Half-famous, half-forgotten

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Performers, whether on stage or screen, attract our adulation at times. Some become obsessed, but for most fans, the stars they admire bring a lot of happiness into their lives.

But stars have a short shelf life. Some have a few years of popularity, and others, still famous for a longer period, seem to burn out and lose their magic. We can still recall some once famous names, in English culture at least: Nell Gwyn, the greatest comic actor of the Restoration period and the king’s mistress; David Garrick, greatest actor of the 18th century, friend of Samuel Johnson and first reviver of the plays of William Shakespeare; Lillie Langtry, one of the most popular of Victorian actresses, the friend of Oscar Wilde and mistress of the king; Greta Garbo, often considered the greatest of Hollywood actresses in silent film.

2 Lillie langtry

Many once owned portraits of these people. Their names were among the most discussed in their times. But if you were given an unascribed portrait of one, would you identify it correctly, as earlier generations unerringly would? Is the name just that, a name? How long does popular fame last?

A savage portrait of this state of being a former star, of half fame, half obscurity, is given in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard by Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond, who leaves her sanity behind to cling to the wispy delusions of her former celebrity.

Those stars whose work has been transferred to media are somewhat more fortunate than early stage actors or singers before the phonograph. We can hear that Jenny Lind and Maria Callas deserved their fame by listening to their recordings. We can read the works of Homer and appreciate his skill because his texts have survived the centuries. But we can never recover the thrill that audiences felt when they heard artists such as these for the first time. We know as much about Homer as a performer as we do about Ion the Greek rhapsode.

I thought of this while watching Mark Cousins’ magnificent series The Story of Film last night. Cousins, whose series looks at innovation in cinema, singled out a once famous name as the first method actor, a marvellous evoker of character through body language. She was once, in the 1930s, one of the most famous people in the world. Her name was Ruan Lingyu (阮凤根 in Simplified Chinese). She was born in Shanghai in 1910, and by the time she died in 1935 was China’s most popular actor. For long after her death at age 25, by suicide, fans left tributes by her gravesite. Do you know her? Would you recognise her portrait?

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Lingyu (Ruan was her family name) had a career that lasted just six years, 1930 to 1935, during which she made 18 films (and another 11 less significant films 1927-29). At the same time in Hollywood another actress also came from nowhere and became the biggest star of her time. Jean Harlow. Harlow made 14 films in the period 1932 to 1937 (there were a further less significant 9 films 1929 to 1932) before dying suddenly from kidney failure at the age of 26. We remember her less for her considerable acting ability, mainly because she was publicised as a sex symbol (far from the truth. But who is, in reality, ever a sex symbol?). We also remember these two because they both died young, which is a bit gruesome.

Our shadow land
China is not so far away from where I live, in Sydney Australia. It’s one of the world’s biggest economies, has 1.3 billion people and is the world’s biggest importer/exporter. Shops here are full of items with a “made in China” label. The nearest big Chinese city is probably Guangzhou (Canton), 7.5 thousand km away (4.5 thousand miles), though the Chinese of course have spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia. Yet not many people in Australia know much of Chinese culture. Some Sydney suburbs, like that of Chatswood, are full of Chinese people. The shop signs are all in Chinese. We go there and look for bargains, yet not many here have Chinese friends unless they went to school together.

I wonder how Chinese stars of former times are doing today? Do they still have their fans? Is Li T’ai Po still China’s most popular poet, some of whose poems are instantly recognisable by most Chinese? What about Teresa Teng? Is she still loved? Teresa Teng (邓丽君 in Simplified Chinese) was born in 1953 in Taiwan. By the time she died in 1995, aged 42, from the effects of an asthma attack, she was China’s most popular singing star, and not only China’s, but equally popular in Korea, Japan and most of SE Asia. Has Leslie Cheung’s or Anita Mui’s fame begun to wane? These are big names, but not only are they fated to wane as the times change, they also fail to cross cultural boundaries. Teresa Teng may become a curiosity for newer generations, a bit like Yma Sumac from Peru. Perhaps Cheung and Mui will fare better, for they were both great singers and great actors, and their films are still available to any that dare venture into their local Chinatown.

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An actress with a comparable reputation to Lingyu’s was Greta Garbo. Garbo made 26 films 1924 to her retirement in 1941, 11 of them silent. Garbo, like Lingyu, created character from expression and movement, a technique very different from the more exaggerated one adopted by most film and stage stars of the time. Unfortunately much of this masterly technique was lost in poor productions or weak material. Garbo is more famous for a personality trait. Unlike most stars, she was a recluse. Garbo the recluse and Harlow the sex symbol have remained famous, catering to male sexual fantasies, while Garbo and Harlow the actresses have been lost to view. It may have been that in the 1930s a woman with genius may have been a bit too uncomfortable to consider.

