On Desert Gods and Vienna Waltzes


I’ve finally come out with my post on the deaths of Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine. Yes, I know, it’s quite late for the writing, and so much other news has intervened, in this crowded Internet world of ours, when events, big and small, bombard us nearly every breathing moment, and Twitter is there to note each passing microsecond of time. I was afraid that by the time I got around to posting this, readers would be thinking, “Peter who?” After all, it’s already February 2014, and both O’Toole and Fontaine have been dead for nearly two months (it’s not that long, is it?; though it feels like last year already…). My excuse is that, like many writers, I tend to avoid writing on subjects close to me; and I’ll take any opportunity at hand to delay typing words to computer. (You wouldn’t believe how many necessary videos I’ve been watching on YouTube all this time.)

But O’Toole and Fontaine, bless them, have refused to go away. They’re tucked somewhere inside my cranium, knocking at it ever so gently, reminding me that words have to be said, ideas expressed, feelings felt, before ghosts can be laid. And there are certain passings that can stir up, like gleaming pebbles in the waters of a disturbed pond, long-forgotten bits and pieces of yourself, buried selves that form the base, the deep-driven root, of who you are now and why you love the things that you do. Such as, for me, loving old movies and wanting to write about them. There are starting points to everything, and and these two actors are two such points in my life, forming two solid strands in a thick, heavy chain of my own love of film and of cinema’s past. So I owe these two actors very much. And debts, I know, must be paid.

When I first heard of O’Toole’s and Fontaine’s passings (which seemed to happen almost back to back), I felt like that patsy in a silent comic’s routine, the one who gets smacked by the end of a two-by-four balanced on the comic’s shoulder and then, when the comic whips round 180 degrees, gets smacked again. Only it wasn’t funny. Not one bit. I remember gasping out loud when I found out about O’Toole’s death and then, when Fontaine’s own passing was confirmed a short time later, feeling a sick, cold disbelief. Like that ship’s pilot who shouted the news of Pan’s death at the Roman shores, I sensed a great surge of grief coming over the cyber sphere, a wave of feeling that this can’t be. Immortals aren’t supposed to leave us.

Actress Joan Fontaine

For me, the sadness of a beloved actor’s passing is that he takes so much more with him than his own self: it’s all the characters he’s played, comprising so many scenes, conversations, faces, and gestures that I may have, however unconsciously, repeated or recreated at various times, in mirrors or in my mind, refashioning myself in that reflected screen brilliance. It’s a revelation and a knowledge that an actor bestows, a sense of how much a Self, even your own self, can encompass and express: this is how to look when in love or in anger or when facing a crowd, a courtroom, a party of friends; this is how to speak in just such a witty or passionate way; and this is how to look so beautiful or noble or just so damn cool. It’s an idealized version of selfhood, taking place in a private temple of my brain, that only I can find. And it’s a Self I know I’ll never become, but it’s still there, wrapped and placed inside a cornerstone of my being, waiting to be found again and unearthed.

Thus in the shock of a favorite performer’s actual passing, the temple is, even momentarily, shattered; something of ourselves also seems gone. The great film critic Stanley Kaufmann (who also died in 2013) once wrote of a man he knew whose brother had died the same week as did Gary Cooper but who felt more affected by Coop’s death than that of his own sibling’s. If you don’t care for old movies and their stars, you probably think that people like that man (or like me) are sentimental or foolish; and you might even think yourself immune from such foolishness—but that may be only because your heart’s affections are lodged elsewhere and those chords have yet to be touched (I still recall, for example, the grief that slammed New Yorkers when Mickey Mantle died; the reaction was as if a loved brother had passed on). And O’Toole and Fontaine were more than just great actors loved by many fans, their deaths were more than personal. They summoned up the alpha and omega of an era: Fontaine’s career began in the 1930s, the heyday of the great Hollywood studios, and O’Toole’s began in the 1960s, by which time the major studios, from which such stars as Fontaine emerged, were dying out, their moguls retired or dead, their style of filmmaking and film acting perceived as old-fashioned or (even worse) quaint. Their deaths were a strangely symbolic rounding-off, as if an age of giants was now truly lost and sealed off from us.

But at least we’ve got the films, if not our memories, to confirm this age really did exist.

