When Actors Kiss

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   In dreams begin responsibilities   WB Yeats

Two enormous faces – each the size of a house, it seemed – leaned towards each other. Slowly they kissed, lips grazing against each other in unashamed Technicolor before the two mouths opened to each other. As I realised what was happening, I was overcome with unease and felt sick at the sight before me. Something felt terribly wrong.

I was too young to see this movie. At the age of eight, I was already in love with films. Every Saturday morning, I took myself to the local cinema where we lived in a quiet suburb of London, My taste was Disney classics or science fiction adventures, however, not the romantic drama projected in front of me now. But why was I seeing this very adult film? I can only think that my parents had tickets for a special showing and a babysitter had let them down. Off went the three of us on the Tube to the Leicester Square Odeon (half an hour distant on the Northern Line). I clutched my mother’s hand tight, always terrified of being swept off the platform by the draft of an approaching Underground train. Settled into my seat at the Odeon at last with a packet of toffee Poppets, I watched the inexplicable film. Why was nothing happening? This was so boring . . . no fights, no space rockets, no faithful animal jumping on the villain like Shadow the Sheepdog. It was just people talking! And then the climactic scene, a gigantic close-up of the two stars kissing. Who were they? Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief? Or Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, their beautiful faces contending for our attention?

What had shocked me was this. I understood that it was two actors on the screen, simulating fictional characters, but how could they possibly act something so intimate as a kiss? Could grown-ups pretend to have emotions? A whole world of potential deceit opened up before me. It was a disturbing discovery, like finding out that Father Christmas did not exist, or that my parents had sex. (And perhaps there was an unspoken fear, that they only pretended to love me!)

Ten years later, in a philosophy class at school, I discovered that Plato shared my confusion and concerns. In the ideal state he describes in The Republic, poets and actors are banished for giving a false representation of reality. By imitating actual people, they commit a crime by leading their audience away from the truth. This is a bizarre and reductionist view of theatre and the arts, of course, but I could understand the philosopher’s horror at people pretending to be other people and simulating emotions they do not have. It’s not so far from the horror we experience when watching a zombie movie, as familiar, homely characters become the Living Dead. This reaction also recalls the fascination of ‘did they or didn’t they?’ Decades after they appeared together in Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie still get asked whether the rumour is true that they actually had sex on camera during a bedroom scene. We continue to be intrigued, confused, and sometimes troubled by the phenomenon of people acting someone completely different.

Acting is a very strange profession. Our relationships, and society in general, rely on individuals behaving consistently and ‘in character’. To pretend to be someone else, or about how we feel, is to be suspicious, untrustworthy, and possibly criminal. In a theatre, however, we give an entire profession a licence to lie. Actors ‘shape-change’ into other people, in a way that would be terrifying in real life. They not only behave, dress, and move differently, they kiss people they hardly know, as though they were lovers. They lie in bed together naked and pretend to have passionate sex. It is as though they were possessed by demons.

Over a year, a single actor might need to behave convincingly as half a dozen different people. A Tudor princess. A NSW cop. Someone in an ad, overwhelmed with joy by a new breakfast cereal. It’s a curious job description, that makes actors very special people. Does the regular pretence of emotion and intimacy affect how actors relate to others? Of course not. But they are human too. In secret imaginings, we have all done things quite unlike our usual selves. We may all have dreamed of behaving in ways quite unacceptable in real life. To have such fantasies is entirely normal. ‘The virtuous man contents himself with dreaming that which the wicked man does in actual life,’ wrote Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams.

Transgression only occurs when private dreams leak across into ‘actual life,’ when other people are affected – for example, if the fantasy of a flirtatious relationship with a colleague slips into unwelcome touching and harassment. In dreams begin responsibilities: we might imagine something in our heads, but are culpable for acting on it in a way unwanted by another person. Recognising that distinction is an important part of growing up, and one that I was still too young to understand as those gigantic lips met above my head at the Leicester Square Odeon. For some people, however, it seems this distinction eludes them long after childhood.


Image: Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951).

My double life

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Here we go again.

After 24 hours in the air, traversing half the planet, I am home in Melbourne at last. In London, just a day ago, the summer trees had an almost tropical extravagance. Here in wintry Victoria, the branches are stark graphite lines against the sky. I go for a walk in the park to resist the urge to sleep which draws me to bed in the afternoon. After a few days the jetlag will pass as it always does, but a faint feeling of strangeness lingers and never entirely disappears. Where, after all, is home?

After 20 years in Australia, this is as close to being at home as I’ll ever know. Yet visiting Europe, especially the UK, also feels like going home, full of memories of an earlier life. James Wood writes of emigrating that you can never really go back to where you grew up. It continues to change in your absence. You change. The place is lost to you.

A generation or two ago, this fracture was sharper, more cruel, yet perhaps easier to deal with. Many never went back – to England, to the Lebanon, to Greece – and built their new lives here, only making contact with the old country on an expensive and tearful telephone call on Christmas Day. Today, with Internet contact and cheaper flights, we don’t have to let go of that other life. Most years I spend a month or so in that old world too: travelling in space feels like time-travelling, back to where I spent the first half of my life.

Sometimes it feels that I inhabit two parallel worlds, with their own geographies, culture and weather. The sky looks different in each; the air feels differently on my cheek. Each world has its own network of friends, of memories. I feel like a character in a Murakami novel – like Aomame in IQ84 – slipping back and forth between alternative realities, similar but different in a thousand subtle ways. Roadsigns look identical but I drive onto a motorway not a freeway. The car I overtake looks like a Holden but the badge says Vauxhall. Weetabix cereals look like Australian Weetbix but taste quite different. I hear the beeping sound of a Melbourne tram door closing, but look up and I’m standing on a London Underground train. My ways change too, without conscious intent. Little details about the way I dress, the way I speak. The references I hear and make in conversation. All the same, in Melbourne people still pick up my English accent. In England, they ask if I’m Australian.

So many of us must feel like this. After all, one in four Australians were born overseas. Sufficiently at home in both worlds, I can see each one from two perspectives, as an outsider as well as a local. For some, I understand how this might be unsettling. But as for me, I like my double life. I am grateful for this alien privilege.