Man and Superboy

Copy­right 2010 Ben S. Pollock

See­ing the back­stage drama Crazy Heart down at the Malco on its open­ing week­end here in North­west Arkansas gave me lots to think about, being a good movie.

It’d be fine to wait for a home view­ing, but leisurely, panoramic views of New Mex­ico increase the worth of a cine­plex screen (Houston’s sky­line? Big deal).

The fea­tured coun­try & West­ern music was more West­ern than coun­try. The plot though over­rides that. It’s the old “star per­former on the way down may be redeemed by the love of a good woman.” Last year’s middle-aged male star vehi­cle The Wrestler was another verse of the song. Both beg the ques­tion of what the female lead, who’s always much younger and beau­ti­ful, ever sees in these guys — in both flicks we should be grate­ful tech­nol­ogy is not pur­su­ing Smell-O-Vision.

There’s a cer­tain real­ity to this hoary fic­tional device: artists who hit suc­cess early tend to coast later on. Per­haps it’s lazi­ness, or burnout, or that their audi­ence demands more of the same. It may not be alco­holism or other addictions.

Insight: If you’re coast­ing, you’re by def­i­n­i­tion coast­ing downhill.

The pro­tag­o­nists of both these movies rec­og­nize and love good women, what­ever role groupies play. This brought to mind a recent col­umn of Lit­tle Rock col­league Gene Lyons, writ­ing in Salon.com about Tiger Woods, a golfer at the peak of his games. Gene writes, “At the expense of repeat­ing myself, I first for­mu­lated Eugene’s First Law of Sex­ual Dynam­ics cov­er­ing a pro bass fish­ing tour­na­ment in Tennessee:

If there’s some­thing one man can do bet­ter than another, there’s a woman who’ll sleep with him for it.’”

Part of Gene’s argu­ment is where there’s con­sent there’s often com­plic­ity. But not always. That makes not just for attrac­tive fic­tion (for artists) but career-costing facts (for other pub­lic figures).

There’s more to solid movies than rela­tion­ships. Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart uses the great­est sub­tlety to show how his char­ac­ter Bad Blake inflated into his on-stage con­fi­dent self. As does Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler. That made me think of Myrna Loy.

Got you?

The actress, whose best roles were in mid-20th cen­tury movies, would not have occurred to me but for a col­umn just out by Terry Tea­chout of The Wall Street Jour­nal. The drama and cul­ture critic was dis­cussing a 1952 record­ing of a staged read­ing of George Bernard Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell,” a 90-minute sec­tion of his play Man and Super­man. It now is avail­able as a down­load. Tea­chout explains this was a project of the char­ac­ter actor Charles Laughton, who trav­eled the coun­try in this show, also star­ring Charles Boyer, Cedric Hard­wicke and Agnes Moorehead.

Though this was before either Tea­chout or I were born, this pro­duc­tion had legs. I saw Myrna Loy doing what must have been Moorehead’s part when I was a teen-ager in Arkansas in about 1973. “Don Juan in Hell” was a tour­ing pro­duc­tion that made a stop at the Fort Smith Munic­i­pal Audi­to­rium.

Her main co-star was Ricardo Mon­tal­ban (before TV’s Fan­tasy Island), whose auto­graph I still have some­where, “To Ben, mi amigo …” and the oth­ers were Edward Mul­hare (TV’s Ghost and Mrs. Muir) and Kurt Kasz­nar (TV’s Land of the Giants).

My life’s one stint as a “limo” dri­ver was that night.

My dad for years vol­un­teered as the book­ing agent for the Fort Smith Broad­way The­ater League. He also worked, as a part-time job, as stage man­ager for all shows that came through. Although he never used his posi­tion for any per­sonal or fam­ily advan­tage, just this once he decided that with my very fresh driver’s license I should drive the stars in the family’s Pon­tiac from the Hol­i­day Inn six blocks to the theater.

The men went first, as an appar­ent cour­tesy so on the next trip Miss Loy would have the car to her­self. I recall won­der­ing why Mr. Mon­tal­ban didn’t also war­rant a sep­a­rate ride. But the other guys did insist he take the front seat. I was ner­vous; Mr. Mon­tal­ban with kind words put me at ease. (Dad already was at the audi­to­rium. Mom, not want­ing to miss a thing, rode in the back seat.)

Then I saw the basis of the chivalry. Miss Loy walked with two canes, very slowly. By the Inter­net Movie Data­base I now see that she was not par­tic­u­larly old, about 68. But she no longer was the sexy, quick-witted babe Nora Charles.

She was dig­ni­fied and quiet. Still, to a 16-year-old, an old lady. Until she took the stage.

Dra­matic read­ings have no props, sets or cos­tumes. Stools, maybe music stands to hold scripts. The cast took the stage one at a time in for­mal wear, which must have been wait­ing in their dress­ing rooms, because they sure weren’t wear­ing tuxes and such in the blue LeMans.

Last came Myrna Loy. She strode in, wear­ing a bril­liant gown, to cheers. No canes, no halt­ing gait. Head high and smil­ing like the movie star she was.

The show? Hardly remem­ber it. What I do recall is Dad telling me about Shaw –  My Fair Lady came from his Pyg­malion, that he was so cool his name became an adjec­tive, “Sha­vian,” and that it wasn’t pro­nounced Ber NARD but accented on the first syl­la­ble, BER nu’d.

Her exit, then returns for cur­tain calls, had the same gal­lant stride. Bridges and Rourke whose char­ac­ters also had phys­i­cal prob­lems, albeit self-inflicted, nailed that enter­ing and leav­ing one’s stage persona.

After­ward peo­ple lined up out­side Miss Loy’s dress­ing room. I watched; maybe I was wait­ing to take every­one back to the Hol­i­day. The fans did not nec­es­sar­ily ask for auto­graphs. Most just wanted to thank her for this or that movie that meant so much to them. She sat patiently as they walked past. They did not seem to notice the the­ater face was off. She looked tired but regal, a straight back under a dressy robe.

Next to the chair in the hall­way rested those canes.

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