Haters gonna hate: Les Misérables as auspices for the auspicious Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Tom Hooper‘s Les Misérables (therapy not included)

After gracing the cinema screens for over a decade, it’s surprising that Anne Hathaway continues to divide critics on her skills as an actress. Despite two Academy Award nominations (and one win) to her name, critics and casual movie goers still aren’t sure what to make of her talents. For every stunning performance in a film like Rachel Getting Married, there are awkward and erratic attempts like 2011’s One Day.

I recall New Republic’s own Tom Carson asking this very same question not long ago. His conclusion circled a nascent appreciation for Hathaway’s work despite her inconsistent performances. In light of the recent announcement of Hathaway’s involvement with Nolan’s forthcoming sci-fi pic Interstellar, it seems a slice of treacly amusement to reconsider Hathaway’s capacity as an actress. From the obnoxious sobriquets on Twitter to the empyrean heights of AMPAS, the topic is undeniably loaded with opinion, so by constraining my argument to a single moment of her career—a single scene no less—my aim is twofold: to consider the merit of her Academy Award winning performance in Les Misérables to address the merit behind accusations of Hathaway’s exaggerated abilities as an actress. Unfair? Certainly! Yet that objection could be voiced by both supporters and detractors; the approach works to level the playing field, as it were. Regardless of my rhetorical gambit, however, how can a performer be adequately judged by a single moment of their career? I argue that in this particular case the singular moment merits such a narrow reflection.

Nothing says destitute like Vogue…

Frolicking in the muck is hardly a new phenomenon for actresses. Audrey Hepburn did it with typical aplomb in My Fair Lady as “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” Eliza Doolittle. Other actresses have gleefully shorn their locks (and their grace) to play the lowest depths of whatever society du jour, and frequently have had their efforts rewarded come Oscar time. While continuing this trend, Hathaway nevertheless approaches the role with a candor and honesty that elevates her performance above the typical. (For a similar display, consider when famous and respected actors imagine what good sport it will be to sink their teeth into villain roles, only to find the roles can bite back.) Still, if slumming’s the thing, what better character wherein to catch it than the archetypical vessel of sorrow supreme, the grisette Fantine? The role of the guileless matriarch for the down-trodden and miserable was especially personal for Hathaway, however, her own mother having performed the role countless times as an understudy years earlier on Broadway.

Not that emotional investment has ever seemed particularly difficult for Hathaway–if anything she’s too invested. Was Hathaway not the only person unaware Get Smart was supposed to be a comedy? Or that the humour of an award host (for the Oscars no less) comes from the dry delivery rather than the hopeless hand-wringing, that crippling desire to seem genuinely interested in the gig? No matter, those qualities are needed for so forlorn a role as the tragic victim of fate in Les Misérables (sidenote: as a bilingual Anglophone with Francophone roots, it behooves me to correct the bastardized pronunciations of the film’s title heard throughout the award show blitz. In French the “s” at the end of a word is silent (save for a few select cases). Rather than “less miserable-ess”—as it was frequently mumbled by hosts and presenters— or even more heinously as the bastardized “lez miseray-bless”, the proper pronunciation, for those who go in for such obscure necessities, is closer to “Lay Miserah-bluh”. The attuned ear knows that “misérable” is plural because of the proceeding accent on the article (“les” instead of “le”—singular). Here endeth the rant.) At last here was a role where Hathaway could put these once debilitating qualities of her Hollywood persona to good use. Her performance also receives a virulent injection of empathy from Fantine’s thematic resonance. Who can’t identify with the pain Fantine/Hathaway feels regarding her rejection from life, liberty and all that jazz, or her thwarted ambitions, or even with her remembrance of happier times? The lyrics are ideally suited to Hathaway’s propensity to overdo things, and so rather than threaten to override the scene, the combination made in a Dickensian heaven serve to accentuate both Hathaway’s talents and the moment.

Hathaway channels her emotions with daemonic intensity that is as awe-inspiring as it is heart-wrenching. Looking every bit a physical wreck, Hathaway delivers a vocal performance of such raw and uncompromising intensity it left the vast majority of audience in the theatre I viewed it in visibly shaken afterwards (I made sure to turn in my seat and check; for posterity). One wonders if the verisimilitude of the scene made any impact: that scherzo hairstyle was her own hair she had lopped off just the scene prior, and that gaunt appearance is really her body after she spent the months leading up to the performance carving twenty pounds off her already petite frame (a grueling regime of oatmeal gruel for the curious and the sadistic voyeurs alike). It’s all “for real”, if such a thing can be true of film.

