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Putting on a Show, or
The Ghostliness of Gesture   

Lesley Stern


  Every affect … is only a reminiscence. (1)   1. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle in The Complete Psychological Works Vol. XX (London: Hogarth Press, 1959), p. 109.  

Remember (or imagine): Sarah Bernhardt’s dying scene in La Dame aux camélias. It is absurd, and yet … and yet I find myself moved, somehow affected by this in extremis showing off.


I am preparing a talk on gesture and the divas of early silent cinema, and want to open with Bernhardt’s 1913 version of that death, but the film is unavailable on the date I need it. All I have is a memory. I share the memory and the frustration with a friend. He reminds me of Proust’s story about the great diva. ‘It goes like this’, he says: ‘In À la recherche du temps perdu the narrator gives a lengthy description of the first time he, as a young boy, saw Berma as she is called in the novel — in a Sunday matinee performance of Racine’s Phèdre …’ He explains how Proust eagerly anticipated the event, only to find it a bitter disappointment. Twice he mistakes another actress for her, and then finds nothing in her to admire: he cannot, he says, find in her playing any ‘beautiful gestures’. In all this bathos there is, however, one moment that arrests him, when the audience breaks out in applause, but it is a fleeting tableau, disappears before he can study it: Phèdre stands motionless for a moment, both arms raised above her head, bathed in a greenish light before a backdrop depicting the sea. It is only later that the impact of this scene comes into focus, that his memory is activated through a series of encounters and readings.


This story fills me with delight, this gift of a gesture that resonates. Suddenly it is ubiquitous; every film I watch, particularly each silent film, registers this gesture. My talk falls into place. Then we find the Proust and read it. But, alas, it turns out to be a bitter disappointment. I find that my friend’s memory has betrayed him, and that I foolishly was taken in by his storytelling, inattentive to veracity. My talk is ruined. He remembers the gesture thus: both arms raised, and held, above the head. But in fact Proust talks of only one arm raised, and raised not above the head. ‘Berma stands motionless for a moment’, Proust writes, ‘her arm raised to the level of her face’.


My talk is ruined. But then I begin to wonder about the proliferation of this gesture in cinema, the gesture, that is, of both arms raised, held for a moment: motionless and eloquent. And I decide that my friend has perhaps seen more films than he realises, perhaps he does remember in a precisely Proustian manner. What is interesting about this gesture and its reappearance, its repetition, is that in its cinematic incarnation it serves to signify not a particular figure, nor a particular passion — but rather to evoke more generally a passionate performative register, and it does this by reanimating an archaic sign, a sign of outmoded gestural theatricality. Let us call this gesture (and although it is not the gesture that Proust recalls, it is nevertheless dominant within Bernhardt’s repertoire) the ‘diva gesture’.


A classical scholar once used the phrase, the ‘after-life of antiquity’. Today, thinking about cinematic performance, that phrase revisits us, inflected somewhat differently, as ‘the after-life of gesture’.


The diva isn’t dead. She is still dying, and coming alive again. In All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), for instance. Her most famous resurrection is in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) where Gloria Swanson plays a prehistoric monster, an aging star of the silent cinema, trying desperately to stage a comeback in a version of Salome that she has written for herself. Remember her descending the stairs, lifting her arms and holding them aloft above her head, holding the pose, holding it for an imagined audience. In fact, she misremembers: Swanson herself, indeed a major star of the silent era, never played the kind of role she remembers herself playing (though Queen Kelly [Erich von Stroheim, 1928] comes close). But when I looked at this film again the other day, I realised that although she misremembers, she also remembers — or perhaps we should say she is herself remembered, revisited by a ghost — by the diva gesture.


What does it mean to speak of gesture in the cinema? Is there any use, any conceptual mileage, to be gained from such a phrase as ‘cinematic gesture’? Can we itemise a repertoire of actorly gestures that are cinematically specific, can we describe the semantic content of each, the affect attached, the effect produced? No, I think not. The interesting thing about the gestural as it manifests cinematically is its propensity for migration. Gestures migrate from one movie to another, from the movies into social milieux and vice versa, they resonate, disappear and reappear — differently, and the differences pertain to cultural and historical context as well as to media and genre.


Here I focus on a vital dimension of the affective power of cinema: performance. Gesture is only one aspect of performance, but it seems to me a useful way in, mainly because it enables simultaneous attention to the somatic (pertaining to both the performer and the audience) and the rhetorical. If performance is not limited to the actor’s performance but must encompass a larger frame that attends to the interaction of various cinematic codes and processes (an imbrication of acting techniques and cinematic technologies), nevertheless the body of the actor — its disposition, movement, timing — is pivotal, and the gestural is always important in ‘fleshing out’ the diegetic world. It is this body, at once fictional (cut up and redistributed) and indexical of the real, that provides a vital conduit between the movies and the world we inhabit outside the film theatre.


Gestures are performed individually, but they are not possessed by individuals. They acquire force and significance through repetition and variation. They are never simply signs — of a singular emotion, or identity, nor an expression of the soul (or to put this less quaintly, of individual subjectivity), but a charting of relations, imagined as well as real, interdiegetic as well as between films and audiences, stars and fans, characters and actors.


  In medieval Japan, where there were very few traces of the Chinese ancestor cult, numerous unhappy and homeless ghosts wandered around the countryside with no descendants to care for them. In Noh theatre, it has been suggested, the shite (the protagonist, literally, the ‘doer’) is a composite subject, residing in multiple dimensions simultaneously — social and karmic. Gestures, in this context, were not merely communicating discourses about social situations but acted as symptoms of a pathology of attachment, as a dramatisation of karma. According to one understanding of karma, a person replays gestures according to past experience, which attaches the body to an identity and to a place. The practice of Buddhism attempts to release the self from its identity and such attachments as gestures, the self seen as a construction of karma. Noh gestures, being a symptom of attachment, both realised the subject and were that which the subject performed in order to escape subjectivity. (2)  



2. I am indebted to Richard Strassberg and Tom Hare for these insights, discussed in the Gestures Workshop, Getty Research Institute, 1999. This is my appropriation of their discussion; I would not want to hold them responsible for any misinterpretation.

How do gestures migrate? What are the conditions of performability, of recognition, of the generation and circulation of affect? How is it possible to quote, to repeat gestures, and thereby to transform them? To explore these questions we need to posit a notion of intertextuality, a terrain of repetition and difference, intersection and resonance.


I shall turn my attention to a series of films that all take as their subject matter the theatre, or showbiz, or television: 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) and The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953); The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese, 1983) and Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000); All About Eve and Opening Night (John Cassavetes, 1977). This essay is part of a larger project exploring performance via films that deal with different representational systems (kung fu, filmmaking, ballet, for instance, and not confined to Hollywood), films that in one way or another are about putting on a show. My contention is that the encounter between different performative regimes and representational systems serves to dramatise enactment itself, not just on a thematic level, through narrative reflexivity, but by making visible the performative, and through registering the performative as a question of affect.


