Throughout the history of cinema, the female actor has functioned as a screen goddess, an image of perfection, and a powerful affective force. Whether it is a specific vocal intonation, a certain physical, psychological or political disposition, or a combination of these, the female actor has the power to give expression to our dreams, desires, and fears.
As part of its continuing focus on women and cinema, Senses of Cinema recently extended an invitation to its contributors to reflect on, and pay tribute to, a specific female actor. The result is an eclectic and unconventional range of entries that testifies to the power and force of the female actor.
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Arletty by Bernard Hemingway
Stéphane Audran by Ray Young
Halle Berry by Charlie Kanganis
Louise Brooks by Tina Marie Camilleri
Geneviève Bujold by Girish Shambu
Bess Flowers by Joe McElhaney
Setsuko Hara by Dan Harper
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If in American cinema, woman is body, in European cinema she is spirit. Think Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth as opposed to Monica Vitti and Anna Karina. Either way, the female screen icon is a mythic sublimation of male desire. Where the Hollywood starlet plays to the camera in alluring fashion, in European cinema, on the other hand, woman is demurely still, the camera moving around her, seeking confirmation of her meaning in her expressions and gestures. An unforgettable instance of this European style is Arletty (Arlette-Léonie Bathiat, 1898-1992) as Garance in Marcel Carné’s ode to unrequited male desire, Les enfants du paradis (1945).
Garance’s ideal status is established in the film’s opening where we first see her sitting in a “well” (a wooden barrel filled with water) admiring herself in a mirror. She abandons this role (in disgust, as it is no more than a pretext for a peepshow), only to appear apotheosised briefly as a classical Greek statue of Iphygenia in Baptiste’s mime/play, before becoming the mistress of Count Edouard de Montray, the role she retains for the rest of the film.
Garance inspires l’amour fou in both the Count and Baptiste. By the end of the film, the Count is dead and in the closing shot, as she departs in her carriage, we see Baptiste swept away in a sea of carousing carnival Pierrots, the character he created to personify his lovelorn melancholy. The message, articulated by Le Maitre, a feckless actor and Garance’s sometime lover, earlier in the film is that “woman belongs to no-one”. She is carnal yet unattainable, a mystery to man.
Arletty’s Ingres-like beauty was perfect for Carné’s purposes and he exploited it to the hilt (even having the Count murdered in a Turkish bath to underline the association), carefully placing her at the centre of his scrupulous compositions, usually facing the camera, usually mid-range but often in close-ups which draw attention to her eyes, lit from above, the rest of the frame in shadow. It is no doubt of relevance that Arletty had been a model, before becoming an actress, for her performance is a miracle of imperturbability, suggesting a fatalistic awareness of her beauty and its power over men, and of her isolation because of it.
Arletty was imprisoned after WW II as a collaborator due to an affair with a German officer, and she appeared in film only intermittently thereafter. Although the total number of her screen appearances are thus few, and her name is not well known, Arletty attained film immortality in the role of Garance.
by Bernard Hemingway back to list of names
Bernard Hemingway’s film review site is Cinephilia.
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As she moved across the bridge, it was a heady mix. The lighting subdued to a pastel haze, the audio a woozy blend of distant music and organic resonance, all of it rubbing together like the moist palms of a patient, scheming conspirator. Arriving into view on this late afternoon, Stéphane Audran, so elegant in black, seduces us from the start. If one wishes to experience her sleek charisma, look no further than these opening moments of Les Biches (Claude Chabrol, 1968).
After a range of supporting roles in Chabrol’s earlier work (they were once married, and have made over 25 films together), Les Biches was the first exploration of Audran’s command and vulnerability in a complex lead – an arrogant lesbian reigning over a secluded world of psychological role-play. Yet within the simmering drama, there are moments of delightful buoyancy – Audran introducing her new girlfriend to the cook, or when she covers her ears from the resident “musicians.” Yes, she’s quite excellent in comedy.