Yet the single take keeps the performance honest.

The shot is a single, uninterrupted take focusing solely on Hathaway’s face. Originally, director Tom Hooper had the song alternating between a close-up and wide shot for reasons that should baffle and concern anyone with a measure of aesthetic judgment. Hooper admits on the commentary that he was worried the power of Hathaway’s performance would be too overwhelming as a single close-up take. Luckily, the editor suggested returning the scene to its original state, and Hooper was mercifully persuaded.

Ostensibly fatuous, Hooper’s concern nonetheless highlights a crucial aspect of the film’s cinematic style. The single take format keeps actors engaged throughout the scene. It doesn’t allow the actors to break the moment while filming, nor does the single take give the audience a logical break either.

The filmmakers droned on about the style for months leading up to the film’s première not because they had nothing else interesting to say (though perhaps they might have tried) but because of what the style affords the intensity of the performance. The take doesn’t let its audience off the hook; the lack of a cut means the performers can’t pull any punches (quite literally in some cases); the sustained shot forces them and the audience to maintain their engagement with the moment. If the filmmakers have done their job, and the performers are equal to the task, the audience should have no difficulty maintaining their attention. Though the film runs the technique into the ground by the time it rolls into its cauterized revolution, watching Hathaway the eye and ear are undeniably riveted.

It’s a rare moment when the performer strips the pretence, the mask, the allure of stardom, and dares to bare a soul to the world. One suspects actors are possessed of quite a few, and few actors dare to expose themselves like that for a role. The not-so hushed rumours (often initiated by agents and publicists for both the actor and the film) spread like a disease through the industry, permeate the internet and pretty soon the role has caught the buzz. Like any real pandemic, though, only rarely does the performance gain traction. Though in virology this failure can be attributed to the pathogen burning itself out too fast, a casualty of overexposure, the same logic functions in the realm of the performing arts. There, however, the buzz can either paradoxically highlight the performer’s lack of restraint or retroactively compensate for it. (The Disney dream logic: if we just wish something to happen maybe it will come true). Though one suspects virus’ don’t pay their epidemiology much mind (and heaven help mankind the moment any virus learns the trade), in theatre they train actors to always keep a little of their energy withheld. The tactic is partly to train actors to save something for the next performance and wholly intended to save them from burning out. Put another way, it’s a matter of saving their souls. Take for instance the incomparable Klaus Kinski, a firebrand German actor who in several of his performances became so consumed by the role he forgot he was Klaus Kinski, and instead believed he was the character, most notably in his collaborations with Herzog (documented in the latter’s My Best Fiend). Dickens is widely considered by scholars to have driven himself to an early death with his impassioned recitations of his prose (most notably the saccharine confabulations of Little Nell). Some may guffaw and write it off as pretentious silliness, someone overacting just for acclaim, but consider that the brain is like a muscle: train it long and hard enough and it will perform accordingly. Now consider the impact of daily physical training to convince your mind and body that you are somebody else.

Perceptive readers may note more than a passing similarity between this image and the background of this blog. Has anyone considered contacting Hathaway about a Hepburn biopic? Get it over with early so she can spend some time perfecting her accent (she’s undoubtedly struggled in the past).

In a later interview with Yahoo! Movies after the film’s première, Hathaway recalled how despite performing the song over twenty times, she and the director knew immediately on set that the fourth take would be the one in the film. “I never broke through in the same way again,” she mentions candidly. Watching this performance, one has a hard time imagining anyone else managing to do so either. For all the visual opulence of the film, the strongest scene is the most visually bare. Hathaway appears naked, framed from the gaunt shoulders up, bones literally popping through the taut, marble skin. Combined with the single shot, the eye is driven to the details: that insouciant tremble of the lip; that prophetic shot just before of a bedraggled Fantine already in an early grave, framed by the outline of the coffin-like bed in which she begins her first few verses; that unabashed determination and sublime precision with which she cracks those all-too familiar notes. Nevermind that tubercular lungs could never push that much air out to hit the Tenor C of the song’s climax, don’t ask how a woman could sing after getting her teeth pulled (front teeth in the book, molars in the film), and stop asking how she could possibly sing at a time like that; this is a human soul painted on a cinematic canvas.