Let us imagine that these six films all constitute one large performance text. To do this entails a degree of abstraction in the course of which patternings emerge, patternings of repetition and difference. To apprehend these patternings, and at the same time to retain the sense of texture, I propose four analytic categories: generic tropes, thematic motifs, figurative formations, performative modalities. Thematic motifs are grounded in the diegesis. They include: high culture versus low culture, theatre versus film, disaster versus success, public versus private. Generic tropes refer to privileged moments, hyphenated scenarios, dramatic dynamics which, although embedded in a narrative, have a certain recognisable autonomy as ‘set pieces’; their function is rhetorical and generically (rather than narratively) affiliated. Included in generic tropes are: the big break, the audition, the rehearsal, opening night, kidnapping, repetition compulsion, performative objects, ‘Springtime for Hitler’ (this trope — hereafter shortened to Springtime — is a correlative of the thematic motif of disaster versus success, and it refers to the propensity of these films to present ‘bad’ acting, via virtuoso performance, as fascinating and entertaining). Figurative formations refers on the one hand to the range of stock figures — star, celebrity, producer/director, ingénue, understudy, ghost, diva — and on the other hand to the permutating range of relations that this ‘cast’ enables, and to the emotional tenor of these relations: admiration, love, erotic energy, emulation, envy, revenge … Performative modalities (all cast in a dialectical form) include: histrionic/quotidian, inflation/deflation, the daily body/the extra-daily body, on-stage/off-stage, on-screen/off-screen, acting/not acting, actor/role, stage/screen (which maps onto theatre versus film), self/other, performer/audience.


This final dialectic — performer/viewer — turns out to be the most fundamental modality in our performance text. Although I began by looking at the performative register, again and again I was inhibited from isolating the performative, since performance is invariably realised through a configuration which involves an audience. Of course, we know from performance studies (an adjunct of theatre studies) that the performance text includes both the performers and the audience, the transfer of energy, the process of reading. But the emphasis there is always on ‘aliveness’, on the almost sacred space and time that includes both performers and audience. In film studies there has been considerable attention paid to the process of viewing, to the realm of the visual. But what these films ‘stage’ is a nuanced and multiplied viewing place, and also a sensorial expansion, so that to be an audience is not merely to see but also to feel, to experience a range of somatic responses.


Let us begin as it always begins: with the audition. In 1933, in 42nd Street. The hopefuls line up on the stage, the stage is contained by the film frame, and through this process of duplication we, the film viewers, are positioned as analogous to the intradiegetic stage audience. 42nd Street, as a musical and a backstage drama, introduces many of the features of the ‘putting on a show’ genre: the ingénue, the big break, an on-stage/off-stage and performer/audience dialectic, and — thoroughly implicated in these tensions, but also dramatically transforming the stakes — the stage/screen dynamic. Throughout the film there are some variations in point of view, so that in more private moments Dick Powell is constituted as Ruby Keeler’s audience but, on the whole, the film respects the theatrical stage as the locus of performance, as the narrative moves from audition to rehearsal to the anticipation of opening night, and in the course of which the diva (Bebe Daniels) twists her ankle, and the ingénue gets her big break, her man and stardom. The film concludes with the opening night of the stage show.


But this opening night is unlike any stage show we have seen. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, this is cinematic spectacle. In an unheralded and startling move, the camera abandons all pretense of emulating the stage audience’s point of view. Its perspective — multiplied through cutting, camera movement, changes in angle and focal length — is humanly impossible. The cinematic apparatus acting in concert with the movement of dancing bodies and the orchestration of parts of bodies, and bodies as parts of a kaleidoscopic moving picture, produces not just a visual feast, but also an exhilarating kinesthetic effect. This conjunction of cinematic technology and performing bodies gives us not the opening night of a stage show, but cinematic performativity at its most sensational. Indeed, it is this capacity of the cinema to transport us through space, to take us, via bodily sensation, out of our own bodies, that is energising. Jean-Louis Comolli has argued that Berkeley is not a choreographer, that his orchestration of bodies is an excuse to play with as large a number of blonde girls as possible. (3) This is a different angle to Siegfried Kracauer’s famous argument about the Tiller girls (often recruited as ammunition in critiques of Berkeley), (4) but the two positions concur on the aspect of dehumanisation and mechanisation. However, I would maintain that the dancing bodies are important here, though the individual star decreases in importance.


Theatre practitioners and performance theorists do go on and on about the energy that is transmitted in live performance, and insist on this as a mark of specificity. But imagine the charge transmitted from the screen on the opening night of 42nd Street in 1933. Even today, after a long day and a long evening class, it acts like a shot of some magical substance, enabling me to act like a teacher, perform (pedagogically) as though the spirit of those moving bodies has momentarily entered into me.








3. Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘Dancing Images: Busby Berkeley’s Kaleidoscope’, Cahiers du Cinéma in English, no. 2. Cited by David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2nd ed. rev. (New York: William Morrow and Co, 1981), p. 48.

4. Siegfried Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’, in Thomas Y. Levin (ed.), The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 75-86

Twenty years later in The Band Wagon, people don’t have to be on the stage or on the movie set in order to sing and dance. Minnelli uses what has now become well established as a sub-genre, the backstage drama, to make a highly reflexive film about musicals. Much of its pleasure derives from this reflexivity but, beyond this, it is its performative register, the way it develops ideas about performance through enactment, that is so arresting.


The Band Wagon develops thematic motifs of disaster versus success, public versus private, high culture versus low culture. The latter is elaborated in the form of tragic theatre versus popular revue-style song and dance. Minnelli develops an analogous comparison — of film and theatre — not through foregrounding this thematically within the diegesis, but through the way he elaborates an intersection of theatre and film, primarily through generic tropes, figuration and performative modalities.


In terms of figuration, The Band Wagon dispenses with the ingénue (and therefore with the trope of the big break), but retains the notion of the star (Astaire playing himself, his voluntary retirement in real life rendered as a washed-up movie career) and the producer/director (Jack Buchanan), configuring this relation as a clash between both high and low culture, and film and theatre. This dynamic is further inflated by the introduction of Cyd Charisse, well known as a ballet dancer before entering the movies. Not only is there a clash between the two stars in terms of their background, but two different performance modes. The question that fuels the narrative is this: will they (the movie hoofer and the ballerina) be able to dance together?


In terms of generic tropes, the film, through an intertextual practice, deploys repetition. The first image we see is top hat, cane and gloves. In one sense these are iconographic — of the musical and in particular of Fred Astaire. But they are also magical objects: they are worn and become one with the body, but most importantly their putting on engenders gesture, performance. They are like the boxing gloves in Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980), the red shoes in The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948), blackface in Bamboozled, the black body suit in Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996), and the cigarette and drink in Opening Night. Over this opening image, we hear the auctioneer’s voice; he can’t raise any bids. What this provokes in us is a desire to see these objects come to life again, to see Fred execute again the performative traits he has demonstrated so well.


