The face of God

Posted: January 12, 2013 in Entertainment, Personal
Tags: ,

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

–Val Jean in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Today I was completely alone….for the first time in a VERY long time. I slept in, got a massage, did some shopping and finally went to see Les Miserables. As a big fan of the book and musical since I first read the story back in high school, it was a long time coming.

SPOILER ALERT……SPOILER ALERT……..SPOILER ALERT………………………………………

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Last year, I questioned the casting choices in a post or two, particularly of Hugh Jackman and Russel Crowe, thinking that they should have been reversed, with Crowe playing the lead of Jean Val Jean and Jackman playing Inspector Javert, mainly because of their build, their coloring and what I assumed their singing voices would be like. I also was unsure about Anne Hathaway’s choice in the role of Fantine. Boy, I could not have been more wrong. Jackman and Hathaway were astoundingly good. Both gave Oscar-worthy performances, however not having seen the performances of their competition in the Supporting Actress and Lead Actor categories it is hard to say whether they will win. I do know from the buzz that the field is very, very tight. Jackman will be up against Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Bradley Cooper in The Silver Linings Playbook, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Denzel Washington in Flight. Ultimately it will probably be eitherDay-Lewis or Jackman or Phoenix–they’re the two three heavy hitters in that bunch.

Crowe’s performance was the weakest of the cast BUT he did a serviceable job. And in his defense, Javert’s role in the musical is important but the character is not very well rounded. And it’s the not actor’s fault that the character is given such a narrow range of emotions and moral choices. Javert is such an absolutist and a control freak. Everything is white/black, legal/illegal, right/wrong and most of his songs are about this dichotomy and how he stands on the side of righteousness. However, when such a person loses it and eventually they always do, they usually break hard. Like a too stiff tree that can’t bend in the wind, they snap. So it is for Javert as he takes his own life being unable to live in a world where he is indebted to a thief and where a sinner can also be a savior. The scene where Javert/Crowe takes a header off a bridge is his only real opportunity for deep emotion and Crowe does a credible job.

But again, Hathaway and Jackman really just blew me away with how much they fully inhabit their roles. When I saw the musical on stage back in the late 80’s (once at Lincoln Center in D.C. and on Broadway in NYC) I really fell in love with the musical. Not just because of the music or the acting (which was very, very good) but also the ingeniousness of the set, the sweep of the story, the larger message of hope, faith and charity, and the way in which rousing choral scenes were interspersed with the solo scenes. The whole thing was pleasing. But emotionally I was mainly affected by the story of Fantine and Eponine. Indeed in the first third of the play Fantine dies and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. But that was the only scene that moved me to tears. Even the teenage boys who were on the school trip were unabashedly crying.

But today’s experience was different. In a musical theater there is a certain disconnect, at least for me. Even the closest seat doesn’t really give you the chance to see the actor’s expression nor allow one to block out the surrounding distractions. In a play theater you have the people around you, the darkness between you and the stage, and the actor, albeit singing a solo, is still a small figure on a very large canvas.

However the lens of a movie camera on a large screen really pulls you into the story. You can see the actor’s faces close up on the solos and in the duets and trios (which are some of my favorite scenes because of the harmony) you get to see the actor’s reacting to one another. And the effect is mesmerizing. I know this musical inside and out. I can sing along with almost every word of every song (yeah, I’m a dork). I thought this would keep me detached and I thought, because of my prior emotional reaction to the Fantine death scene, that that was the only scene that would really affect me. Again, I was very wrong.

Within the first 10 minutes I was crying. There is a scene where Val Jean, newly paroled, prays to God for guidance. His hair is roughly shorn from prison. He has a long unkempt beard, tattered clothes, and only a small bag with his possessions The preceding scenes showed his journey of starvation, sleeping in the cold, abuse by just about everyone until he is reduced to such a level of depravity that in his desperation he appears bestial in his reactions to food, warmth, and even kindness. And kindness is what pushes him to extremity. A priest took pity on Val Jean feeding him and offering him a place to stay for the night. In the early hours of the morning Val Jean steals every piece of silver he can find in the priest’s house and is caught soon thereafter. When brought before the priest by authorities, the priest lies and says that he gave the silver to Val Jean willingly and adds to the pile two very large and expensive silver candlesticks. After the authorities leave the priest tells Val Jean that he gave him the silver to help him become an honest man. So in this scene Val Jean is praying to God in his confusion and pain over whether he should continue to be an angry, embittered thief or instead to pursue a moral and charitable life….and the agony on Jackman’s face was so very real that it moved me to tears. I was actually shocked because I knew this scene was coming and I’d seen it before many times without being really affected by it before. That’s how good Jackman’s acting was–it made the story new and immediate to me in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. And that, my friends, is what acting is supposed to be about. I really do hope he and Hathaway are rewarded for their achievements.

I know a lot of people won’t see this movie because it is a musical (my boyfriend and my daughter had no desire to see it with me). But in truth, the acting is so good that the singing is secondary to the story and to me, not a distraction. I wasn’t the only one so moved. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theater today (not even the men) and at the end everyone erupted in spontaneous applause. How often do you see that in a movie theater? See it if you can–it’s worth it.

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Comments
  1. You left out Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” for the Best Actor category.

    From all I’ve heard (I haven’t seen the movie) his performance is just astounding. The only reason Hugh Jackman might get the Oscar instead is because Day-Lewis won not too long ago for “There Will Be Blood.”

    • drangedinaz says:

      Oops! You are right too about the Academy wishing to “spread the wealth”, so to speak. What I don’t get is why they chose Denzel for the category instead of Affleck. Actually think both of them have won an Oscar before…Denzel for Supporting actor, I think, and Affleck for Original Screenplay.

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