Born in 1932, rarely taking breaks from the screen since the late 1950s, Audran has appeared in over a hundred films. (You can see her in Jean-Marie Poiré’s Ma femme… s’appelle Maurice , due out this year.) English-speaking audiences have encountered her, albeit all-too briefly, in ventures that failed at providing her any lasting mainstream celebrity: as the femme fatale in the George Segal comedy, The Black Bird (1975); Ivan Passer’s unnoticed Silver Bears (1977); Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980); plus small roles in the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Maximum Risk (1996), and the children’s comedy, Madeline (Daisy von Scherler Mayer, 1998). She has also acted extensively for television, and was in the popular mini-series, Brideshead Revisited (1981). But most of her work (and fame) has remained in France, in many unassuming movies that haven’t attracted distribution outside its borders.
Above all the other filmmakers, Chabrol prized Audran’s fine face and perfect body, and, as far back as Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), understood a low-angle close-up of her profile brought forth an exquisite declaration. Her large, almond-shaped eyes with glistening emerald centres, could effortlessly entrance from a deadlock stare. And her lovely voice would gently tremble from its delicate semi-monotone when feigning confusion or subtly issuing an order, immediately snaring one’s attention. You can see it displayed in several of the director’s thrillers: the La Muette segment of Paris vu Par (1965), where she played the wife to Chabrol’s on-screen character; seductive in La Femme Infidèle (1969); having a tipsy chat with Jean Yanne during a leisurely (and lengthy) stroll in Le Boucher (1969); as the working girl fleeing oppression in the woefully overlooked La Rupture (1970); and scrambling to make love with Michel Piccoli in Les Noces Rouges (1973).
Her image vital to the nouvelle vague, Luis Buñuel cast Audran along with his hungry bunch of Euro-chic fashion plates in Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie (1972). Constantly prodded by the surrealist’s droll fate, her character deflects all opposition with a vacuous smile. Plucking straw from her hair after rolling in the garden with Jean-Pierre Cassel, she skilfully embodied the stony hauteur set in Buñuel’s sites.
Her nearest approach to international stardom came with the surprise success of Gabriel Axel’s Babettes Gæstebud (1987). Older, visibly withdrawn, but with a mild glimmer of cynicism (watch her haggle over prices with the fisherman), Audran portrayed yesterday’s elitist deflated to housekeeping for a pair of spinsters. Her wondrous eyes now revealed the distress in Babette’s bruised soul, a gaze of longing soured to grief. But how she came to life in the kitchen! It’s a charming film, and Audran, toiling over a dinner of Soupe a la Tortue a la Louisianne and Caille en Sarcophage, serves us well.
by Ray Young back to list of names
Ray Young was editor and publisher of the film fanzine, Magick Theatre, from 1975 to 1985. Since the ’70s, he has contributed reviews and articles to Fangoria, Paper Cinema, Boulevards, the Long Island Voice, and the Phoenix-based Free Paper. He is currently author and webmaster of http://www.flickhead.com.
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A double espresso machiatto, a dollop of shapely foam, a shower of cinnamon and cocoa – is one way to describe Halle Berry. Hot, strong and yet delicate. But so is a sunset on Santorini, a sight that takes away any doubt in my mind that there is a God. Ms. Berry is at her best when her characters are at their darkest hour, their deepest pain. This writer’s pleasure-cruise with Halle from Darwin to Adelaide took place for the film, Race The Sun (Charlie Kanganis, 1996). Far from her Oscar worthy Losing Isaiah (Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1995) or her Oscar winning Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001), Race The Sun reveals a subtle, caring leader, a high school teacher who believes in her students. And who inspires them to realize their dreams of piloting a solar car across the Australian outback. Halle’s beauty is a bonus, her passion and drive is her power, her talent only a result of that.
by Charlie Kanganis back to list of names
Charlie Kanganis is a LA-based film director and writer. His films include Race the Sun (1996), No Escape, No Return (1993), Sinners (1990) among others.
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Louise Brooks has the capacity to linger within one’s sensual consciousness like the scent left on an old coat or the lines in a love letter. Her presence is mysterious and magical and leaves traces that cling, hover, envelope and mark their space with a residual magic. With her slicked black helmet of hair framing an exotic pan-like face, she appears like a hologram – shimmering, fogged, clouded and yet full of an unforgettable vividness as her black eyes flash, sparkle and glow with a scorpionic-innocent-intense passion, cutting through the air like knives.
In Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1928), Brooks’ Lulu materializes as a beautiful, tempting child-like Goddess. With her body poured into slippery oil-slick silk and satin dresses, nets, veils and marshmallow creamy dressing gowns or billowing gauzy wraps that spill out into space like mercury from her pores, she is erratic-alluring and forbidden, and the camera captures/cradles her with a kind of longing curiosity. When she and her lover Schoen argue backstage at the theatre, Lulu lays face down on a crumpled little bed twisting her body from side to side in distress and the camera pans up her legs, the backs of her shoulders and the famous slicked back bob in a catalogue that commercializes and sensualises her body at the same time as it hangs back watching, daring not to ‘touch’.
Filling the screen with an infectious beauty and relaxed electric impulsiveness, Brooks’ Lulu is at her most interesting, most desired, most enigmatically profound when she openly resists all understanding. Glowing with a sumptuous luminosity that seems to position her as Other-worldly, mesmerizing and always out of reach on the overhead trapeze, she douses the screen with an opalescent magic, part starlight liquor part deadly gun powder.
by Tina Marie Camilleri back to list of names
Tina Marie Camilleri is a Sydney based artist and writer.
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When I was growing up in late 1970s Calcutta, thrillers and kung-fu flicks were hot commodities in the Esplanade cinemas, which sported shabby facades and genteel names like the Globe, the Elite, or the New Empire. It was in one of those vast movie palaces, in a Michael Crichton medical suspenser called Coma (1978), that I discovered Geneviève Bujold. The film’s labyrinthine conspiracy of organ theft goosed me far less than the fragile, fiery girl-woman at its centre. Much later, I discovered “the three faces of Geneviève” in pioneer Canadian film director Paul Almond’s trilogy Isabel (1968), Act Of The Heart (1970) and Journey (1972). The potent range of these three complex Bujold roles (in formally inventive, woman-centred films) is a model of versatility. And who can forget her subversive seductress running rings around Yves Montand’s resolve in Alain Resnais’s La Guerre Est Finie (1966)? But there is one Bujold performance that to me seems meant for the ages.
Brian De Palma cooked up Obsession (1976) with Paul Schrader soon after they had seen a new Vista-Vision print of Vertigo together. Originally entitled Déjà Vu (a title soon abandoned because the distributors thought it might be mistaken, heaven forbid, for a French film!), it featured Bujold playing the Madeleine/Judy roles from Vertigo, only this time as mother and daughter. De Palma ingeniously stages scenes of them together in which they are both simultaneously played by Bujold with no facial make-up or physical accessories. All we have to lock us into their separate traumas are Geneviève’s face and body. De Palma, in a marvellous gesture of perverse casting, overlays a fragrant Italian accent over Bujold’s musical Quebecois inflections, as if arriving in New Orleans (where the film begins and ends) from Florence via Montreal. (Just a few years earlier, he had cast an English-Canadian actress, Margot Kidder, as Quebecoise Siamese twins in yet another redolence of Vertigo in Sisters).
In one memorable moment of Obsession, De Palma starts out with a close-up of a psychologically regressing Bujold, and then slowly raises the camera, tilting down at her, altering perspective and literally turning a disintegrating woman into a little girl before our very eyes without the aid of cuts or special-effects trickery. In the explosively operatic finale of this, De Palma’s most richly emotional and giddily romantic film, Cliff Robertson and Bujold hurtle towards each other in a fluorescent airport corridor in excruciating slow motion. When they embrace, the camera whirls around them endlessly in inebriation. Every time we pass Bujold’s face during this ludicrously beautiful climax, it flashes with an expression of a new colour.
by Girish Shambu back to list of names
Girish Shambu is on the faculty at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.