The trope of opening night is related to a thematic motif: disaster versus success. The first opening night (of the play) is a disaster, signified by the sight of the audience stonily leaving the theatre. The second opening night (of the review put together by the cast) is a great success. However, although the first opening night is received as a disaster by the intradiegetic (theatre) audience, in fact for the film audience (us) it is something of a hit. This is because of the Springtime trope. I have named it thus after the ambiguous hit number in The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967), ‘Springtime for Hitler’. The conceit of The Producers is that two producers realise they can make more money through producing a flop than a success. They aim for a flop and the movie ingeniously pivots on the notion of bad acting, from the audition through to the opening night, which turns out to be a big success. In The Band Wagon, Jack Buchanan’s exuberantly satirical rendition of the pretentious theatre director is delicious (flamboyantly gestural). He acts badly all the time, everywhere, on and off stage. But the trick is that he is acting acting badly, and this requires performative skill, a virtuosic dimension, which we appreciate (his attention to pitch, timing, voicing).


I have already touched on ways in which the on-stage/off-stage, on-screen/off-screen, acting/not acting, actor/role, performer/audience and stage/screen modalities are mobilised. But to understand how they are interrelated and complicated, I need to turn to three other modalities which, although distinctive, map onto each other: histrionic/quotidian, inflation/deflation, the daily body/the extra-daily body. The terms quotidian and histrionic serve to delineate two fundamental cinematic propensities. (5) My contention is not that these are two utterly distinct modalities, but that they are two impulses always and to varying degrees present in cinema. On the one hand, we can say that the cinema, since its inception, has always had a curiosity about the quotidian, a desire to scrutinise and capture the rhythms and nuances of everyday life; on the other hand, since its inception, the cinema has been driven by a tendency to theatricalisation, by a ‘properly cinematographic theatricality’, (6) by stylisation, by processes of semiotic virtuosity. In more naturalistic cinema, the gestural tends more toward the utilitarian and quotidian; in more histrionic cinema, the gestural tends more toward the abstract, expressive and stylised. In both cases, gestural inflection has the capacity to move us (viewers) in ways that involve less semantic cognition than a kind of sensory or bodily apprehension. Histrionic cinema is at once self-conscious, ostentatious, non-naturalistic and emotionally charged and affective. This dual aspect makes it somewhat paradoxical, at least within the paradigm of contemporary Western performance theory — which, on the whole, remains locked into an either/or approach as regards the nexus between performativity and engagement. Traditionally, engagement and illusion are ranged on one side (under the rubric of Stanislavsky) and estrangement and contemplation on the other (under the rubric of Brecht). My interest and investment in the histrionic is motivated by a desire to understand certain cinematic modalities that defy this either/or categorisation. It is aided by those actors whose performances declare ‘I like to act’, who produce a dialectical exchange between their persona (or idiolect) and their role. So much more engaging than Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks (7), whose performances declare ‘look at me, look at how good I am at being a human being, just like you’. In other words, the histrionic, as I am using it, opens up an imaginative space for the viewer.


The terms inflation and deflation serve to designate cinematic operations, and their employment signals a shift away from a problematic of representation, an orientation more towards rhetoric. Inflation involves an ostensive propensity, an exaggeration or foregrounding of the cinematic codes (colour, editing, camera movement, acting ...); deflation, on the other hand, involves a playing down of the codes, an intensive, rather than ostensive, propensity.




5. For a fuller discussion of these cinematic propensities see my ‘Paths That Wind Through the Thickets of Things’, Critical Inquiry, Vol 28 No 1 (Fall 2001), pp. 317-354. I also address issues discussed in this article in ‘The Tales of Hoffmann: An Instance of Operality’ in Jeongwon Joe and Rose M. Theresa (eds), Between Opera and Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 39-57; and in The Scorsese Connection (London: British Film Institute, 1995), particularly Chapter Six.

6.Gilles Deleuze uses this phrase, elaborating it as ‘the “excess of theatricality” that Bazin spoke of’; see Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 84.


7. Though maybe I am wrong about Tom Hanks. I was watching a TV program the other night, called Dinner for Five, and this guy says, ‘There’s a dark side to Tom. That guy’s sitting on a powder keg. Wait and see what happens when he starts playing villains’. Let’s hope.

The daily body and the extra-daily body do not serve to describe and identify persons, but rather to distinguish modes of performance. The daily body is also a gestural and cultural body, imbued with techniques that have been absorbed and learnt and which are acted out on an unconscious and habitual level. The extra-daily body is differentiated from the daily body in the kind and range of techniques and the way they are deployed. This body has been produced through disciplined training, which enables a particular deployment of energy, and includes a context: the presence of an audience, and the marking out of a performance space. Eugenio Barba, from whom I have borrowed these terms, calls this a ‘decided’ body. He writes, ‘The actor gives himself [sic] form and gives form to his message through fiction, by modelling his energy’. (8) Barba also makes the point that, within the Occident, the distance which separates daily body techniques from extra-daily ones is often neither evident nor consciously considered (unlike in India, Bali, China or Japan for instance, which have highly formalised performance traditions).


The Band Wagon takes this distance as its very subject matter. An example of inflated cinema, it is a film about performance that is itself performative. Take the theatre/film and off-stage/on-stage nexus. The stage is not invoked through proscenium shots (as it was initially in 42nd Street), there is no attempt to replicate the theatre audience’s point of view. Theatricalisation of the cinema, at which Minnelli excelled, is achieved through other means: by deploying flats and props, for instance, in non-theatrical scenes such as the ‘Dancing in the Dark’ number (set in Central Park), and by a stylised integration of décor and costumes as in Cyd Charisse’s first meeting with Astaire, dressed in a black dress and green gloves in a red room. If we think of the histrionic in acting as a declaration ‘I like to act’, (9) then this cinema says ‘I love cinema and its potential to transform the world, to use colour and movement, to energise the screen so that you see new things, see differently’. So that you notice colour, for instance, and experience a thrill when two unlikely colours (that red tone with that saturated green) are boldly juxtaposed so that their attraction illuminates the screen. And you feel the textures of fabrics — not in the way you experience a still life, a Dutch master — but rather as they are worn, as they swirl (that sensuous flick almost in slow motion of Cyd Charisse’s white skirt, cut on the bias as she moves into a whispered pas de deux with Astaire. Or that blue grey suit Fred wears in the opening numbers, an analogue of his elegant movement, indeed integral to that movement).



8. Eugenio Barba, Beyond the Floating Islands (New York: PAJ Publications, 1986), p. 94.






9. See François Regnault, ‘Plaidoyer Pro Niro’, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 286 (March 1978), pp. 49-51.

Take the opening. Top hat, cane and gloves: metonymic of Fred Astaire. They are for sale and no one wants to buy — by implication, he has no audience. This is affirmed when he arrives at Grand Central Station and there are no fans to greet him. A has-been star, he is now consigned to ordinariness, to strolling incognito down the street. But this is a 1950s musical and so, leaning nonchalantly against his bags, he shrugs, sings as he strolls, and the stroll rolls into an amble, and the amble segues suavely into a swing: ‘I’ll go my way by myself … I’m by myself, alone’. It is almost imperceptible, this modeling of energy, this transformation of the quotidian into a decided body. Of course, Astaire has been acting from the beginning, but it is as the dancerly mobilises his body that the screen becomes energised and the mechanism of kinesthetic identification kicks in.