Private Lives

I’m now at an age when my memory, when it does serve, serves like a romping puppy, eagerly but not too well. I do remember clearly, however, that the first film I ever saw Joan Fontaine in, and in which I had even first heard of her, was Hitchcock’s Suspicion. What embeds this memory in me was that I saw the movie at the same time, every day, for nearly a week. This was in the days well before cable or DVRs (or even Betamaxes), when movies had to be watched at a scheduled time or not at all. Suspicion was being broadcast on a Morning-Movie program that played a film from, I think, 10am-12pm, Monday through Friday; only this program’s format was to play the same movie for those five continuing days. I think I was only eleven or twelve years old at the time, so for me to watch this film every week day, it must have been during summer vacation. Odd, really, as I always link Suspicion in my mind with autumn. Maybe the weather was fall-like that week; I can’t recall. But there’s a late-fall feel to this film, starting right from the credits, with its image of two trees against an empty landscape, to the final shot of a car driving away into the distance—a sense here of departures and endings, of life withdrawing in a long, dying fall into a final silence.


What first kept me watching this movie so compulsively was not its Hitchcock imprimatur; nor its mystery plot; nor even Cary Grant in the cast. It was the Johann Strauss waltz, “Wiener Blut” (“Viennese Blood”), which weaves through that autumnal setting like a bright gold thread through brown wool, its exhilarating melody contrasting so sharply with the film’s austere mood.  It was the first time I’d heard this waltz, and I thought it the most enchanting piece of music I’d ever encountered. The waltz is linked to the film’s central love affair, its coiling tempos an aural metaphor for the emotional vortex in which the protagonist (Fontaine) finds herself enmeshed. It’s first played at a county ball where Grant sweeps a slim, white-gowned Fontaine, looking as lovely and fragile as a swan’s feather, onto the dance floor, the pair palpably carried away by the music’s insinuatingly bewitching rhythm. It’s heard other times throughout the film, as when Grant fixes a gramophone so he can play a recording of it (and Fontaine limp with relief because she thought he had been engaged in a murder elsewhere; see the film to find out more); and in the famous bulb-in-the-milk scene, where it echoes spookily on the soundtrack as Grant ascends those menacing, shadow-laced stairs.


No doubt it sounds strange to youngsters today, the idea of watching a movie so you can hear a waltz. But I grew up in the antenna-analog age, when you couldn’t record or buy a film on disc nor download music from the Internet; and to purchase a recording of Strauss waltzes would have meant a 90-minute trip to Manhattan from a small New Jersey suburb. This movie was the only way I could hear this music, and this music drew me into the film’s ambiance, as compellingly as Fontaine’s character is drawn to the charming, elusive, and unknowable Grant. That may be the draw of any piece of music we love. It’s not ‘knowable,’ in the sense of giving up all its secrets at one or two sessions. You listen to it, over and over, not only to reacquaint yourself with its beguiling familiarity, but to hear more in it of what draws you—subtle variations in rhythm, or changes in orchestral colors, or the discovery of a contrasting harmony. Music’s pull is how it creates a private realm for its listener, enclosing you in its sound and structure. And by pulling me into Suspicion, Strauss’ music opened up this film’s world to me; I was soon gripped by what was happening in the story and in its created world.

I gather that Suspicion is not perceived as top-flight Hitchcock, but I will assert here that it remains my favorite of the Master’s oeuvre—not because of any cinematic greatness, but because it’s so wound into my childhood discovery of how art, even minor art, can create a private, separate universe of being. Suspicion gave me not only a Strauss waltz, but the burgeoning sense of a movie as a world unto itself, a strange, entrancing, simulated life that seemed as weirdly real as my own. I became mesmerized with its British setting, its fantasy English village complete with streets, cars, trees, a post office, even a bookstore as ramshackly inviting as the small bookstore I used to visit in the town next to mine where I grew up. I suppose even then to my young sensibility Hitchcock’s film village looked ever-so-slightly bizarre—everything was just a little too clean, you know. It had that great Hollywood-fake quality, of looking as perfect as you’d want such a setting to be. I loved the film’s neverland of stone cottages and granite houses, with their warm, well-lit interiors, the cozy fires and comfortable furniture, ensconcing those endearing British-beef character actors, Cedric Hardwicke and May Whitty, always dressing for dinner (goodness, what a strange concept that was and still is to me!)—such solid, contented lives that seemed to go on, even when the movie cut to a commercial, perpetually existing in that fixed autumnal landscape.

But it’s that’s hovering presence of autumn—the fear that your life, like the seasons, has slipped by you before you’ve even had a chance to live it—which prompts Fontaine’s Lina, one of those past-the-first-bloom women who seem fated (as she overhears in a parental conversation) to a respectable, albeit lonely spinsterhood, to take a mad chance at life. Fontaine was only 23 when she made this film, but she captured, with a delicate, fine-grained desperation, the feelings of a woman who foresees her life dwindling down into a long, shadowy valley, laid out like one of those serenely landscaped country lanes that take you right back to the place from where you started. Fontaine’s performance is all the more moving because her Lina is so reserved, so self-possessed in her demeanor, yet the actress lets seep out the painful depths of this woman’s emotional nature. A whole other vital, suppressed world is conveyed through her mournful visage, by her way of clutching objects tightly to her—books, packages, eyeglasses—as if afraid that, by the slightest relaxation, her private longings will gush out like blood from an artery.


