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Nearer the Bound of Life

A little over twenty years ago, I was speaking with an acquaintance about acting. Both of us were involved in theatre and the conversation turned to those actors we most admired. I mentioned several but only one elicited a response that took me aback: Fredric March. The mention of his name evoked the response, “Who’s Fredric March?” This was a fellow actor and I couldn’t believe he didn’t know March but he didn’t and twenty years later probably do fewer still. Somehow, I don’t think that would have bothered March.

What mattered to Fredric March, and what matters most to fans of great acting everywhere, is the performance. Fredric March didn’t give bad performances because Fredric March didn’t give false performances. He didn’t engage in elaborate constructs like fellow actor Paul Muni to convince us of the sincerity of the performance. He simply gave a performance, sincerely. There’s a difference.

Paul Muni, make no mistake, was a great actor. He employed accents and make-up and mannerisms and all form of other tools he felt necessary to make the character work for him and thus, work for us, the audience. That’s something to admire and as an actor, I’ve long admired Muni for just that. But March didn’t go that route. Of course, he employed an accent on occasion and certainly used make-up for some of his most famous roles (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Inherit the Wind) but for the overwhelming majority of them, he used the most necessary and simple tool he possessed, his sincerity. Fredric March didn’t become the character; the character became him. This has always been, in my experience, the best way to wring a testament of truth from a character: Make it personal.

What do I mean?

Let’s say Fredric March had been given the role made famous by Muni in Scarface, the lead role of Tony. While we can all agree March’s look and stature would have worked against such strange casting I use it simply as an example of an actor making the character himself and not the other way around. March would not have wondered how Tony talked or walked or acted out his desires. March would not have cared how a small-time hood would deal with sudden power and wealth. March would have, instead, asked himself, “What if things had worked out differently for me and I had been a small time hood? How would I deal with this? How would I act and talk and walk and carry myself?” Once an actor makes the character himself, rather than the other way around, the actor instantly knows the character to his very soul. It is bound up to the life of the actor, inextricably.

Throughout his career, March played characters that could have been him under different circumstances: Al Stephenson, the returning veteran from World War II in The Best Years of Our Lives who sinks into alcoholism feels like Fredric March showing us an honest portrayal of how he would be under the same circumstances. His characters in so many movies, from I Married a Witch to Executive Suite, whether the character was good or bad, felt like March and that honesty sometimes made us confuse the character for the man himself. In The Desperate Hours, held hostage with his family in his own home, he does what he can to survive and save them. He isn’t heroic and he isn’t a coward, just an average man trying to deal with an uncommonly anxiety-ridden situation. Separating March from the character is almost impossible.

March did step outside these boundaries on occasion. His method wasn’t an all-or-nothing equation. Playing a character like Mr. Hyde requires something more, it’s true, but still the actor can imagine himself turning into a monster rather than imagining what a monster would be. Here, too, March feels true to the character. It feels like a man who has let all inhibition, all common decency, all consideration of the social contract purge from his

system as he devolves into the worst of his primal instincts. It’s hard to imagine Fredric March, the man, acting so monstrously but there he is, just as he is with all the other characters.

Later in his career, Fredric March walked into one his greatest and yet least celebrated roles, that of President Jordan Lyman in the expertly done thriller, Seven Days in May. That Lyman’s decency, sense of fairness, intelligence and compassion feel completely at home in the body of Fredric March is a testament to how finely March had honed his craft. When Lyman scolds would-be usurper General Scott (Burt Lancaster) it may just as well be March himself giving someone a lesson in decency. It seemed the culmination of the decency he brought to bear upon his minister William Spence in 1941′s One Foot in Heaven, and one could easily imagine Spence and Lyman as the same character, separated only by time and career.

Fredric March achieved more than most actors in the history of film and he achieved this by not achieving eternal superstar status. Not being a superstar allowed March the luxury of playing roles honestly and sincerely and true to his soul, even if that meant exploring the dark side of that ethereal region. He didn’t have to worry about audience expectations, aside from expecting a great performance. But playing roles in such a direct and honest way while affecting no method or manner to entice the masses also meant that being a superstar never stood much of a chance anyway.

So when I think back to that day my partner in conversation expressed ignorance of March’s career I can’t be disheartened. You see, when I named Inherit the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my acquaintance did know March, he just didn’t know the name behind all those brilliant portrayals. I think Fredric March would have laughed at the knowledge that his name didn’t evoke any recognition but that his performances did, and when viewed by anyone, fan or first-time viewer, still hold up as some of the most beautifully expressed realizations of characters the silver screen has to offer. March probably would have smiled gently and thought to himself, “I did my job.”

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Greg Ferrara is the proprietor of Cinema Styles, music critic for Mondo Cult Magazine and staff writer and blogger for Turner Classic Movies.

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Comments

KimWilson
Reply

Nice reflection on what made March such a talented actor. Your comparison between him and Muni is absolutely correct.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

Thanks, Kim. I think few actors could make a role like Al Stephenson in BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES work as well as March because he doesn’t go for a performance so much as for sincerity.