Before long, Tony/Fred turns into a Penny Arcade on 42nd Street. The Arcade provides the perfect ‘stage’ for his first, jazzy, song and dance number, ‘A Shine on Your Shoes’. Interacting with the machines that spring into malevolent life when fed coins, Fred himself is creating free entertainment for the nickel-and-dime denizens of the arcade and, at the same time, through his performance he constitutes them as an audience. The number is about role-playing in everyday life, quotidian performance as a way of dealing with loneliness and gloom. An invocation of the everyday is rendered through a histrionically inflected modality. Fiction movies, in their indexical nature, do have a relation to the real, and movies produce effects as well as affect. Not in a straightforward way, but — as in any aesthetic medium — in convoluted and displaced ways.


Fred’s main audience, instigator of the song, and dance partner is the shoe shine man: ‘His shirt is a raging Hawaiian sunset; the khaki slacks are cut full, as if the wearer remembered nights of zoot-suit pleasures; the socks that peek out at the ankles are pink’. (10) In a wonderful essay called ‘Shined Shoes’, Stuart Klawans pays tribute to this performer, LeRoy Daniels. Watching the film forty-one years after it came out, having already seen it innumerable times, he notices for the first time the bootblack: ‘I was watching the second great pas de deux in The Band Wagon but was for the first time acknowledging Fred’s partner in it’. (11) He recalls as a boy in Chicago, around 1960, having his shoes shined, admiring the virtuosity of ‘the fingertip tap dance’ until his mother spoke. ‘She was a Stevenson Democrat; she might hire a grown man to kneel before me, but not without conversation. “He’s going to a birthday party”, she volunteered for me; at which point, even though it was 1960, we got the full minstrel show’. Through doing a bit of research, Klawans discovers who played the shoeshine man, but he could find nothing more than his name. Eventually he gets to speak to Michael Kidd, choreographer on The Band Wagon, who tells him to quit looking in archives: ‘You won’t find anything. LeRoy Daniels was a bootblack’. Someone had seen him at his stand downtown in Los Angeles and urged Kidd to go look. ‘He snaps the cloth, he hits the brushes together, he does it all on the beat’. (12) He wasn’t a trained dancer, but what Kidd calls a street dancer. Klawans, unable to track Daniels down, instead evokes his presence in the film in a vividly ekphrastic piece of writing. (13) He describes how Daniels eases into the partnership:



10. Stuart Klawans, ‘Shined Shoes’ in Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson (eds), O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), p. 123.

11. Ibid., p. 122.


12. Ibid., p. 124.

13. For a discussion of ekphrastic writing, see the Introduction to Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros (eds), Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance (Sydney: Power Publications, 1999), pp. 1-35.

  And when the camera pulls back, allowing room for the gestures that grow more expansive as the mood rises, LeRoy does something astonishing between one phase of the shine and the next: he executes a spin. With that, LeRoy Daniels has gone beyond his art. For sixty-four bars he synchronises his every movement with Fred, playing flawlessly before a camera that runs nonstop, until he’s no longer giving a dancelike performance at a shoeshine stand, but dancing. (14)  



14. Klawans, ‘Shined Shoes’, p. 127.

The heightened everyday is evoked in this scenario, a histrionic rendering of the quotidian, a triumph over the oppressive and servile roles doled out by a racist society. But a question gnaws at the margins of Klawans’ essay: what happens between the movies and the real? What happened to LeRoy Daniels, who played himself with such histrionic verve? The Band Wagon was not his big break.


The ‘Dancing in the Dark’ number, on the other hand, has become one of the most celebrated Hollywood musical numbers. It is the inverse of Busby Berkeley: a duet, intimate, lyrical. It is magical but in a highly stylised way. Representationally it evokes the quotidian — one evening Fred and Cyd escape their professional lives (and the trouble they are having meshing two different performative modes) and take a horse-drawn carriage into Central Park. But this quotidian is rendered in an inflationary manner. That is, the cinematic codes are heightened (the lighting which gives a fairybook blue to the night, the sets, the painted skyline, the extra-diegetic music [‘Dancing in the Dark’] and the choreography). The public and private and on-stage/off-stage tropes are animated here for both narrative and performative purposes. But none of this quite explains what is so magical about the scene. I think it is because of the enactment of the difference between the quotidian and the histrionic, demonstrated through a transition from the daily to the extra-daily body. Put simply, it is the tension between walking and dancing. The ‘stars’ alight from the carriage and walk towards a dance pavilion. They walk through the dancing couples; others dance, they walk, but they begin to walk in time, a lilting walk, almost a glide. Entering into a blue glade there is a moment — almost invisible, undecipherable — when the walk turns into a dance. This moment is rhymed by the ending of the dance with the step back into the carriage.


The King of Comedy and Bamboozled are both ‘about’ television but by virtue of the way they are shot (The King of Comedy like a television show, in frontal shots, very little depth of field, and Bamboozled shot on tape, using amateur DV cameras, except for the show which was shot on 16mm), they serve to speak about cinema as well, and to enact various performative traditions. I have written elsewhere about The King of Comedy, (15) and so will not treat the film in detail here, except to make a few points in order to situate it within the larger performance text preoccupying this article. Its thematic motifs include, most strongly, disaster versus success and public versus private; these themes are played out according to various configurations including ingénue, star, celebrity, fan, producer/director, ghost, and aspirant diva. Made thirty years after 42nd Street and sixty years after The Band Wagon, the emotional tenor dispersed through the network of relations in The King of Comedy is considerably darker. Generic tropes include the big break, opening night (in its television variant: the show going live to air), kidnapping, repetition compulsion, Springtime. All the performative modalities are present and mapped in complex ways.



15. Lesley Stern, ‘Acting Out of Character: The King of Comedy as a Histrionic Text’, in Falling for You, pp. 277-305.



The line between the daily and the extra-daily is undecideable in The King of Comedy. Throughout we are plagued by uncertainty: is this acting or not? Is this a good or bad performance? Is this funny? Should we laugh or cringe? Here the ingénue, who is also an avid fan, not only gets a big break, but he gets to take his hero’s place — thus becoming a star and celebrity himself. But he achieves this through violent means, rather than through studious and dedicated emulation. It’s not that Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) isn’t a good student, mind you; he studies, and attempts to imitate and compulsively repeat every gesture of Jerry Langford (Lewis). But it isn’t enough, somehow the kinesthetic affect fails, as a performer he is stiff, his rhythm and timing are wrong, his jokes aren’t funny. And we, watching, feel this failure, the bodily discomfort is transmitted, and the excruciating sense we have is experienced somatically. Yet it is, in some perverse way, enjoyable. Why? In part it must be because of De Niro’s histrionic Springtime enactment. We take pleasure in the virtuosity of his performing bad acting so well and with such consummate relish. But, in part, might not the combination of discomfort and exhilaration we feel be derived from the discursive net the film is weaving and into which it lures us? The King of Comedy shows the flip side of admiration, and the impulse to emulate, as envy, competition, revenge, voracity. And here we are, in the film theatre, if not fans of Pupkin or De Niro, at least film fans in a general sense. We know how a good performance can seduce, can induce in us that feeling: ‘I too can be an actor’; and we can also extrapolate from the fan/celebrity and on-screen/off-screen dynamic to more quotidian relations involving admiration and emulation and envy and the desire to escape the tediousness of being oneself through the enactment of an ‘other’ person (‘better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime’) or, more violently, the obliteration of that other.


