Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Majority of One - 1961

A Majority of One (1961), directed by Mervyn LeRoy is a luminous tribute to the “better angels of our nature,” to the belief that peace on earth begins with an old-fashioned concept called the brotherhood of man, and to the talent of two aging stars who only got better with time.  They are Rosalind Russell, and Sir Alec Guinness.
This is our contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon saluting the actors and actresses in their “over 50” years, hosted by Caftan Woman, who covers the actresses, and Rich at Wide Screen World, who showcases the actors.  Please have a look at these two blogs for a list of great bloggers participating in this event.

Rosalind Russell plays an elderly Brooklynite, a widow who lives alone in an apartment cozy with tsotchkes and heavy with the past in the form of family portraits and symbols of her Jewish faith.  In a place of honor on the sideboard is the photo of her late husband, and her son, who was killed in World War II.  Though she is a strong, sensible, and funny woman who dispenses home comforts from an enormous handbag and home philosophy from a giving heart (“You want dietonic, drink water.”), she is still grieving, and chained to what she has lost.

Her daughter, played by Madelyn Rhue, is married to a young man in the diplomatic service, played by Ray Danton.  They come for a visit and to break the news that he is being transferred to Japan.  They want to take her with them, but know that convincing her will be difficult, because she is old and set in her ways, because all she knows is Brooklyn, and because of a still not healed resentment against the Japanese, for her son was killed in the Pacific Theater. 
The war was over only just 15 years when this story takes place, and it reflects sentiments common at the time, and also reflects that remarkable change that occurred both in a Japan struggling to throw off years of shame of defeat and poverty to embrace a modern world—modern democracy, modern capitalism—and in America's relationship with its former enemy.  It was still a long time before Japan became an economic powerhouse, but the seeds were being sown, while America changed in its role as victor, to partner, and it left many World War II generation Americans reeling.  Does moving forward disgrace the past?  Is moving forward the only way to really honor the sacrifices made?

Large issues are reduced to small examples of fear and mistrust when Rosalind Russell meets her first Japanese man – and we are set up for open discussion of prejudice by her neighbor, comically played by Mae Questel, who wants to move out of Brooklyn because blacks and Puerto Ricans are moving in.  (If she sounds like—and sings like—Betty Boop, it’s because she is Betty Boop.)
The Japanese gentleman she meets on the ship going over to Japan will figure prominently in their lives.  He is the Japanese delegate to the economic summit that her son-in-law is attending on behalf of the American side.  He is played by Alec Guinness.

There is much humor (including a really charming scene where Russell and Guinness crack each other up and laugh themselves silly), and drama of the gentle, but most honest kind.  Most interesting, what begins as an East-meets-West story quickly becomes a tale of aging, and ageism.  Guinness, a widower whose son was also killed in the war, and whose daughter, too, while serving as a nurse in Hiroshima when it was obliterated, has learned to move on and face the future with dogged determination.  We sense that it is not until he has met Rosalind Russell, that he sees any beauty in life again.  They discuss their lives, their families, their faiths with open curiosity.  They share things about themselves their children do not know. 
When he asks to court her, she is reticent for her children’s sake, and Guinness gives us what should be the motto of the Diamonds and Gold blogathon:

“It is not the children who should instruct the parents, but the parents who should instruct the children.”
“Not in America,” she jokes.

He adds, “You are wise and venerable, and only the venerable have the experience and maturity to understand matters of personal relationships.”
When her daughter and son-in-law object, he calmly tells them, “We have the maturity to weigh such matters, you do not.”

One rarely hears huzzahs for maturity these days, when what is shallow, ignorant, and tasteless is "awesome."

