La Grande Illusion
“The future is film.”
— Jean Renoir
The sun was high and it was very late in the morning when I finally got into my car and headed north on Highway 101 to Berkeley, California. It was a big step for me. For several years after my parents’ death, I had been floundering, not knowing what direction I wanted to take in my life, not knowing what I wanted to be or do. My mother’s last wish before she died was for me to become a “professional person,” which meant, in that special, unspoken communication between mother and son, that she wanted me to become a doctor, lawyer or dentist.
Wanting to honor her wishes, and thus ignoring my own, I enrolled at USC in predentistry, but it took only a few weeks for me to discover it wasn’t really for me. The courses I liked were English literature, but as my aunt, who was raising me after my mother’s death, patiently explained, the only thing I could do with an English degree was teach. And what was the future in that?
A friend of mine from high school, Frank Mazzola, happened to be taking an acting class at a local theater, and convinced me it was something I should do. I sat in on just one session and, needless to say, loved it. Acting was an ideal opportunity for me to avoid dealing with all the future “life decisions” I was confronting. In exchange for the acting lessons, I was offered a “job” as stage manager for the little theater, and I jumped at it. I participated in many of the productions, as a walk-on or background extra, but I ran the stage with responsibility and efficiency. By the following summer, I had improved my acting skills to such a degree that I was invited to become a member of the Shakespearean Repertory Company at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. I was seriously considering pursuing an acting career.
When my aunt, who promised my mother to take care of me, heard about this, she told me, “Acting may be a great hobby, but it doesn’t pay the rent. What are you going to do for a living?” I had no idea, of course, and simply refused to deal with it. But I certainly knew what I didn’t want: a “9-to-5” job in a bank or insurance company.
What did I want to do with my life? That was really the question. Should I become an actor? What about the promise I made to my mother on her deathbed? I had no answers, of course, and the pressure of trying to deal with these questions became too much, so I decided to just take off.
So, when the little theater finished its current slate of productions, I decided I would drive across the country and visit my brother, then attending Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. I loved that driving experience so much I decided not to return to school, and for the next two years I traveled back and forth across the country. It was really a time of freedom; I had inherited a small sum of money from my mother’s estate and was very fortunate not to have to work. I just kept driving; I never knew where I was going till I got there. I had good times and bad times, and loved every minute of it. I was like a cloud on the wind, drifting without aim or purpose. But deep down, no matter how far or how long I drove, I was always aware that I would eventually have to come back to myself.
It didn’t take me very long to see I was lost. I didn’t know who I was, or where I was going. And then, one day, while driving through the Arizona desert, I realized I had traveled this same road before. Everything was the same, but different. It was the same stand of foothills in the same barren desert — but it was two years later. In reality, I felt like I had gone nowhere. I had spent two years ostensibly trying to get my head together, and still I had no aim, no purpose, no goal, no destination. I had no direction in my life. I suddenly saw my future — and it was nowhere.
Time seemed to be slipping away, and I knew in that moment that I had to do something, that it was time for me to stop wandering and go back to school. I thought that at least I’d give it a shot, maybe find something I liked, perhaps get a degree — not realizing then that the choices we make always take us to the place we’re supposed to be going.
And so it was in that late summer of 1959 that I packed my belongings, said my good-byes, got into my car and began driving north to Berkeley. It was the first time in my life I truly felt I had some kind of direction, and I was both confident and unsure in the choice I was making.
Berkeley at the dawn of the sixties was an active crucible of revolt and unrest. Signs, banners, slogans and leaflets were everywhere: Castro’s rebel force had just overthrown Batista, and signs ranged from “Cuba Libre” and “Time for the Revolution” to “Get Out of Vietnam,” “Free Speech,” “Abolish ROTC,” “Equal Rights for Everyone” and “Socialism for All, & All for Socialism.” Telegraph Avenue, the main street leading onto the campus, was always lined with a colorful display of banners and leaflets as I walked to class. Every day there were protest rallies, and when I stopped to listen I would see the FBI agents, trying to be inconspicuous in their shirts and ties, taking pictures of everyone. It was a joke.
Hunger strikes on campus protested the mandatory ROTC courses, and it didn’t take long for me to be swept up in the activities and issues of the time. Like so many others of my generation, I was influenced and inspired by the “beats”: Kerouac, Ginsburg, Gregory Corso, those poet/saints who were blazing a trail of rebellion and revolution. Inspired by their voices, and their lives, I, too, wanted to ride the waves of change. It wasn’t too long before the campus exploded into a political frenzy initiated by Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement.
One of the summer jobs I’d had a few years earlier was working in a heart research lab on the then-new heart bypass machine, and I really loved it. I had a notion that I might like to become a doctor, a cardiologist to be exact, but I discovered when I enrolled at Berkeley that I couldn’t declare premed as a major. So I enrolled in English literature instead, got a part-time job working in a record store, and took my required premed courses like chemistry and physics, along with my English requirements. It worked out fine. I liked the school, the environment and the people.
One day, during the second half of my first year, as I was walking across campus I read a poster advertising an open reading for a university theater production of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck.
I was restless studying, wanted to find a way to unwind, and since I had some spare time, I decided, why not? I would read for the play, without expecting anything because I was not part of the Theater Arts Department. So I joined the hopefuls, did my reading, and that was that. A few days later, I checked the casting board, and found to my surprise that I had been chosen to play the lead character, Woyzeck.