Although being oneself might not simply be tedious, it might actually involve the humiliation of having to play a version of oneself that is abhorrent. Think of the blonde girls in 42nd Street, think of Butterfly McQueen, think of Mantan Moore.


In Oscar Micheaux’s film Within Our Gates (1919, four years after Griffith made The Birth of A Nation), Preacher Ned, an Uncle Tom figure, is kowtowing to two white men, enacting one of the standard blackface stereotypes of American cinema. He leaves the hut, closes the door, and his face and demeanor change absolutely. The following title reads ‘Again I’ve sold my birthright’.


In The King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis plays — against the grain, or against his star persona — a straight man. So how do we know what the model is for Rupert’s comedic aspirations? We know because we have seen Jerry Lewis movies (over and over again), and so The King of Comedy makes sense because of intertextual history. The comic Jerry Lewis is only physically absent from the film, but his ghost is present and the film is animated by what I have referred to as ‘Virtual Jerryality’. He ghosts the film through the agency of audience memory, our gestural memory — of the tics and grimaces and somatic contortions that comprise the Lewis performance; but also thematic, figural and tropic memories.


The ghost who returns to haunt Bamboozled is LeRoy Daniels. He is repeated, and transfigured, by Savion Glover, the great dancer and choreographer, the man who, in our time, has redefined tap dancing. (16) There are other ghosts, too, but we will return to them at the end or they will return to us. They await us in the wings, in the future.


The central conceit of Bamboozled is Springtime with a twist: rather than a disaster turning into a success (although success is an intermediate stage), it evolves into violence and tragedy. It is a film about race and performance, hilarious at times, disjointed, discomfiting. It presents some great performances in multiple permutations of the performer/audience and actor/role dynamic. It is indubitably inflated, often stark in its oppositions and stereotypes, but it interlaces the histrionic with the quotidian in acutely critical ways, and via a savage rendition of the on-screen/off-screen modality, makes us think about the daily and extra-daily body in new ways. It is a serious meditation on stereotypes and the way they are formed and maintained through repetition. As a topic this is not new, but the attention to the performative dimension of stereotypes is. This film enacts a problem to do with enactment in an experimentally bold way.


16. My thanks to Jodi Brooks who, because of her enthusiasm for Savion Glover, urged me to look more closely at Bamboozled. She said it was central to my project, and she was right.




Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) is a writer, not a performer, and yet from the opening images when he addresses the audience (us, not an intradiegetic audience) and delivers the dictionary definition of satire, his persona is signalled as something other than himself. He speaks in a totally concocted accent and his social manner is a potpourri of gestures derived from some imaginary etiquette manual for New Age middle management. Being himself is an act. Ranged opposite Delacroix is Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), the television station’s producer who talks like a brother and figures he has the right to use the ‘N’ word because he is married to a black woman and has pin ups of black athletes on his office wall. Delacroix, as the only black writer, is under pressure from Dunwitty to come up with a new ‘black’ show. Partly inspired by the street dancing of Manray (Glover), he conceives a satiric black face minstrel show. Called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, it will feature Manray as Mantan and his buddy Womack (Tommy Davidson) as Sleep ‘n’ Eat. Pierre figures the show’s racism will be so obvious that it will actually, via satire, serve to educate the television public, and in the process ridicule Dunwitty.


Delacroix and his assistant, Sloan Hopkins (Jada Pinkett-Smith, the clear intelligence and moral centre of the film), hold an audition, squarely within the tradition of all ‘putting on a show’ movies, but bearing a particularly close resemblance to The Producers. Sloan’s brother Julius (Mos Def), who has taken the new name of Big Black Africa, turns up to audition with a hard core hiphop-activist collective, the Mau Maus (played by the slam poet Mums, and hiphop artists Charli Baltimore, MC Serch, DJ Scratch, Gano Grills, and Canibus). (17) Their performance of ‘Black Iz Blak’ doesn’t pass muster with Delacroix.


Opening night approaches (with a live studio audience). Manray and Womack burn cork and blacken their faces, painting on big red lips, donning white gloves. They run Amos’n’Andy-style routines, and dance with a back-up troupe called the Pickaninnys (whose members include Lil Nigger Jim, Aunt Jemima, Sambo, Jungle Bunny, and Rastus), while the Alabama Porch Monkeys (the Roots), wearing ball-and-chains and sitting on a porch by a watermelon patch, provide music.








17. See the review by Cynthia Fuchs,

The intradiegetic audience is made up of a cross-section of the populace and includes blacks and whites. At first there is appalled, shocked silence, which slowly turns to embarrassment. People start sneaking sideways glances to see how other audience members are reacting. A few snickers ripple through the auditorium, mainly from blacks. Whites are more confused and hesitant but, as black mirth rises, so, given licence, they join in. Soon uproarious hilarity fills the studio, as the audience is united, laughing in one voice. This is a classic Springtime trope. Knowing this, recognising the conventions, how do we (the filmic audience) react? It is much harder to laugh in this situation than in either The Producers or The King of Comedy, since clearly the satire is aimed as much at the contemporary entertainment industry and popular culture landscape (and the figuration of race) as it is at the past. Yet it is also hard not to be moved and amused by aspects of the show. In particular, the chemistry between Glover and Davidson transmits energy sparks, and the line they negotiate between re-enactment and parody (a histrionic display of the conventions and roles), invites quizzical humor. The humiliation of playing imposed roles is displayed, but simultaneously a degree of triumph over ugly racism and impossibly oppressive conditions is enacted through heightened and skillful performativity, through a modelling of energy.


Savion Glover’s choreography and dancing is extraordinary; employing the rhythms of hiphop music and a fast pounding style called ‘hitting’, he represents a very different kind of tap dancing to that associated with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The 1996 Broadway success of his show, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (a series of vignettes illustrating the history of African-Americans and the part tap dancing played in keeping rhythm in their lives) provides an intertextual support for Bamboozled. It is hard not to be moved (exhilarated) by his dancing. His dancing, however, does change, losing its vitality as it moves from the street to incorporation within television. Diegetically, this is paralleled by his increasing awareness of history (through the agency of Sloane) and his own complicity, culminating in his refusal to perform.


But it is too late. The Mau Maus kidnap him, and the kidnapping swiftly escalates into shocking violence and death. Kidnapping is an interesting and recurring trope in the ‘putting on a show’ genre (given a particularly intriguing inflection in Cecil B. Demented [John Waters, 2000]), but usually it facilitates the big break and enables performance. Here it puts an end to performance.


