Consider Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda in “Youth,” Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in “45 Years” and Sylvester Stallone reprising his iconic character of Rocky Balboa in “Creed.” These performances all struck me with particular force when I realized that I had been watching some of these actors (Stallone, Keitel) for 40 years and some of them (Caine, Fonda, Courtenay, Rampling) for 50 years as a fan and a critic.
“Youth” struck a chord in particular, with its portrait of aging artists digesting the fact that, with their careers essentially behind them, their memories are all that connect them to their best days. Stallone’s aging version of Rocky, in Ryan Coogler’s gripping re-ignition of that saga, must confront the short road before him, when it becomes even shorter.
I watched these films as someone who, as a teen, discovered Fonda, Courtenay and Caine when they all had movies come out the same year, and Rampling the year after. In 1965, Fonda played a comic ingenue in “Cat Ballou” and Caine burst on to the scene as an example of new British cool in both “Alfie” and “The Ipcress File.” Courtenay had already hit in 1963’s “Billy Liar,” a film I’d read about (but which didn’t play in Minneapolis where I was teen), then showed up in “Dr. Zhivago,” while Rampling strolled on to the scene in “Georgy Girl” in 1966.
Which led to a question I asked a colleague about half my age: What did an actor like Caine mean to him, as someone who probably became aware of Caine (now 82) when he was mid-late-career? I remember Caine as a hot actor emerging from swinging London in the sixties, who blossomed into a strong leading man of the late 1960s and early seventies.
But I also remember him wandering in the wilderness of the seventies and eighties, cranking out film after film (to the point that, for a while, it was a running joke with critics). For every performance in a film as good as Brian DePalma’s “Dressed to Kill,” he had three more in dross like Oliver Stone’s “The Hand,” before winning his first Oscar in 1987 for Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
My colleague observed that, of course, he was familiar with Caine’s whole career, because he’d studied Caine’s filmography on video. Which is valid on an academic or critical level, but less on a personal one. Because watching a movie is always a personal experience. Movies don’t exist in a vacuum, particularly the ones we see as they arrive newly minted at the multiplex and arthouse.
Studying an actor’s work from an archival perspective misses an element that comes from watching an actor’s career in real time. That was brought home to me while watching yet another recent film, the documentary “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words.”
By the time I really started paying attention to movies in the mid-sixties, Ingrid Bergman had all but aged out of Hollywood. Though she played a middle-aged love interest for Walter Matthau in 1969’s “Cactus Flower,” she mostly played matrons after that — when she cared to engage with Hollywood at all. As a film buff, I had watched her youthful work — “Casablanca,” “Notorious,” “Spellbound” — and admired her blend of warmth, vulnerability, strength, independence and intelligence.
But her life, which fed her work, was just something I read about in a biography. While I knew she had provoked a worldwide scandal by leaving her husband and children for film director Roberto Rossellini, I never considered the impact those events had on her in their time.
Based on this documentary, you see just how impactful it was: She became an international press sensation, as she left Hollywood behind to live in Europe with her new lover and then husband. And, as revealed by excerpts from Bergman’s own diaries that form part of this documentary’s narration, she underwent an overwhelming and isolating experience, but also a freeing one.
These days, of course, the romantic entanglements of the famous elbow each other for space on the covers of celebrity magazines on a weekly basis. Even the big ones attract our attention for briefer and briefer spans.
If you don’t believe that’s true, consider the romantic life of Brad Pitt. His relationship and breakup from Gwyneth Paltrow was in the headlines for months around the turn of the millennium. His subsequent marriage to Jennifer Aniston — and their divorce when he left her to partner with Angelina Jolie — fed infotainment shows, magazines and websites for almost a year.
Will film scholars in the future, if they study Pitt or Jolie, understand how these events fed interest in and perception of their screen images when these movies first played? Not unless they’re old enough to remember that these things were going on while they were making specific movies (such as “Mr. and Mrs. Jones”). And so it is with Ingrid Bergman — and Michael Caine and Jane Fonda and Charlotte Rampling.
I can remember, as a teen, having a friend of my parents patiently try to explain to me why Rita Hayworth was considered a sex symbol in her day, but I didn’t get it. To me, at 16, having just watched “Gilda” on television for the first time, she was black and white, part of the past, someone my parents’ age or older. I couldn’t relate to her in a flesh-and-blood hormonal way because I lacked the imagination. It was a little like the way I learned to appreciate Marilyn Monroe’s appeal the older I got.
To him, 20 years older than me remembering his younger and more testosterone-laced self, she was the smoldering goddess he fantasized about as a kid, waiting for her next movie. I’ve subsequently developed that kind of appreciation for Hayworth, but she’ll never be alive to me in the same way she was to him.
Today I look at actresses like Julie Christie or Charlotte Rampling and still see the dewy, impulsive younger versions that beguiled me as a teen — just as, I’m sure, my younger colleagues will someday look at Jolie, Scarlett Johansson or Uma Thurman, if they act into their late 60s, and forever see Lara Croft, the Black Widow and Miss Mia Wallace.
The work of artists has context in their lives, but also in ours. The perspective we bring to a new movie by an old favorite often depends on just how old that favorite is.
Marshall Fine is film/TV critic for Star magazine and critic-in-residence at The Picture House in Pelham, NY.
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