Revisiting Some Classics

"The Fervent Years"

"The Fervent Years" by Harold Clurman

I’ve been revisiting some classics lately, works that I was first exposed to as a kid and have a newfound (or just different) appreciation for as an adult.

First up is The Fervent Years, Harold Clurman‘s seminal firsthand account of the rise and fall of the legendary Group Theatre. I had to read this for my acting class back at College # 1, and could not get through it – only read about, maybe, half of it before putting it down. Honestly, I thought it was the most sluggish, boring piece of crap. I understood, for historical purposes, why we were being asked to read about The Group, but didn’t know why we were being asked to plod through this snoozer. I brazenly suggested to my acting teacher that we read Elia Kazan’s autobiography – which I considered, at the time, to be a far livelier account of The Group years – instead. (Ah, I was such a precocious know-it-all in my youth.)

Since then I’ve developed a fascination with The Group and how they shaped 20th century theater, film, and everything else. Which has now prompted me, almost twenty years later, to give The Fervent Years a second chance. And, boy, am I glad I did. Whatever I once found tedious about this book has dissipated and given way to a keen, hungry eagerness to find out how and why they did it. (I also have an obsession with the idea of a national theater here in America, and The Group seems to be our most successful crack at that yet.)

Reading Clurman’s account of their story, it seems painfully obvious now why they failed: as my old directing teacher, Bob Moss, used to say, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” Clurman never should have been the managing director: that duty should have fallen to Cheryl Crawford, whose strengths were far more organizational than artistic. Clurman should have started directing The Group shows much sooner, since he seemed to be the organizational figurehead the company most looked up to and followed. Lee Strasberg, who directed most of The Group’s productions up until the emergence of Clifford Odets as their in-house playwright, arguably should have never been put in charge of people in any capacity except, maybe, the one he finally settled on: acting teacher/guru. (Strasberg was far too volatile and sensitive to be trusted with any kind of leadership. He was basically a snobby headcase with a superiority complex the size of Texas.) And The Group’s idealism and enthusiasm, despite being beneficial as a source of inspiration for them, proved to be just naive enough to be their undoing. A firmer governing hand from the leading triumverate of Clurman, Strasberg, and Crawford, and less involvement in matters of policy and management from the rest of The Group, might have sustained them longer. We’ll never know. Hindsight’s always 20/20 anyway.

But their story sure makes for a good read now. I chalk this up to a complete change in attitude on my part. The book hasn’t changed in the years since I first tried to read it – I have. I’ve beceome more patient, more inquisitive, in my old age. Plus, I’ve lived a little. When I first tried The Fervent Years as a teen I hadn’t lived at all (even though I thought I had). It’s amazing how much weight The Group’s story gains from the reader having a little life experience.

Their story also takes on a lot of meaning when one considers everything they accomplished after the company’s demise. The Group was responsible for the birth of The Actors Studio and the subsequent careers of Clurman, Strasberg, Kazan, Odets, Stella Adler, Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, and countless others. If you look at the collective post-Group contributions of these folks, and the influence they had on others, well…I mean, that’s pretty much the birth of post-war American theater and film right there. Who knows where we’d be now without these folks? Fucking incredible.

Paul Newman in "The Hustler"

Paul Newman in "The Hustler"

Another work that attains weightier significance with time is The Hustler, director Robert Rossen‘s 1961 drama about pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson. Eddie is, of course, played by the legendary Paul Newman, in what has since become an iconic performance. But I didn’t feel that way about it when I first saw it (once again, as a teen). Rather, I felt like I could see him “acting” instead of simply “being” or “doing.” In other words, I could see his technique plain as day – working, pushing, huffing, puffing – instead of the result of his technique creating an organic, convincing whole. (This was a common complaint I had about Newman’s early career performances, i.e. before he sprouted gray hair.) It was an obstacle that made it difficult for me believe him in anything prior to, say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Not to mention that my initial viewing of The Hustler, back in my high school days, didn’t move me at all. In a word: boring. I couldn’t see what all the hoopla was about – a stance made even more perplexing by the fact that The Color of Money, Martin Scorsese‘s 1986 sequel to The Hustler, was (and still is) one of very favorite movies of all time, and Newman’s performance in it is one of my favorite performances by anyone in anything. For me, The Color of Money was everything that The Hustler wasn’t: confident, forceful, clear, subtle, layered storytelling.