For what is ostensibly the showiest role in the entire production (it’s certainly among the most vocally ostentatious numbers), Hathaway graces it with such restrained gusto. That Hathaway has played the song so frequently in her mind and aloud means she knows all too well when to sustain a note and when to let it die unfulfilled, a symbolic gesture to the lyric. Her life ekes out with every note she belts. When she hits the bridge and struggles to keep herself from sobbing, one can almost imagine it’s Hathaway grasping to maintain her hold on her sanity and to keep the fabricated identity of Fantine from overwhelming her entirely, lest she too be broken and fail to continue the scene.

The moment also typifies just one of the allures of transforming Les Misérables into a film. On stage that would have been twenty performances—twenty showings—but film distils this range to only the best version (provided the director knows his or her material). And while part of the allure of theatre is the thrill of the live performance, the awe of seeing it all come together, to marvel at the majesty of the living aspect as a confluence of talents and abilities all channel through the frame of the stage—or to see it all fall apart—film presents a unique opportunity to achieve that same transcendent ability of the live performance. If the filmmakers have done their job, honed their craft, abused every talent to its utmost, then the result may just touch the transcendent. And even then, only if the audience is receptive to it. Just as in theatre, film offers a potential to capture perfection; where not a note is off-key, nor a cue is missed. With all requisite hyperbole, film offers the potential for an endless stream of the sublime; a demo reel of the only magic left to the modern world.

Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is just about the most powerful performance ever captured on film, and one can only be thankful to whatever happenstances aligned—from Hathaway’s birth, to her mother’s history with the role, to Tom Hooper casting her, to the litany of factors which led to the film’s inception and release—that one should happen to witness it.

In an interview with the Associated Press before the film’s première, Hathaway recounted the experience of shooting the scene:

It came right after I cut off my hair so it was a little bit of an intense one-two punch. It wasn’t my favorite scene to shoot just because there was so much pressure of expectation. I had gone to Tom and said I was starting to feel nervous about a week before. He said: “Listen. It’s not an iconic song. You mustn’t think about it like that. It’s this woman’s howl. It’s her processing what’s just happened to her.” So I felt very protected; I knew what I wanted to do. But all of a sudden the stakes were raised because there was a camera there and it was going to be forever. I couldn’t stop thinking about how if I messed it up how exposed I would feel. So I did the first take and I was so angry with myself because it wasn’t good enough. I had really wanted to come out of the gate and just nail it. I dug in a little deeper and we did the second take and it wasn’t there and I just thought, “Oh, God.” I started the third take and I just said, “No, no. Stop. I’m sorry. The balance, it’s off.” And that’s when I took the earpieces and stuck them in my ears. I closed my eyes and I remember thinking, “Hathaway, if you do not do this in this moment, you have no right to call yourself an actor. Put aside all that bulls—and just do your job.” I opened my eyes and I’m like [snaps fingers]: “Let’s go.” And I did it. That was the one that I let rip and that was the one that was in the piece.

Compelling in its delivery and overwhelming as a confession, the exchange solidifies Hathaway’s talent as a bona fide showman and typifies her character—bemoaned by some for its cheery optimism, high-strung poise (too cultivated to seem natural), and neurotic compulsion for validation, while respected by others for those same idiosyncrasies. Critical opinion may be assuredly divided on the issue of Hathaway’s talent, but in that moment on the ramshackle stage she channelled a deeper reserve of talent and ability than even she seems aware she possessed. With that snap of her mind she shut out Hathaway the actress, Hathaway the preening exhibitionist of talent, and became Fantine. The results are captured on the super 35. She may never reach that transcendent stage again, but as she noted in her interview: it won’t matter because this take is “going to be forever”. In no small way then, Hathaway’s capacity as an actress is as a conduit for her febrile energy. The only prescription: more roles. Let us see if she can manage the feat again.

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3 thoughts on “Haters gonna hate: Les Misérables as auspices for the auspicious Anne Hathaway

  1. I wrote some notes about my reaction to Les Miserables, but of course I can’t find them now, so I’ll start rambling and see where it goes.

    I’ve been wanting to see this ever since it came out in theaters, so I was glad to see you write about it here. It was the perfect excuse I needed to carve out a little time for the movie.

    I loved it. LOVE LOVE LOVED it. It’s so rare, even among the arts, that people are willing to take such big risks, try to break down their own limitations, and push the boundaries of art. And, it’s pretty clear that what they were striving for here wasn’t merely a movie, but art. So, of course I have to have tons of respect for anybody chasing a goal like that, but the best part of it all isn’t that they strived for art, it’s that they succeeded.

