Author Archives: TR

Bravo!

Jason Michael Snow Sings ‘The Lies of Handsome Men’

For the past several months, I’ve been listening to this song again and again. It’s called “The Lies of Handsome Men”; music and lyrics are by Francesca Blumenthal. The first time I heard it, I was in the kitchen with YouTube playing on the television in the next room. I wasn’t immediately impressed with the singer’s voice, but I was damned impressed with the lyrics. So I stopped chopping parsley long enough to turn up the volume, then went back to my chopping. By the end of the song, I was almost as impressed with the singer as I was with the song. So I poured myself a glass of wine, sat down in the living room and watched the performance from the beginning. What I saw was the best performance of a song I had seen in years.

The singer is named Jason Michael Snow. I know nothing about him other than what I’ve seen of him in this and several of his other videos. Apparently, he’s from Spokane, Washington. He studied music at the Boston Conservatory, after which he came to New York, where he was an understudy, and eventually replaced a few minor characters in the excellent Lincoln Center revival of “South Pacific”; he was in the ensemble of “The Book of Mormon,” then, having appeared on Broadway in those two productions, he moved out to Los Angeles. I don’t know if he stayed there or not. If he did, Broadway has, for the time being anyway, lost a genuinely unique, highly-skilled talent: a singer/actor with excellent comedic timing, a great deal of charm, a much better voice than I thought upon first hearing him, reliably good intonation, and pathos, which gives him the ability to convey heartache without sentimentality or soppiness. Talent is a gift, as is pathos; neither can be learnt, but pathos is much rarer than talent, and without it, greatness in the theatre is virtually impossible to achieve, or even to approximate. The greatest actor I’ve ever seen is Christopher Plummer, who claims not to possess pathos, but like the great Laurence Olivier, who also did not possess it, his technique is so formidable that he learnt to act pathos. But Jason Michael Snow, though by no means to be confused with Christopher Plummer or Lord Olivier, has pathos in spades.

I believe the late, great acting teacher, Stella Adler, would have loved Snow’s performance of this wonderful song, which demonstrates his complete understanding of the lyric — everything he does with his seemingly average voice illuminates and enlivens the first rate material in a way that no other singer I’ve heard has come close to matching. (Since first hearing this performance, I’ve listened to dozens of other versions; Blossom Dearie’s version has some of the same merits as this one, but she bizarrely omits the two bridges, which is where the most dramatic emotional transitions reside.)

Stella would have loved Snow’s absolute ownership of the material; there’s not a false or vague moment in it; every choice he makes is ideally appropriate, and many of his choices are truly surprising. He lives what he sings, but he doesn’t make the disastrous mistake of wallowing: he has genuine pathos, so he has no need to wallow. No, he keeps moving the story forward. All the other singers I’ve heard treat the song as a laundry list of vague, sentimental wishes, and give each item on the list equal weight. This conveys the false impression that the song’s structure is nonexistent, or haphazard at best; worse, the generalities, as they pile up, become increasingly tiresome as the tune slouches, weepily, to its poor-pitiful-me conclusion. But for Jason Michael Snow, the song’s enumeratio is a secular Credo, and each belief has a specific meaning and its own unique weight; instead of blubbing through a laundry list of forlorn hopes, he presents a well-made three-act play: light and playful at first, with him and the audience chuckling at his fanciful romantic idealism, but gradually deepening and darkening as the song progresses. In the two bridges, he looks inward and reveals to us that he’s aware that his choices have been infelicitous and that the heartaches he has suffered are in consequence of the very beliefs he is now publicly affirming. This gives remarkable stringency and immediacy to the words. For example, he sings brightly “I believe Prince Charming,” then looking inward, he adds, “I never guess he’s double dealing.” It’s his refusal to blame Prince Charming for being a bastard, and his blaming himself for being taken in that gives the lyric its bite; and when he sings the next sentence, “How my spirits rise/Believing in the lies of handsome men,” the hollowness of his tone, the tilt of his head and the dry-eyed sorrow written on his face, are enough to break your heart. This is a perfect example of living the text, rather than playing the result: he starts in optimism, and a spare fifteen seconds later, he’s in bewilderment and heartache — and we see him go through all the stages between those opposite poles. It’s so intimate, I’d look away, if I weren’t so captivated by the skill of the performance.

By the end of the song, we know everything about him that he has chosen to let us in on, and a good deal more about him than he knows himself (I refer to the character he’s playing, not to the singer himself). We know, for example, that he is doomed to get his foolish heart broken again and again and again. This is particularly poignant, since he is clearly on to himself — but not enough to avoid the emotional calamities to come.

In Snow’s performance, the song is the bittersweet lament of a sweet-natured guy who’s too clever to know that he’s a fool. He sings “Somewhere in the corner of my mind,/I’m not a fool, completely blind,” and he’s right: he’s not completely blind, but he can’t see around corners; by the end of the song, we know he remembers and regrets his mistakes and misfortunes, but he hasn’t learnt from them, and he never will. I find his performance perfect in its modesty and precision: he’s attractive, funny, charming, valiant, and his heartbreaking cheerfulness is devastating. He’s wistful and rueful, but optimistic. And he is doomed.