Bad publicity can kill
Rudolph Valentino died unexpectedly from pleurisy at the age of 31, at the height of his fame and popularity. On 24 August 1926 over 100,000 people lined the streets where his funeral cortege passed, and there was mass hysteria. It was reported that several women committed suicide in a state of hysterical grief. Yet Valentino’s fame had been brief. Between 1921 and 1925 he had starred in 14 films (though he had small parts earlier, 1914 to 1920, in a further 24 films). Many of his starring films had set new box office records. Yet Valentino was a controversial figure, and a viewing of The Sheik shows why. In puritanical America Valentino expressed sexual passion in a way that was astoundingly frank to most viewers (though considered “normal” in Europe). Women viewers were excited by the depiction, men viewers suspicious. Depictions of sexuality were soon to be banned in Hollywood. But while it lasted, Valentino’s fame was based on this more honest depiction of sex. In a way his impact was that later achieved by pelvis wriggling stars like Elvis Presley or Tina Turner. Valentino was also a good actor, but that counted little in his reputation, as much as the acting ability of Jean Harlow or Greta Garbo contributed to their fame.

Ruan Lingyu died suddenly at age 25 on 08 March 1935, one of the most loved figures in China. Her funeral procession was said to have been three miles or almost five km long, as many as 300,000 people present. Three women were said to have committed suicide in grief as the procession passed by. As at Valentino’s funeral, the mourners at Lingyu’s funeral were largely women. This was because Lingyu, in role after role, had played the part of dispossessed or suppressed women, many of them forced into prostitution, and shown them enduring and even resilient. More than that, she had shown these characters in an underplayed, completely naturalistic way, with no hint of melodrama. Viewers can so enter the situation her characters endure it seems sometimes close to documentary, and very convincing. She gave heart to many who were desperate. Eighty years after her death she is still remembered by some, though few have seen her films. So much for the Cultural Revolution.

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Lingyu died because of a string of newspaper articles which were abusive of her films and her personal life. She gave a distorted view of Shanghai, it was alleged. Lingyu was unlucky in love, had a liaison with a worthless man for many years, then one with an abusive man, and at the time of the articles her life was in a mess, despite her fame. She was embroiled in law suits and the victim of blackmail, both initiated by her present and her former lover. Vituperative gossip about her was more than she could bear. For a fatal moment she thought an overdose of barbiturates was a better alternative to the abuse she was suffering from. Those around her delayed hospital care for her for fear of scandal, and caused a bigger one, her death. In America Valentino suffered as well from attacks in the press. There was a string of suggestions that he was homosexual, a terrible affront to his machismo. Valentino fought duels to assert his masculinity. Some think he may have avoided drawing  attention to his abdominal pain from appendicitis for fear of being thought effeminate. Fame is a two edged sword. Did the press kill these two stars?

The press of that era sometimes did act irresponsibly and destructively. A prominent example was the destruction of Fatty Arbuckle in the period 1921/1922. Arbuckle was at that time one of the highest paid and most popular actors in Hollywood, and one of the most talented. He was targeted by a lowlife called Maude Delmont who saw him at a hotel party Arbuckle organised in San Francisco. During the party a friend of hers called Virginia Rappe became ill and later died. Delmont attempted to blackmail Arbuckle by saying Rappe had died after Arbuckle had raped her. The yellow press got wind of the story and blew it into a sensational scandal. Much that was printed in the newspapers was actionable libel. The country was outraged, the newspapers made millions, and the film studio not only banned Arbuckle from ever working in film again, but systematically destroyed prints of his existing films. A corrupt lawyer called Brady looking for a future in politics initiated legal action against Arbuckle during which he built on the hysteria the case had caused by suborning witnesses, concealing evidence and misrepresenting the charges. There were three trials. In all of them the jury found there was nothing to convict Arbuckle, and after the third trial they gave him a written apology for the abuse and calumny he had suffered. Both the press and the courts had transgressed the laws in their treatment of Arbuckle. He didn’t work again in film for 10 years, and when he came back he was an alcoholic hack who produced little of worth. Newspaper trials then carried more weight with people than courts did. Hopefully we’re more cynical of the press, and the internet press, than we were then. Arbuckle’s trial was America’s Dreyfus Affair, the unjust conviction that had disgraced France 10 years earlier.

