The following post is part of a work-in-progess on the work of Daniel Day-Lewis in particular, and on actors as historians generally. --JC
At one point early on in his 1993 movie The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese briefly shows us the Fifth Avenue mansion of widow Catherine Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), the maverick matriarch whose granddaughter (Winona Ryder) is engaged to marry Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). “Though brownstone was the norm,” the narrator (Joanne Woodward) informs us, Mrs. Mingott “lived magisterially within a large house of controversial pale cream-colored stone, in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” This geographic cue alerts us to Scorsese’s (slightly exaggerated) visual joke: We all know that Fifth Avenue near Central Park is some of the most crowded and valuable real estate on the planet. But in the world of the mid-1870s, when the story is set, what we see is a single house in a remote urban outpost. Referring to the Central Park is another cue this is not yet territory that has been incorporated into the linguistic fabric of New York life. While the elite leisure class lives safely north of the Five Points that would have been dominated by Bill the Butcher when Newland Archer was a boy, Mrs. Mingott lives beyond the pale of settlement. But her power is great enough that the people of her milieu, prospective grandson-in-law among them, will respond to a summons uptown. Way uptown.
For Archer himself, however, the primary point of orientation is neither north nor west. It is east. This is not simply a matter of him getting his suits from England or listening to his operas in Italian. For Archer inhabits an aesthetic frontier, importing the latest books from Europe and taking in latest gallery exhibitions from contemporary painters at home and abroad. That’s why the unexpected return of his fiance’s cousin, the expatriate Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) proves so unsettling. The Countess, fleeing an unhappy marriage to a Polish nobleman, is finding readjustment to the world of her childhood difficult, not only because her of status – which will only become more problematic if she proceeds with her intention to divorce the Count – but also because she is impatient with the Old World pretenses of New World poseurs. “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it a copy of another country,” she observes to Archer at a ball early on in the movie. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the opera with [the hypocritical prig] Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant)?” “I think if he knew Lefferts was here the Santa Maria never would have left port,” Archer replies, as the two break into laughter. This man of a new land has an arch sense of humor, which he points at those near at hand. Ironically, his prospective bride, the apparently pleasant but dull May, is quite the markswoman; we will later see her score a bulls-eye at a competition in Newport. “That’s the only kind of target she’ll ever hit,” observes the philandering speculator Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson). Archer glares at him.
The Age of Innocence both is and isn’t Martin Scorsese territory. It is, of course, set on his home ground of Manhattan, the locale of a number of contemporary Scorsese films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), as well as historical dramas like New York, New York (1977), which was set in the forties – and, as discussed, Gangs of New York. Scorsese has always been fascinated by tribal rituals and the often unspoken codes that shape the behavior of local subcultures, especially violent behavior (there’s no bloodshed here, but a casual brutality lurks beneath a veneer of civility). And the set of visual signifiers in this movie, from place settings on a dinner table to flowers – an often tellingly misleading metaphor – provided a feast for his imagination. This film, like Gangs of New York, featured production design from Dante Ferretti.
In another sense, however, The Age of Innocence takes place on an entirely different universe than that of the ethnic working class that is Scorsese’s metier. Based – very closely, including a good deal voiceover narration taken verbatim – on the 1920 novel by Edith Wharton, Innocence is a closely observed portrait of Wharton’s youth, the elite New York of the Social Register, a community of old-money Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and Astors. So it is that the reigning social arbiters of the movie, the van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), have Dutch names.
In sharp contrast to Scorsese, Wharton also approached her art from a distinctly female point of view. To at least some extent, her work can be described in terms of the dilemma of strong women in an inescapably male world. Interestingly, many of Wharton’s most memorable characters – like Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth (1905) or the title character of Ethan Frome (1911) – are men. But her most sympathetic characters also tend to be ineffectual, lacking the will to act decisively before it’s too late. (Scorsese’s characters, by contrast, are impulsive figures played by the likes of Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, who do great harm by acting impulsively.) The Age of Innocence is told from Newland Archer’s point of view, but early on Wharton’s narrative adopts an ironic, even condescending, tone towards him. Archer is described “as at heart a dilettante” who thought himself more enlightened than he really was when it came to women, particularly that woman who was to become his wife. “He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton,” the narrator says.
He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular women of the ‘younger set,’ in which it was the recognized custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and eager to please as the married lady whose charm had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and has disarranged his plans for a whole winter.How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold this view without analysing it, since he knew it was that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system.
Archer does not remain cluelessly complacent. In essence the novel is a story of growing awareness – a loss of innocence about others’ lack of innocence. This remains the narrative core of the movie. But the vein of sarcasm that salts Wharton’s prose is removed from Newland Archer of Martin Scorsese/Daniel Day-Lewis. Which is, on the whole, an improvement.
Next: DDL's informed Innocence
Next: DDL's informed Innocence