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 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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