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As actor Adrien Brody enters one of the suites at Manhattan’s Essex House Hotel and prepares for his latest set of interviews, I am reminded of a feature in the May 2002 issue of GQ. The piece, by critic-at-large Terrence Rafferty, offered a lament for the passing of American physical screen presences.

Rafferty presents the argument that today’s twentysomething actors have no idea how to use their bodies. His line of full-bodied performers begins with Marlon Brando and highlights Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, emphasizing their roles in the Godfather series. More recent models of physicality include Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, but Rafferty also acknowledges the achievements of Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. who all made their screen debuts in the 1980s.

Rafferty needs to take another look at actor Adrien Brody, because he’s someone who packs screen presence equal to the young Pacino.

My first lasting screen impression of Brody came from Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam. His character, Richie, is an Italian kid from the neighborhood during the late ’70s, infected by the Punk attitude filtering over from England. He has even latched onto an affected Cockney accent. But what makes Richie memorable is the energy and freedom of his gangly gait. He brims with a confidence no one else around him can comprehend: It sets him apart and ultimately makes him a suspect in the hunt for the Son of Sam.

In The Pianist, director Roman Polanski’s epic World War II drama, Brody turns in an elegant performance grounded in the physicality of his hands, which is to be expected in a film about a pianist — although it should be noted that Wladyslaw Szpilman was far more than a pianist.

Hands-On Experience

In the foreword to the latest edition of his book The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945, his son, Andrezj says, “My father is not a writer. By profession he is what they call in Poland ‘a man in whom music lives’: a pianist and composer who has always been an inspiring and significant figure in Polish cultural life.” Szpilman’s musical legacy includes symphonic works and some 300 popular songs, as well as music composed for children, radio plays and film.

He served as the head of the music department of Polish Radio, a post he eventually gave up in order to devote time and energy to concert tours.

What is truly remarkable about Szpilman is that these accomplishments came after six years in which he lost his family, a great number of his countrymen and very nearly his life during the German occupation of Poland. While not strictly a writer, his account of life during those years stirringly attests to the power of music in the face of evil.

Capturing the power of music, along with recounting Szpilman’s experiences as a survivor of the Warsaw bombings and the Krakow ghetto, moved Polanski to bring this story to the screen. In his director’s notes for The Pianist, Polanski says, “I always knew that one day I would make a film about this painful chapter in Polish history, but I did not want it to be based on my own life.”

Instead, Polanski captures spidery fingers striding confidently over the keys. But it is their connection to the everyday objects and the crumbling world around them that offers necessary contrast and ascribable character traits. If, as in the case of Szpilman, the face and figure are largely unfamiliar, then there is immeasurable value in each gesture.

Polanski acknowledges, “I wasn’t looking for a physical resemblance. I wanted a young actor who could slip into the skin of the character as I imagined him. It was important that he not be a household name.”

Preparation by Deprivation

Which leads me back to Brody and his hands. I study the way he grabs a bottle of water and how he uses his hands to settle down. He also enlists their assistance as he explains himself or his process.

Maybe it’s the realism of Polanski’s film and the subject, which demands an attention to detail and an organic connection between the actor and the character being portrayed. I realize I’ve become obsessed. It’s almost as if I expect Brody’s hands to have all the answers about mysteries of survival and Fryderyk Chopin.

“I focused on an emotional and psychological connection,” Brody says. “And obviously physical transformations when necessary.” Interestingly, his own comments figuratively incorporate his hands, as he talks about “grasping loss and isolation and deprivation and yet somehow maintaining strength through all that.”

The film begins and ends with Szpilman performing Chopin’s “Nocturne in C-sharp Minor live on Polish Radio.” Polanski documents the performances in largely uninterrupted takes, which means that Brody had to undergo extensive rehearsals to be able to approximate the correct fingerings.

Yet, the preparation was far more intense than simply learning to play complex classical works. Szpilman spent years in near solitude, surviving for long periods of time in starvation. Therefore, Brody focused on a demanding regimen of musical study and the simplest means of losing weight that he could imagine — not eating. Everything else grew out of that.

“All the energy that I had left was devoted to that, the rehearsal,” Brody explains. “I had no motivation and no time for anything else, no energy for it. I wasn’t eating very much, and what I was eating was very specific, so I couldn’t go out to eat with anyone — that would have been too painful. And I couldn’t go out to drink with anyone because that would have been unpleasant. And so I stayed in. I stayed in for most of the movie. We were shooting six days a week, 17 hours a day. At times, it was over a month without another actor. That whole sequence during that time (in the film) was me alone in a room.”

In an unforgettable passage from that period of the shoot, Szpilman sits down at a piano and the sound of music overwhelms him and the soundtrack. But, as the camera tightens on his hands, his fingers dance slightly above the keys. If anyone in the building had discovered him, they would have turned him over to the Germans, and he would have been executed on the spot. Yet, he spent months hiding in this apartment. Brody’s performance gives voice to what Polanski describes as “this incredible sadness (of a) man locked in a room with his true love, and he can’t touch her.”

Cause for Hope

The Pianist won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is enjoying the benefit of healthy buzz at the beginning of this year’s awards season. Brody’s response to the drastic reconfiguration of his role in Terrence Malick’s epic tone poem, The Thin Red Line, contains a fitting response to the current situation.

“(Thin Red Line) forced me to grow in a number of ways,” Brody says. “I grew as an actor, because I did six months of work. But coming home from that movie, and it not being what I anticipated, taught me not to have expectations.”

For an actor who has worked with Steven Soderbergh (King of the Hill), Elie Chouraqui (Harrison’s Flowers), Ken Loach (Bread and Roses) and Barry Levinson (Liberty Heights), he also maintains a strong connection to the world of independent film. He received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Restaurant and recently earned the best actor award at the Lucarno International Film Festival for Love the Hard Way. He has been in the unique position to push aside the expectations of others.

What of my own expectations of Brody? Well, that takes me back to Rafferty. I thoroughly appreciate his concern about the younger generation’s ability to master the physical craft. But I believe there’s cause for hope. With Brody, audiences should take comfort in his good, steady hands. (tt clinkscales)