And it’s why in such tightly wound lives, the letting go is so powerful and impulsive. Hence Lina’s sudden marriage to the rakish, unsettled, and unsettling Johnny Aysgarth (Grant), the classic homme fatal who has a nasty way of oozing himself into lonely people’s dusty lives at just the wrong moment. Lina believes herself safe from Johnny’s money-grubbing ambitions; after all, she reasons, he could have married a girl with so much more. But she’s just the type—too sensitive, too timid, too alone in the world—who looms large on the sociopathic radar of the Johnnys out there. Except Grant’s Johnny manages to ooze out of the implications of his behavior. In interviews Hitchcock lamented that he couldn’t make Grant into a clear-cut villain, but I think he got at something else in Grant’s onscreen persona, more subtle and dark than outright villainy: the curdled self-loathing beneath the happy-go-lucky charm. It’s what makes his character so dangerous (if he doesn’t give a damn about himself, dear, he certainly won’t give a damn about YOU). That quality is definitely there in Notorious, as it is, in more benign form, in North By Northwest, where Grant’s harried ad executive Roger O. Thornhill has the monogram ROT printed on his matchbooks. (The meaning is so obvious you might just miss it.)

But the meat, for me, in this film was not Grant’s ambivalence but Fontaine’s privacy. She struck me as an unconventional movie star, with her reserved manner, her sense of an unspoken monologue going on behind her brooding eyes. I recognized that, of a life where you have to keep thoughts and feelings to yourself because there’s no one else to listen to them. That inner solitude came through even in the structure of her face. Maybe cinema’s greatest invention was the close-up, for how it allows us to dwell on the human face and its hidden worlds, as if it were a piece of psychological architecture. And Fontaine’s face is uncanny. She was a beautiful woman but her beauty was one of asymmetry. Her chin was a bit too sharp, her nose a tad too tilted, her eyebrows set at slight slant, her mouth just a touch sloped. Her sister, the beautiful Olivia de Havilland, has a more ‘classical’ set to her features, they’re much more regular and soothing to gaze at. But with Fontaine’s face you keep trying to find a place where you can settle your eyes and find a way in. Your gaze roams her features for that still point that’s never quite there. I’m not knocking classical beauty; but there’s a visual pull, a compulsion to look at a face that shifts and moves with just-the-slightest-bit-offness; it’s infinity locked in a miniature.


One other thing I liked about Fontaine was her walk. Like her face, it was just a wee bit off. She didn’t have straight posture; her shoulders were slightly hunched, and she moved clunkily, making you aware, as she strolled across a floor, of gravity’s pull on the body, of how in motion its weight shifts from side to side, engaged in a perpetual balancing act. Fontaine’s walk is a private walk; she moves across a set as if unaware of camera, décor, or costumes, her focus is on where she’s heading, not on how she presents herself. I recently saw Fontaine’s last theatrical feature The Witches (AKA The Devil’s Own, 1966), and I was both delighted and moved to see that same walk. So many decades after I first saw her in Suspicion (so many decades after she herself made it), and there again was her odd, singular, slightly awkward, and uniquely defining gait. It’s what will always set off Fontaine from all other Hollywood actresses for me—her treading toward an unstated but clear-in-her-own-mind goal, while yet absorbed in her own inner space.

Golden Boy

It’s quite a move from placid English villages to the glaring sands of the Middle East, but such can be the compass of our cinematic loves and lives. I think the first picture I ever saw with Peter O’Toole was the 1964 Becket, which co-starred him with another British great, Richard Burton. I also must have been around twelve or thirteen when I saw it—just young and ripe enough to be bowled over by all that British powerhouse theatricality crashing off the screen. (Seeing it from my (much) older perspective today, I find O’Toole’s performance to be a little too strung out and hysterical, too modern for the blunter sensibilities of a medieval warrior-king.) But like probably every other boomer on the planet, I mentally wrap O’Toole inside and within his best-known role, the title character in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Whatever you may have seen O’Toole in before seeing Lawrence, I don’t think anything prepares you for the impact he makes in this film.