Can we recover the impact stars of an earlier age had? Can we rediscover Betty Grable’s legs after looking at Marilyn Monroe’s or Jennifer Anniston’s?

As it happens we can find out more about Ruan Lingyu and her impact on Chinese movie audiences in the 1930s. We don’t need to know about the Japanese threat, the struggle between melodrama and social realism nor about how a major movie industry moved eventually to Hong Kong. Nor do we have to struggle with the sometimes unfamiliar experience of watching a film in silence.

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In 1992 Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan made a film called Centre Stage about Ruan Lingyu. But it’s not a so-called biopic. It’s the story of how we can relate to this woman of the 1930s today. A mixture of “making of” feature, documentary and revival of her films, we can watch clips of Lingyu’s films, see interviews of those who knew her, and watch director and star try to recreate her life and times, giving feedback at every success and every failure. The film tells us it is more valuable to recreate Lingyu in our lives than to study her in hers. From this we learn that a star is just as important to a fan as to themselves. That a star exists in a fan’s life and carries on an important function there, irrespective of who they are or were as a person. What counts is what is created relevant to our lives now, not what is recreated about lives then.

Centre Stage starred the great actress Maggie Cheung, who plays the dual role of Lingyu and herself, the actress trying to play her. The following year she won Best Actress at Berlin for that portrayal, and deservedly so. Cheung played memorably for Wong Kar Wei in In the Mood For Love and 2046.

If this seems a little abstruse you could try watching an earlier film of Stanley Kwan’s, Rouge, made in 1988. It stars Anita Mui and Leslie Cheung. It’s the story of a prostitute in 1930s Hong Kong who falls in love with a shiftless heir of a good family, who forbid the match. The couple know their love is hopeless, and agree on a dual suicide. She does, he doesn’t. The film shifts to the 1980s, when a newspaperman gets a visit from a woman wanting to place an ad, looking for a lost love of many years ago. It’s Fleur, the prostitute, looking for Chan, the lover who betrayed her. She can’t conceive of his cowardice: they swore an oath to die together, and yet he hasn’t met her in the underworld. She goes searching for her love.

To enjoy this film the more, you only have to know that Lingyu played prostitutes in many of her films, was accused by the press just before her death as being little better than one, had an unhappy affair for many years with a shiftless heir to a wealthy family who eventually extorted money from her, and that she finally poisoned herself, after playing that role in one of her final films, dying perhaps of a broken heart. Coincidentally, in 1930 Lingyu played a flower girl in a film called Ye cao xian hua (Wild Grass Fresh Flower). Since her death she has become a ghost who haunts the movie screens with suggestions of her love and beauty.

7 Anita-Mui

Rouge is not really a ghost story, despite having one as the lead character. It’s about the state of forlornness. It wonders if love is not just the biggest illusion of all. It’s visually very beautiful, and has a great performance from Mui that is very touching.

The film also brings up the interesting point, seen mainly in certain actresses’ lives but maybe in many others’ too, that film often seems to draw on star’s biography for plot elements of the films they star in. This unsettling form of cannibalism is of unknown origin. Does the director or writer add it to the script to help the actor play the part more convincingly? Can the actor not distinguish clearly any more between self and screen persona? I think of Bombshell with Jean Harlow, and that film’s blood sucking “Pops” who takes most of the actor’s wealth, which happened to Harlow herself. Or Lingyu, who played an actress hounded to suicide by a vindictive press, then took her own life.

There is a book about Lingyu, Ruan Ling-Yu: The Goddess of Shanghai (with DVD of her film The Goddess) 2005 by Richard Meyer. The book, as well as four of Lingyu’s surviving eight movies, can be found on Amazon. She’s famous for her suicide, not her acting, yet as an actor she belongs on any list of great actors.

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Where have they gone, the stars of yesteryear? What’s left of their once potent magic?

We may remember Anglo actresses of yesterday such as the Americans Kay Francis and Judy Holliday, or the English Wendy Hillier. They were great actresses, or at least had great roles. But what about the legendary Frenchwoman, Arletty? Or great Polish actors such as Grazyna Szapolowska (who haunts Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love).

Perhaps to truly appreciate Lingyu’s gifts as an actress we should see her amid her peers from Asia:  Miki Odagiri, Sharmila Tagore, Madhabi Mukherjee, Setsuko Hara, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Sinitta Boonyasak, (to name just actresses some of whose films I’ve seen and admired).

I see this has turned into something about actors. Of course a similar piece could have been written about singers.

©2013 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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