Thursday, February 7, 2013

Downton Abbey, Period Drama, and What Americans Can or Cannot Do

The new season of the series Downton Abbey has begun in the US, and with it the debate about whether this season's offering of the British import lives up to the much lauded first; whether it is or is not as good as Upstairs, Downstairs, another import first broadcast on PBS more than thirty years ago; and so on.

At a seminar recently the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, launched yet another debate... or rather he somewhat put his foot in it... by saying that Hollywood stars just can't "do" period drama.

Presumably he meant American actors, as opposed to the many British and Australian actors who have become stars via films made by American studios and independent companies.

"Our actors," he opined, "have an understanding of period--for Europeans the past is very much in them as well as the present.  Americans find it harder."

Do tell.

I would argue that Los Angeles-born Ryan O'Neal, then a neophyte and heartthrob, had little trouble carrying the 1975 movie Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, and made by the Bronx-born filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.  That picture may well be the greatest period adaptation of English literature ever made.  It is worth studying alone for Kubrick's ingenious fitting of vintage super-fast 50 mm projector lenses on to his cameras, allowing him to shoot on film using only available light.  When you watch (below) the scene, set in the evening, of players at a card table lit by candlelight consider that that set was lit only by those candles, giving the whole scene a resemblance to a painting by, say, Gainsborough, one of the masters of the era of the novel from which the film was adapted.

Chinatown was, of course, a period film, and Nicholson and Dunaway were superb in those roles, seemed natural, and were Oscar nominees for their performances.  The Godfather films were, of course, in period.  Marlon Brando won an Oscar in 1973 for originating the role of Vito Corleone.  Two years later, Robert De Niro, playing the young Vito Corleone in Sicily at the dawn of the twentieth century, won the Oscar for best supporting performance.  Friends who speak Italian better than I do, and who understand the Sicilian dialect in which De Niro delivered his lines, say he handled that well.  Apropos, his performance in Bertolucci's 1900 was superb, and his Italian, the only language spoken in that film, was excellent.  Oh, and then on the list of American-made period films there was, of course, Gone with the Wind.  And more recently I suppose, um, Lincoln.

Perhaps Mr. Fellowes meant American actors are not very good in British period roles, and that may very well be so; but the same might be said of many British actors (excepting Daniel Day Lewis!) taking American roles in period films... though Fellowes, being British, might not be in the position to know this.  Whatever Mr. Fellowes did mean, the collaboration of British and American filmmakers has produced many fine films.  I wonder: since pulling off a superb Olympics presentation, and since winning all those gold medals (3rd place overall), have the Brits started to lose the self-deprecating style Americans so admire?

In any case, Ryan O'Neal is pretty good in Barry Lyndon.  Watch at the beginning of the scene below for a funny subtext, where Lyndon's employer speaking to him (O'Neal) says: "Pretend that you speak not a word of English."  Is this a mischievous Kubrick joke meant to send up attitudes akin to Fellowes's?  (The British sometimes remind their cousins across the sea that we don't speak the English language, but rather something they call American.  H.L. Mencken, by the way, said the same thing, and he wrote three superb books on the phenomenon.)   A bit later in the same scene below watch Hollywood leading man O'Neal pull off dialogue spoken in passable German:

Regarding Fellowes, and his thoughts on the matter, more here.

Please note: this is a revise of an earlier blog post.  A full refund will be offered for all subscribers who apply.

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