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Bess Flowers: Film Star
She has appeared in more great films than any actor, male or female, in all of American cinema, in a career that encompassed everything from Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923) to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), from silent cinema to sound, from the heyday of the traditional Hollywood studio system to its declining years. She did melodramas, musicals, romantic comedies, westerns, and horror films. She was kissed by Clark Gable, insulted by Ginger Rogers, and more than once had to endure physical assaults by the Three Stooges. In her entry in The Film Encyclopaedia (HarperCollins, New York, 2001, 4th edition), she is described by Ephraim Katz as the “Queen of the Hollywood Extras,” a title that identifies her as a member of the faceless many and the face that stood out from the crowd (p. 467). And stand out from the crowd she often quite literally did. At almost five foot nine, she can be spotted in any crowd scene, elegantly towering above all of the women and some of the men. She is, in fact, the only extra who receives an entry in Katz, a testament to her singularity and her struggle against anonymity within the Hollywood machinery. (Appropriately enough, the first title listed in Katz’s filmography for her is Hollywood.) You have all seen her many times, even if you have no idea who it is I am referring to or cannot immediately attach a face to the name: Bess Flowers.
If a fundamental impulse behind cinephilia is to embrace the marginal and elevate the elusive fragment over the whole, what could be more cinephilic than to become fixated on Bess Flowers? She rarely received screen credit but not only is this irrelevant to her fans, it increases the intensity of the devotion. Katz’s filmography for her is pitifully incomplete. I compile my own filmography, putting an asterisk next to the roles in which she gets dialogue of some sort, and also ask friends to keep an eye out for her. It is a project without an end in sight. Even my subject could not remember how many films she made. As with the biggest of stars and the most gifted of character actors, she was often typecast, typically playing an upper-class matron entering a nightclub or exiting the ladies’ room, sipping cocktails at a party or striding along the deck of an ocean liner wearing a mink coat. But she was capable of turning up in some surprising places, sometimes playing a nurse, as in The Shining Hour (Frank Borzage, 1938), getting downright rowdy as she heckles a prize-fighter in Kid Galahad (Michael Curtiz, 1937), or playing a secretary, as in Unfinished Business (1941), the latter directed by Gregory La Cava, who gave her a number of notable moments, one of the most unusual and memorable as a mental patient in Private Worlds (1935). Early in her career she did sometimes play supporting and lead parts and even received billing. But somehow these roles are not as much fun. It is almost too much of a good thing. Or perhaps extended exposure to Bess Flowers leads to a diminishment of her appeal. At any rate, it is only as an extra that Bess (and she is always Bess to her fans, never Flowers) truly becomes a star. The one exception might be the bit role that was her favourite: in the party sequence from Undercurrent (Vincente Minnelli, 1946), she and Katharine Hepburn exchange several lines of dialogue, as a shy and awkward Hepburn attempts to face the Washington society crowd of which Bess is a significant member. Bess is kind to Hepburn, in a gently condescending way, but she clearly has little real time for her. This is one extra who will not play second fiddle to a star.
However, the pleasures to be had from being a Bess fanatic are not simply in the appearances themselves but also in the detective work involved. Because she does not receive screen credit, one can never be sure in advance if she will turn up in a particular film. Consequently, any Hollywood film between 1923 and 1964 contains the possibility of Bess Flowers. One waits, patiently or impatiently (depending on the quality of the film) for an appearance. If it does arrive, it is the highest and most elusive experience of photogénie, as she appears and then just as quickly disappears from the view of the camera: waltzing by with a dance partner right after Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen have sung “Sisters” in White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954) or brushing past Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) and almost pushing them into an embrace. Special mention should be made here of Lucky Me (Jack Donohue, 1954) in which Bess holds a parasol in front of a flower shop as Doris Day struts by singing a song. Prominently displayed in pink neon just about Bess’s head is a sign comprised of a single word: “Flowers.” And don’t forget Nancy Goes to Rio (Robert Z. Leonard, 1950) in which she apparently plays herself. Upon congratulating Ann Sothern for her just-completed musical performance, Sothern responds with: “Thank you, Bess.”
