Snapshots and Reflections: A Last Affair With Montgomery Clift and James Dean | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Snapshots and Reflections: A Last Affair With Montgomery Clift and James Dean

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SNAPSHOTS AND REFLECTIONS: A LAST AFFAIR WITH MONTGOMERY CLIFT AND JAMES DEAN

Roadworks Productions

at Synergy Center

As much as they sought celluloid fame, Montgomery Clift and James Dean also battled Hollywood hypocrisies. To some extent victims of their pretty-boy images, they raged against the duplicities of stardom. To satisfy audience fantasies, they replaced their human failings with larger-than-life screen personae--but the surrender left the restless actors hungry for better scripts and richer roles.

Seductive and inscrutable, Clift and Dean continue to fascinate, an allure that fuels the two one-acts developed and performed by Scott Denny and Rob Benedict in Snapshots and Reflections: A Last Affair With Montgomery Clift and James Dean, Roadworks' 115-minute late-night offering. Easily handsome enough to recall their subjects, these actors establish the parallels between the two instinctual, intense screen stars. Clift and Dean began their careers with successes on Broadway and, based on their looks as much as on talent, gained quick entree to Hollywood (Clift's films also strongly influenced Dean's). Single-heartedly devoted to exploring their art, both bucked the studio system, fighting against the typecasting and image making forced on them. Both were bisexual, hard-drinking, socially awkward, and accident-prone. (Within a year, each crashed a car--Dean actually made a highway-safety film before he died, at 24, in a two-car collision).

As shaped by Denny, Clift's monologue reveals a man strangely assured compared to the actor's neurasthenic, intense image on-screen. Clift relished risk taking, whether it was dangling from hotel balconies or falling in love with Elizabeth Taylor. A perfectionist who prized sincerity over technique and who seemed galvanized by failure as much as stardom, Clift continually resisted being reduced to a "hot property." Protective of his privacy (i.e., his homosexuality) he turned reclusive, which fed the sense of isolation in his screen characters.

Digging beneath Clift's image as a brooding Method actor, Denny suggests the man's offscreen conflicts: his self-destructive smoking and hard drinking and his rage against critics' descriptions of his stiff face after his fearsome 1956 car crash. Rightly, Denny rarely tries to clone Clift's acting--which often seemed no such thing--or the trademark vocal tremors as he surrendered to his beloved Method. When he does, Denny isn't convincing.

Though inevitably this 50-minute pastiche boils down Clift's complex career, Denny exposes the real-life price that Clift paid for the sincerity and ruthless objectivity he uncovered on-screen, acting from the inside out.

Boyish, ingenuous, and country-bashful, Benedict depicts a less convoluted but no less committed screen star. An Indiana farm boy, James Dean rejected his provincial origins and wasted no time in developing into an actor who, like Clift, fed off the extremes of his own personality. Though he studied at James Whitmore's workshop, to Dean technique was secondary to rough-hewn realism. He also employed some strange motivating techniques: to work up the courage to film a scene with Liz Taylor, Dean approached a crowd watching the shoot and urinated; after that the acting was easy.

Benedict conveys how much calculation went into the natural ease of Dean's three film performances: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant. He also shows how frustrated Dean became at the way the critics twisted his image to suit their theories and at inevitable--often invidious--comparisons to Brando. Brimming with restless energy, Benedict tears around the theater and changes costumes in what seems like a flash. This young, skilled actor easily suggests Dean's most heartbreaking legacy--the broken promise of a career cut short. When Dean grandly promises, "My best is yet to come," it's painful to think he might have been right.

Benedict ends with a telling anecdote about Dean returning home shortly before his death; like Sarah Bernhardt, he had himself photographed in a casket, reasoning that "Death is the ultimate truth." For James Dean, even this was a role worth rehearsing.

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