First of all…
In a recent blog, I vowed that I would banish seriousness from my posts—that in the future, I would revert to the irony, the self-mockery, the smart-ass tone that characterized my work in the past.
It’s to be expected, of course.
As I pointed out in my irresistibly funny memoir Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, it’s what we do in TinselTown: every player knows it’s one of the requirements for the job.
There was no malice aforethought. I truly believed I had put sobriety behind me forever.
However, as I pondered my latest subject, I found myself following the example of Herman Melville and his famous meditation on “The Whiteness of the Whale,” the whiteness that “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.”
Melville’s goal was to punch through the blank mask of God and the universe.
Mine: to comprehend the complexities of a white suit worn by one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite movies.
(Okay, okay, so there’s a little bit of a difference in scale, but I’m serious about this, folks. I really am.)
The movie in question is my late friend Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
Heart stars Alan Arkin as a deaf-mute named John Singer. Isolated in a world of silence, Singer seeks to relieve his loneliness by reaching out in friendship to those around him. He transforms their lives. But they—inadvertently, unwittingly, unconscionably—fail him, and in the end, he takes his own life, unaware of the love and respect each of his friends feels for him.
This intense, profoundly moving film opens at night in a Southern town, with Singer’s friend and fellow deaf-mute, Antonopoulis, rolling a hoop down a sidewalk, playing hopscotch on a court chalked on the walkway, and then breaking a bakery window to get at the goodies inside, unable to hear the burglar alarm that summons the police.
Singer’s first challenge is to get his only friend out of jail.
Robert’s first challenge was to get the film made.
He wanted Arkin to play Singer, but Jack Warner insisted that he wasn’t a star.
Besides, because the character never speaks a word, Warner wanted to use a big-name French or Italian actor in the role, thinking that it would enhance the European box-office.
Robert held out for Arkin.
Warner refused to budge.
The film did not go forward.
Then The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming hit big. Alan called Robert and said, “I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to become a star, so I want you to call Jack Warner and tell him he can go ahead and cast me now.”
Once he had the green light, Robert had to find an unknown to play Mick, the gawky but sensitive teenager who is befriended by Singer and who dreams of a life outside the confines of her impoverished family and her small town with its small-minded values.
He placed a small ad in the local classifieds, and a young woman named Sondra Locke showed up in a beat-up van and bare feet. She read for him and simply blew him away.
The next big challenge was casting Antonopoulis, who is obese, developmentally disabled, driven by insatiable appetite for food and drink.
Antonopoulis’ very size made the casting a challenge—very few actors fit the physical description of the character, and it was, for a while, an open question whether Robert and company would find anyone right for the role.
The answer to that question came out of the mouths of babes—or rather, Alan Arkin’s eleven year-old son Adam, who suggested Chuck McCann, a local television clown he’d discovered while on location with his father.
There remained the question of the white suit Antonopoulis wears in most of his scenes, the suit that reflects his innocent, childlike nature.
(There it is, finally—that white suit that I announced would be the subject of this column! Back in my days as a college professor, my students loved leading me off on tangents—it was, as you may have guessed, an easy task.)
The film had virtually no budget.
Robert’s costume people couldn’t find a white suit that would fit McCann and couldn’t afford to have one specially tailored for him.
This time, it was Robert’s wife Pola who rode to his rescue.
She remembered the white suit that Sidney Greenstreet wore in The Maltese Falcon and had the costume designer call Warners to see if it still existed. It did, and Chuck ended up wearing Greenstreet’s white suit…twenty-seven years after it was created for the Huston film.
The irony is, of course, that the suit itself was ironic in The Maltese Falcon.
The white fabric—the embodiment of innocence in most people’s minds, like the extreme politeness of Greenstreet’s Gutman, like the cliché of the jolly fat man, stood in striking contrast to the reality of the ruthless, rapacious figure it clothed.
The suit, in its second screen appearance, played it straight—an innocent color for an innocent character.
Yes, there actually is a point to my ramblings on these pages.
In fact, there are several.
Film is a collaborative business.
Yes, the director is in charge…sort of.
He (or she) is in charge if he can manipulate the studio into giving him what he wants.
He is in charge if he can communicate his vision for the story to all of his collaborators—if he can put everyone on the same page.
He is in charge if he’s open to good ideas whatever their source—be it a child, a spouse, or even (God forbid) a screenwriter.
A last point?
Costuming plays a more important role in filmmaking than most people realize.
I’m going to appeal to the college professor in you. If white is the color of innocence, and it is used as such for the character of Antonopoulis, even as it used deceptively or ironically for Sidney Greenstreet’s character in “The Maltese Falcon,” what symbolic role does it play in “Moby Dick?” Is it just the innocence of an animal devoid of good or evil (I think Starbuck talks about that at some point) or is it used deceptively, as in “The Maltese Falcon.” As you know, I have reservations about “Moby Dick,” but whatever I might feel about it, I can’t imagine Melville chose the color at random.
Proceeding tangentially, one of my very first paying gigs as an actor was as an extra in the American premiere of Arthur Kopit’s “Indians,” at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC. At one point I played a soldier and when they fitted me for the costume, I was delighted to see a label on the inside saying it had been made for Tyrone Power. I do hope Chuck Mcann got as much pleasure from wearing Greenstreet’s suit as I did from wearing Power’s.
Melville sees white as the color of the universe itself and “the very veil of the Christian deity.” It is both every color and no color at all. In other words, completely ambiguous. It is innocence–the white of a bridal gown. It is ferocity, malignity–the polar bear or the great white shark. And it is emptiness, nothingness–the absence of any god. Ishmael, who maintains a skeptical balance in his stance toward the universe, sees all these possibilities in the whiteness of the whale and expresses them brilliantly in Chapter 42. He knows that he doesn’t know the ultimate answers. Sometimes he feels at one with the universe…as he does while standing at “The Masthead.” Sometimes, while staring into the flames of the try-pot, he feels its demonism. But in the end he has no answers–it’s this insight, along with his friendship with Queequeg, that saves him when all the others die: “And I alone am escaped to tell thee.” To tell us what? That the universe is both serene and savage, both benign and malignant, and altogether unknowable.
I could go on and on, but I promised my readers NO…MORE…SERIOUSNESS. (Hmmm. I’m afraid I’m starting to sound a bit like Joan Crawford on the subject of wire hangers.) But I do want to extend my sincere sympathies to you for your inability to appreciate what is probably the greatest book ever to come out of America and, at the same time, I forgive you for this inexcusable lapse in judgment.
As for your connection to Tyrone Power, are you saying that you, like him, are irresistible to women though something of a stiff as an actor? Seriously, though, it must have been a thrill for you to wear his costume just as I’m sure it was for McCann to wear Greenstreet’s. It does seem that some of the big man’s enormous talent (sorry–I couldn’t help myself) rubbed off on McCann–he’s still acting today and has amassed over 160 credits!