"Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist. We need works that are strong, straight, precise, and forever beyond understanding."
Kenneth Tynan was one of my favorite writers when I was a teenager. I gobbled up his criticism. (Tynan and P. Kael were my heroes) If you've never read him, dig this sharp 2000 New Yorker piece by John Lahr:
Tynan had a language beyond the usual lit-crit stammer, and it conveyed the subtlety of a craft that was undergoing profound sociological changes.The 1945 Education Act had enabled many talented young people, including Tynan, to get scholarships to universities and acting schools that before the war had been the privilege of the rich. This created a dynamic new pool of working- class talent—actors like Rita Tushingham, Peter O’Toole, Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, and Richard Burton,who came to the stage with different energies, different behaviors, different connections to British experience, and who in a short time would require a different kind of play. Tynan was on their wavelength. And because he understood glamour and the discipline of planting the idea of self in the public mind and keeping it there, these stars, and others, found themselves deconstructed by him with un usual finesse. “ To be famous young and to make fame last—the secret of combining the two is glandular: it depends on energy,” Tynan wrote with particular prescience, in an account of Noël Coward’s famous night-club début at the Café de Paris.
Tynan was never shy about shivering the timbers of the English acting establishment. On Vivien Leigh’s Cleopatra, for instance: “Taking a deep breath and resolutely focusing her periwinkle charm, she launches another of her careful readings; ably and passionlessly she picks her way among its great challenges, presenting a glibly mown lawn where her author had imagined a jungle.” Still, Tynan, who aspired to be a spellbinder, was at his most compelling when he was under the spell of others: Marlene Dietrich “shows herself to the audience like the Host to the congregation and delivers the sacred goods”; Katharine Hepburn is “wide open yet with no breaches in her armour”; Judy Garland, at the Palace, “embodies the persistence of youth so completely that we forbid her to develop. . . . Even in young middle age, she must continue to sing about adolescence and all the pain and nostalgia that go with it. When the voice pours out, as rich and pleading as ever, we know where, and how moved, we are—in the presence of a star, and embarrassed by tears.”
So, where to start? How about the fine compilation, Profiles. It includes wonderful stuff on Marlene, Dietrich, Orson Welles, Lenny Bruce, to name a few. It also has the four long New Yorker pieces Tynan did in the late 1970s—the Mel Brooks article is only available to New Yorker subscribers but do yourself a favor and get the book cause it's a tremendous story.
The good news is that two of his longer profiles are online for free.
Here's "The Girl in the Black Helmet" on Louis Brooks:
Infatuation with L. Brooks reinforced by second viewing of "Pandora." She has run through my life like a magnetic thread - this shameless urchin tomboy, this unbroken, unbreakable porcelain filly. She is a prairie princess, equally at home in a waterfront bar and in the royal suite at Neuschwanstein; a creature of impulse, a creature of impulses, a temptress with no pretensions, capable of dissolving into a giggling fit at a peak of erotic ecstasy; amoral but totally selfless, with that sleek jet cloche of hair that rings such a peal of bells in my subconscious. In short, the only star actress I can imagine either being enslaved by or wanting to enslave; and a dark lady worthy of any poet's devotion:
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.
And here's the one on Johnny Carson, "Fifteen Years of the Salto Mortale":
Characteristically, although he is surrounded by the likes of Jack Lemmon, Roger Vadim, Michael Caine, James Stewart, and Gene Kelly, he spends most of the evening locked in NBC shoptalk with Fred de Cordova. De Cordova has just returned from his European safari, which has taken him through four countries in half as many weeks. The high point of the trip, de Cordova tells me, was a visit to Munich, where his old friend Billy Wilder was making a film. This brings to mind a recent conversation I had with Wilder in this very living room. He is a master of acerbic put-downs who has little time for TV pseudostars, and when I mentioned the name of Carson I expected Wilder to dismiss him with a mordant one-liner. What he actually said surprised me. It evolved in the form of a speech. “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best,” he said. “He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale”—circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. “What’s more”—and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis—”he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”