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Saturday Night Cinema: A Double Life

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Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic in this dark little gem, A Double Life.

George Cukor’s perfectly mannered direction confidently guides this brooding and cynical film noir that is considered by many the highlight of actor Ronald Colman’s great career. A Double Life explores the dangers of blurring the line between reality and illusion in this examination of the schizoid personality of a talented stage actor who begins to confuse his roles with his life. Colman gives a magnificent and mesmerizing performance as veteran thespian Anthony John, who begins to mentally derail during a run of Othello. John’s courtly manners and reputation have a winning charm that endear him to both audiences and women, including his ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), who acts opposite him in the play, and Pat (Shelley Winters), a sexy waitress he befriends. Colman’s performance earned him a Best Actor Academy Award and Golden Globe. Mikls Rzsa also won an Oscar for his vivacious score and the film’s director and screenwriters, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin all received Oscar nominations. Edmond O’Brien co-stars as the company’s producer who’s secretly in love with Brita. (TCM)

George Cukor’s first teaming with writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin draws on the professional hazard of actors who fail to distinguish between their lives on stage and off; Ronald Colman won the Oscar for this part.

Ronald Colman won an Academy Award for his portrayal of an off-the-beam actor in A Double Life. A beloved stage star, Anthony John (Colman), has problems with his private life due to his unpredictable outbursts of temper. This trait has already cost him his wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), and threatens to sabotage his career. Nonetheless, Anthony makes his peace with Brita, and the two actors star in a new Broadway staging of +Othello. The play is a hit, running over 300 performances, but the pressures of portraying a man moved to murder by jealousy takes its toll on Anthony. In a fit of delirium, he strangles his casual mistress, Pat (Shelley Winters), but retains no memory of the awful crime. Press agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), unaware that Anthony is the killer, uses Pat’s murder as publicity for +Othello. Anthony becomes enraged at this cheap ploy, and attacks Friend. At this point, Anthony realizes that he has been living “a double life” and is in fact Pat’s murderer. A Double Life was written for the screen by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, who occasionally digress from the melodramatic plotline to include a few backstage inside jokes.

Double Life, A (1947): Cukor’s Noir Drama, Starring Ronald Colman in Oscar-Winning Peformance and Shelley Winters
March 6, 2006 by Emanuel Levy
The theatrical melodrama, A Double Life, was director George Cukor’s first collaboration with writers (husband and wife team) Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

The central story is intriguing: a famous actor playing Othello realizes that the part is taking over his personality, leading to inability to

The script draws on the professional hazard of actors who immerse themselves so completely in their roles they fail to distinguish between their lives onstage and off. The Kanins deal seriously with an issue that previously has been treated in a comic or satirical mode.

Ronald Colman, the elegant British thespian with the velvety voice, whom Cukor had known for years, is cast as Anthony John, the distinguished actor, who becomes paranoiac and eventually commits murder.

Among other things, “Double Life” is interesting for providing the only negative view of the theater world in Cukor’s work. In the past–and future–he would celebrate the magical quality of the theater and its performers. However, even in the sordid milieu of this story, Cukor manages to demonstrate his love for showbusiness. Having come from the stage, Cukor knew the theater world well, but it still held mystery for him.

Cukor wished to convey an accurate impression of what it was like to be on stage. When performers step onto a stage, the light is blinding them. It was important for this kind of story to transfer the audience onto the stage. To create that illusion, the crew had to halate certain lights into the camera. “Don’t worry about whatever curious effects happen,” Cukor told cameraman Milton Krasner, “let all kinds of things hit the lens as if they’re hitting the audience.”

Many cameramen fear such things, but Cukor assured Krasner that he would take the responsibility in case it didn’t work. In the end, the theatrical scenes generated dramatic excitement and heightened the story’s sense of terror.

Cukor shoots the theater scenes on location, in New York, in the famous Empire Theater. Cukor conveys visually the contrast between the theater world and the squalor of the places that Colman goes to when the underside of his nature asserts itself.

Universal-International had good reasons to fear the Production Code Administration (PCA), which didn’t like the project, least of all the film’s initial title, “The Art of Murder.” In June l947, PCA’s Joseph Breen submitted a list of items for revision. Tony’s line, “I often think what I miss most of all–is your cooking,” was too sexually suggestive.

Cukor was urged to avoid the flavor of light attitude toward marriage, and make sure that when Tony stabs himself, it is the action of an insane man. Cukor should establish that Brita has bit her lip; under no circumstances should there be a suggestion that Tony had beaten her. And there should be no open-mouthed, prolonged, or lusty kissing anywhere in the picture.

Released on February 20, 1948, “Double Life” scored a huge success and enjoyed some nice reviews as well. The film was nominated for four Oscar Awards, this time including Best Director for Cukor.

Winning his first and only Oscar, Colman thanked Cukor for his patience and kindness. “Without these grand qualities of yours,” Colman said, “and your valuable direction and help, I couldn’t have done half the job. Remember me the next time you are casting.”

Cukor failed to win the Directorial Oscar; the winner that year was Elia Kazan, for the drama “Gentleman’s Agreement. ” But Cukor was pleasantly surprised to find himself on the “Variety” list of the year’s top directors, in the company of John Huston, George Stevens, and David Lean.

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