Indeed, one of the chief wonders and pleasures of this gentle movie is that the two aging stars are the stars, not the supporting players, and that the story revolves entirely around them.  Though they have some comic moments, they are not buffoons, and it is never their age that is a butt of jokes.  Miss Russell even gets a few moments of physical comedy, when she thrusts her long legs under the low Japanese table at Guinness’ home, and is helped to walk, a little tipsy from too much sake.  She sways a bit and uses her body almost as she were about to break into the Conga number from Wonderful Town.
When her son-in-law makes a social gaffe at the economic meetings and unknowingly insults his Japanese hosts, she tells him what he did wrong in bowing too low, that it looked like he was making fun of the Japanese.  “It’s very important how you talk to foreigners about the little things.  I know.  I was a foreigner for a long time.  Foreigners are very sensitive people.”  We learn of her trip in steerage from Russia when she was a little girl, and a life lived in a new country where it took a very long time to be accepted.

Rosalind Russell is a quiet miracle in this role, a departure from her larger-than-life Hildy Johnson or Auntie Mame, and yet still holding court center-stage as few others can.  Her affectionate touching her daughter when she arrives, running her hands along her daughter’s shoulders, face, and hands, always clutching her.  Her deft witticisms and tragic pain that plays out as mere flickers on her lovely, gracefully aging face.
Her rigid anger as she recounts on her first meeting with Guinness the circumstances of her son’s wartime death and her burning resentment against the Japanese.  Her flustered moments, her grieving moments, her moments of incandescent wonder.  Most especially, her transformation into a Jewish woman.
This for many might be seen as poor casting, unrealistic in the face of her being a longtime star well known for being cast as what she was – Yankee types (or English types).  That she was in real life an Irish Catholic is too much perhaps for some people to accept her in this role.  I feel she is perfect in the role for two reasons:  First, her dialect imitating a Jewish woman from Brooklyn is perfect.  She nails it.  Her soft inflections, her mannerisms, there is nothing to indicate in her performance that she is not this character.  The only reason she would not be accepted in the role is the fact that everyone knows she is not an elderly Jewish woman from Brooklyn.

And this, second, is why she brings to the role something Gertrude Berg, who played the part on Broadway, could never do.  Miss Russell creates transcendence in the role, the kind of transcendence that is the message of the story, as Guinness’ character puts it, to cross a bridge and achieve “the enlightened spirit,” and passing that enlightenment to her audience.  She is our our stand-in and proxy. 

Gertrude Berg, whom most remember for her The Goldbergs radio and TV show, a pioneer writer and actress, played Jewish.  It was her character, to the point of becoming parody.  She could play Mrs. Jacoby in her sleep, but her familiarity with the role—and more importantly, the audience’s familiarity with her—would not allow for that marvelous transcendence that Rosalind Russell creates.  There is a scene at the end of the movie where Alec Guinness visits her back in her Brooklyn apartment.  She has prepared Sabbath dinner for him, and she lights the Shabbat candles.  She drapes a white lacy scarf over her head, and encircles the flames of the two candles with her hands, then places her hands over her eyes and quietly whispers a prayer.  The action is delicate and womanly.
I find this terribly moving especially knowing that she was a devout Roman Catholic, that in these pre-Vatican II days she wore a mantilla to Mass, probably very similar to what she wears on her head in this scene, and that when she says “Amen,” so does the Buddhist character played by Alec Guinness.  It is a moment of reverence, and nobility, when we really think the brotherhood of man is possible.  Gertrude Berg would be playing herself.  Rosalind Russell morphs into a symbol.

At this point, one must obviously note the casting of a white Englishman to play the Japanese character.  Here, ironically, we don’t have as much as stretch from the stage version—we may smile that Sir Cedric Hardwicke played the Japanese gentleman on stage.
It is perhaps more egregious to some for a non-Japanese to play this role.  However, here, too, I would suggest it is not inappropriate.  He is not making a caricature of the role, in the same horrible way that Mickey Rooney did with the Japanese character he played in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released the same year of 1961.  The real problem with Mr. Rooney’s embarrassing mugging portrayal in that movie is because he made the character’s being Japanese a joke, instead of making the character’s personality, his actions, and foibles the joke.  If the role had been played by a Japanese man still making the joke his being Japanese with all the stereotyped exaggerations, it would have the same embarrassing effect.

