Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wanted, dead or alive

Watching Angel Heart once more, for the first time since I saw it in the theatre 21 years ago, I am struck by how completely Robert De Niro dominates his few scenes, saying almost nothing and quietly indifferent to Mickey Rourke's insouciance. It reminds me of what someone, perhaps Capote, once wrote after seeing Brando as Stanley Kowalski:

I can't explain how Brando, wordlessly, did what he did, but he had found a way, no doubt instinctively, to master a paradox—he had implicitly threatened us and then given us pardon. Here was Napoleon, here was Caesar, here was Roosevelt. Brando had not asked the members of the audience merely to love him; that is only charm. He had made them wish that he would deign to love them. That is a star. That is power, no different in its essence than the power that can lead nations.

One sees again why De Niro had been chosen to play the young Vito Corleone at age 31; indeed, the café scene with Rourke is rather too close a reference to De Niro's own scene with Gaston Moschin's Don Fanucci in Godfather II (it also reflects Rourke's giving Burt Young his comeuppance in The Pope of Greenwich Village). Of course, Rourke had already shown that he, too, knew how to steal a scene, in his cameo as Teddy the arsonist in Body Heat. Watching him warn William Hurt not to go down the path of ruin, I was convinced that I was seeing, not an actor but a real ex-convict whom they had cast for authenticity.

De Niro's Louis Cyphre of course reminds one also of the same sort of laconic and disdainful character in literature; for example, Du Maurier's Maxim De Winter (I was fascinated by Jeremy Brett's 1979 performance in the role and am sorry that it is not available on DVD) and George Eliot's Mallinger Grandcourt, the villain of her novel Daniel Deronda. For that matter, that character type provided a brief road to stardom for Jonathan Frid and David Selby in the late sixties Gothic soap, Dark Shadows.

The bad boy nature of the character continues to grip the imagination (though Bret Harte poked witty fun at it in Miss Mix, his short parody of Jane Eyre). Its latest incarnation is Edward, the undead hero of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series of novels. Caitlin Flanagan analyzes its preternatural appeal to thousands of teen girls, including her own pre-teen daughter, in the current Atlantic; Flanagan notes that these novels, which are apparently flying off the shelves faster than awakened bats, feature teen girls who don't text or use MySpace and a teen boy who loves a girl so much that he won't sleep with her, circumstances that, in today's culture, make one wonder if the characters are really in the next life already and simply don't realize it.

And speaking of the next life, RIP wealthy but unfortunate Martha von Bülow, dead today at 76 after lingering in a 28-year coma. It was a strange irony that a minor player in this real-life Gothic soap opera and tragedy was Alexandra Isles, who had appeared in Dark Shadows and was later Claus von Bülow's lover. For a fascinating portrayal of the rather strange character that is von Bülow, see Jeremy Irons's performance in Barbet Schroeder's 1990 film, Reversal of Fortune.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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