Mrs Norman Maine

Before today I have never seen The Artist. Shocking, isn’t it? I have always wanted to, but I believe it was showing in cinemas at a particularly brassic time (just out of interest, I googled brassic. Apparently it’s actually spelled boracic. As in boracic lint, cockney rhyming slang for ‘skint.’ There’s a fun fact for you, language fans). Where was I? Oh, yes. I was poorer than a church mouse –  I say that as if things have changed – and the unfortunate necessity of eating took precedence over celluloid entertainment. Thank you BBC iPlayer, for providing me with this second chance. As I thought, I loved it. Poignant, beautiful and touching ~ a homage to a veritable plethora of classic movies.

A very brief description of the film will now ensue; I believe nearly everybody has seen it. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin – gosh, he’s lovely isn’t he, with his Gable moustache?) is a silent film star at the top of his game. Loved by all, he has the world at his fingertips. But it is 1927, and talking pictures are taking over Hollywood. As his career spins into decline, Peppy Miller’s (a gamine Berenice Bejo) – the woman who loves him – goes from strength to strength with the advent of the talkies.

It was tempting ~ and, admittedly my first thought ~ to draw a movie parallel with Singing’ in the Rain’ – that wonderful Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds classic. Again, talking pictures dominate the world of 1927. Again, silent film stars must learn to adapt. Again, a young dancer falls in love with a matinee idol. But Singin’ in the Rain is lighter in tone and while superb, does not portray the real tragedy of this time, when careers and lives were ruined.

I was reminded instead of A Star is Born ~ the 1954 version, that is. Not the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor, nor the 1976 rock musical with Barbara Streisand. No, I’m talking the heartbreaking, rich technicolor masterpiece with Judy Garland and James Mason. Singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) is discovered by alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (Mason) whilst singing in a downtown club. Incidentally, her performance of The Man That Got Away is, to my mind, the perfect example of vocal brilliance. I have long harboured a secret fantasy of singing this in a jazz club. Should probably learn how to sing better. Here she is. Judy, not me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ooeuybwJAsE

They fall in love and marry. Esther is advised to change her name to Vicki Lester and she is thrust into the world of Hollywood; her career flourishing. Norman, however sinks into depression as his own falls by the wayside, liquor his only solace. On the night of Esther’s Academy Award win, Norman arrives at the ceremony drunk and inadvertently smacks his wife around her face. Realising what he has become, he willingly enters rehab. Upon his exit however, he overhears Esther’s confession to a mutual friend that she intends to abandon her career to nurse him. Riddled with guilt at what he has done, he drowns himself. Indeed, the title of this post comes from the last line of the film – Esther/Vicki’s re-entry into the world of entertainment after Norman’s death, introducing herself by her married name.

Now, I am an actress and can only speak of my experiences of this industry. Perhaps the same is applicable to other careers, but all I can say is this. The acting industry really can be a horrid one. It saddens me greatly to write that. I adore the theatre and quite clearly I adore film (hence this blog!) but the actual day-to-day business of being a part of it is tougher than I ever thought possible. I know some quite brilliant actors who have segued into other jobs and have found themselves happier for it. For as The Artist and A Star is Born suggest, if the industry doesn’t want you (and for the most part… it doesn’t) it’s a soul-destroying and confidence wrecking lot.

You can be as talented as you like, but despite hours and days and months and years of writing, auditioning, networking and wishing, you can still find yourself rejected.This is unbelievably hard not to take personally. It is even harder not to be destroyed by it if you have a partner or a close friend in the same business who appears to be doing well. You want to be happy for them, of course you do, but it is so very difficult not to compare your own lot to theirs. It is natural and it is human. I will never forget when an ex-boyfriend and I each wrote to the same agencies. He received six invitations to audition, I received none. I loathed myself, but was seething with jealousy ‘But I’ve been out of drama school longer that him. I have more experience. It’s because I’m a girl. It’s because I’m too posh.’ (Nb: I’m not that posh). To be fair, the same ex-boyfriend listened several times as I cried down the phone for not getting this audition, not getting that role. I told him on many occasions that I was giving up. For I know of no other job where talent and ability can get you so little as this one. Working hard does not always equate success, unfortunately.

I was lucky. After five years of uncertainty and low self esteem (although I did have some wonderful jobs, they just never lasted beyond a month or two), I found myself working for the theatre company I am now a permanent part of. I love being with them – it is one of the closest thing we actors can get to a full time job and I feel my work is rewarded and recognised. I have been performing with them since January 2012 and will be soon be undertaking my fourth production. The common thing that seems to bind us players together is a love of the theatre but a wariness of the industry as a whole. This is possible, believe it or not – I still feel more at home on the stage than anywhere else and love discovering new characters –  but I despise the fickleness of this business. Perhaps this is naive of me, but I think we all deserve to be a part of a career that recognises endeavour.

If not for this brilliant company, or if – heaven forfend – it should ever come to an end, I would not pursue acting any longer. I am so proud of my wonderful, talented friends who have done well in this industry and who seem to be able to make a living from it without driving themselves to distraction, but equally I do not like seeing other friends despair because they are getting nowhere. They don’t deserve this. It is a terrifying thing to put a long held dream aside and pursue other options, but my goodness. I do hope happiness can be found in other areas. Love, friends, a pub. A job that offers some prospect of promotion. I believe many actors (and I count myself in this) adopt this career because of a need to make other people happy, a need to tell stories and – as much as I am loathe to admit it – a need for validation. If we can find these in other aspects of our life, do we really need to put ourselves through the mill anymore?

I don’t want to end up like Norman Maine or like the real life stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford et al. If my career falters, I want to be able to pack up and move on, not be destroyed by perceived failure. There is no shame in walking from one path to another.

However, it may be that my musings are all complete tosh. I am still a working actress and I intend to be a working actress for as long as this company wants me. If anything changes, who knows? Perhaps fear of the unknown and a deeply rooted sense of belonging to this world will keep me from pursuing anything else. Perhaps, just like many other actors, I just don’t know what to do for best.

This I do know. The dog in The Artist was probably the best dog I’ve ever seen.

James-Mason-and-Judy-Garland-in-A-Star-Is-Born-1954-