Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Actor: the life and times of Paul Muni (1973), Jerome Lawrence.

Six of the Seven Faces played by Paul Muni from the movie of the same name (1929).

Realizing that playing "ethnic" was perfectly acceptable (and even a badge of honour) for dramatic actors back in the day now strikes us as baffling, ridiculous, hilarious or simply downright disrespectful.  Reading Actor: the life and times of Paul Muni gave me a new perspective on at least one man's interpretation of this tradition.  For better or worse, author Jerome Lawrence sets most discussions of race or ethnicity in Muni's portrayals aside.  For Muni (according to Lawrence) the goal was simply the most accurate physical depiction of any fictional character or historical personality.  

Understanding that Muni came from an ethnic tradition himself - Yiddish language theatre - is insightful, as is knowing that he was firmly rooted in the tradition of itinerant actors.  His parents, Nachum Favel (Philip) and Salche (Sallie) Weisenfreund earned their meagre living as a two-person troupe, enacting sketches across the Austro-Hungarian countryside.  One routine involved a nudnick and a schlemihl drafted into the Army - a preposterous concept and sure-fire laughs for their Yiddish audience.  ("What was more unlikely than a Yiddish soldier?" asks Lawrence). Muni's father tried unsuccessfully to break into the blossoming Yiddish theatre tradition once the family made its way to New York, but Muni had better luck.  While far more sophisticated than his parents' old world routines, the Yiddish theatre had its own stock characters (rabbis, landlords, not-so-virtuous young daughters).  One strength of Actor is to provide a basic description of the tumultuous world of Yiddish theatre.  Lawrence draws an effective picture of this world, and for appeal of the "uptown" English-language theatres for Yiddish actors.  For some, to perform uptown (as Edward G Robinson did before Muni) was to really make it.

Yes, Edward G Robinson who in his own biography All My Yesterdays grumbles about never having the looks to be a leading man unlike his colleague Muni.  Indeed, in Actor,  actress Sylvia Hoffmann bubbles over with the memory of the "gorgeous" Muni as the last minute replacement for Robinson in a staging of The Fifth Season.  Then there's Paul Muni, whose lifelong tradition was to bury his good looks in fake beards. In almost all his film roles, Muni was slathered in makeup and spirit gum - crafting characters from these substances was a skill he was proud of.  Muni wanted to completely transform into his subject, to be that person.  To look like him, dress like him, to adopt the minutest gestures or tics that made that individual unique.

Actor is a fascinating portrayal of a relentlessly self-flagellating man obsessed with professional perfection, married to a dour wife who was more stage manager / mother than partner.  While written in a chummy style by a personal friend (Lawrence was co-author of the play Inherit the Wind, which helped revive Muni's career), Lawrence's subject seems fussy, rigid and completely unable to enjoy life, success or happiness.  Earning recognition playing heroic historical figures such as Louis Pasteur, Muni dove into ever more serious projects, culminating in the quest to depict Alfred Nobel onscreen with the objective of spreading the message of peace to all mankind (a project he later abandoned when he came to the conclusion that Nobel was probably gay).  Lawrence appropriately chides Warner Brothers for billing Muni as "Mr. Paul Muni" - lending an unnecessarily sombre gravitas to all his performances.  Muni's gravitas became ridiculous as his acting style, described by theatre director Herman Shumlin as "one of those actors who functioned both from an outward realization of appearance, makeup and clothes, as well as an interior examination of the character and his own feelings" grew dated.  By the 50s, wigs were very much out of style -- theatre was innovating and tackling adult themes. Although he felt deeply uncomfortable with these changes and never completely buried his fake beard kit,  Inherit the Wind gave Muni a chance to find success in modern theatre and recapture some of the respect he had earned as the kind of vibrant actor we can still see in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.  

Paul Muni, Director Mervyn LeRoy and Bella Muni on the set of The World Changes.


Cliff Aliperti said...

Oh wow, I just read and wrote about this book in the past month or so myself! I loved the early sections on the Yiddish theater, very interesting and completely new info for me. Fussy and rigid says it very well, though Muni seemed like a heck of a nice guy at the same time. While Muni is way overdue for a new biography, reading this I can see why no one has gone there yet!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I actually used that same book for a paper I was using about white actors playing ethnic roles.

Muni certainly could play all characters, in or out of heavy makeup. One of the best and most underrated actors!

Peresblancs said...

Thanks! Yes, I should also say Muni did have a (self-deprecating) sense of humour. The bio certainly does not portray him as a villain, just a bit starchy. I love I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. It's an incredible, electric film and he carries the whole thing, a testament to his acting skills for those of us that just don't buy that style of acting these days. I also thought a new bio would be well-deserved - this one is almost 40 years old!

Cliff Aliperti said...

The amazing thing is that there's a second book about him and his movies ... but it was published the same year!