But there is more to this than a mere footnote in American film history. Bess’s appearances often enact the very tension between an underpaid, anonymous being and a screen legend as she is repeatedly positioned at the crossroads between stardom and the void. It is Bess who is introduced to Gene Tierney by Clifton Webb outside of a theatre in Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) as Webb’s voice-over narration states: “I introduced [Laura] to everyone: the famous and the infamous.” It is Bess who is on the dais for the Sarah Siddons Awards at the beginning of All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), listening to the “very old actor” deliver his speech about the profession of acting. (Near the end of the film, she delivers her one line, telling Anne Baxter: “I’m so happy for you, Eve.” For Bess followers, a line as quotable as “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”) It is Bess who is seated at Judy Garland’s table for the Academy Awards sequence in A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954), ecstatically cheering Garland’s win and just as strongly expressing her disapproval of James Mason’s drunken speech immediately after it, both through facial expression alone. And it is Bess who is the actual star of the Broadway play in Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959) before the “young” upstart Lana Turner steals her thunder.
But let us go even further here in emphasizing the centrality of Bess Flowers to her films and to American cinema in general. In an influential analysis of Hitchcock’s Marnie (a film in which Bess does not appear, alas, as its production coincided with the year of her retirement, 1964), Raymond Bellour has analyzed Hitchcock’s cameo appearances as moments in which “the film-wish” becomes condensed and crystallized. When one looks at the body of work of Bess Flowers one can detect a similar pattern in which we see much more than an extra or bit player doing as they are told. Instead, Bess’s appearances often condense and crystallize the concerns of her own films as she is positioned at the nucleus of what these films are fundamentally about. When Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) decides to become a waitress, Bess is seated at a table across from her, as though indirectly willing Crawford into this fateful moment. In another equally fateful moment set in a restaurant, Bess is elegantly dining at Ernie’s as Scottie gets his first view of Madeleine in Vertigo. For the Bette Davis vehicle about twin sisters, A Stolen Life (Curtis Bernhardt, 1946), Bess likewise enacts a dual role, first appearing at the wedding of the “bad” sister and then later in a department store Bess’s twin can be spotted dashing about while the “good” sister talks to Glenn Ford.
But if I were to choose the most complete Bess Flowers film it would be The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953). She gets no dialogue here but Vincente Minnelli (who had already directed her in her favourite film, Undercurrent) carefully positions her at three pivotal moments, each of them related to the various developments of Fred Astaire’s attempted comeback on the New York stage. She first appears in the film’s second sequence, just before Astaire overhears two men discuss the ways in which his career has become washed up. Seated opposite the men in the same car, Bess is served a tonic water and reads a book. In her second appearance, she is at the backers’ audition, happily applauding Astaire and his colleagues on, thrilled over the possibilities of the new show. While we are later told that these backers have all fled after the show’s disastrous out-of-town tryout, Bess apparently has not deserted the company. Quite the contrary. She becomes part of the show itself, turning up in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” finale as one of the clients in the fashion salon where Astaire first meets Cyd Charisse. From a silent witness to Astaire’s humiliation to a financial supporter of his resurrection to becoming an active participant in the resurrection itself, Bess is there every step of the way, a kind of guardian angel for Astaire and for the show. Backstage musicals so often stress the importance of the company, the collective working towards the good of the show. What could be more appropriate for The Band Wagon than to have Bess Flowers be its witness, its protector and its participant, the woman who has represented more fully than any camera subject the genuine pleasures to be had from being part of a collective?
“I’ve made a very good living,” she said several years after she had retired, “and have certainly had some of the best life has to offer.” No bitterness, no jealousy, just happy to be part of this history, at once on its margins and at the very centre of it.
by Joe McElhaney back to list of names
Joe McElhaney is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York.
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Setsuko Hara – The Enigma of the ‘Eternal Virgin’
The actress known as Setsuko Hara was born Masae Aida, June 17 1920 in Yokohama, Japan. Her filmography (1) begins in 1935 with Don’t Hesitate, Young Folks (Tamarau nakare wakodo yo, Tetsu Taguchi) and ends abruptly in 1962 with Hiroshi Inagaki’s rendition of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chushingura). In between, are films that made her – and which she helped to make – unforgettable: No Regrets For Our Youth (Waga seishun ni kuinashi, Akira Kurosawa, 1946), Late Spring (Banshun, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949), Repast (Meshi, Mikio Naruse, 1951), Early Summer (Bakushu, Ozu, 1951), Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari, Ozu, 1953), The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto, Naruse, 1954), and Late Autumn (Akibiyori, Ozu, 1960), to name but the most illustrious.
