Monday, March 16, 2009

Quote of the Day (Rod Steiger, on the Importance of the Actor)

"The actor reminds people of the poetry of being alive."—Rod Steiger (1925-2002), quoted by Lillian and Helen Ross, The Player: A Profile of an Art (1962)

I discovered this title by the Ross sisters at a used-book sale at my local library. The Rosses (Lillian was a lifelong staff writer at The New Yorker) interviewed 55 actors and actresses (ranging from Cedric Hardwicke to Patty Duke), then reprinted the results, without the filter of their own questions.

The effect was to make themselves invisible and shine the spotlight on the actors—a refreshing (and, it now turns out, a far more journalistically ethical) approach to interviewing than that perpetrated by the New York Times Magazine’s snarky and execrable Deborah Solomon.

Turning to this book’s profiles at random, I’ve been struck not so much by the biographical details but by how the actor conceives of his work. Steiger’s self-insights, particularly in light of his subsequent career, are especially illuminating.

If Steiger was aiming for poetry, it must have been George Crabbe’s “Peter Grimes,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory”—all imbued with the bone-deep alienation, depression, and loneliness of “being alive.” The actor himself was fully, like the title of the Robert Frost poem, “Acquainted With the Night.”

Steiger’s most memorable characters were irrevocably scarred by disappointment or terror—Marty, the lovelorn butcher, in Paddy Chayefsky’s eponymous teleplay; Charlie, the mobbed-up lawyer brother of Marlon Brandon in On the Waterfront; Sol Nazerman, the haunted Holocaust survivor of The Pawnbroker; and Bill Gillespie, the racist police chief who eventually lets down his guard to Sidney Poitier’s Northern, African-American detective in In the Heat of the Night, the film that finally netted Steiger a long-deserved Oscar. Even the one dominant real-life character played by the actor, Napoleon, was, at Steiger conceived him, a drug addict.

Similarly, Steiger’s villains, though they might strike fear into your heart, were tormented, not hissable. Judd in the otherwise sunny Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma is a brooding solitary, hopelessly cut off from a community coming together out in a West that, he feels, has no place for him. And, in one of his true tour-de-force performances, as Christopher Gill in the underrated 1968 thriller No Way to Treat a Lady, Steiger shows how the multiple disguises of this serial killer spring from a sharply fractured personality who feels irresistibly compelled to lead police on a cat-and-mouse manhunt.

The more you read about his life, the more you feel that Steiger was inevitably drawn to these lost souls because he himself was one. An only child, he never knew his father, and over the course of his life he was married five times.

The sharp falloff in his career after winning the Oscar in 1968 might simply have been due to the bad choices that actors often make. But a 1979 cardiac operation and subsequent convalescence left Steiger clinically depressed, to the point where he thought for several years of killing himself and his wife of the time.

The quality of his roles did not improve from that point on, but I hope that Steiger found the relief he needed—some sort of recompense, anyway, for the light he shed in the early, brilliant part of his career, on people who’d live like you and me except for the fact that they find themselves, through no fault of their own, cut off from the light.

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