construct as the Humphrey Bogart of moviegoers' minds in the '40s was; it's just a noisier construct. Our senses of what movie stars are "really" "like" is still mostly a matter of what we choose to believe about them, not what we "actually" "know." You listen to the Mel Gibson tapes and hear an out-of-control, bigoted, woman-hating bully. I hear that too, but I also think I hear a possibly dry alcoholic stuck in an anger loop that he's not even close to beginning to get a handle on, and I find him an object of some pity rather than indignation. In both cases we're making judgments based on what's at hand. And what's at hand is what's been delivered to us.
I was talking about this sort of thing with my friends and fellow bloggers David Cairns and The Self-Styled Siren the other night, and Terence Stamp came up. I met Stamp for the first and, I think, only time in Toronto in 1999, where he was promoting his film with Steven Soderbergh, The Limey. Stamp was shorter than I had imagined him (with a handful of exceptions—Eastwood, Liam Neeson, Robert Plant—almost all celebrities are) but was massively impressive in every other respect. His bearing was almost regal, his clothing natty but casual. His voice was a subdued deep boom, something of a shock to hear coming from his compact frame. There was something genuinely magisterial about him. He was terrifically friendly, or gave the impression of being terrifically friendly as he did what was his job at that moment, which was to work, as it were, the room; this was a party that was thrown by Premiere magazine and attended by various representatives of local and international media and he was, you know, plugging a film that was giving him an opportunity to make something of a, you know, artistic impression after a (brief, admittedly) string of not-entirely-distinguished pictures. I asked him, of course, about working with Fellini on Toby Dammit, some wonky stuff about the English-dialogue version of the not-quite-feature (it's an episode in the very mixed Poe anthology picture Spirits of the Dead),and he spoke, warmly about doing some improvisation for his character, a shagged-out proto-punk film star on a continental junket and date with doom. In any event, there was something so very definite and alive about his personal self-presentation that one got an entirely different sense than one might get in the presence of an Eastwood, or of a DeNiro; a sense not quite of a puppet-master of characters—for one thing, Stamp is not that chameleonic of an actor—but rather the sense of a benign artistic deity who gifts us with these manifestations of himself that are not quite the authentic thing but which wouldn't throb with the kind of life that they do were it not for the animating presence of the Real behind it. One felt, with Stamp, that there was a genuine there there. Whereas, to invoke another international star, the more you "know" of Alain Delon, the more you sense that he's just an unpleasant dumb lug that the camera once loved very much.