As it turned out, the name Setsuko Hara wasn’t much different from any of the other names that Masae Aida answered to in her films, like Yukie or Noriko or Akiko – people who existed only within the context that Kurosawa or Ozu or Naruse gave them. Shocking everyone except her family and closest friends, who alone had intimations of her true self, Masae/Setsuko announced her sudden retirement in 1963. “And then there was what she said,” writes Donald Richie of the event,
the reasons she gave. She implied that she had never enjoyed making films, that she had only done so merely to make enough money to support her large family, that she hadn’t thought well of anything she had done in the films, and now that the family was provided for she saw no reason to continue in something she didn’t care for (Richie, 70).
Setsuko Hara was never seen again. Masae Aida, nearly 30 years older than her debut in films but still unmarried and childless, retreated into a genteel obscurity. Her private life had been pried into before, during her reign as Japanese cinema’s ‘Eternal Virgin’, but nothing was found there to satisfy the tabloids, nothing to disturb the popular mythology surrounding her (2). And nothing more would be found out, in the nearly 40 intervening years in which Masae has lived her unassailably private life “in a small house in Kamakura,” (Richie, 70) adamantly refusing to appear or speak on behalf of her former self.
Masae has seen to it that we will never find out who she is. And even if we know quite a bit more about Setsuko, some of it is frustratingly inconsistent – in perfect keeping, perhaps, for the Woman Who Never Was. Her first appearance on film was at the age of 15 with Shochiku Studios, founded in the 1920s. And Shochiku became her contracted studio for the rest of her life. But it was a particularly troubled time in Japan, with the war in China raging and Japan’s entry into World War II looming. Still, Setsuko quickly became a star.
Though considered, like her sensei Ozu, quintessentially Japanese, she was singled out by Arnold Fanck in 1936 as representative of a European-style young woman, probably due to her expressively large eyes. Fanck, famous in Europe for his Alpinist films – hyperventilated mountain melodramas, often starring the young Leni Riefenstahl – got her top billing in his German-Japanese production called The New Earth (Atarashiki tsuchi) in Japan and Die Tochter des Samurai in Germany.
Hara then appeared in a string of wartime propaganda films with such emblematic titles as War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Hawai mare oki kaisen, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1942) and Watchtower Suicide Squad (Boro no kesshitai, Tadashi Imai, 1943) – films that were more illustrative of Japan’s national peril than of its jingoism. Their poor quality did not prevent Setsuko from becoming a “pin-up girl” for wartime Japanese soldiers.
The war lost and Japan in ruins, a novice director named Akira Kurosawa, on loan to Shochiku from a newly formed studio that would later call itself “Toho,” cast Setsuko in the meaty role of the heroine of his beautiful but uncharacteristic “feminist” (and transparently socialist) No Regrets for Our Youth, which addressed the consequences that the generation that came of age during the War had had to face for their political activism. Setsuko was magnificent as a “woman of the people,” and it is one of the performances that have become the bedrock of her – by now – international reputation. Five years later at Shochiku, Kurosawa cast her in the impossible Nastasya Filippovna role in his fascinating adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (Hakuchi, 1951), transforming her into a woman who fascinates virtually every male character in the cast with her striking beauty and erratic behavior. With her severely coiffed hair and accentuated eyelashes (like Marlene Dietrich, she is invariably lit from above), her performance was severely damaged, along with the film, by the studio’s demands for draconian cuts, leaving it (laborious explanatory inter-titles and all) at less than one-third its intended length.
But it was Ozu who noticed certain qualities in Setsuko and cast her in the first of his late, great masterpieces, Late Spring. She was 29, but still ‘virginal’ in at least one sense, and totally convincing as Ozu’s iconic devoted daughter Noriko. Like her, Ozu never married, choosing instead to devote his remaining years to erecting an indestructible monument to the fragile, disintegrating Japanese family. And Setsuko played an irreplaceable part, in five more Ozu films: Early Summer, Tokyo Story, Tokyo Twilight (Tokyo boshoku, 1957), Late Autumn, and The End of Summer (Kohayagawa-ke no aki, 1961).
