Thursday, November 01, 2007

5. Melvyn Douglas, the renaissance man

MELVYN DOUGLAS, 1901-1981. Triple crown achieved at age 67 in 1968 with an Emmy for outstanding single performance by an actor in a leading role in a drama for "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Preceding it were a Tony for best actor (dramatic) for "The Best Man" in 1960 and an Oscar for best supporting actor for Hud in 1963. Following it was another Oscar for best supporting actor in 1979, for Being There.

Melyvn Douglas -- born in Macon, Ga., to a concert pianist, and grandfather to Illeana Douglas -- never graduated from high school. Didn't need to; he honed his acting in Shakespearean repertory in the Midwest. He served in both world wars, was a staunch liberal activist (his wife of 50 years was a three-term Congresswoman from California) and made four films a year from 1931 to 1942 -- the first era of his career.

His career can, in fact, be divided into two such eras: the years in which he supported his leading ladies and the years in which he supported the quality of his projects. Douglas, a stage actor by training, spent the first part of his Hollywood career in the '30s playing opposite Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Marlene Dietrich and Loretta Young. He three times supported Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo (they're pictured in Ninotchka above). As David Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Douglas normally played the "escort, husband, lover, or good friend to every love queen of the 1930s and 1940s."

He went into World War II with the U.S. Army and returned to the states in roles that were less romantic and more focused on his advancing years. He was, in essence, a man who reinvented himself by playing principled characters confronting age (renaissance by way of mortality!). Douglas found his rhythm in the '50s ("For years he has been giving pleasant, facile performances in superficial parts. It is always exciting to see an accomplished actor suddenly take on stature,'' wrote the critic Brooks Atkinson of Douglas' performance as Clarence Darrow in "Inherit the Wind" on Broadway in 1955) -- culminating in the 1959-1960 season, when he starred in two plays and won his first major acting award by playing a "principled presidential aspirant" (according to The New York Times) in Gore Vidal's "The Best Man" on Broadway. (Couldn't find a review of this one.)


His next major award came in 1963 with Hud, in which he played Homer Bannon, the inflexibly stern father to Paul Newman's jackass ranch hand (see the above clip for an illustration of their ruined relationship). Here is what Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times: "Melvyn Douglas is magnificent as the aging cattleman who finds his own son an abomination and disgrace to his country and home. It is Mr. Douglas's performance in the great key scene of the film, a scene in which his entire herd of cattle is deliberately and dutifully destroyed at the order of government agents because it is infected with foot-and-mouth disease, that helps fill the screen with an emotion that I've seldom felt from any film.''

What is the emotion? It's grief harnessed and restrained by his character's steely will. Homer Bannon grieves his sons -- the responsible one who died and the reckless one who got him killed. He now grieves the calculated extermination of his infected cattle -- the only legacy that matters to him. Douglas plays the scene with brutal simplicity. "Don't take long to kill things," he mutters. "Not like it does to grow." After he himself shoots his last two bulls (no doubt symbols for his spoiled progeny), he growls to his nephew, "Drag 'em away and bury 'em. Bury 'em quick. Go on." He's talking about his hurt, too, and his grief.

In an earlier scene, Homer admonishes Hud because he "doesn't care about nothin'." It's the scolding we've been waiting for, but the payoff is bitter. Homer backs Hud into a doorframe (and into the camera) and spits gravel at him after Hud suggests they drill for oil to make ends meet. "I'd rather herd cattle than drill for oil," Homer growls. "Stuff that keeps a man doin' for himself." And Douglas plays Homer like a man who's had to do everything for himself.

Douglas was not present at the Oscars to accept the trophy -- not sure why -- so his costar Brandon de Wilde did the honors.

His Emmy came for his performance as a retired cabinetmaker (replacing Fredric March at the last minute) who rages against old age in the aptly titled "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," a CBS Playhouse movie also starring Shirley Booth, who was (until then) the most recent attainer of the Triple Crown. Douglas plays Peter Schermann, who tries out nursing homes at the urging of his children. The movie is not available anywhere, so it remains unseen by me. I'd love to see Douglas and Booth together, though. They were masters of the stage who trumped their unglamorous looks with charisma, and snagged leading film roles. (Pictured in the photo above is director George Schaefer, with Douglas to the left and Booth to the right. A young Lois Smith is all the way to the left.)

The second Oscar came at age 78 for Hal Ashby's existential dada anti-farce Being There, in which Douglas plays a billionaire at death's door. Benjamin Rand, couched in his giant mansion, is a much warmer man than Homer Bannon, and Douglas' voice, by this point in his life, had gone from gravelly to paper-thin. There's a sweetness in his eyes, as Douglas allows Rand to be seduced by the utter nothingness of the Peter Sellers character. In this way, he elicits great pity for Rand, who, like Homer Bannon, is a decent man rendered impotent by circumstance.

Douglas didn't attend the ceremony this year either. "The whole thing is absurd," he was quoted as saying. "Me competing with an 8-year-old!" He was referring to his fellow nominee, Justin Henry, the boy from Kramer vs. Kramer. It was not reported whether Douglas was being principled or egotistical. Liza Minnelli accepted for him.

So Douglas won his Oscars for two wildly different roles: a man of privilege and status, and a lowly farmer with a gruff sensibility. But both are on the verge of death (as was his Emmy-winning character), even though he played the roles almost 25 years apart. Neither have big scenes or speeches or even particularly theatrical deaths (and both men do die onscreen); these performances do not fit the textbook definition of Oscar-worthy. Yet, ultimately, Douglas received film acting's highest honor by playing them not just as men on the verge of death, but as men at the end of something -- whether it be end of faith, in Homer's case, or, in Benjamin's, the end of idealism.

This is part five of The Triple Crowners, an 18-part series celebrating the actors who have won an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy. Check back soon for part six, featuring a paragon of British urbanity. To catch, read posts on previously profiled triple crowners Thomas Mitchell, Helen Hayes, Ingrid Bergman and Shirley Booth.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love this series.

MUTHAMIZH said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jamy said...

I'm really enjoying the series! Thanks! The folks are such an interesting and unexpected mix.

I mostly remember Douglas from his earlier roles and while he always seemed like an unlikely leading man looks-wise, he is a match for all those lovely ladies with whom he starred.

J.J. said...

I've never seen Douglas in his early roles -- just his post-War ones. I really should see Ninotchka, at the very least.

Jamy said...

You haven't seen Ninotchka? I'm shocked! You are in for a treat.

Hurlywood said...

Whoop! What a post.
Still keeping tabs on your thoughts. Keep it up. I'm trying to get my own going. Still in starting phase. I'm learning!
Hope you've been well since Telluride.

Adi said...

Thank you for shared it.
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Anonymous said...

Just saw Melvyn Douglas in an obscure 40's film with Myrna Loy called, "Third Finger, Left Hand". He was so funny! So modern in his acting style, it seems to me. I'm looking up info on him today because I was so impressed with his performance. The movie itself is a silly rom-com, but he and Myrna Loy make it work.

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