Happy Birthday, Claude Rains: A Few Words about ‘Deception’

poster-deception-1946_05

The first time I came across “Deception” (Warner’s 1948), it was by accident. TCM was showing it on a Friday night back in the nineties; I came in about halfway through the picture — it was the scene in which Claude Rains invites Bette Davis and Paul Henreid to dine with him at a French restaurant, and then proceeds to drive them crazy for the fun of seeing them squirm. Rains does nearly all the talking in the sequence, and it’s a tour de force. Here is where I came in on that memorable Friday night:

Rains: Ah, well, perfection, yes, that goes without saying. Very well, not to waste too much time: the partridges roasted with the truffles [Rains pronounces it troofles] . You know, the one with the forced meat of pork and pullet in them, as usual. But, um, mix into that forced meat a half glass — no more! — of Madeira, not too dry! just to, uh . . . mmm-mmm, you know. A little advice to you, my boy: when ordering a meal, even a frugal snack of this kind, start always with a pièce de résistance — an ashtray, André — food or music, start always with a keynote, the foundation stone. For instance, with that thing of mine. I’m sure you found it necessary to start with the fugato at the end, before making any study of the opening . . . I’m right, am I not?
Henreid: As a matter of fact, uh, no.
Rains: No? [looks at her, looks down, then at him] . . . Are you joking?
Henreid: Well, I started at the beginning and . . .
Davis: . . . and plays it to the end, which he does to perfection, which you will hear for yourself, if we ever get this meal over with.
Rains: You think I’m too slow?
Davis: I’ve been trying to tell you for I don’t know how long: Karel wants to play, not eat!
Rains: Now, Schatzi, Schatzi, Schatzi! Don’t upset me! You know, Karel, sometimes I’m positively terrified of this wife of yours. (I hope you never have any cause to be . . .)
Henreid: Christine thinks I’m getting nervous. I am.
Rains: Well, then to business. And to begin with: soup. Or canapes, do you think? Oh let me make your minds up for you or we shall never have done. Now tell me, André, do you have Parmentier tonight or petit marmite? Good. Then all that remains to consider is the wine.
Davis: Alex, we don’t want any wine.
Rains: Oh, but I do. Now, should one . . . with a partridge  . . . take an Hermitage, or a very soft Burgundy . . . ? Oh I do hope the great haste with which we’re assembling this slapdash repast is not going to affect me internally and render me incapable of appreciating good music! Oh, I do wish you’d begun with the fugato at the end! That’s the key to the whole thing! . . . Um, we’re having these birds stuffed with troofles and a soupçon of Madeira. Therefore, I shall plump for the Hermitage  . . . ’14 . . . And, um, you’d better decant it.

I had no idea what I was watching, nor did I have a clue about what had led up to this extraordinarily madcap sadism. But by the time he said “And, um, you’d better decant it,” Claude Rains, who had always been one of my favorite actors, had become my favorite actor. He has remained so ever since. To this day, I cannot look at “Deception” without remembering that first astonishment. I remember, too, that all through my first viewing of the dinner scene, I had this overwhelming feeling of gratitude — really, almost painful gratitude — that some screenwriter had written such a wonderful part for Claude Rains. Rains spent most of his career doing his ingenious best to elevate second- and third-rate material. With very few exceptions, he nearly always succeeded. (At the end of his career, Rains was too worn out to breathe life into the comatose “Twilight of Honor” (MGM, 1963). In “Four Daughters” (Warner Bros., 1939) and its dreadful sequels, Rains is actually worse than the material.) But when I saw him in “Deception,” I was thrilled to see him in a part that was worthy of his talent. This occurs to me every time I see “Deception” — and I also remember how I spent the rest of the picture trying to guess what the hell the picture was called, and to figure out who the hell wrote it. The story was completely unfamiliar, but the highly stylized, rococo dialogue — especially the lines spoken by Claude Rains — reminded me strongly of the bizarre drolleries I had encountered years earlier in the works of John Collier. “Deception” was indeed written by John Collier, so every time I see it, the memory of having recognized his style gives me a little jolt of egotistical pleasure.

While nobody who is familiar with “Deception” disputes the excellence of Rains’ performance, very few share my high opinion of the picture itself. Certainly Bette Davis didn’t. She was happy that the script gave her old friend such a great opportunity to demonstrate his virtuosity, but she considered it to be a very bad picture. I’m happy to admit that the blaze of Rains’ personality and skill blinded me to the picture’s failings until I’d seen it a few dozen times. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to agree that it’s a bad picture: after all, it’s the one in which Claude Rains gives the greatest performance of his career. It has one of Korngold’s greatest scores. It features one of the swankiest apartments ever to appear in a Warner Bros. picture. Every time I see “Deception,” I remember the intensity of my first reaction to it, almost twenty years ago, with the distinctness of a scene of yesterday: surprise, excitement, elation, gratitude, and immense pleasure. That’s not what I call a bad picture.