Georgia
Reply

It’s strange how March’s choices, unlike most actors’, varied to the point of being practically unrecognisable in each and every role. Also, he didn’t seem to shy away from playing despicable characters (i.e. Marcus Hubbard in “Another part of the forest” or Dr. Favor in “Hombre”) just like he seemed at ease with heartwarming ones like President Lyman or (my personal favourite) Jerry Kingsley in “Middle of the night”. It’s a pity he’s not as well known today as say Alec Guinness whith whom he shared this rare and cunning ability.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

It is a shame. There are, unfortunately, more and more actors whose careers started in the thirties that are less and less known. While most casual moviegoers still recognize the names Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Clark Gable, most aren’t familiar any longer with Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery and of course, Fredric March. And don’t think it’s not true either. I don’t even bother bringing up anything before 1990 to most people thanks to reactions I’ve gotten over the years. For instance, about two years ago, I said to a group of five adults I was with at a party (people all in their late twenties through early forties) that someone looked exactly like Charles Laughton. The reaction was blank stares and the inevitable, “Who’s Charles Laughton?” I mean, are you kidding? Charles Laughton?! Unknown?! And yet, it happened. So sad.

kaystarstyle
Reply

I’m so glad you shared this sincere, warm tribute to a truly wonderful actor. You hit the nail on the proverbial head and as an actor/theater soul, I know you speak the truth here. Very well done and so heartfelt. I just loved reading this. Thanks, Greg. This is why I love the movies…

Joel Williams
Reply

When you’re watching a movie and thinking about how well the actor did preparing for the role or how difficult it must have been to learn that accent…I never think that watching a March performance. It’s so natural, he just *is* the character on screen. Marvelous.

- Joel

Greg Ferrara
Reply

Thanks Kay, you’re a sweetie. I haven’t tread the boards in years but watching a great performance by a master like March still gives me tingles. There’s so satisfying about watching someone, anyone, in total command of their craft. March is no exception.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

Joel, it’s true, March never calls attention to himself. In a role like Mr Hyde, of course, it’s impossible not to but you still don’t think of any preparation because he feels so real as Mr. Hyde. With other roles he’s just so non-actorly (if that’s even a word) that it’s like watching a real person living before the camera.

R. D. Finch
Reply

Greg, a perceptive take on Fredric March’s screen acting style. He could be dramatic when the role called for it, as in his Mr. Hyde or some of his other unsympathetic characters, but mostly he approached his roles with low-key sincerity. I’ve read that he thought he was prone to hamminess if not careful, so maybe this prompted him to hold back a bit and take the subtle approach. It’s interesting you chose Paul Muni for comparison. He always put his technique right out front, which got him much admiration in his day but today makes his acting style seem old-fashioned and heavy-handed.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

“low-key sincerity” – That really is Fredric March all the way. As for Muni, when you put the technique first, there is always the danger of looking too much like you’re acting, for lack of a better way to say that. Muni did a good job on a great many movies but March’s performances seem better suited to standing the test of time.

kimalysong
Reply

I agree what made March great actor was he never played himself but truly transformed into the roles he had to play. This is something he might not have been able to do if he was a bigger star with a well known persona.

That being said even though March might not have cared that he wasn’t remembered, I do. It does sadden me that except for film fans the general public really has no idea who March was (and I think most don’t even know his film roles anymore, unlike your friend).

Then again I think part of the problem is film doesn’t get the same respect as other mediums so for a lot of people not knowing our old actors, actresses, directors, etc is not even a big deal. But film is a part of our history so I think it should be a bigger deal. I have friends (highly educated mind you) who had no clue who Gene Kelly or James Cagney was so what hope does March have?

I also agree that Seven Days in May is a great film. It’s one of my favorite March performances in his later career. I always love when it comes on TCM.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

But film is a part of our history so I think it should be a bigger deal. I have friends (highly educated mind you) who had no clue who Gene Kelly or James Cagney was so what hope does March have?

That’s scary but, sadly, more the norm these days than not. You make a good point, Kim, about film not getting the same respect as other mediums. Hell, all other art forms thrive on their past. Ask someone advocating for painting to name modern painters and it will be hit and miss but all of them will know and revere Picasso, Matisse, Renoir and on back to Rubens and Titian. The past IS the art form for all other arts. Everyone knows Shakespeare, not many know modern playwrights. Everyone knows Dickens and Twain but modern novelists are a hit and miss. But Film! Everyone knows everyone in modern film and the classic actors, writers and directors become more forgotten with each passing years except among the true film lovers. Damn shame.

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Greg,

What a tribute to the man of the hour! And I love your comparisons to Muni.

Fredric March didn’t give bad performances because Fredric March didn’t give false performances.

Completely and absolutely true. Also, it is a shame March isn’t remembered. You’re right, he likely wouldn’t care about that. He placed very little value in stardom. I agree with Kim, though. It is a real shame he isn’t remembered by the general public. Hell, he isn’t even remembered by the AMPAS during Oscar retrospectives.

Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay on one of the greats.

Greg Ferrara
Reply

Jill,

Thank you so much for having me. It’s heartening to know there are still film lovers like you paying tribute to classic actors like Fredric March. This has done a great service to that great actor and I was so happy to be a part of it.

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