23 February 2012 | sashank_kini-1
A controversial subject matter enhanced by skillful direction and understated performances
A Gentleman's Agreement is the second motion picture of Elia Kazan that I have seen, the first being On the Waterfront. When I saw the movie starring On the Waterfront about two years, I had not much knowledge about Stanislavsky's method of acting; to me, as an Indian teenager more exposed to Bollywood films, acting meant overdone expressions that indicated emotions of the character at the moment and blaring music in the background to suggest the mood. But after having read his works and being in contact with theater actors, I have realized how tough and delicate 'true' acting is. It can be compared to a tightrope, you tilt more to the side and you fall. Similarly, if you overdo or underperform, you fail – it is about developing yourself externally and internally to portray another person. And so have I begun to appreciate more welcomingly the works of great directors and actors; I am able to sense more keenly whether the actor is 'feeling' or 'acting as if he is feels'.
Elia Kazan, as I read about him in Wikipedia, has been proclaimed as an 'actor's director' for implementing his Method techniques in his film in a way that brings out the truest emotion within his actors. When Marlon Brando hails him as the best experience he has ever had with a director, it means a lot. And Gentleman's Agreement has a lot to say about the director's way of handling his actors and the subject of the film. The film seems rather like a filmed play, blackouts after every scene, unelaborated production and specific focus on actors. And the actors never sob their eyes out or scream their lungs out; their actions seem controlled and natural. There is scant music during the scenes, and therefore we never are made to feel in a particular way; everyone in the audience is entitled to feel his/her own way. And that's what made me astonished, as I was expecting high-voltage drama with the message bombarded upon the viewers. Although there were some unneeded moments, the impact that the film had on me was much more because all the actors collaborated so well without having any 'Movie Star' moment.
The matter is contentious and provocative – in the 40s; a reporter pretends to be a Jew for an article to directly be able to understand their feelings and presence in the white Christian dominated society. He is supported wholeheartedly by his openhearted mother and precocious son while equivocally by his fiancé. His decision leads to many confrontations, though most are not very serious, and a newfound friendship. The film distinguishes the varying attitudes of people – some take the initiative for the better, some for the worse while most sit on the fence. Here, Gregory, as Schuyler Green has been assigned to cover about anti-Semitism, which at that time was widely prevalent. He remains indecisive for a while but with the support of his family goes ahead and hits upon the idea of going undercover as a Jew. Gregory portrays him with immaculate sincerity though his character could have been written in a cleaner and riskier way. By this I mean his character does not experience to a fuller extent the discriminations among Jews because the radius his character chooses is limited to the upper caste society which remains more discreet in conveying its feelings. Also, there was abundant focus on his relationship with Kathy, his fiancée which although was very interesting as it gave focus to her own views on racism, but it neglected his interactions with other people. Yet, to take up this matter in the 40s is very brave.
Some viewers on IMDb denounce Kathy for being shallow, but I have to say that most people even today are like her in some or the other way. We know that something is wrong yet we sit and do nothing. And Dorothy McGuire channels this feeling of 'shame of not doing something' to a tee. And regarding certain viewers' complaint regarding the ending of the film, I say that basic human feelings such as love should not alter because of one incompatibility. I shall give a personal example here: My grandmother is staunchly against a leader's administration and is quite vocal about it but she would always reprimand my grandfather whenever he would provide criticism about the reader in the newspaper. That does not mean my grandpa will divorce my grandma and go soul searching; I was not disappointed by Schuyler's decision in the end.
The supporting cast act like pillars in the film, with not one misstep from the actors. Celeste Holm is simply amazing as the feisty fashion editor who believes in equality. And I felt she really had her feet on the ground, unlike fireball Bette Davis in All about Eve, whose character too has the similar zest but seems to spit ember and heat up all the scenes. Celeste is fun, over-the-top and believable, she also wonderfully acts especially in her final scene. Anne Revere is equally brilliant, and John Garfield and June Havoc give their best in their short roles. Garfield surprisingly didn't receive supporting actor nomination, since he has some climatic scenes and dialogs. And what conviction does the young Dean Stockwell display!
The ensemble is one of the best I have seen, and under Elia's guidance, deliver their best and most genuine. It may get dreary for those expecting swelling music and over-the-top moments but anyone who can notice the director's courage for making this shall be greatly impressed.
My Rating: 9 out of 10