Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 08 February 2005
Source Warner Bros. DVD
I am of the opinion that one of the best movie actors of the 1930s was a guy once known as Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund. From his youth to his early 30s, he worked exclusively in Yiddish theatre in New York, specializing in portraying old men. In the late 1920s he, along with many other denizens of the New York stage, began to appear in motion pictures. His first film offered a starring role as man condemned to death, for which he became the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for his first screen appearance. With one film, Paul Muni had become one of the most lauded performers in all of filmdom. His third film, Scarface made him a star.
Muni appeared in relatively few films, most of them made in the 1930s. Yet of the thirteen films he made in that decade, four (including The Life of Emile Zola) earned him Oscar nominations for best actor. During what was arguably Warner Bros.’ finest hour, Muni was their top actor and appeared in nothing but their top prestige productions. Poor health and a growing fatigue with the film industry led to fewer roles in the succeeding decades, but a powerful performance in 1959’s The Last Angry Man earned Muni yet another Oscar nomination for what would be his last film appearance.
While Muni was the exemplar of the actor’s craft in the 1930s, time has not been kind to his style of performance. The presentational style of acting that Muni essayed with perfection in film after film is now—after Brando, Dean, and Clift—deeply unfashionable. New York Times reviewer Dave Kehr sums up this attitude in his assessment of Muni on the occasion of the DVD release of The Life of Emile Zola:
In his fussy portrayal of the French author and social campaigner, Paul Muni (who won his Oscar the year before in The Story of Louis Pasteur) gives full vent to his taste for phony accents, grandiloquent speeches and heavy facial makeup, thus establishing a prototype for Oscar-winning acting that endures until the present moment.
Knocking the Oscars is kid’s stuff and not worth dwelling upon, but Kehr also seems to charge Muni with popularizing a now-passé style of acting that was, in its day, considered the pinnacle of the craft. If Muni is indeed to be blamed for this (if “blame” is even a word that should enter into the conversation), I would argue that Charles Laughton and more than one member of the Barrymore family should shoulder some of the burden. Kehr, in his quippy dismissal of Muni’s significant talent, ignores historical context and fails to understand that Muni, in his way, was an early practitioner of the kind of immersion in a character so beloved of Method actors a generation later.
While already regarded as the finest actor in film after winning the Academy Award for best actor for 1936’s The Story of Louis Pasteur, Muni’s portrayal of Emile Zola won him even more accolades. Frank S. Nugent, writing in the New York Times in August 1937 called it “the best thing [Muni] has ever done,” and Walter Littlefield, a man acquainted with Zola and who was a pivotal figure in the Dreyfus case depicted in the film, was of this opinion, also from the Times: “To see and hear Paul Muni is to know Zola in every particular.” Muni was not only nominated for an Oscar for this role but also received awards from many critics groups. It is easy for us to chuckle at what might be considered overacting from our comfortable position at the start of the twenty-first century and to bemoan the excesses of our present film industry and its tendency to reward actors for portraying cripples, retards, and dead folks, and it makes for good, snarky copy, but it is altogether more interesting to look at how Muni actually elevated the art of film acting.
Unlike most film actors of his day, Muni often devoted weeks or months of preparation to a role. For his portrayal of Zola, Muni read three biographies of Zola, many of his novels, a biography of Dreyfus, the transcripts of his trial, and newspaper accounts of the time. He spoke extensively with experts on the period and worked with makeup artist Perc Westmore to develop a natural, authentic look for Zola in his older years. The beard Muni sports in the film is his own—not a chin wig—and the film’s scenes requiring Zola at his oldest were shot first so that Muni and Westmore could trim and dye Muni’s hair and beard back into youth as the film required. The earnest dedication Muni poured into all of his roles was often derided by his fellow actors, yet it is at present the mark of a serious actor. If one marvels today at the metamorphosis of Charlize Theron into Aileen Wournos in Monster, consider Paul Muni’s mastery of physical alteration decades ago.
The Life of Emile Zola may seem somewhat dated today, its methods and manner a little old-fashioned, and its style rather quaint. I will grant that. But to disparage the considerable talent of one of the greatest film actors of Hollywood’s classic era is to betray an ignorance of the film actor’s art and its transformation through time.