Friday, December 31, 2010

Old World Man

The following post is part of a work-in-progress on Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.

As with Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s decision to make The Age of Innocence was catalyzed by Jack Cocks, who also got the credit for this screenplay. Cocks gave the novel to Scorsese to read in 1980; is often the case with Scorsese projects, this one took a long time to gestate. Scorsese didn’t actually read the book until 1987; a first draft of the screenplay was not completed until early 1989, and filming didn’t begin until three years later (by that point Twentieth Century-Fox had dropped the project, but Columbia stepped in). As with Gangs, the majority of smaller roles went to British actors, whose accents were closer to those of 19th century Americans than Americans’ typically were.[1]
Day-Lewis was a relatively late acquisition. Though he was a huge Scorsese fan, he was chary about accepting the director’s offer, which Day-Lewis received literally on the eve of his Academy Award for best actor in My Left Foot in 1990. “Too English,” he explained later. “I was hoping he’d ask me to do something more rough and tumble” (which, of course, Scorsese ultimately did). It was not until the following year, just before embarking on Last of the Mohicans – the role that would smite any of his lingering fears of typecasting – that Day-Lewis finally said yes.[2]
Whatever the degree to which the actor resembles his character, this is a role that seems like of a stretch than Hawkeye or Bill the Butcher: Day-Lewis looks every inch the aristocrat. But here as in every other American he’s played, the Day-Lewis character is in a world but not quite of it – and has the strength to stand apart comfortably. From the beginning of Innocence, it’s clear that Newland Archer has little patience for the superficiality of the men around him or the pettiness of the women. He shows a genuine proto-feminist indignation in the way that divorce is simply not considered a feasible option for the Countess Olenska, even as anyone familiar with her situation concedes her husband’s behavior has been outrageous. And he’s as open with his opinions on the matter with mother and sister as he is the senior partner at the law firm where he works.
But Archer is nevertheless afflicted by an ambivalence that ensnares him. It is his very independence and curiosity that draws him to the Countess, an attraction that he allows himself to pursue even as he tries to counteract it by seeking to accelerate his engagement and marry May sooner. The irony is that his relationship with the Countess is furthered by his involvement in her legal affairs, a professional entanglement that’s actually urged on him against his will by May’s family. Even more ironic is that Archer’s desire to resolve his ambivalence toward her by speeding up their engagement is also thwarted by his fiancé and her family.  At one point, he asks her in exasperation, “Can’t you and I just strike out for ourselves, May?” (the same line, missing the colloquial “just,” appears in the novel).[3]
Archer’s plaintive query – “can’t we strike out for ourselves?” is a kind of Turnerian pivot in Day-Lewis’s American history. Previous Day-Lewis characters lit out for the territory or took a stand, but Newland Archer finds himself at the mercy of events beyond his control – and, as he will come to realize, beyond his understanding. May’s family will give him what he says he wants at precisely the moment he decides he doesn’t want it. And yet he sees himself as having no real alternative than going ahead with the wedding anyway. Yet this act fails to resolve his ambivalence; the Countess remains in the picture and his desire for her intensifies, leading him to take risks that may endanger his standing in his family and his community. Yet when Archer finally resolves to force the question he finds he has been totally outflanked, not only by his wife but by a set of confederates who, with the assent of the Countess, maneuver him into submission.
The scene where this happens is priceless. The Archers have just hosted a dinner party for the departing Countess, who will be returning to Europe (it’s at this meal that he realizes that everyone, including his wife, has long assumed he’s been having an affair that has not only never been consummated, but which he believed was a secret). During the dinner, Archer talked, as he had been recently, of travel – once again, he was looking east – but somehow the conversation never attained a degree of seriousness. Now he again attempts to take up the subject with May, who replies to his idea about going to India or Japan by beginning to administer the coup de grace. “I’m afraid you can’t do that, dear,” she says, rising in her chair to tower over her husband before then curling up with her head in his lap. (Scorsese lavished great attention on this scene, and has spoken at great length and detail on how he achieved the desired dramatic effect with camera speed and editing.[4]) She’s having a baby, she explains, and therefore the two must remain together. There will be no frontier for Newland Archer.
Reflecting on this pivotal moment sparks a memory of another actor, one Day-Lewis is said to admire: Jimmy Stewart. Interestingly, in citing his admiration for this giant of classic Hollywood, Day-Lewis expressed a preference not for Stewart who starred in a series of psychologically sophisticated westerns under the direction of Anthony Mann in the 1950s, but rather the Stewart of Frank Capra movies.[5] The most famous of these, of course, is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which Stewart plays George Bailey, the would-be adventurer who’s repeatedly prevented from leaving his hometown of Bedford Falls and ultimately becomes a pillar of his community. As a number of observers (myself among them)[6] have noted, Bailey’s life is a less wonderful than the ending would have you believe. But for that very reason, the things he trades his freedom for become all the more precious.
  The same can be said for Newland Archer. Scorsese cuts – actually, it’s more like a seamless transition – from the final scene between Archer and May in his library to the same room some decades later. (Wharton describes it as about 26 years;[7] given that the backdrop of the climactic moments of the story is a financial crisis that would correspond to the Panic of 1873, and the telephones and motorcars we see, the action of this epilogue would appear to be sometime in the first decade of the 20th century). May is now dead, victim of an illness she contracted while tending to one of her sons. The couple’s daughter is now married (in the book it’s to the child of a minor character; in the movie, it’s to “the dullest and most reliable of Larry Leffert’s many sons”). Their oldest son, Ted, is now engaged to Julius Beaufort’s daughter – ironic how Archer ends up even more tightly bound up in the lives of men he detests.
Ted is going to Paris on business as a budding architect, and insists that Archer join him.  We understand that Ted, a smart confident young man, a credit to his father, is not to be denied, even as we understand that he lacks Newland’s understated charm. The two make the trip, and Ted, with studied off-handedness, suggest that the two visit the old man’s former flame. Archer is shocked that Ted knows about the Countess; Ted explains that on her deathbed that May told the boy he was in good hands because, “once, when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Archer replies (twice) that “she never asked me,” but the point, perhaps, is that she never had to: his devotion would now be complete. Later Archer, who is said to have genuinely mourned his wife, reflects that “After a little while he did not regret Ted's indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied. And that it should have been his wife moved him inexpressibly.” It is perhaps this realization that leads Archer to resolve, despite what could very plausibly be considered the right to do so, not to join Ted, at least not immediately, in ascending to the apartment of the Countess. “What will I tell her?” he asks his father incredulously. “Don’t you always have have something to say?” Archer jabs back.   “I'll tell her you're old-fashioned and you insist on walking up five flights instead of taking the elevator,” Ted rejoins. “Just tell her I’m old-fashioned,” Archer concludes in what is the final line in the movie, as he walks past a couple parked cars. In the end, Archer is an old-world man. Strong, in a real but limited way. But a man who decides to live in an ordered society rather than break free – Jimmy Stewart, not John Wayne.

[1] David Thompson and Ian Christie, eds, Scorsese on Scorsese (2nd ed; London: Faber, 1996), 177-179.
[2] Hirschberg; Jackson, 194.
[3] Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920; New York: Collier, 1993 [movie tie-in edition]), 82.
[4]Gavin Smith, “Martin Scorsese Interviewed,” in Martin Scorsese Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), 200-202.
[5] Hirschberg, “The New Frontier’s Man”
[6]See Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 213-25, and Jim Cullen’s chapter “It’s a Wonderful Death,” a chapter which compares It’s a Wonderful Life with another Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in Restless in the Promised Land: Catholics and the American Dream (Frankin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001), esp. 131-134.
[7] Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 344.