By Milos Stehlik
What makes Isabelle Huppert, in my opinion, the world’s greatest living actress? I think that Huppert has always looked out for challenging roles, and is always smart in choosing intelligent filmmakers who appreciate and understand her talent. She was cast by Paul Verhoeven as the gaming company executive who is brutally raped in Elle, for which she won a Golden Globe as Best Actress, and before that had risky roles in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. She has taken roles in the films of some of the world’s most interesting filmmakers including Claude Goretta, Bertrand Tavernier, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Maurice Pialat, Bertrand Blier and David O. Russell.
Yet she says that, “Great projects are always rare. I mean, it’s not like you sit on top of the pile of great masterpieces and say, ‘Oh what should I do?’ It never happens like that.”
No matter the film, Isabelle Huppert is never less than interesting. She is not a method actress—-a system of acting that so many American actors (among them, Marilyn Monroe) embrace. “I don’t like the idea of character,” Huppert says. “A character for me is very arbitrary; it gives you only limitations. I prefer to think I just play situations, states of minds, feelings,” she stated in an interview in Variety about her early films. This is certainly evident in the depth at which she tackles getting inside the characters she portrays. Recently she said that what she wants to most understand, is insanity. A far cry from the vapidity of so many actors whose singular obsession is their next deface or body alteration.
Actors and actresses are central to the engines of cinema. Yet what do we really know about them other than the gloss of gossip magazines or entertainment TV? What goes into a performance? How does an actor conceive of the character they are playing? How did they create the role they are playing? Instead, reports– in this case, sometimes actual fake news– about an actor’s emerging, ongoing or dissolving relationship, children, partners, faux pas, mini-scandals and material acquisitions far outweigh any intelligent discussion of their artistry, or who they are as actors or as human beings.
That’s why the documentary, Listen to Me Marlon by Stevan Riley, is so much fun and offers so many insights (you can see it only if you have a Showtime subscription — alternatively, you can rent a European DVD version at Facets). Yes, the Brando estate gave Riley unprecedented access, and one could argue that the film is uncritical of Brando. It relies heavily on the hundreds of hours of audio recordings that Brando made over the course of his life. Some of these are hilarious, as when Brando, following a self-hypnosis course he bought in order to lose weight, repeats the mantra, “I will not be fat” into the recorder.
This is incidental. A nuanced portrait of Brando emerges which provides an alternate view to his bad reputation as being difficult, overly-expensive, over-politicized, and, of course, overweight. In interview after interview, Brando comes off as someone very thoughtful, an actor who tries to understand his craft and the films he is making. This is evident from the clips of some of Brando’s finest moments, in films like On the Waterfront, but also in those films, which were considered critical failures, like Mutiny on the Bounty.
At the same time, Brando was a fully engaged human being. He studied the genocidal treatment of Native Americans– a cause to which he was strongly attached. He was deeply committed to the civil rights movement. He participated in the March on Washington, in the freedom rides, and financially supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In a TV interview shown in Listen to Me Marlon with a sympathetic Dick Cavett, Brando wants to talk issues while Cavett is pushing him into silly– and idiotic– displays of how we like to think of celebrities. This image of actors as untrained and undisciplined children who are always getting into troubles we only dream about while, of course, living lives filled only with wealth and glamor, is central to the concept of actors as stars. The truth is that acting is hard work and takes a great deal of discipline.
Louise Brooks, the great actress of the silent era, wanting no part of the entertainment machine she was now a part of, gave up Hollywood altogether in 1938 at the age of 32. This is despite having achieved success– and ever-lasting fame –for her roles in G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. There is a terrific documentary about Brooks, Looking for Lulu, loosely based on Brooks’ own really brilliant collection of reminiscences and essays about the early days of Hollywood, Lulu in Hollywood. Lulu was the name of the character played by Brooks in Pandora’s Box, which, in turn was loosely based on the play by Frank Wedekind, also the source of Alban Berg’s opera, Lulu.
When Louise Brooks was not acting, she loved to read.