The rehearsals were intense, and when the play finally opened in Wheeler Auditorium, Berkeley’s main theater, we played to full houses almost every night. One night, after the evening performance, I was introduced to the man who would soon become my mentor: Jean Renoir. As “artist in residence,” Renoir would present the world premiere of his play Carola.
Because of my work in Woyzeck,
I was asked to read for Renoir’s play, and while I knew it was a great opportunity, I didn’t think too much about it. Not knowing anything about Renoir or his films, I read for the part, then learned I had been cast to play the third lead, Campan, the director/stage manager and lover of Carola.
What can I say about Jean Renoir? He was a man like any other, but what separated him, at least in my mind, was his great heart; he was open, friendly, a man of great intelligence and wit who seemed to influence the lives of everyone he touched. The son of the great Impressionistic painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, he, too, had the great gift of sight. He literally opened my eyes to the world of film and theater, what it is and what it could be.
The rehearsals for Carola
were held in the basement theater, and when I walked in for the first table reading, I noticed several well-known faculty members and press people hovering in the background, anxious to observe Renoir at work. Renoir, who reminded me of a warm, cuddly teddy bear, spoke with a pronounced French accent and walked with a slight limp — the result, I learned later, of a wound suffered in the First World War. I immediately tuned in to his presence, which emanated a sense of excitement that I found friendly and inviting.
Renoir sat the actors around the table and began to talk about his play. The action, he told us, takes place in Paris during the German occupation in the Second World War. It was a time of fear and mistrust in Paris; the Nazis had installed the Vichy government to oversee the occupation, and the French secret police — the French Gestapo, as they were called — answered to no one.
The action of the play takes place backstage, in Carola’s dressing room and just outside, in the adjacent hallway, before and during the performance, which takes place offstage. The play opens when Von Claudius, the German general in charge of Paris and former lover of Carola, comes back to see her. He is weary of the war, and is one of the instigators in the plot against Hitler. He wants to renew his love for Carola and run away with her to South America.
Carola was played by a young actress named Deneen Peckinpah, and since we had many scenes together, we spent a lot of time hanging out when rehearsals were over. We liked each other and developed a close relationship, both in and out of the theater.
My character, Campan, was the flamboyant, theatrical director/ stage manager of the theater who is deeply in love with Carola; in the end, he sacrifices his life for her, for France and for the theater. Like most actors trained in the realistic approach of the “method,” I liked to feel my way into the heart of the character, much like a butterfly circling a rock. During the early rehearsals, I read my lines simply, in a basic monotone, trying to find something — a word, a phrase, an emotion — I could latch on to.
Renoir was patient and persistent, saying, “Creating a part is like going into a store to buy a new jacket. First, you try it on and see how it looks and how it fits. Then, it needs alteration; you have to alter the sleeves, perhaps the length, maybe let out the back a little. Once it’s altered, you try it on, and while it may fit, it feels a little tight under the arms, and the material is a little too stiff. It takes a few times wearing it before it really becomes comfortable, before it becomes an extension of yourself. It’s the same in the creative process.”
This image and his words have stayed with me. Facing the blank sheet of paper, I’ve learned to simply “throw down” thoughts, words and ideas, and gradually, a shape and form appears. Then I add, tighten, condense, hone and polish, and pretty soon I have something I can relate to. That’s the creative process.
One of the first things I learned about Renoir was his aversion to the “cliché.” The character of Campan was overly dramatic, and I had no experience to bring to that aspect of the character. So I played it as I thought it should be played, creating a character more from my imagination than from my experience. It didn’t work. I wanted to play it more “real,” but he wanted me to become more theatrical, “larger than life.” It was a tough adjustment to make. Renoir was patient, nurturing. He would quote his father on bringing an idea into existence. “If you paint the leaf on a tree without using a model,” the great Impressionistic painter once said, “your imagination will only supply you with a few leaves; but Nature offers you millions, all on the same tree. No two leaves are exactly the same. The artist who paints only what is in his mind must very soon repeat himself.” If you look at Renoir’s great paintings, you’ll see what he meant. No two leaves, no two flowers, no two people, are ever painted the same way. It’s the same with his son’s films.
I learned to become observant, searching for people who would show me a kind of behavior I could draw upon, and it didn’t take long for me to become adept at noticing mannerisms and behavior patterns. I would see a gesture, or the way someone walked, and try and incorporate it into my characterization of Campan. Over and over again Renoir would tell me to “avoid the cliché,” and he constantly instilled in me, and every member of the cast, the value of my own experience. “Bring yourself to the character,” he would say, because “an actor either plays ‘true’ or plays ‘false.’ If he plays ‘true’ he may allow himself all manner of exaggeration.” Don’t worry about being “too dramatic,” he repeated over and over again; that’s who the character is. He instilled in me a great understanding: as long as I avoided the cliché I could be true to the character and the situation. It was a lesson I still carry with me today.
Renoir often spoke about his love for the movies, about the theater, about art, acting and literature. “Qu’est-ce que c’est le Cinema?”
he would ask over and over again; “What is film?” Is it art? Is it literature? He shared with us his view that movies “are a new form of printing — another form of the total transformation of the world through knowledge.” And he would refer to Lumière, inventor of the early French motion picture camera, the Cinématographe, as “another Gutenberg.”
Excerpted from Going to the Movies by Syd Field. Copyright © 2001 by Syd Field. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.