    Aside from a minor obsession with Fred Astaire, I’m not a big fan of musicals. They always feel like a sort of western Kabuki to me . . . a highly stylized exercise in form, representational to the point that they actually seem to create a distance between the content and the performance. I feel like there’s too often a barrier between the acted and the sung, and as soon the music kicks in you can often see the actor switch gears. “I’m not acting anymore, I’m SINGING!” The actors seem content to let the song do the work and forget that the feelings and motivations of the characters have to be sustained throughout the song as well. I feel like my previous estimation of a good musical was one where the the acting and the songs didn’t undercut each other, but actually work together in balance. I was blown away to see in Les Miserables that the music and the acting actually ENHANCED each other. In some respects I feel like this was almost the first time I’d really ever seen a musical succeed in a way that all musicals should aspire to, and I think the way it was shot has a lot to do with that. The sustained takes, forcing the large cast to stay completely in the moment for long stretches at a time, seems to be what it took to produce this effect. It reminds me of a shooting style I read about recently . . . where Baz Luhrmann would keep the cameras rolling in between takes on the set of The Great Gatsby so that the actors had to stay in character. Insead of yelling “Cut” after each take, everybody would have to race back to the starting point and immediately begin acting out the next take, and it sounds like this helped the actors to continually build on the energy of each previous take without interruption.

    It’s no secret that I love instances where the lines between fact and fiction become blurred, so I really enjoyed your analogy between Hathaway and Klaus Kinski. In order to produce these sustained takes without losing focus, it would seem to necessitate the entire cast lapsing into a communal hallucination that they aren’t actually acting, but living out these people’s lives. I don’t have enough praise for Hathaway, Jackman, and Crowe in these roles. I also thought Amanda Seyfried was amazing as Cosette, but there was just something about Samantha Barks as Eponine that was on a whole other level. For such a comparatively small amount of time on screen, she completely took my breath away every time she appeared.

    If I have any complaints with the movie, they’re small. I wanted the movie to be a minute or two longer, and the place I wanted the extra scenes were in the beginning. There was something about the editing of Jean Valjean’s life on parole that felt a little too rushed, like I could feel the movie trying to race ahead to get to “the good stuff.” Another minute of wandering, maybe another minute with the priest, and I think the ramp up to the coming action would have felt a little more organic. And I think I would have FELT, not merely UNDERSTOOD, his life on parole better.

    I can’t help but keep wondering about the mis-en-scene of that gigantic eye on the wall behind Jean Valjean during “Bring Him Home.” It couldn’t have been accidental, but I couldn’t quite tease out the meaning of it.

    And there was one song that seemed to be edited differently than all the others, and I didn’t really like it, but I can’t remember what song that was. I’ll have to go back to remind myself, and I’m sure I’ll remember all sorts of other ideas I meant to bring up when I go back to investigate that.

    • That gigantic eye you refer to during Val Jean’s “Bring Him Home” I suspect relates to the eye of providence, or the eye of God (you can see it on your one dollar bill). It stems from ancient Egypt, where it was known as the Wedjat, or the eye of Horus (also sometimes referred to as the Eye of Ra). In any case, it’s both an apotropaic symbol and an icon of power. God is always watching, the icon on the wall reminds us (interesting then that the revolution rebelled against the very concept of the Divine Right of Kings, as anointed vessels of God’s dominion on earth). Perhaps then God is literally manifest vis-a-vis the eye in this scene. The Wedjat is also a symbol of the Free Masons (hence its presence on the one dollar bill), and I suspect there’s a whole host of meanings that could be teased out of that.

      Interestingly, those moments you felt were a bit rushed are actually present in the stage version, including a longer scene with the priest. On stage the wanderings don’t feel nearly so scattershot because Val Jean stays on stage and the set moves around him, so the audience is left to fill in the cut with their imagination. (It would have been an interesting experiment for the director to try that on film). I too felt a sense that Hooper was worried he was taking too long to get to the good stuff, as it were (strange that he then includes a new song, “Suddenly”, though I would argue it does provide a fuller resonance to the father-daughter relationship.)

      Crowe has been woefully mistreated by critics and casual filmgoers for his portrayal in this film. His singing is terrific and always on key (if his vocal range is limited), and he appropriately sells the constant fear and vacillations of this character–a man of the law who believes himself a fraud, in constant fear of being found unequal to the task of upholding the law. In that sense Crowe’s restrained range is all the more fitting.

      As for the Baz Luhrman comparison, I find it interesting that he goes to such lengths to get it all on camera in a single take and then proceeds to chop it to bits in the editing room. He himself admits his goal in his editing style is to tire out the audience in the first hour so that they’re too intellectually exhausted to put up much of a fight to the emotional wrangling of his latter acts.

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