Tag Archives: Laurence Olivier


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 are 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.

Bravo! André Morell in David Lean’s ‘Madeleine’

Original poster for American release.

Original poster for American release

David Lean’s “Madeleine” (Rank Organisation, 1950) is a reasonably engrossing, if mildly dull, suspense tale set in Victorian Glasgow. Two men vie for the same woman; one of them ends up dead of arsenic poisoning. The story is based on a sensational murder trial that made headlines in 1857. Ann Todd, an attractive but extremely unsympathetic screen presence, plays Madeleine Smith, the seemingly docile eldest daughter of a stern father (Leslie Banks), who finds herself being wooed by an upstanding, earnest young man (Norman Wooland) of whom her father entirely approves, while she is secretly in love with a French chappie (Ivan Desny). Although the action takes place in Glasgow and there are a few Scots accents scattered throughout to remind us where we are, this is an English picture through and through. It is therefore a foregone conclusion that the mysterious Frenchman to whom our heroine has lost her heart is a bounder. The Englishman’s traditional disdain for his Gallic neighbor has been making me laugh for as long as I can remember. I cannot defend it, but neither can I help it: it’s funny. This Frenchy is particularly odious. His very name, Emile L’Angelier, seems to have been purposely devised to confound an English gentleman’s best attempts to pronounce it (the last name is misspelled in the credits). What’s more, this alien cad is clearly only after the girl’s money and position. When she realizes the truth about her paramour and demands that he return her letters, the sprat-eating brute turns to blackmail as a first, rather than a last, resort. The strain he puts on Miss Smith’s nerves almost reaches the breaking point when, handy dandy, he collapses outside his bed-sitter and dies the following morning, leaving Miss Smith’s billets-doux unreturned and his landlady’s bill unpaid. Anyone would think he was a Hollywood agent.

On the whole, the picture is very well acted, especially in the smaller roles. Ann Todd is glacial and pinched, as was ever her wont, but in this role her frosty discomfort seems appropriate, though certainly not inspired. On the other hand, André Morell, as her barrister, the noted advocate John Inglis, Lord Glencorse (in the picture, his character is listed in the credits as “Dean of Falcuty” [sic]), is truly inspired and memorably wonderful. His remarkable performance and the magnificent rhetoric Nicholas Phipps and Stanley Haynes have given him to speak are the subject of this essay.

André Morell

The Silver-Tongued André Morell

Lord Glencorse Opens His Summation

He begins his summation with the classic rhetorical device known as aporia (from the Ancient Greek ἀπορία: “impasse, puzzlement, being at a loss”), in which the speaker expresses his uncertainty about whether he will prove equal to the difficult task before him. I also draw your attention to another rhetorical device, used with exquisite finesse: dysphemism, which is the antonym of euphemism. Madeleine Smith is charged with murder, a capital crime, punishable by hanging. In 1857, this was a commonplace, but listen to the language Lord Glencorse employs to describe it. It is as fine an example of dysphemism as I know. He uses the device again at the end of this clip, when he speaks of the prosecution’s case. The rhetoric alone is enough to make me admire this speech, but Morell’s performance makes it entirely thrilling.

Some critics suggest that aporia is used to express a feigned doubt, but since aporia’s near synonym, dubitatio, specifically refers to the pretense of doubt, I prefer to restrict aporia to genuine (if misplaced) doubt, as it is in this case. One sees from André Morell’s masterful performance that Lord Glencorse is more than equal to the task before him; he employs aporia simply as an honest admission of his perplexity, while his misgivings indicate a most becoming modesty in the face of so terrible a responsibility. For that is the twin-purpose of aporia: to excite in one’s audience a feeling of sympathy for the speaker, and to establish the immense difficulty of what the speaker intends to convey. Shakespeare built the entire prologue to “Henry V” on aporia; Lincoln used the device to great effect in his address at Gettysburg and in his famous letter to the Widow Bixby.