The ending of Bamboozled has been much criticised: as excessive, messy, unmotivated; and the film as a whole has elicited criticism for being heavy-handed and unclear. I wonder if some of the negative reaction is not derived from the apparently impossible position in which we are placed as viewers. To me, this is the film’s strength. It enacts the ugly side of cultural performance, shifting from on-screen to off-screen with remarkable affectivity. The film does not let us forget that, as Michael Rogin puts it, ‘black mimicry, black performance, the black mask, the technique by which the subjugated group kept its distance from and mocked its oppressor, was itself expropriated and made into a blackface performance for whites’. He goes on to discuss the functioning of the primal scene in every blackface musical, the performer blacking up: ‘what looks like uncovering origins, exposing how the magic works, is the deepest mystification of all, for it attributes the ability to change identity to individual construction of the self’. (18)


The film ends with a montage sequence of blackface images from film and television, including Hattie McDaniel and Bill Robinson (dancing with Shirley Temple), The Birth of a Nation, Al Jolson and Judy Garland blacking up, Jimmie Walker and a cavalcade of characters reciting, ‘Yassir!’. The repetition of roles and performative tropes is overwhelming. The ghosts of Hollywood return to haunt us. The narrative violence of the kidnapping and killing sequence is relocated in this montage, the violence of American history is enacted within a contemporaneous frame. The history of racism is implicated in the here and now of performance.





18. Michael Rogin, ‘“Democracy and Burnt Cork”: The End of Blackface, the Beginning of Civil Rights’, in Nick Browne (ed.), Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 178.

The Diva isn’t dead. She dies and is resurrected. Or is it that the diva gesture recurs, comes back to haunt the cinema? These gestures, like wandering homeless ghosts, take up residence in alien bodies, there to play out the repetition that is their destiny. I now turn attention to an intertextual cluster: All About Eve and Opening Night, with brief mention of All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999).


Salvador Dalí referred to the era of the great European divas as ‘the grandiose époque of hysterical cinema’. He writes of ‘this cinema so marvelously, so properly close to theater … There, in all its glory, an arrogant female exhibitionism’. (19) He is speaking of the prewar period and just after, specifically of Italy, but we might add figures like Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse, Asta Nielsen. Bernhardt is the least cinematic of the European divas, but she registers a transitional moment, when an already anachronistic theatricality acquires, through a process of delayed reaction, an after-life in the cinema. Bernhardt’s death scenes, for which she was so famous, might seem to us today to be ridiculously drawn-out and caricaturedly histrionic. But the strangeness of the performative register is produced to a large degree by historical distance and a change in conventions. Audiences of the time would have been much more alert to the nuances of gestural expression and more predisposed to apprehending bodily rhythms as equal in import to textual rhythms and meanings (typically, shots of ‘dying’ would be held for a long time in order to privilege the view — in long shot — of a highly choreographed movement set piece). Their pleasure would also have derived from watching Bernhardt’s recapitulation of, and variation on, performative traits she had already thoroughly demonstrated.

  19. Salvador Dalí, ‘Abstract of a Critical History of the Cinema’, in Paul Hammond (ed.), The Shadow And Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, 2nd edition (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), p. 71.

All About Eve is a backstage story in which there is no stage. Everything happens around, and in reference to, the stage: in dressing rooms, in the star’s apartment, in the wings. The absence of the stage as such also means the absence of a diegetic audience. However, what this structuring absence enables is both a complication and multiplication of various modalities such as performer/audience, and also a foregrounding of the film/theatre nexus. The fact that we never see the great star, Margo Channing/Bette Davis, on stage foregrounds her performance and her star persona as cinematic, and our place as the cinema audience.


Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), dressed drably (‘the mousy one with the trench coat and the funny hat’, says Birdie, played by Thelma Ritter, Margo’s dresser and helper), waits outside the theatre every night to catch a glimpse of Margo Channing. Night after night she watches the play. Margo’s friend notices and is captivated by the girl’s devotion and brings her to meet Margo — who is raging against the pestilence of fans whom she refers to as ‘coyotes’ and ‘juvenile delinquents’ — in her dressing room. From here, Eve’s career follows a straightforward trajectory: young ingenuous female fan insinuates herself into the life of an older woman actress, becomes understudy to this star she so adores and emulates, gets her big break and takes over the star’s part, consequently usurping her place in the firmament. At the end of the film she returns to her room after an award ceremony in which she has been honoured, to find a young female fan.

The star/fan dynamic in All About Eve seems initially to operate according to a simple division of modalities and characters: Margo on the side of histrionic, extra-daily body, inflation, acting, performer and Eve on the side of quotidian, daily body, not acting, audience. But the film, in so far as it is about learning to act, actually puts into play a series of exchanges and transferences, and it is through these exchanges and transferences that energy is generated.

We are introduced to Margo in her dressing room, that liminal zone between the stage and the off-stage. She is drinking and smoking, ordinary quotidian activities, but she performs these activities so that their gestural quality is framed. As though they really matter. These are the gestures of daily life, like using chopsticks or a knife and fork, but precisely because of their habitual quality they usually go unnoticed. The cinema has the capacity to frame the gestural quality of these activities (more so than the theatre because of the frame and the close-up), but mostly quotidian gestures in the cinema are naturalised, given a utilitarian function (not always, however; think of Robert Bresson, for instance, Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, and innumerable moments in Hollywood films that are not otherwise interested in foregrounding the temporality and rhythms of daily life). But when we think of Bette Davis, we think of smoking, we think of the cigarette as a deictic wand, smoke as a substance. She takes an ordinary activity and, with a flick of the wrist, an intake of breath, renders it fascinating.


The Bette Davis idiolect was well established by the time of All About Eve, and our pleasure in the film is in part derived from watching her (like Bernhardt’s) recapitulation of, and variation on, performative traits she had already thoroughly demonstrated. (20) Because her performance is ‘about’ performance, and because it is supported by a marvellous rhetorical script, she sustains an unusually intense focus of energy; her body is decided, not just in diegetically performative moments, but throughout the film. It is not so much that the Davis repertoire is exaggerated, but rather that her energy is critically modelled, even more than is usually the case — she ensures that every gesture counts. She is a supremely somatic actor and, in this film, we witness all the gestural tropes: unusually versatile eye (dilated pupils, sideways looks, downcast gaze, under-the-lashes looks, rolling eyes, raised eyebrows), head (often held at a slight angle, a pose adopted, held for a beat before speaking), mouth (pursed lips, down-turned mouth) and hand movements. Her hand and arm movements are pronounced (the way she picks up a chocolate in pique, holds it aloft, pops it into her mouth; the way she drunkenly dismisses Birdie — drunk she may be, but the gesture is controlled, precise — when offered a cup of tea) but far from hammy. When she stands astride, head tilted slightly back and arms akimbo she surely evokes the cinema of the divas: ‘this cinema so marvelously, so properly close to theatre … There, in all its glory, an arrogant female exhibitionism’.



