I recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers back to back with Wild Strawberries. They are two old favorites. Revisiting Wild Strawberries was a birthday treat to myself. What struck me when watching them in such quick succession was the way Ingrid Thulin mastered such vastly different roles filmed some 15 years apart. In Wild Strawberries she plays the protagonist’s daughter-in-law who is trying to save herself and possibly her husband from a typically hellish Bergmanesque marriage. The depth of her pain and her longing for resolution are powerful. Her role in Cries and Whispers couldn’t be more different. She plays the aristocratic, uptight and literally strait-laced sister of the dying woman. The pain she exhibits at any encounter of emotion is palpable.
Getting reacquainted with these performances made me think about how Bergman used the same actors over and over again, in quite varied roles. I thought of Gunnar Björnstrand, who appears briefly as Thulin’s husband, chillingly soulless in Wild Strawberries. And yet, he was lightness itself playing the comic role of the philandering lawyer Egermann in Smiles of a Summer Night.
Many of the ‘Pantheon’ directors use the same troupe of actors in film after film. It is apparent that the great directors rarely stereotype their stables of actors. In fact, the actors often play greatly contrasting roles as they appear over time in the same director’s work.
It is as if the director is a sculptor who likes the way a certain clay responds. He might make vastly different objects with that clay, but he knows he will be able to achieve the desired result using it. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of these sculptors and their particular brands of clay.
Ingmar Bergman: Along with above-mentioned Thulin and Björnstrand, many other actors appear over the years in his works. Harriet Andersson became an international sensation starring as the incarnation of adolescent desire in Summers with Monika. Some twenty years later, she is the dying sister with the enormous soul in Cries and Whispers, and still later the bitter, vengeful, decrepit housemaid who is the nemesis of the children in Fanny and Alexander. Liv Ullmann created a powerful gallery of characters from the psychosomatically mute actress in Persona, to the sexually manipulative younger sister in Cries and Whispers to the wife in Scenes from A Marriage.
John Ford: Ford’s iconic actor is John Wayne. Wayne appeared in all sorts of films under Ford’s direction ranging from adaptations of O’Neill (The Long Voyage Home) to war films (They Were Expendable) to Irish Blarney fantasies (The Quiet Man). Of course the range of characters is great here, but even in the genre that Wayne is best remembered for in his work with Ford, the western, it is hard to stereotype him. His memorable first appearance as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (who can ever forget that slightly out of focus zoom shot?) set the Wayne legend in motion showing an upright, heroic, beautiful man with a hint of a dark side. As the years went on the Wayne characters became more and more nuanced. The aging, wise Nathan Brittle of She Wore A Yellow Ribbon could not be more distant from the monomaniac and, frankly, scary Ethan Edwards of The Searchers – his greatest role. Towards the end of his career with Ford he played a character that was almost the logical end of the Ringo Kid in the brilliant The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – a man who was a relic of the Old West who knows that his time is over and that ‘civilization’ will be taking over.
Henry Fonda was another Ford favorite appearing as characters as varied as Abe Lincoln, Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and the picture of virtue in his turn as Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine. None of his appearances in other Ford films prepares you for the egotistical, wrong-headed and reckless Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in Fort Apache.
Like many other directors who use a stable of actors, Ford has a troupe of supporting players who beautifully offset whoever assumed the starring roles. Actors like Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr and Ben Johnson.
Preston Sturges used his supporting players in a similar fashion. He didn’t really have a stable of lead actors, but whoever was starring could count on superb support from the likes of William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn and all the demented members of The Palm Beach Story’s Ale and Quail Club.
This discussion of troupes of actors is not to be confused with the way certain directors use actors, usually women, as muses. Von Sternberg had Marlene Dietrich, Godard had Anna Karina, Fassbinder had Hanna Schygulla. This differs from what we were talking about before in that the works of these directors seem to have come into being strictly to set the actress off as a rare jewel. That might be an idea for a later post.