robertisenberg

The Role of a Lifetime: 2

In Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

The Role of a Lifetime is an old phenomenon: When Gibson Gowland starred in Greed, in 1924, he played McTeague, a poor, dim-witted, unlicensed dentist married to a money-obsessed harpy. Eventually, McTeague beats his wife to death, then tries to escape to Mexico, but he is pursued by his wife’s ex-suitor, and they both die in the desert. The director, Erich von Stroheim, demanded authentic shooting locations, and Gowland had to perform in the infernal heat of Death Valley, among other unpleasant places. The final picture was over 10 hours long, with Gowland acting in almost every frame. Even shortened to two hours, Greed demonstrates how McTeague is the Role of a Lifetime: In the final shot, McTeague is still alive, but he’s handcuffed to the man he just murdered. The camera pulls back, and we see that there’s no water, no escape, no other human company. McTeague will die alone, literally shackled to his own sins.

In the 1970’s, the Role of a Lifetime became popular because it fit the themes of the decade: Man vs. Society. Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro made a slew of pictures about ordinary guys who fall through society’s cracks. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon – they all show un-heroic characters slogging through nightmarish lives. They end, respectively, in lobotomy, family abandonment, divorce and imprisonment, triple-homicide and a 20-year jail sentence. The finale of each film is usually described as “ambiguous.”

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