Sir Alec Guinness plays his role with subtle grace, an economy of movement, and if you do not believe he is really Japanese, that is not the point.  He is, like Rosalind Russell, a symbol, an allegory like the tale he tells of the ancient emperor and his commoner bride.
This is a movie that speaks to the heart and must be embraced the same way, as symbolic and allegorical.  The real brotherhood of man takes place when we walk in each other’s shoes.  Should Chinese native Ang Lee have not been allowed to direct that quintessential English tale, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) because it was not his culture and heritage?  Should Kazuo Ishiguro not have been allowed to write that English novel of a stately home and an enigmatic butler, The Remains of the Day?

Here is a clip from a Japanese production of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof.   A Japanese actor playing Tevye sings "If I Were a Rich Man" in Japanese. 

Brotherhood of man, folks.  Just go with it.

Rosalind Russell is a triumph in this role, but her acting career was growing short largely because of an event that occurred around the time just before this film was made.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy.  She did not make this public at the time, as it would have probably ended her career right there.  The early 1960s was truly a different world, where celebrities did not share this kind of news.  She was in her early fifties when she starred in A Majority of One.  In a remarkable feat of body and soul, she continued to perform sporadically through the 1960s, albeit with discomfort, and she was given another 15 years of life before the cancer returned, metastasized, and killed her. 
We eventually lose our most sparkling diamonds, but they cast a light that lives forever.

A blessed Palm Sunday, Easter, and Passover to those who keep these traditions.  Kanpai! (As Sir Alec and Rosalind say when they toast each other in Japanese.)

Come back this coming Thursday when our Year of Ann Blyth resumes with a special post for Easter.

In response to the number of kind people who've requested print copies of my eBook Classic Films and the American Conscience, which is a collection of essays from this blog -- I still can't print that book because you wouldn't be able to lift it, and I couldn't afford to print it.  BUT, I'm putting out a new, smaller, collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: HollywoodMimics and Mirrors the 20th Century.   It will be issued in eBook as well as print, and I'll let you know more about it down the road.  I hope to have it published sometime in May.


Rich said...

Wow. I found this particularly moving because I recently discussed cross-cultural casting, or however you wanna call it, in a post on a Charlie Chan movie. At the time, it was difficult for me to accept a white guy as an Asian because the reality of the character - his perspective, his experiences as an Asian within an upper-class white society - was undermined for me by seeing a white guy in the role. I couldn't make the leap of faith necessary to accept it. By interpreting this movie the way you have, you've given me something new to think about, and while I'm still not 100 percent sure I can buy it yet, it's absolutely worth considering.

And on top of that you also address the casting of Rosalind Russell as a Jew, something I admit I never would've given a thought to, but then, I know little about her outside of her film roles.

This might be my favorite movie-related piece of yours. I really wanna watch this movie now, and I hope I can see it the way you can. Thank you so much for taking a break from your year of Ann Blyth to write this.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks so much, Rich. I suppose in cases like this it's probably worth remembering that the performing arts (theatre or movies) are just illusion. For all our pretense at "reality", it's really still all illusion.

Caftan Woman said...

I approached "A Majority of One" with a medium-sized dose of cynicism due to the casting, although I was more than willing to be convinced aware of the talent involved.

I found myself totally involved and caught up in the characters and the transcendence of which you spoke so eloquently.

Thank you for the post as well as the unofficial motto.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'd love to know your take on it, CW, whenever you get a chance to see it.

Ryan said...

I adore this movie, but I adore Rosalind Russell. Her casting was never an issue for me, but I will admit to having an issue with Alec Guinness. It was hard for me to get over that bit of casting. As the movie progressed, I found myself able to put it behind me, but even now I find the idea a little disturbing. I know it's because I'm looking at it through a lens that did not exist then, so I try not to dwell on it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ryan. Glad the movie has some fans.

Patti said...

