Film Friday: George Cukor's 'A Double Life': Blending fantasy with reality

By Daniel S Levine,

Method acting is a technique where the actor becomes fully dedicated to the character, changing their appearance and personality to get a better understanding, under the assumption that it will result in a better and more life-like performance. This didn't really reach Hollywood until 1951, when Marlon Brando burst onto the screen in A Streetcar Named Desire. However, four years before that, writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, along with director George Cukor and actor Ronald Colman, explored the dangers of getting too connected with a character in A Double Life.

Colman was nearing the end of a legendary career that began in British silent films in 1917, after serving briefly in World War I, by 1947. Although he would live until 1958, he only made a few films after A Double Life, which makes his performance here all the more important. He was 56 at the time, and still proved that the skill he built over the years – which had reached a high point in 1942's Random Harvest - was still there. In fact, A Double Life proved that he had one more great role to give and he was rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar.

The plot of A Double Life is tailor-made for a man like Colman, who had spent his entire adult life on the stage or in front of a camera. In it, he plays Anthony John, a beloved stage star who just completed another successful run in a comedy. Now, though, his producer thinks it's time for a drama and what better drama than Othello? At first he's apprehensive, since he knows that doing a drama changes his mood for its entire run. But eventually, he's convinced and talks his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso) into playing Desdemona. She knows its dangerous too, but perhaps she thinks that if she's involved, she can stop the worst from happening.

This production could have actually been B-movie material, with even some added seedy elements like Anthony taking a waitress (Shelly Winters in her breakout role) as a mistress and there's jabs at the press' sadistic interest in murders. However, Cukor turns A Double Life into an art film of sorts, using the camera in unique ways to show the melding of Anthony with Othello. It really keeps the film from getting silly and also adds a hint of gloomy film-noir elements throughout.

This is actually Cukor's only foray into noir. It's almost like he got a taste of going dark with Gaslight (1944) and this was his chance to get ever darker. Cukor is mostly thought of as a “woman's director,” but, like all of his contemporaries, he was much more versatile than we give him credit for. Colman was a great actor, but other directors may have called for an over-dramatic performance from him. Cukor allows Colman to act using his face and eyes, trusting the audience to see how Anthony transforms into Othello and how hard it is for him to try not to. The director takes full advantage of the close-up, a tool far under-used today.

Going on a tangent here, but I honestly never realized how great the close-up is as a tool to convey emotion in film until after seeing so many classics at the TCM Film Festival. When you see close-ups on the small screen, you are bound to lose so much information that what the actor and director are trying to get across. On the big screen though, you catch every emotional tick in an actor's face. Now, back to our regular programming...

Credit for this film turning out great also has to go to the amazing writing team of Kanin and Gordon. The husband and wife duo wrote several comedies for Cukor and others, like Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday and far too many others to mention here. But for A Double Life, they have a darker view of show business.

The couple also created a unique romantic situation, in a Hollywood environment where marriage is usually a serious subject. Yet in this film starts after the lead couple has already divorced and they still have a love for each other. Divorce is usually the end of a relationship in Hollywood, but when it breaks in the world of A Double Life, it actually continues and gets stronger. Of course, Brita can understand that their marriage is over while still working with Anthony, something he can't grasp. That lack of comprehension is another reason why Anthony falls deeper into the Othello character. Kanin and Gordon give Brita a strong reason to leave the marriage (a producer played by Edmund O'Brien), but Anthony's lack of a replacement for Brita is his major fault.

A Double Life also features wonderful performances from the supporting cast. True, this is Colman's movie, but I think Signe Hasso does an admirable job as Brita. There's also Edmund O'Brien (pre-DOA) in a strong role as Bill, the man hoping to woo her. Ray Collins (Citizen Kane), Betsy Blair (Marty) and Millard Mitchell (everything) also pop up. Shelley Winters also gives the performance that would make her a star.

On Home Video: Despite its obscurity, Olive Films has released this one on Blu-ray, under its Paramount deal. The only bonus is a two-minute overview of the film and its style by Martin Scorsese.

While A Double Life may not play to the strengths that Cukor is acclaimed for, it is still a really surprising film in the legendary director's filmography. As for Colman, he's an actor who hasn't quite stayed in the mind of filmgoers, but if you need any evidence of his greatness, this is it. (There's also Random Harvest, but we can save how great that movie is for a later time.) Even if you don't know that talented people that crafted this movie, it is one to seek out for any actor tempted to play out their roles off the stage.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

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