George Cukor's The Actress (1953) is a consistently overlooked film. In part this reaction may stem from the fact that the work, in scale and subject matter, suggests a modest project. Additionally, The Actress, which is based on Ruth Gordon's autobiographical play, Years Ago, has been eclipsed by the critical successes of the four Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin/George Cukor collaborations. The film, in fact, is treated often as the least significant of the various projects that involved Gordon and/or Kanin with Cukor. Yet, The Actress, in addition to embodying Cukor's thematic concerns, admirably illustrates again his ability to respond to a project with original and fresh approach.
The Actress belongs to the small town domestic comedy genre and, given that it is a period film, it is a piece of Americana in the tradition of Minnelli's classic Meet Me in St. Louis Preminger's Centennial Summer and Sirk's Has Anybody Seen My Gal?. As is often the case with such films, the critical response is to perceive the work as frivolous, sentimental and nostalgic, with the filmmakers being seen as treating the past as a time of innocence and comfort for the contemporary viewer. In effect, the film(s) is regarded as politically conservative, reinforcing the dominant ideological values, but (as Andrew Britton argues in his piece on Meet Me in St. Louis (1)) this isn't necessarily the case. In Britton's intelligent and persuasive reading, Minnelli's film provides a critique of the ideological values it purportedly celebrates. Similarly, Cukor's film also functions to undercut the ideological expectations of a generic construct that seems to exist primarily to reaffirm patriarchal/bourgeois/capitalist ideology.
There are, of course, significant differences between Minnelli's film and The Actress, not the least being that Meet Me in St. Louis is a Technicolor musical, privileging spectacle, excess and stylization. Also, it is centred on a teenage heroine, Esther Smith/Judy Garland, who aspires to nothing more ambitious than convincing herself and the boy-next-door that he is her ideal and, consequently, future husband. The Smiths' are fairly affluent, living in a huge, plushly furnished house. In contrast, The Actress, which is photographed in black and white, deals with the low income Jones family, who live in a house which, as Cukor's mise-en-scene stresses, is cramped, characterized by constricting spaces and affords no privacy. The film is also grounded in a realist aesthetic that reinforces the 'ordinary', day-to-day aspects of the characters' lives. Nevertheless, Ruth Jones/Jean Simmons, like Esther Smith, is not a totally unfamiliar figure of the small town-domestic comedy. Ruth, who is seventeen, imaginative but a bit naive, wants to be an actress. But, in addition to having no professional theatrical experience, she must face the disapproval of her commonsensical father, Clinton/Spencer Tracy, a man of little formal education who barely supports his family, holding a low-paying, menial job. The most extravagant aspect of Ruth's life and image is her clothing that her mother sews. Ruth's clothes are inspired by the costumes she sees in theatre magazines and reflect her wish to be a part of that world of daring and glamour. The Actress, in foregrounding that the Joneses are an impoverished family, makes Ruth's desire to be an actress, which she thinks will make her rich and famous, both understandable and seemingly foolish.
Not only do Meet Me in St. Louis and The Actress take opposite visual approaches, the films differ in their respective handling of familiar conventions of the small town domestic comedy. In particular, I am thinking of the use of the patriarchal figure, the head of the family. In Minnelli's film, Mr. Smith conforms to the demands of the genre: he is associated with the business world and has little actual power within the household, which is controlled by his wife and children. Mr. Smith is impotent whenever he tries to assert himself on family matters, making him a comic figure for the viewer. …