By contrast, there is a fine discussion of dubitatio (though it is not mentioned by name) in Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay for “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” in which business tycoon Fredric March proposes to lard an important speech to a group of doctors with a lot of “Aw shucks, I ain’t no expert, gentlemen” folderol (i.e., dubitatio). All the yes-men in his employ express their enthusiasm for his Sage of the Cracker-Barrel pose, but then he runs the idea past that tall, marble allegory of Honorable American Manhood known as Greg Peck, who objects to March’s whole approach. March asks what’s wrong with it. Peck frowns and swallows hard: “Now, maybe I’m one hundred percent wrong, but it seems to me” — as arrant an example of dubitatio as one could hope to trip over — and then he goes on to make a clear and cogent case against the use of false modesty. “The worst part of it to me is a statement made over and over again that would only make me sore . . . because it’s so obviously untrue: that you’re a very simple, uninformed man who, in effect, doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Because if they believe that, why should they ask you to be head of this campaign? But they’ll know better: they’re educated, intelligent men, and they’ll know who and what you are. And that whole part of it will have a completely phony ring at the very moment when sincerity is the thing you’re aiming at above everything else.” As irony would have it, Peck speaks this well-reasoned, carefully worded critical rebuke of false modesty while giving a stammering, gulping, artificial performance full of actorish/NPRish hesitations. As I remember it, his Adam’s apple makes like a pogo stick. Perhaps my memory is playing me false, but that is the effect of his performance: the earnest faking of sincerity.

When Lord Glencorse expresses his misgivings, there is nothing phony or foot-dragging about it. He is genuinely oppressed with doubt; his anxiety does him credit and elicits kindly feelings from his audience. He employs aporia, not dubitatio.

His dysphemistic description of the prosecution’s aims contains a number of rhetorical elements that enliven and ennoble it and give it balance: “You are invited and encouraged by the prosecutor to snap the thread of this young life and to consign to an ignominious death on the scaffold one who, within a few short months, was known only as a gentle and confiding and affectionate girl.” The verb phrase invited and encouraged has a delicious connotation of a tea dance or a race ball or a charity rout to which subscriptions are being offered for purchase. By using verbs that evoke such gay and genteel dissipations, the defense makes the prosecution’s goal appear utterly monstrous. Then to snap the thread of this young life ennobles the sentence with a classical allusion to the Fates (Ancient Greek: Μοῖραι, Moirai: “apportioners”). In Greek mythology, the Moirai were three sisters: Clotho (Κλωθώ: “spinner”), who spun the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle; Lachesis (Λάχεσις: “allotter”), who measured the thread; and Atropos (Ἄτροπος: “unturning, inexorable”), who cut the thread of life. Though such an allusion would surely mystify the vast majority of a modern audience, in 1857, it would have been readily understood and undoubtedly very potent. (The educated audience of 1950, for whom the picture is obviously intended, would have recognized the allusion as well.) The two ands at the end — gentle and confiding and affectionate girl — are an example of polysyndaton, which gives a nice balance to the end of a long and complicated sentence. As for André Morell’s delivery of the line, his mastery speaks for itself. I have little to add, other than to say that he does not rush things along, neither does he luxuriate. As will be seen the next clips, it is a big performance, but it is too refined and magnificent to be thought of as ham.

He Speaks of Poison

Note that Morell’s sweeping arm gesture at approximately fifty-five seconds into the clip could hardly be more theatrical: it is almost panto. François Delsarte, who developed the once popular Delsarte System — an extravagant, systematized set of gestures and facial expressions in the years immediately preceding the dawn of motion pictures, and used by many actors of the Silent Era — old Delsarte himself would have approved. Yet the first few times I saw Morell’s performance, the gesture went by almost unnoticed because the actor had by this point completely engaged my attention and persuaded me of his sincerity. If I noticed it at all, it was simply that its splendid rightness gave me a little jolt of excitement. But how many actors could get away with it? Very few, in my experience. Olivier, for instance, was much given to such theatrical gestures, and they worked. But with Olivier, you’re always aware that you are watching him act. I’m not knocking him, it’s just that I never quite believe him: I like Olivier for his theatricality, not for his realism or sincerity, of which he has but little. Morell is both theatrical and realistic.

He Speaks of Opportunity

He Closes

I cannot hear this oration without feeling the urge to leap to my feet and give André Morell a standing ovation. Lord Glencorse makes Atticus Finch look like a pisher. Had his lordship practiced law in Alabama, poor Tom Robinson would still be chopping up chifferobes today.

If you want to see all four clips play one after the other, click below.