"I am Marlene and Marlene is me." Josef von Sternberg is quoted as saying this about Marlene Dietrich, star of his early great, successful films, widely considered his best. When Marlene Dietrich was asked about this quote, she was not offended, stating that it was the truth.
Throughout the history of cinema, there have been pairings of director and muse that seem to transcend the simple relationship of a director who happens to often work with the same actors. It's not simply the case of a director and star becoming lovers. Akira Kurosawa married Yoko Yaguchi, the star of one of his early films, and she never appeared in one of his movies again. Certainly compatibility in marriage does not imply a compatible creative relationship. The director and actor are both artists, both responsible for creative decisions in a film. As an artform, film is filled with strong personalities and in a sense it's a miracle that such inherently collaborative projects come off at all. Though directing and acting are different creative endeavours. One might say the director is the more Apollonian and the actor is the more Dionysian artist. Even if the actor is not a method actor, the process of putting oneself physically into the artwork is more Dionysian than the inevitably more detached orchestration involved in directing, however intimate the material may be for a director. An actor, therefore, is a kind of avatar for the director. His or her creative decisions become the director's creative decisions. It's a creative intimacy that one would think unlikely to live beyond the individual film. But even working on many films together does not seem to imply the director/muse relationship apparent in Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg's collaborations. Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have made quite a few movies now in a wide variety of genres and subject matters yet it's hard to imagine Scorsese saying, "I am Leonardo and Leonardo is me."
To-day I thought I'd present a list of directors and actors who've had this kind of remarkable relationship.
Charles Chaplin and Edna Purviance
Chaplin had love affairs with nearly all of his leading ladies but Edna Purviance is distinguished for many reasons. She was one of the first women to star in movies he directed--she was the leading woman in his first full length feature, The Kid--and she was the star of the first and, until his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, only feature film in which he did not star, 1923's A Woman of Paris. She's also one of the few women with whom his break up was amicable and they not only remained friends until her death but she remained on his payroll and made small appearances in his films. So there was attraction as well as mutual respect.
David Lynch and Laura Dern
I can't help thinking the relationship between these two is somehow related to the fact that they look kind of similar. Lynch has worked multiple times with several women--Isabella Rossalini appeared in two of his films and they had a romantic relationship. Naomi Watts has worked with him more than once. But Laura Dern is the only woman to have a starring role in three of his films and now she's said to have been cast in the upcoming new season of Twin Peaks. Her first two roles for Lynch seem to embody two different kinds of innocence--as Sandy in Blue Velvet, she's a conventional impression of innocence, the "girl next door" type that Dern's inimitably natural performance gives a genuine quality, showing that Lynch genuinely loves these kinds of characters that many have erroneously accused him of presenting ironically. And that may be the key to why he likes her so much, she always comes off as natural. She brought an equal sense of innocence to the sex crazed Lula from Wild at Heart, delivering completely without any hint of self-consciousness a performance where she desperately eats a candy necklace while longing for her absent lover or tells a story about her cousin who put cockroaches in his underwear.
Lynch has hosted events for Transcendental Meditation with Dern and he publicly campaigned for her to get an Oscar for the latest film they made together, INLAND EMPIRE, in which she stars as a sort of sane version of Norma Desmond. Or rather, her knack for making any lines seem natural takes us into the interior head space of the Sunset Boulevard character and her madness becomes a more personal portrait of the symbiosis of human beings and dreams.
Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais
Cocteau didn't make many films but Marais was in all but one of them. Marais was also Cocteau's lover and one can say the rather handsome Marais was Cocteau's ideal of beauty. Yet Cocteau's most famous film is Bele et la Bete in which Marais' face is covered by fur, whiskers, and fangs so that he could play a beast. Many--including Marlene Dietrich--have remarked how much more attractive the beast is through personality than Marais when he shows up in human form at the end of the film. There was more than lust in Cocteau's compulsion to continually cast his lover and in Orphee, where Marais plays an obsessive artist, Cocteau uses the actor to comment on the process of an auteur. One could perhaps say that Marais is Cocteau's avatar in this film but even if that wasn't what Cocteau intended there is an inevitable intimacy between the director and a star he casts to portray the creative process.
Yasujiro Ozu and Setsuko Hara
We don't know if these ever had a romantic relationship. Neither of them ever married, Hara was known as "The Eternal Virgin" and Ozu was living with his mother when he died. Hara appeared in films for many directors and in several for Mikio Naruse. But she is most often associated with Ozu with whom she made the masterpieces Late Spring and Tokyo Story. When Ozu died in 1963, Hara retired from acting and public life until her death last year.
Ozu's films are about family and his two greatest films seem to look with suspicion on the act of marrying and moving away from home. Late Spring and Early Autumn, both starring Hara, seem to regard marriage as a betrayal of a purer relationship between parents and offspring or between siblings. When she retired, Hara said she'd hated being an actress so her retirement coinciding with Ozu's death seems to imply that she sacrificed her happiness in order to help him create his films about the treachery of finding love outside the family. If these two were in love, it would have been based on a rapport that would never have allowed them to acknowledge it. This peculiar tension may in some degree explain the natural brilliance of their work together as this tension naturally overflowed onto the screen, bringing satisfying complexity to the argument.
Jean Luc Godard and Anna Karina
Godard's wife and almost invariably the star of his best regarded films, the New Wave pictures he made in the 60s, Anna Karina's place in Godard's heart and art bore the influence of other director and muse relationships as her crying as she watches Carl Dreyer's Joan d'Arc in Vivre sa vie demonstrates. In Truffaut's Jules et Jim, the two male characters discussing the perfect aesthetic virtues of a woman's face before finding them in Jeanne Moreau's character might be seen as fictional versions of Godard and Truffaut for the fact that Moreau and Karina both had the kind of lips idolised by Jules and Jim. For the purportedly work obsessed Godard, the fact that he loved Karina as a person must have been secondary to the fact that she fit the perfect mould. Fortunately, she's also a very good actress and seems to have been able to embody a wide variety of roles for him, from the innocent girl in Bande a part to the enigmatic agent in Alphavile.
I wonder if I should really include this pair since she supposedly divorced him for his obsession with work though lately I see she's been appearing at special events to discuss the films she made with him. Perhaps it's more important to include this pair because it shows the critic turned director Godard recognised this director/muse relationship and tried to create it in a way perhaps more self-consciously than had ever been done before.