Friday, March 3, 2017
Sidney Lumet | Long Day's Journey into Night
house of actors
by Douglas Messerli
Eugene O’Neill (author of the play), Sidney Lumet (director) Long Day’s Journey into Night / 1962
After the production of O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Geffen Playhouse, I determined to revisit the 1962 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet.
Jaime too, switches masks from moment to moment, best friend and companion—even a brotherly lover—to self-loathing hater, a man who would easily, like Jacob imagine killing his younger brother, Esau. After all, Edmund has, so to speak, already gone to the heathens, traveling over the globe; while Jaime, despite his hatred of his father and mother, has stayed on to tend them.
Just like his father, Jaime switches from his cynicism to a sentimental maudlin emotional response that comes from a career of acting, hating himself so desperately that his is willing to save fat Violet from being fired by joining her in a night a painful sexual release. In the end, Jaime is a ham actor in his father’s tradition.
But Mary is the surprising one, and the way Hepburn portrays her, we recognize that she is the best actor of them all; even from the very first scenes of the work, teasing her husband for his endless snoring, and her portraying her own night wanderings as an omission of worry for her younger son’s health, we perceive her immense capabilities of portrayal, of lies and deceit. Yes, she is “watching” them “watching her,” the way any great lead knows she is being watched even as she is watching her audience admiring her. And we grow quickly to perceive that Mary has shifted her role from being the now recovered addict to a highly tragic heroine even before the curtain has been raised.
Hepburn, in this film, is at her very finest: embracing her family members at the very moment she slits their throats, offering up her saintly presence while coquettishly playing a bitter whore. I now realize why Hepburn’s performance has never left my mind. At every moment she mercurially shifts from one person into another, loving and hating in the very same breath, blaming and forgiving, imagining and forgetting. No one cannot fall in love with her and no one with, even a little bit of sanity, cannot detest her. She is constantly on fire, a beautiful flame not to be entrusted to mankind. She has made up a person so costumed and perfect—her constant fear of her hair having fallen down betraying her own highly artificed demeanor—that she is a kind of living monster, all mask with, ultimately, no life within.
Even her maid, Cathleen, cannot imagine why her mistress has not gone “into acting.” Who might not imagine that Mary is the greatest actor in her family? But Mary pretends shock, no, she would never have even thought to cross the stage; she is a saint—a woman she claims who once thought of becoming a nun and imagined a career as a concert pianist—the delusions that any great actress must have in order to convince the world of her performative wonders.
And Mary’s world, particularly as Hepburn portrays it, is entirely one of delusion. She literally lives in a past that never existed and plays out that false reality, particularly when she attains the drugged state—O’Neill’s literal metaphor for the mental state of a grand actress—the way Sarah Bernhardt or Eleanora Duse presumably performed their plays. Even Jaime recognizes her as Ophelia.
There is no better actress in the world than Mary Tyrone, and her family knows it. When she plays a role she is lost to the living, she is no longer a mother, a wife. Hepburn has never had a better role.
The only way Edmund can regain control is with the death of his dramatic personae, which, in just a few years, he lost, enabling him to create his own very different casts. His second beloved wife and one of his sons themselves became addicts—clearly his was in a family tradition. And wasn’t O’Neill himself a kind of addict of and to the theater, disavowing his own daughter, Oona for marrying another actor, Charlie Chaplin, and herself becoming an actor?
The Tyrone (O’Neill) house was a house of actors, and I believe Eugene, although obviously depending up their kind for the rest of his life, never really forgave their breed for their “false” portrayals of the world. Perhaps that’s why he is so very specific in his dramatic instructions.
Los Angeles, March 3, 2017