What a fantastic, in-depth review of a film I've never even heard of. As we all know, bitterness, hatred, and unforgiveness take their toll on our bodies, and it is only by letting go of those things that we can move forward. Sounds like this film does a great job making that clear, which, in 1961, was probably rather a bold move, given that the war was still a fresh and painful wound to many.

I am most definitely interested in seeing this film and am going to put it on my to-watch list. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

By the way, thanks for the info about Roz Russell battling breast cancer at this point in her career. Knowing that will make viewing her performance all the more poignant.

Also, that Japanese "If I Were a Rich Man" is loads of fun. I love that scene.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Patti. I really appreciate your comments. I hope you can see the film soon. I got a kick out of the "If I Were a Rich Man" in Japanese, too. A kind of revelation in its own way.

willie said...

Enjoyed reading your take on the film. I had initially approached watching it the with reservations having read different comments about the casting but found that the leads did well in their roles. It hardly the worst cases of miscasting I've ever seen, Dragon Seed comes to mind, but the first few minutes of both of their performances take a bit of adjustment. Once you get past that though their interactions are quite touching and by the end I was completely charmed by the film. I just re-watched this the other day when TCM showed it on the occasion of Alec Guinness' birthday and knowing what to expect found it even better.

With all that said, it would have been terrific to see a version with Thelma Ritter and Sessue Hayakawa, although he might have been a bit old for the role by '61, in the parts. That is who I envisioned it the roles when I had first read the synopsis. Roz and Alec were great but Thelma and Sessue, both very fine actors, would have added another layer to the movie. And after all Thelma Ritter makes anything better.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Willie, thanks for stopping by and sharing your views on this movie. I think your idea of putting Thelma Ritter and Sessue Hayakawa, both favorites of mine, in the roles is great.

However, what I mean about the whole transcendence angle is that if we see actors in the roles who are really Jewish or really Japanese, we see authenticity, credibility, certainly. But we don't see transcendence. The audience, in the best of movies, ideally achieves an identification, a proxy experience through the actors.

If you see Gertrude Berg (or Thelma Ritter)light the Shabat candles, you say, "That is a Jewish woman." If you see Rosalind Russell, you say, "That woman could be me."

Same thing for Guinness' role. You would be charmed, fascinated by a Japanese actor relaying to us his culture and heritage. But a non-Japanese makes us Japanese too.

We get a hint of this at the very beginning when we are informed that Brooklyn is in North America. From the outset, we are all foreigners.


I'v never heard about this movie, and now you got me very interested in it. Both the aging leads were casted in unusual roles, and th theme itself is not common. Thanks for this great article!
Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

Unknown said...

An excellent review and one of the best ever. I especially concur with your evaluation of anyone (actor) of one race "playing" anyone else of another race or religion, as after all, isn't that what acting is all about anyway?... portraying an illusion? When did it become disrespectful to portray someone that is different than yourself?; and what an acting challenge to do so, and do it well. Yes, Mr. Guinness deftly portrays the mannerisms and psyche of a gracious Japanese man very well.

How novel and refreshing (especially in this day age) for the wise/mature characters to be the focus in an assertive and effective way with a desirable outcome in this movie instead of being portrayed in disrespectful ways often seen in ads, TV shows and movies today.

And it really does not matter what race or religiosity is represented or who plays them as long as there is a respect for and understanding of what character is being portrayed...why then, allow a young actor to age into their character; would the same restrictive "rules" apply there too...that youth disrespects age just because the actor is not old? Ridiculous. This is a product of the politically correct overkill that extremists push in our culture to the point of everyone being overly touchy about everything!

You make so many effective points about this complex movie and I enjoyed it immensely!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much, I appreciate your kind words. I am not against seeking out people of similar ethnic background or age to fill a role - in many cases, that is for the best, and I do not believe it is "extremist" or any other political catcalling to support minority players to be able to earn a living at their craft - but my defense of the casting in this movie is a case where the transcendence is so important to the message and the telling of the tale.

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