What can I say. O’Toole is a god in this movie. A Grecian Apollo, gorgeous and gleaming like the Mediterranean sun, but with a schoolboy cheekiness and high-strung neuroticism that bring him smack down into the 20th century. He’s a god who feels. Even just standing there, O’Toole opens himself to the camera eye, his face an emotional prism, throbbing like an open wound. Lean films him with the kind of meticulous, eroticized gaze that other filmmakers lavished on their cinematic muses—Capra’s ecstatic lensing of early-30s Stanwyck, or Griffith’s prolonged absorption in Gish’s features, or Welles’ voluptuously dispassionate scrutiny of Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai. Just look at this beautiful creature here, they’re saying, is there anyone or anything else who comes close? And Lean, working in color, could match O’Toole with his landscape—the gold hair and skin, the blue (bluest ever) eyes, the white robes, with the gold, blue, and white of sand, sky, and fierce sunlight. O’Toole is simply the most stupefyingly beautiful object ever caught on camera.


But O’Toole isn’t just looking beautiful in this film. He’s doing things. He’s racing round the desert, he’s leading armies, he’s sweeping a white-sleeved arm across that hard, bright sky and heading for the hills, hordes of dark-robed Bedouins following. Who wouldn’t want to jump out of a constraining armchair in a constraining room within a constraining life and follow? I sure did. I was about sixteen when I first saw Lawrence, and O’Toole’s exuberance, his energy, his dazzling looks, caught me up like a whirlwind. If Fontaine drew me in, into the privacy of a single, intense existence, O’Toole drew me out—I wanted nothing more than to throw myself into a Big, BIG, Glorious Adventure. No quiet autumn setting here—this was life lived at the highest pitch, in perpetual heat and sun, with nothing to bind you except the limits of the world itself.

What I think made my dream unusual is that it was the reverie of a sixteen-year-old female, and I have a sneaking notion sixteen-year-old females don’t dream about the Desert Revolt. Maybe they dream of boyfriends or shoes or popularity or looking thin and beautiful. I don’t know. Those were never my teenage dreams. I just wanted to get up and OUT, to move and run and expand my limbs and mind, and where no small-minded, fun-killing authority would slam down on my freedom and yell at me for bad manners. More than anything, I craved space. And a kind of lawlessness, where I wouldn’t have to follow rules or obey adults or give a damn about whether my hair was washed or my clothes were clean. Just a note here: there was nothing of real Middle Eastern history or politics in my inchoate fantasies. They were closer to the Arabian Nights than to Arab reality. I’d no knowledge then of actual life in the Middle East (it also wasn’t an incessant news item during my youth, as it is now). All I knew was that it looked like fun to ride camels and blow up trains. It sure beat high school. I was a teenaged Walter Mitty (how’s that for a film title?), knowing in my guts I would never live the excitement I viewed onscreen, but wishing I belonged there. Life really was a movie for me.


Did any others experience a similar thrill watching O’Toole, secretly wishing that life could explode into something Bigger, More Active, More Exciting, More–well, more something? I don’t know for myself, I never discussed Lawrence with anyone. One thing that the young soon discover is that there’s no such thing as a ‘peer group’ when it comes to anything old. At least I found it that way with ‘old’ movies. I was alone with a private love; O’Toole and Lawrence (as with Fontaine and Suspicion) held no interest for any others in my New Jersey suburban-bound adolescence. Oddly, I do recall once being told, I don’t remember by whom, that O’Toole actually owned a house and property in, of all places, New Jersey. I’ve no idea if that was true. As to why O’Toole would be living in the Garden State: my informant explained that New Jersey had secluded townships where the wealthy could live in concealed luxury. I think my reaction to this was not joy or wonder but a feeling of life’s weirdness. Peter O’Toole, born on Olympus, blazing on screen—and now domiciled on some pricey real estate in NJ, USA. Wherever gods reside, it should not be on the wrong side of the Hudson River. That’s like bottling lightning in a pickle jar; the contents don’t fit the container.

