Keeping Score in America: Chapter Eleven: Reverie No. 1
By Michael Moriarty
Since, as many of you know, I number my Etudes on my wife's 77gelsomina site. I will now be numbering my reveries. Memories inspired by 72 years of a very blessed and increasingly blissful life in the performing arts.
Recently I've begun a symphony in tribute to Walt Whitman. God willing my wife and I will be able to offer you a sample of it before the year is out. When today I reached the beginning of its ¾ waltz after a brief glimpse or musical allusion to the profound presence of the American Civil War in Whitman's life, the memory of Barry Stavis, the exceptional American playwright and librettist came, yes, crashing into my consciousness!!!
When happy, Barry was always on the verge of tears or actually crying! Only he seemed to understand ecstasy in the same way I do today. Perhaps it was that mastery of ecstasy that kept him alive till 100 years of age!!
I certainly hope so for my sake. We both have indulged shamelessly in many tearful outbursts of bliss!!
I met Barry for the first time in 1967 at the Guthrie Theater where we were presenting his play about John Brown, Harpers Ferry. I was playing John Brown's youngest son.
"No self-pity!! No self-pity!!!"
That was the repeatedly "stiff upper-lip" admonition to the American cast by our legendary British director, Sir Tyrone Guthrie, whose ability to create theaters in the English-Speaking world matches Johnny Appleseed and his orchards.
Guthrie and Stavis were later to collaborate in 1969 on a revival of his tribute to Galileo, Lamp At Midnight. That, plus Barry's tribute to the labor leader Joe Hill seems to clearly establish a political agenda I'm no longer fond of. The kind that Bertolt Brecht was the first to exploit worldwide while his theater existed in East Berlin.
Nonetheless, no one in my life could ever surpass Barry's love of life! The depth of joy he received from frequently the simplest corners of existence?!
God bless Barry Stavis and not Bertolt Brecht, and I'm certain the Almighty is doing that right now.
By the end of rehearsal, Barry thought I would make a splendid Hamlet.
Guthrie, of course, could not disagree more. For great acting, in the mind of "Dr. G" as we most respectfully referred to Sir Tyrone, you needed "Voice, voice and more voice!!"
Tell that to the ghost of Marlon Brando whose thin reeds so dominated Tennessee Williams' Streetcar Named Desire, that poor Jessica Tandy had a difficult time maintaining the sympathy levels the play demands. The great American genius of the theater, Harold Clurman, pointed that shortcoming out in a famous article about the Kazan production of Streetcar. I fear the problem still exists in the movie version with Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois. She outdoes even her Scarlett O'Hara with painfully self-conscious, labored, and occasionally faux "Deep South" mannerisms.
Ms. Leigh only pulled at my heartstrings with her breathtakingly honest performance in Ship of Fools.
Of course, she impressed everyone in Gone With The Wind but then again Scarlett O'Hara fascinated us by the charm of her highly suspicious genius for manipulation.
Brando ran away with both our hearts and minds in Streetcar Named Desire and by that performance alone, now forever on record, Brando had thrown the gauntlet down before British acting and actors who thought, like Guthrie, that acting was, is and always shall be "Voice, Voice and more Voice"!!
What is great acting?
Simone Signoret described it best: Transparency!
"I don't know if I'm a great actress," she once said, "but I do know that I am transparent."
Ironically, never is that more evident within the performances of both Ms. Signoret and Ms. Leigh than in the absolute master class of great film acting: Ship of Fools!
Never has a set of performances in one film remained imprinted upon my memory as those within Ship of Fools. The great Oskar Werner and the great American maestro of classical acting, Jose Ferrar, both give you the broadest range of acting styles, all riveting and mutually complimentary.
What a pure feast of acting that film is!!!!!
Now returning to the major inspiration for this article, the second time I saw Barry Stavis was following my rather huge Broadway success in John Hopkins' play, Find Your Way Home. Barry was there, with tears in his eyes, to share in the joys of my success as a Tony Award winner, defeating Nicol Williamson, George C. Scott, Zero Mostel and Jason Robards Jr.
That my career crashed downhill after that came because, as the great French Director Louis Malle put it, I had been "miscast" in Report To The Commissioner. Already too old for the role.
He was right but by then it was too late. A great film career depends not upon one's first success but the success of one's second film! Bang The Drum Slowly had given me a decent introduction to a wide audience. That, coupled with not only my Tony Award but my Emmy Award for Glass Menagerie with Katherine Hepburn, had, as is said, established "Great Expectations"!
I occasionally lived up to those "expectations" on television with Holocaust, Law and Order and The James Dean Story.
My failure in Big Screen Hollywood is for me, politically at any rate, one of the best things that ever happened to me. Had I become a film star?!
Guess whom I'd have been obliged to vote for?!
Not only the Clintons but Barack Hussein Obama as well!!!
Either that or, like many well-known film stars, keep my conservative values in a low profile.
Speaking out against Obama has hurt the careers of two very major stars, both Jon Voight and Clint Eastwood.
Neither are in any danger of penury.
However, I don't envy any of them.
Hollywood turns out to be what I learned to hate most in New York: the big cocktail parties at which you entertain one another but don't share a single sincere moment with anyone until you find yourself doing your job on the big screen. Eventually, because of the Hollywood lifestyle, even that talent begins to fade.
Oh, well, time for me to return to my Walt Whitman Symphony with blissful tears in my eyes!
Michael Moriarty is a Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning actor who starred in the landmark television series Law and Order from 1990 to 1994. His recent film and TV credits include The Yellow Wallpaper, 12 Hours to Live, Santa Baby and Deadly Skies. Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@MGMoriarty.