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Monday, November 5, 2007

Mingling With the Commoners, Part 2 (originally published 6/99)

In her biography of Orson Welles, Barbara Leaming says that Welles customarily used a specific phrase when speaking of movie stars with whom he was personally acquainted. To distinguish between their public persona and the private face they showed to friends, Welles would typically refer to their demeanor "in life." Speaking of a famous comic actor, for instance, Welles might say something like, "In life, he's actually quite a serious fellow."

Although we tend to think of them as remote figures sequestered on high Olympus (or Malibu Beach), the truth is that it isn't all that uncommon for regular folks like you and me to encounter movie stars in person. They can be found at book signings, premieres, and other special events happily greeting their public. What is rare, however, is the opportunity to come to know one of them "in life." That's the basis for "Notting Hill," the current Julia Roberts vehicle in which she plays a movie star who meets and falls in love with one of the common folk. As we saw last week, this idea of movie stars playing movie stars in personal encounters with everyday people has been the basis for many movies through the years. Here are a few more such titles to look for on video.

"Honolulu" (1939). In a sort of loose variation on "The Prince and the Pauper," Robert Young plays a dual role as movie star Brooks Mason and pineapple farmer George Smith. When the two men meet, they agree to take advantage of their striking resemblance by switching roles for a time. That way, George can experience the life of a movie star firsthand, substituting for Brooks on a personal appearance tour, while Brooks can take a break from the adulation of which he has grown tired. This pleasant comedy features George Burns and Gracie Allen in their last appearance onscreen together.

"On An Island With You" (1948). Returning to the Hawaiian Islands, where she had performed for the troops during the war, movie star Rosalind Reynolds (Esther Williams) is confronted by an ardent fan (played by Peter Lawford), one of the naval officers who had seen her live show. Refusing to be brushed off, he whisks her away to a small island, the one on which their paths had first crossed, where eventually she succumbs to his charms. The comic relief is supplied by Jimmy Durante.

"Singin' in the Rain" (1952). During this period of time, MGM made some of the most acclaimed and beloved musical films ever released. In the minds of many movie buffs, however, the absolute zenith was "Singin' in the Rain," which combined the talents of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds in front of the camera with the clever scripting of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and all under the direction of Stanley Donen, assisted by Gene Kelly. The film is set in Hollywood during the late Twenties, the period when talking pictures were brand new. Much of the film is devoted to broadly lampooning the rocky beginning of synchronized sound in the movies, from technical problems to the embarrassment of actors who didn't know how to speak lines properly. Needless to say, there is also a love story. Silent screen idol Don Lockwood (Kelly), meets and falls for Kathy Selden (Reynolds), a dancer who jumps out of cakes at parties.

"Sweet Bird of Youth" (1962). Tennessee Williams's sordid play about the relationship between a down-and-out small town gigolo and a fading movie star couldn't possibly have been translated directly to the screen during this time period, but writer-director Richard Brooks managed to tone down the material enough to get the film adaptation made, just as he had done with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" four years earlier. Despite the bowdlerization of Williams's story, this version is worth seeing on the strength of the outstanding performances of Geraldine Page as the movie star and Paul Newman as her lover.

Do stories such as these ever play out in real life? Not often, but it does happen. The real life romance between Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky, for example, makes the films I've mentioned here seem downright believable by comparison. All, that is, except "Sweet Bird of Youth." Real life, even the life of Elizabeth Taylor, cannot help but pale in comparison with the outlandish universe created by Tennessee Williams.

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