Critics, at least from what I’ve garnered in the obituaries I’ve read, seem to have viewed O’Toole’s own post-Lawrence life as a long, slow slide into a pickle jar. The New York Times (let’s all bow our heads here) stated in its obit that in O’Toole’s career there was “a lingering note of unfulfilled promise.” I find such remarks lip-pursing. Unfulfilled? For whom? As though O’Toole owed us something, as though he must perforce cross even bigger and more desolate deserts to prove something more about himself and perhaps about us. But maybe O’Toole’s critics had also felt, as I had when watching him, that life held out something bigger, more splendid, more glowing. Maybe they were miffed that he didn’t keep on showing up in a burnoose and detonator. The burden of a once-in-a-lifetime role like T.E. Lawrence (more accurately, Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt’s highly romanticized portrait of him) is—what do you do to top it? Especially when it comes so early in a career (O’Toole was barely 30 when he starred in the film). Everyone’s out there thinking, OK, buster, what’s your encore? Are you then forced, like Orson Welles, to go through life with the albatross of Youthful Masterpiece slung round your neck, while reviewers proclaim how let down they feel? But why should O’Toole’s career be chalked into Success and Failure columns, as though his life and art were a mere matter of keeping score—here’s a good Hamlet, here’s a bad Macbeth, and Oh My GAAAD what’s he doing in such miserable dreck like High Spirits (I assume that one was to pay the bills—maybe on that expensive New Jersey estate).


Well, Humphrey Bogart—a man who knew something about achieving success later rather than sooner in life—once said that all an actor owes his public is a good performance. And those O’Toole gave us. Maybe not perfect performances, but who else, besides Balanchine, Bach, and Mozart, is capable of perfection all the time? Even in the dreck O’Toole would find something—a drawl of the voice, a glint in the eye—that would, as he wrote in a youthful diary entry, “stir the smooth sands of monotony.” And some of those performances leaped beyond the small, the conventional, the safely trite and predictable, into actual greatness. Watching O’Toole in The Ruling Class, you feel what Emily Dickinson said about the effect of true poetry: it’s as if the top of your head has been taken off. You may not know what to make of what he’s doing, but you know you’ve never seen anything quite like it—your whole sentient being is exposed to something fresh, strange, and daring. Great art does that, it tilts the world at an unfamiliar angle and shakes it all up as you look at it, and then reforms it anew.

The greatest actors are brave souls; they’re willing to bare so much of themselves to our unpitying gazes. And O’Toole was always willing to reach, higher and deeper into himself, to achieve that. Even if the results might look overwrought and silly (as in the peculiar Night of the Generals, staring into mirrors while facial muscles quiver like a blancmange in orgasm), O’Toole at least took the risk. And in taking such risks, the actor is looking back, at you, giving you something of your own self in his world. There are good actors like Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, real pros whom I admire but whose acting rarely deviated from the expected and familiar; and there are unstable geniuses like John Barrymore, who could ham it up like Porky Pig on speed, but who, when he was pure and true and great, could split open your brain and pour in the light. I’ll take the brain-opening ham any day; he’s the guy who makes you see.

So I’m not about to grouse about O’Toole’s wasted potential. It’s not that I’m not immune from feeling that way about beloved performers, but when they’ve given me so much, I feel I owe them something back. I’m grateful to O’Toole for having once raced across the desert and stirred up in me a different way to dream. (Indeed, I’m grateful for his getting me started on a lifelong interest in the real T.E. Lawrence, a man as strange and unpredictable as any of O’Toole’s performances.) In the same way I’m grateful to Fontaine’s delicately etched impression of her private realm of feeling, of revealing to me the world of myself. It seems such a vast step away from O’Toole’s ancient, unending desert; but somehow these two worlds blend and meld in my mind, as if in a private cinema, where I can look out onto the empty stretches of wind and sand from a cozy armchair pulled up to a country-house fire. I’ll admit, I’m now at an age where tea and buttered toast in a sun-dappled parlor is much more enticing than tethering camels by sun-bleached dunes (and I know my feline pals would prefer the former—if there’s one thing I’ve learned outside the movies, it’s always trust the judgment of a cat). Maybe I’ll never get to either place in physical reality, but they’re still part of my core self, and they’re still what compel me to keep watching movies.

A few days after Fontaine and O’Toole died, I was listening to a classical-music radio station, when it suddenly played a recording of “Viennese Blood.” I stopped what I was doing and sat back to listen, suddenly remembering what this music had once meant to me, and also recalling Joan Fontaine—her fascination for me returning with a sweet, aching clarity. And then, a few hours later, that same station played Maurice Jarre’s overture to Lawrence of Arabia, as a tribute to Peter O’Toole; and again I sat back and listened, thinking how uncanny, these two pieces of music, linked to two films so important to me, and now being played on the same day. I think the germ of this essay may have begun there. Or maybe (if I wish to pursue the uncanny element) it was a signal from another realm, prompting me to rouse up these faded recollections once more and bring them out into the world.


Lawrence of Arabia will be broadcast on TCM on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 4pm; it’s also being shown on Sunday, February 9, 2014, 3pm, at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. Suspicion will be shown on Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 1:00 and 7:45pm as part of Film Forum’s Complete Hitchcock retrospective, running from February 27 to March 27, 2014, in New York City.

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