Meanwhile she would also make four films with Mikio Naruse, who was somewhat less reverential toward the Japanese family than Ozu, and much more interested in the constricted roles that women were required to play in Japanese society. For Naruse, Setsuko was allowed to approximate a more realistic, postwar young woman, in two films based on Fumiko Hayashi stories and two on Yasunari Kawabata – equally delicate but very different writers. Hayashi was one of the first postwar writers to devote herself exclusively to depicting the plight of women. In Repast, Setsuko played a wife trapped in a childless and loveless marriage in the lower middle class suburbs of Osaka. Setsuko, ever the refracting prism of the lives of Japanese women, was both totally convincing and deeply moving.
In The Sound of the Mountain (which, incidentally, was Yasunari Kawabata’s own favorite of all his screen adaptations), Setsuko was again involved in an unhappy marriage, this time to a husband who has a child by a mistress. Setsuko’s character has an abortion (quite an advanced detail for a 1954 film). The only comfort she receives is from her father-in-law, who quite obviously adores her and helps her to cope.
With so much sensitive and intelligent work in the service of a handful of some of the greatest films ever made, it is all the more puzzling that Setsuko/Masae could not only suspend it forever but even renounce it. It was one thing for Greta Garbo to confess to David Niven that she retired from films because she was bored with always playing “bad women.” (Niven) What Garbo perhaps lacked was an Ozu, a Naruse, or a Kurosawa. But even these stalwarts of Film Art were apparently not enough to keep Masae from her secret life in Kamakura as the Eternal Virgin, alone and, by society’s standards, unfulfilled. It was as if Garbo had shorn her hair and entered a nunnery.
E. M. Forster once complained that he had to give up novel writing because he had grown tired of granting his characters the happy ending that he himself had been denied in life – heterosexual love and marriage. Although some sexual motivation often has the effect of humanizing an otherwise superhuman subject, I am not suggesting that Masae Aida was homosexual. Assigning sexual preference to people based on completely innocent statements, writings or other evidence has become one of the more tiresome commonplaces of revisionist criticism. I am perfectly satisfied to leave Masae’s virginity intact – even now that she is 80, when such distinctions are subtle, at best.
But would it be going too far to suggest that Masae, having defined Japanese women in their various social roles, spurned those roles in her own life because she was unable to find fulfillment in them? In Japan, a woman unmarried past the age of 25 used to be called “Christmas cake” – stale and unappealing after the 25th. In a country that remains so male-dominated, perhaps Masae’s decision to remain unmarried and childless was less a “failure” than a conscious decision? A protest? Donald Richie seemed to think so:
It now seems, particularly to young women, that this actress truly reconciled her life. Truly, in that though she played all social roles – daughter, wife, and mother – she only played them in her films. They were inventions, these roles. They did not eclipse that individual self, our Setsuko. And in this way she exposed them for the fictions that they are (Richie, 72).
While seeming to codify the separate parts she played in the fictional world of her films, subsuming her own life – her own dreams – in theirs, Masae Aida proved herself to be far greater than the sum of these parts. Her choice of anonymity after such fame grew into the ultimate rebuke to the culture who sought to worship her, but only in the terms it defined.
by Dan Harper back to list of names
Dan Harper sits squarely – and happily – on the fringes of officialdom. Avoiding anything resembling credentials, he slouches his way toward one of the last respectable professions: teaching. Meanwhile ….
Niven, David, Bring on the Empty Horses, New York: Putnam, 1975
Richie, Donald, Different People: Pictures of Some Japanese, Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1988
- Though some sources report that she made over 100 films, the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com) lists only 44.
- The tabloid press in Japan is at least as prying and libelous as anywhere else in the world. Kurosawa attacked it in his 1950 film Scandal, in which a bohemian painter gives a beautiful socialite an innocent lift on his motorcycle, only to find within days that the tabloids have embroiled them in a turgid affair. A more recent example of tabloid excesses occurred in December of 1997, when one publication, called Flash, drove the filmmaker Juzo Itami (Tampopo, A Taxing Woman) to commit suicide over a rumored extra-marital affair.