Well, after recently giving The Hustler a second chance, I hereby rescind my previous opinion of it. And I may have to reconsider Newman’s pre-gray hair output. Again, this is another instance of the viewer changing over time, not the work in question. I had no frame of reference for The Hustler when I saw it as a high schooler. I hadn’t yet been hurt, or corrupted, like those characters are. I hadn’t yet made decisions I would later regret, the way those characters had. To momentarily reprise that haunting refrain: I hadn’t lived yet. I didn’t know anything about the emotional quagmires at work in The Hustler when I first saw it because I hadn’t experienced them yet.

Boy, have things changed since then. The Hustler makes all kinds of sense to me now. Piper Laurie‘s silent pain, Newman’s all-consuming ambition, George C. Scott‘s icy, pragmatic greed, Jackie Gleason‘s low-key mastery – I have a frame of reference for all of these now, either through firsthand experience or just having lived a few years and seen/heard about a few things. And I have a brand new appreciation for the film’s nuts-and-bolts storytelling. This is, like, Cinematic Exposition and Thematic Expression 101. The Hustler is clean, clear efficient storytelling. Rossen knows what he wants to say and how to say it. He has the entire cast and crew on the same page. Everyone is working on the same movie, figuratively speaking. There is nuance and finesse, lots of effective underplaying, and plenty of room for the audience to engage and fill in some blanks on their own.

Newman’s performance reveals many of these traits, as well. The things that annoyed me about him initially now strike me more as acting choices made for the character as opposed to idiosyncracies of his technique. If it looks like he’s trying too hard it’s only because the character is trying too hard. Newman displays a fair amount of his trademark restraint, humor, and gravitas here – all things that I missed the first time out. (I think it’s time for me to revisit his films from the 1950s and early 1960s.)

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in "The Producers"

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in "The Producers"

Finally, I recently sat through a repeat viewing of Mel Brooks‘ raucously tasteless 1968 comedy, The Producers, a movie I’ve seen several times. To my surprise, it doesn’t hold up as well  as it used to. When I first saw it (yet again, back when I was a teen – I see a pattern here), I totally thought it lived up to its storied hype as a modern comedy high water mark. But now…well, it doesn’t seem dated so much as it just feels like it lacks discipline and a ruthlessly objective eye. Running gags get repeated past their expiration date. Flop jokes sit next to real humdingers without a discerning. judicious hand to excise them. It’s almost as if the comedy wears out its welcome. The story begins at such a fever pitch – thanks to Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder‘s frantic performances and Brooks’ unmodulated direction – that has almost has nowhere to go after that. The strain is apparent in several places, especially in the scenes with Franz Liebkind (played by veteran comedy stalwart Kenneth Mars).

That’s not to say that The Producers isn’t funny anymore – au contraire, much of it still is. The performances by Mostel, Wilder, Mars, and Dick Shawn are brilliantly, fearlessly shameless. Their work contributes a lot to the dangerous, unhinged irreverance that courses through the film. And the basic story idea still retains plenty of its yummy, gratifying shock value. I guess I just wish that Brooks the director had more control over Brooks the writer. Brooks the writer is seemingly no holds barred. Anything goes and nothing gets cut out. Brooks the director indulges that impulse, sometimes to the point of disaster, instead of reining it in and creating a more even-keeled sense of tempo and build. It’s as if there’s no joke or gag he can’t make work through force of will.

However, it’s heartening to know that a movie this wild, rude, and out of control could get major respect. Back in 1968, Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as snivelling accountant Leo Bloom. And Brooks won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Tell me that would happen now.

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2 Responses to Revisiting Some Classics

  1. Ian W. Hill says:

    You should read Ralph Rosenblum’s When the Shooting Stops . . . the Cutting Begins – one of the best books on film editing there is – to learn more about how much MORE out-of-control The Producers could have been. Brooks the writer couldn’t handle ONE WORD of his perfect script being tampered with, hated what Mostel had done with the part (and to a lesser extent, all of the other actors – he’d been doing his script solo in peoples’ living rooms for years and figured he knew THE PERFECT WAY), didn’t know how to direct a movie yet at all, and had to be dragged through the cutting (literally) kicking and screaming and throwing ashtrays as they tried to make the movie even slightly releasable. A story both funny and terrifying to read (Rosenblum also cut most of Woody Allen’s early films and several others he discusses in great detail in the book).

  2. Ian, this sounds horrifying. I’m glad I didn’t have to put up with Brooks during all of this. Although, I have to say, the movie feels exactly like this is what was going on behind the scenes. Unbelievable. Thanks for the info.
    : )

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