After she left Hollywood, Brooks vanished from the limelight. Only years later, she was “re-discovered” by James Card, then-curator of George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Card found Brooks working as a $40/week sales girl at New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue. He brought her to Rochester. The Cinematheque Francaise founder, Henri Langlois, brought her to Paris, gave her a rousing tribute and retrospective, and famously said, “There is no Garbo, there is no Dietrich. There is only Louise Brooks.”
I tried to bring Louis Brooks to Chicago in the 1980s, when Facets revived one of her “lost” films, Prix de Beaute. She was a recluse, living in a small apartment in Rochester. I got her phone number from Paul Falkenberg, a legendary film editor of the silent era (he had edited Fritz Lang’s M). The woman who answered the phone put me through a half-hour interrogation – who was I and what did I want — before admitting — I will remember these words as long as I live — “This is Louise Brooks.” Later, we had an intermittent correspondence. But she was too ill – she suffered from emphysema – and would not travel.
I was personally underwhelmed by the 2015 documentary on the life of Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words. Though the director, Stig Bjorkman, had access to private footage, notes, letters, diaries, and interviews with Bergman’s children, the portrait of Bergman which emerges is somehow incomplete, much like Bergman’s own autobiography, Ingrid Bergman: My Story. This is filled with Bergman’s diatribes against her first husband and his attempt to control access to their daughter, Pia Lindstrom.
Later she lodges complaints against Roberto Rossellini, the man who broke up Bergman’s first marriage. The obsessive Rossellini (Bergman appeared in three of his films), who later left Bergman for the Indian actress Sonali Dasgupta, emerges as not only a less-than-perfect husband, but also a less-than-exemplary human being. The enormous scandal the Bergman-Rossellini romance created in Hollywood led to a violent reaction against her. A Colorado senator threatened to require the U.S. government licensing of actors, actresses and film producers– licenses that could be revoked if the licensees were found guilty of a crime of moral turpitude, or of publicly admitting to such conduct.
Unfortunately this tells us little about Ingrid Bergman as an actress, other than the suggestion that her formative years were in Sweden, working with the legendary director Gustav Molander. Surprisingly, Bergman comes off as rather un-reflective, not offering us much more than detail about how she suffered or how much she really loves her children.
In the 80s, Maximilian Schell– an actor as well as a filmmaker (he directed the very good, now mostly forgotten film, The Pedestrian)– made Marlene, a documentary portrait of Marlene Dietrich, with whom he worked in Judgment in Nuremberg. By that time Dietrich was living in Paris. She agreed to make the film, provided that Schell would record audio only. She would not allow herself to be photographed. She wanted the world to remember her as she was, not as the recluse she had now become. Still, the documentary Marlene does reveal something. Dietrich tells Schell that 55 books had been written about her. He asks if she’s read them, and she dismisses it as a waste of time.
Dietrich’s obsessive attempt to control her image is today, of course, nothing unusual for actors. A bad picture can do a lot of damage to their career. This is why the layers of bodyguards, personal assistants, make-up artists, trainers and publicists which surround every actor– today, they are a brand. The late Greek film director, Theo Angelopoulos, made Ulysses’ Gaze— a journey through the troubled Balkans – in the late 90s with Maia Morgenstern and Harvey Keitel. Shooting in war-torn former Yugoslavia, Angelopoulos said he could only bring the minimal cast and crew. He was shocked when Keitel showed up with an entourage of eight assistants– a body trainer, personal guru, personal assistant, and insisted he had to have all these people with him at all times in order to be able to function.
The renowned Theo Angelopoulos.
Editor’s Note: Milos Stehlik founded Facets in 1975, developing it into the nation’s leading media arts and education organization. With Milos as spokesperson, Facets attracts film buffs to its theater, library and festivals from around the world. The Facets International Children’s Film Festival has served over 525,000 children and received 32 Oscar nominations for its participating young filmmakers since it began in 1983. Traveling to film festivals around the world in search of the very best they offer, Stehlik is also in classrooms across Chicago talking about how lives can be transformed by the power of films.