1947 / Best Director

Film #626: A Double Life (1947)

Just like Fred Zinnemann, the next director on our list; George Cukor had a great relationship with Oscar dating back to 1933 when his version of Little Women earned him the first of five Best Director nods. Four of his nominations were for directing Best Picture nominees and his final nod also garnered him his only win in the category for the extremely successful musical My Fair Lady. His other Best Director nomination was for 1947’s A Double Life, an interesting picture which saw Ronald Colman earn his only Best Actor Oscar for portraying popular yet unstable actor Anthony John, best known to his friends as Tony.

A Double Life is a movie that can be split into three separate acts; the first of which introduces us to the character and his odd personality. The introductory sequence sees various people discussing Tony, with two women in particularly describing him one in derogatory terms and the other is a lot more positive. This suggested to me that Tony had a split personality long before the main bulk of the story began and we started to delve into his darker side. The first third saw Cukor explore the flippancy of the theatrical life as we saw Tony taking the stage in a comedy alongside his estranged wife Brita and interacting with his agent Bill Friend. Tony’s life begins to change when he decides to take the lead role in a version of Othello alongside Brita as Desdemona, a decision which the audience has reason to dread as they’ve already learned that more serious roles put him under pressure. The second act of A Double Life sees Othello become a sellout hit that plays for over-200 shows but at the same time sees Tony begin to lose his mind. When he looks at his reflection he sees himself as Othello and, like the Shakespearean character, his jealousy begins to overflow when he believes Brita is having an affair with Bill. Unfortunately, it’s Tony’s new love interest; waitress Pat Kroll, who bears the brunt of this unfounded jealousy and is strangled by the actor in a fit of rage. The final act sees Tony take a backseat as Bill, whose also been threatened by his client, begins to suspect that it was the actor who murdered Pat rather than her creepy neighbour who was charged with the crime. It’s this final act where the film started to meander and make comments about the police force and journalism; neither of which suited a movie which had felt like a standard Film Noir up to this point. Thankfully, Colman and Cukor save it in the final moments as Tony realises he’s about to be rumbled so gives his final performance of Othello some extra authenticity.

It’s been a while between watching A Double Life and writing this post but it was a film that had its moments but that I was ultimately underwhelmed by. Firstly, I wanted to tackle Ronald Colman’s Best Actor win, which I believe is the only lasting legacy this film achieved. Colman was an actor who I wasn’t aware of prior to beginning this blog but one whose work I’ve admired over the years especially in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon and the romantic drama Random Harvest. Here Colman had to do the tricky job of playing both a charming, charismatic actor and a madman who commits murder whilst under the influence of the pressures of performance. I believe that Colman received his Oscar for his portrayal of Tony playing Othello, as it’s the onstage scenes which are powerful and where the lead actor totally transforms himself. One obvious issue I had was with a white actor playing a black role but it would’ve been more common at the time and wouldn’t have been an issue for academy voters. Whilst Colman showed range here, he was barely in the final act of the film and I think that his performance in Random Harvest was superior to the turn he delivered in A Double Life. However, I feel that Cukor’s nomination was deserved as there was some interesting set pieces and directorial decisions that appeared to be modern by 1947 standards. Some highlights included the scenes in which Tony saw his reflection as Othello in the shop window and numerous close-ups which enhanced the drama splendidly. One issue I had with A Double Life was its Oscar-nominated screenplay, which was co-written by future Best Supporting Actress winner Ruth Gordon, which had plenty of promise up until Pat’s murder and then became fragmented after that. Although there were some snappy lines of dialogue throughout, I found the flow of the narrative to be off-putting up until the climactic final scene.

Alongside Colman, the film’s other Oscar winning element was its dramatic score which I found didn’t overpower the action although at the same didn’t really make an impact. I personally believe that the costume and make-up teams on A Double Life should have also been given at least a nomination for the fantastic work they did transforming Colman into Othello and making his garb seem utterly believable. In my opinion, A Double Life didn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination and this is very much an example of the direction being better than a film itself. Whilst Cukor’s work on the movie deserved recognition, A Double Life has dated badly and loses focus in its third act. The fact it would’ve replaced the classic Miracle on 34th Street would’ve been ever more of a travesty and overall I found A Double Life to be a very slight film albeit one with a memorable central turn from Colman as well as fine directorial work from Cukor.

Next time, we explore a movie with a director who hasn’t achieved the same success with the academy that either George Cukor or Fred Zinnemann did.

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