20. See Charles Affron, Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977).






In a witty and erudite essay called ‘The Renaissance Elbow’, Joaneath Spicer begins with a quote from Report on Business Magazine: ‘Hand resting provocatively on his hip, Mick Jagger leads the press conference like a pied piper teasing a pack of rats’. (21) She discusses images in paintings from about 1500 to 1650, mainly middle class portraits, in which men stand, more commonly with one arm akimbo, but sometimes with both hands on hips, registering in this pose self-possession and control. The weaker, humbler sex are not thus imaged for they are not aligned, within the larger culture, with self-possession and control. Spicer does not return to Jagger or the modern era, but we might note that in early cinema the arm(s) akimbo gesture emerges as a sign of female modernity (the modern metropolitan woman appropriating the gesture from images of peasant women and women of easy virtue). Think of Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks. In Pandora’s Box (G.W. Pabst, 1928), Brooks flaunts possession and control in the turned-out elbows but adds an erotic dimension by echoing the famous Olympia gesture and surrounding debate: hand sliding off the hip and down towards her pubic area. Bette Davis reproduces this gesture (rendering it however, more subtle; her elbows are turned out but her hands are buried in the folds of a voluptuous skirt) in the famous scene where she ascends the staircase, turns, faces her audience (her party guests) and declares, ‘Fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for a bumpy ride’. Not simply a tired bid by a fading star, but an instance of arrogant female exhibitionism in which Davis, as performer, precipitates a discursive elaboration of the relations between divadom, aging, self-possession, sexuality.



21. Joaneath Spicer, ‘The Renaissance Elbow’, in Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg (eds.), A Cultural History of Gesture (Cambridge, England: Polity Press), p. 84.






Eve, in contrast to Margo, seems utterly unaffected as a character, without affect as an actor. When she tells the simple story of her life that first night in Margo’s dressing room she sits quietly, her hands folded modestly in her lap. But we have already — in the opening scene at the award ceremony from which the rest of the film is a flashback — been given a frozen image of those hands reaching out for the trophy. Those hands have been framed as greedy and grasping (like those Sandra Bernhard hands, spread-eagled across the car window pane at the opening of The King of Comedy). So we have knowledge that Eve’s intradiegetic audience, constituted by the theatre pros assembled in the dressing room, do not have, and perhaps are not quite as easily moved as they are (all, that is, except marvellous Thelma Ritter who snorts: ‘Some story!’). With Birdie we watch Eve from the wings, see her holding Margo’s stage dress up against her body, curtseying to an imaginary audience. Birdie observes that Eve is studying Margo ‘like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints. How you walk, talk, think, eat’. She is interrupted by Eve herself, now a made-over mouse, looking chic and groomed. ‘What do you think of my elegant new suit?’ she asks. ‘It looks much better on you than it did on me’, responds Margo, adding ‘I find it too seventeenish for me’. ‘Oh come on now’, mollifies Eve, ‘as though you were an old lady!’

That evening, as they are awaiting the party guests, Margo and Bill (Gary Merrill), her lover, have an almighty row, centring mainly on Eve and Margo’s supposed obsession about her age (this time her hands are fisted firmly on her hips). Once again Eve, softly and sweetly, interrupts. In response to her offer of service Margo says, dryly, ‘Thank you. A Martini. Very dry’. Bill asks Eve what she would like to drink and Margo answers for her: ‘a milkshake’. But Eve speaks for herself, softly, in a tone of uninflected innocence: ‘A Martini. Very dry’.

This is a clear case of repetition compulsion. Eve is as obsessive as Rupert Pupkin, and as lethal, but although we may be in doubt about her acting abilities at the beginning of the film, by the end we are in no doubt. But the intriguing thing is that, although she studies every move Margo makes, she does not ‘act’ like her at all. To be sure, we witness the gradual emergence of the steel butterfly, but only toward the end do we witness anything like the histrionic mode of Bette Davis. When Bill rejects her, in fury she tears off her wig and hurls it at her dressing room mirror. Then, after she has received her award, she sits alone, pouring herself a drink, and for the first time smoking. But there is no audience to this exhibition. She is becoming like Margo in some of her star persona characteristics, but not in her acting style.

Margo and Eve embody two different acting styles. Eve is not a bad actress, but it is hard to tell when she is acting and when she is being herself. And it is not a surprise to learn that she is headed for Hollywood, as her naturalistic mode (a confusion of the lying/acting modality) is more suited to the style of acting becoming prevalent in the postwar era. Margo is indeed almost anachronistic. We might think of these styles as the Milk Shake and Dry Martini schools of acting. In the end Eve becomes Margo, but only structurally. She does not achieve a generosity of performance, a way of modelling her energy that transfers to an audience enabling the generation of new knowledge. We know Bette Davis/Margo is acting and somehow in the performance there is room both for an exhilaration and for the generation of new knowledge. Eve, like Rupert Pupkin, achieves her desire; both transform themselves from ingenuous fans into celebrities. But it is not at all clear that they have absorbed their acting lessons somatically, and that therefore they can sustain an inventive practice. Because Margo makes every gesture count she transforms the quotidian, invests the daily with pathos; Eve effaces the quotidian as cultural, as constructed, in process.

The ending repeats the beginning, but as a denouement it is played more rhetorically. The fan appears like a ghost: in the mirror. Just as we earlier witnessed Eve fondling and imagining herself in Margo’s costume, so we see Phoebe (Barbara Bates), the fan, lifting Eve’s cape, fondling and trying it on, adopting a diva pose. The mirror image multiplies. In the end Margo is shot of Eve, but Eve is haunted: by her own youth, by gestures, by a genre in which age matters if you are female and a diva.

In All About My Mother, Bette Davis returns, not so much as a ghost but as an iconic image (a huge poster of her blowing out smoke is in the dressing room of the theatre) and a source of inspiration. Her gestures are repeated, as ghostly traces acquire an after-life. In this film, Almodóvar pays tribute to the great divas, including Davis and Gena Rowlands. It is a film about performance, both in the more orthodox sense of stage acting and in terms of sexual identity as a process of performance. It begins with a mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), and her teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), watching All About Eve on television. Shortly after this, as a birthday treat, she takes him to see the great actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) playing Blanche DuBois. As they are leaving the theatre and Esteban is running to get Huma’s autograph, he is hit by a car and killed. In terms of plot, this echoes the beginning of Opening Night but, rather than provoking phantoms, this event functions as a sort of beneficent sacrifice: the death of the son (Almodóvar’s surrogate) allows the mother to pursue a life of her own, to return briefly to the stage (by stepping into the role of Blanche she saves the day rather than usurping Huma’s place, and in the process is able to repeat and resolve uncompleted gestures from her own past), but ultimately to pursue a life of acting off the stage.

The true diva figure in All About My Mother is Huma. She tells us ‘I started smoking because of Bette Davis’. How many women, I wonder, aspiring to be great smokers, learnt the gestures of smoking from Bette Davis? How many films are woven through with filaments of smoke breathed out by Bette Davis?

In Opening Night, Gena Rowlands plays the part of an actress (Myrtle) who is having a hard time playing on stage the part of a woman (Virginia) who is having a struggle coming to terms with aging. In particular, she is finding it inordinately difficult playing a scene in which she is slapped by her lover, Maurice (Cassavetes). Myrtle is faced with a conundrum: if she identifies with the role she has been assigned (and everyone attempts to persuade her that this is her life), if she plays the part well, then she will be identified by her audience as old and her career will be severely limited. If she plays the part badly, then her career and identity are also likely to be ruined. The suspense of the film hinges on the question of how and if this conundrum can be resolved. Narratively it hinges on the question of whether Myrtle — given that she seems to be finding it harder and harder to stay in touch, is drinking excessively, prone to hysterical outbursts, haunted by a malevolent ghost and on occasion herself possessed — will make it to opening night at all. However, there are trajectories here other than narrative ones. One of the major questions — dramatised not simply on a thematic level but improvised, somatised, enacted in a variety of ways — is that of how to act. ‘I’m looking for a way’, she says, ‘to play this part where age doesn’t make any difference’.

