June 28, 2007 § Leave a comment
I recently watched a biography of Marlon Brando on Turner Classic Movies, and while it didn’t really break new ground, the documentary certainly reinforced the idea that Brando changed the landscape of movie acting. “Reacting instead of acting,” is how one participant put it. There was much discussion about “On the Waterfront”, and the scene in which Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint’s white glove and fits it on his own hand.
It is hard for someone from my generation to truly appreciate just how forceful Brando was because we can’t see his movies in their own time.
While it may seem a stretch to some, one small scene in a very famous movie — a scene almost no one talks about in a film that people know intimately — seems very close to the kind of realistic emotional power that Brando was so readily able to draw on. The movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life” and the actor in the scene is Jimmy Stewart.
Stewart became such a mannered and self-parodied actor — particularly in the late phase in his career when I knew him as a working actor — that it is sometimes easy to forget he was quite effortlessly natural through much of his long career; an actor of rare depth of emotion while projecting an endearing accessibility.
“It’s A Wonderful Life” has also become such a cultural icon it’s hard to fully recognize just how powerful and intricate the story is. Its impact, no one disputes, is made all the more real by an unusually perceptive portrait by Stewart in the role of George Bailey.
George is in real pain throughout much of his story; he’s anguished. This melancholy is not tedious because Stewart imbues his character with small, intimate moments that help connect us to George with our own emotions.
We have all known disappointment, but there is rarely a moment in American films when it is portrayed with such raw emotion. It is this tiny moment I want to talk about here; a moment that Brando himself undoubtedly would have been happy to pull off.
The scene comes when George is waiting for his brother Harry to come home on the train from college. The Bailey family, including Uncle Billy, is waiting on the platform. When Harry disembarks, everyone greets him with appropriate joy, in part because George now knows he will now be able to finally leave “the old Bailey Building and Loan” and start his life’s adventure.
As the little group gets ready to leave the station, Harry suddenly makes a major announcement. He is married. George is introduced to “the wife”, as Harry calls her, and after a moment’s hesitation, George hugs the newest member of his family. Then the crowd moves off, and George is left alone on the platform.
George is by himself, absorbed in the thought that Harry will not take over the Building and Loan, and he is left with the realization that his hopes of leaving Bedford Falls have been destroyed. There are no words.
Once we fully see George’s devastation, he then — extraordinarily, in a moment of what I hesitate to call artistic courage, but if it is not that, then what is it? — George turns away from the camera. George, enraged, disappointed – turns away from us, his audience, his supporters, and when he comes around we see, briefly, the same emotional destruction. George’s eyes (Stewart’s eyes) begin to dart frantically; he’s panicked. He knows he has to do what is right for Harry, and not for himself. So then, quite quickly, George’s face relaxes, a slight smile emerges, the frantic eyes relax, and a small, restricted smile emerges. Not a joyful smile, but a smile nonetheless. George sidles up to Harry’s new wife, and basically asks the questions that he knew the answer to. Will Harry’s new marriage take him away from Bedford Falls? He knows the answer, and your heart breaks for George.
In just a few seconds you have surprise, anger, confusion, fear, acceptance, joy, life.
I don’t dispute Brando’s supremacy. But his late speech in “On the Waterfront”, when he finally confronts his brother Charlie (how brothers can let people down is another theme here), is basically a speech about disappointment. And while Brando performed this feat aided by the words of writer Budd Schulberg, Stewart did it wordlessly, in a much shorter time, in a film not widely noted for realism.
The next time you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and you wait for the final moments of life’s reaffirmation, it’s important to remember that this reaffirmation can only come after a series of setbacks and disappointments. The reason we still want to feel and accept this rejuvenation of George’s is not because of the big, showy scenes of obvious emotion. We appreciate it rather because of those small, deceptive moments: those quiet, inconsolable moments of pain that Stewart had the authority to show in small, excruciatingly private scenes.
It’s hard to believe that Brando did not take notice.