Lights, Camera, Conversation… “A little knowledge…”

Posted on August 12, 2011

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How wonderful it might be if we could see films, sometimes, without knowing anything about them!

In his book Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris dives into the stories – from within the goldfish bowl and without – behind the five nominees for the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 1967. As Harris notes, it was a divergent list. “Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were game changers, movies that had originated far from Hollywood and had grown into critics’ darlings and major popular phenomena; In the Heat of the Night, a drama about race, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a comedy about race, were middle-of-the-road hits that had, with varying degrees of success, extended a long tradition by addressing a significant social issue within the context of their chosen genres; and Doctor Dolittle was a universally dismissed children’s musical that most observers felt had bought its way to the final five.” The book is a wonderful read, wise and empathetic about show business, yet cynical about the business of show.

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The stories behind these five films – from germination through gestation and delivery – are fascinating, but the parts that drew me in most were about how Spencer Tracy had to be handled, on the sets of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, by his co-star (and partner) Katharine Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer. The handling of a star is usually necessitated by ego, a sense of entitlement, but the case here was completely different – Tracy was dying, and the film needed to be completed. He died less than a month after the completion of shooting, and Harris describes, movingly, Tracy’s last day at work: The next day, he returned, visibly haggard, for his final scene – a process shot in which he and Hepburn take a drive to get some ice cream. When his work was complete, assistant director Ray Gosnell turned to the crew and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this was Spencer Tracy’s last shot”… As the crew burst into applause, Tracy didn’t say anything. He just stepped out of the prop car, smiled broadly, waved, and walked slowly off the soundstage. Kramer watched him go and then said softly, “That is the last time you will see Spencer Tracy on camera.”

Had Harris not written this book, had his research not unearthed these facts, I would have experienced Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as I always have – as, simply, Tracy’s final film. But now that I know the specifics about this scene, it has become a morbid monument to our ceaseless fixation with stars. So this is how he looked before he died! This is what he did! This scene, henceforth, is going to be impossible to watch without this realisation, that this old man in the car is less than a month away from dying, and this is the last thing the larger public has seen him do, have a plate of fresh boysenberry ice cream while seated next to his onscreen wife and real-life partner of many years. As we learn more about films, thanks to the Internet and thanks to books and making-of documentaries, not only do we lose sight of the magic of it all (because now it’s all revealed to us as a mere process, as something that can be put together with nuts and bolts and a spanner), we also forge newer and stranger relationships with specific stars and specific parts of films.

Does this ruin cinema for the viewer? In a way, certainly. Because we are no longer rapt listeners gathered around and focused on a story being told – the darkness of the theatre reminiscent of the darkness of night; the flickering images on screen like a flickering fire; the director as stone-age raconteur – where the actors are not who they are in real life but the parts they play on screen, and where we don’t care that this is a crane shot and that is a close-up and that other scene was accomplished with a green screen. Rarely do I find myself truly “lost” in films anymore. I am always at the outside looking in, and I harbour the deepest envy for anyone who can view Giant today as just a sprawling story, not knowing that these frames of James Dean, this wiry youth aged all of twenty-four, are a document of the last few days of his life, and that he’d be dead from a car crash before the film’s release.

The solution would be swear off film literature and gossip and inside information – but who can afford to do that in this age of needless knowledge, where we would wither and die without bits and pieces of news about this and that? And sometimes, watching a movie at a heightened, meta level does add unexpected layers, as with the scene in The Misfits where Marilyn Monroe is shaking and in tears after seeing Montgomery Clift almost being torn up by a bull in a rodeo, and Clark Gable comes by and consoles her. “But what if he’d died? It would be terrible!” she says. He replies, with a quintessential Clark Gable shrug that suggests that he frankly doesn’t give a damn, “Honey, we all gotta go sometime. Dyin’ is as natural as livin’.” If only he’d known that this would be his final film, that he’d be dead from a heart attack days after shooting was completed, and that she wouldn’t live long enough to make another movie either.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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