But finding a way to play the part entails dealing with a ghost.

After the performance that opens the film, Myrtle is mobbed at the stage door and her attention is particularly caught by a young, adoring fan, Nancy (Laura Johnson), dressed in a floppy blue hat and huge raincoat. Nancy embraces her, saying ‘I love you’ over and over. It is pouring with rain and, as Myrtle and her party are about to drive away, the girl reappears — from inside the car we see her hands clawing the window, spread-eagled against the glass, her body a blur (those hands again, those grasping fan-like hands). Myrtle rolls the window down and tells the girl to come and see her tomorrow. As they pull out into the street an accident takes place behind them, in the rearview mirror: Nancy is hit by a car and killed.

Eve Harrington returns as a ghost, called Nancy (though she could also have been called Phoebe). At the end of All About Eve, the mirror image splinters and multiplies. Imagine shards of glass cascading into the after-life, piercing like crystals of ice the flesh of later movies.

In order to play the part Myrtle has to be touched by Nancy and she has to engage in a life and death battle with all the phantoms the girl evokes. If Nancy is the return of the self, she is also and simultaneously the return of loss. She is conjured into being by Myrtle herself, by sympathetic magic, but once in the dramatic arena cannot be easily controlled or quelled; her spirit magic wreaks havoc.

The grand paradigm of Opening Night is on-stage/off-stage. Myrtle’s problem, however, is not that she confuses on-stage and off-stage activities, but that she condenses two moments: the girl being hit in the street and herself being hit on the stage. The difference between herself and the girl (age) is subsumed by their identity. Being hit/slapped has everything to do with being a woman, and with age, as is emphasised by the line that Maurice delivers immediately before slapping Virginia: ‘You want to be young again, is that it?’ Myrtle is surrounded by discourses that secure sexual difference by posing age as a category into which woman disappears. The condensation she performs (and the film enacts this cinematically) poses the slap as a gestus that actualises the discursive violence she is experiencing. Tackling the problem of how to play the part involves a process of improvisation. And it absorbs us because of Rowlands’ acting, her fictionalisation, and the way this is articulated by and with the cinematic codes. Her ‘crack up’ is made manifest through a skillful deployment of energy, of bodily rhythms, of shifting vocal intensities. And these modalities are echoed (although not always symmetrically) by the camera’s insistent unblinking attention, the long takes often in extreme close-up, hovering and hand-held, the juxtaposition of angles, and the sudden recourse to extremely distanced long shots. The dynamic of proximity and distance, of complicity and criticism, allows us both to experience the sensate shock of the crack up and to contemplate its ramifications beyond this story, this character, this movie.

The ghost makes four appearances. I shall just describe the final confrontation. Sarah (Joan Blondell), the scriptwriter, takes Myrtle to a spiritualist, Melva (Lady Rowlands). In the spiritualist’s apartment she looks around, just as she had in her own apartment the night before, and so we anticipate another visitation. Suddenly music erupts, a loud dramatic chord, Myrtle whips around and then calms, a smile settling on her face — ‘Oh, there you are’. Nancy enters the apartment and locks the door behind her. Myrtle’s face registers relief and happiness. ‘You’re something!’ declares Nancy, hands on hips. ‘What does that mean?’ asks Melva. Nancy: ‘It means I’m no fucking spirit’. In medium close-up, she delivers a speech straight to camera:


  I’ve never bothered you. You want to kill me. I devoted my life to you — to movies — to music — to theatre. I’m seventeen years old. I like sex, I like to turn people on. And that’s what the theatre is. It’s sex, it’s like getting laid.    

She starts moving forward, threateningly, and simultaneously the camera moves slightly in on her, so that it feels as if she is closing in on us. As she moves, she grabs something off-screen, clutches it like a weapon and bears down; the music swells melodramatically. Now in extreme close-up: ‘I’m not afraid of you. You’re an older woman, you’re frightened, and you’re not capable’. Myrtle is frightened, more distant, she seems less substantial than Nancy — ‘Listen, I have this play, you know that, and I have to do it. If you hurt me I won’t be able to act’. Nancy speaks softly: ‘Let’s make friends’; and then jabs and shouts: ‘Stand still!’ Switching into a conciliatory register: ‘I just want to shake your hand’. Closer and closer she comes, leaning into the camera — ‘Don’t you want to touch me?’ And then she lashes out, brandishing her weapon and again there is an irruption of violence, a struggle on the floor, bodies thrashing. Myrtle grabs a large vase and brings it down on Nancy’s head; from her point of view, we look down on the younger woman lying on the floor, her face bloodied. Suddenly we are removed from being there, in the thick of it: in long shot we see Myrtle hurling some weapon-like object, smashing china to the ground. And then a close-up of shattered glass and china smashed to smithereens on the gaudy green carpet. She collapses in the arms of a hotel porter, summoned by the commotion: ‘Is she dead?’ she asks, ‘Is she dead?’


And so it is that she kills the girl and banishes the ghost.


Does Nancy exist? Is the ghost real? Well, we see her, she is undoubtedly present, embodied by an actress. But she is also invisible on occasion, and in this guise more akin to a hallucination. The point is, she’s just as effective in her interventions when she’s invisible. Certainly, there is a way of thinking of the ghost as a textualising of hallucination, as an emanation from Myrtle — but when Nancy says, ‘I’m no fucking spirit’, she is addressing us, her audience, as much as she is addressing Myrtle, her audience. Ghosts and actors are not immaterial, even though they may embody fictional scenarios; and, conversely, we might say that the world we live in, the world which is present to us, is peopled with phantoms. Perhaps we are all haunted by the phantoms of presence: old age, sexual difference, cruel youth, stage fright, Humphrey Bogart (‘Am I beginning to look like Humphrey Bogart?’ Myrtle asks, peering into her mirror). Or is it that, to borrow a marvellous phrase from Peggy Phelan, ‘all bodies are reluctant ghosts of other bodies’? (22)

If on-stage and off-stage/on-screen and off-screen are the central paradigms of the putting on a show genre, and if gestures migrate between films and between movies and the worlds we inhabit outside the movies, then the genre has, at its best (and there is a less utopian side, to be sure) the potential to both summon and grapple with ghosts. In Opening Night, the problem of how to play the part, as it is played out histrionically, becomes a problem of social relations — not simply Myrtle’s problem but ours too, a problem of how to act. The girl is a way of being in touch, through her Myrtle finds a way to act, to play the part(s) that will keep her alive. The crisis of losing touch is manifested by a ghostly world which paradoxically generates a strong and shocking sense of tactility. This way of taking hold, of being in touch, is also a way of getting a grip on space and of taking hold of time: of working out a way where things might matter differently.

  22. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 172.

from Issue 5: Shows


© Lesley Stern July 2002.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.