Film: California: Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Film Festival: 2010

Colin Firth: Outstanding Performer, Outstanding Man

By Madelyn Ritrosky

Colin Firth(Photo right: Colin Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man)

Move over, Fitzwilliam Darcy!  Make room for George Falconer! 
Um... just kidding.  Sort of. 
Actually, it’s center stage, Colin Firth!  No kidding. 
If someone had asked me what actor I would like to see in person and honored at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Colin Firth would have been at the top of my list.  Well, nobody asked me, of course, but the stars aligned and British actor Colin Firth was given the Outstanding Performance of the Year Award at the 2010 SBIFF. 
The performance is his portrayal of George Falconer in A Single Man.  It has also earned him his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award, and numerous other nominations.  I saw the film when SBIFF screened it as a special presentation.  And I was astounded.  What a film and what a performance.  Firth’s expressive eyes and his clearly established abilities to convey repressed emotions and interiority are perfect for this role and this film. 
Writer-producer-director Tom Ford, in his inaugural move from fashion to film, knew exactly what he was doing in casting Colin Firth as depressed, suicidal, gay George Falconer.  Set in 1962, the grainy, repressed grays and browns suggest the visuals of faded film stock and black and white television of the time.  But more than that, Falconer’s painful interior world is reflected so perfectly in the exterior world presented so stylistically by Ford.  Surrealistic editing turns ‘happy’ conformist images of the early ‘60s upside down. 
The numerous close-ups and multiple angles on Firth alone in so many quiet moments take the viewer into this man’s tortured emotional world.  Dialogue is secondary to the visuals.  This expands time, not only allowing the actor to fully inhabit the character, but enabling viewer identification with George and viewer contemplation of Firth as George.  And Firth is in almost every scene as the film follows George over the course of one fateful day. 
(Photo left: Roger Durling interviews Colin Firth on stage at the Arlington Theater. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky)

SBIFF director Roger Durling picked Colin Firth for this award last October – before other acting nominations came out.  Durling said he was blown away by the movie and Firth’s performance, but it was a small film by a first-time filmmaker and certain people around Durling wondered if Firth was a big enough name (in the U.S.).  Durling quipped, “Thank god Colin came through.”     
At the award event, Durling conducted the onstage interview that comprised most of the evening.  The interview, illustrated with numerous clips from throughout the honoree’s career, was held at Santa Barbara’s historic Arlington Theater.    
But the evening did not start on stage. 
The evening started outside as the press and fans gathered.  More and more fans showed up.  By the time the guest of honor arrived, the entire fence perimeter in front of the Arlington, blocked off on State Street, was crowded with fans.     
When Colin Firth stepped out of the car, he did not hesitate:  he went straight for the fans.  He started at one end and slowly worked his way around the entire perimeter, signing autographs and posing for fan photos.  The fans were in heaven.  No fan was left out. 
It was so wonderful to watch that when I got my chance to speak with him on the press line, I asked him about it.  He replied, “This is a wonderfully warm reception this evening.  It was nothing but pleasure.  The people were so sweet, and the people here are very civilized. 

There’s normally that wall of photographers that you face.  Everywhere else I’ve been screamed at.  You just get blitzed with lights and screams.  It makes no difference what you do.  But these people just politely said ‘Over here, please’ and that was quite wonderful.”    
(Photo left: Firth and Nick Hornby on the red carpet. Photo by Madelyn Ritrosky

Firth was generous not only with the fans but with the press on the red carpet.  Although his publicist kept trying to usher him along, he stopped and answered each reporter’s question. 
Any concerns about being directed by a fashion designer?  “I didn’t think of Tom Ford as a fashion designer at all after five minutes with him.  He has a huge imagination.  He’s genuine, articulate.  He has an intellect, and he has a wonderful story to tell.  And it’s a very unusual story, an unusual script, an unusual approach.  All of that excited me, so I had great faith in him from the beginning.”    
Were there any weight concerns?  “I wasn’t conscious at the time that I had any need to lose weight.  It had more to do with the fact that I would have to take my clothes off in this film, and being worthy of that – or at least enough to be lit by Tom Ford.  I just went and got the trainer and showed up and apparently got where we needed to be.” 
Did he think of his father as he portrayed George Falconer?  “It was afterward that I realized that subconsciously there were elements of my dad.  Not because he’s the same generation, because he’s not.  He would have been very young in 1962.  Not because he’s suicidal.  Not because he’s gay.  None of those things.  But he’s a lovely, quiet, thoughtful college professor, who looks a bit like George.” 
On stage with Roger Durling, Colin Firth’s likeability was just as clear.  What follows are selected segments from the evening’s interview.
In talking about growing up in various places around the world, Firth joked about its possible neurotic influence.  He said, “I don’t think you become an actor unless you’re probably profoundly dysfunctional.  If you analyze what’s required of actors, it’s not healthy.  You have to want a great deal of attention.  We all want some attention, but the amount that actors require just to sustain themselves is grotesque.  Combined with the need to turn into different people on a regular basis, it’s enough to get you institutionalized.  So if you don’t find your asylum on the stage or on the screen, you probably will be.”
Durling replied, “But you do love the attention.”
Firth responded, “You don’t have to love it.  I’m not consciously loving it – though actually I have to say it got pretty close out there.”  The audience roared with laughter.   
“I’ve actually never seen a reaction like that,” Durling clarified.  “You got quite a reaction out there.”      
Later, Roger Durling asked about Firth’s famous portrayal of Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice (1995).  The question was whether he saw the romantic label as a blessing or as something against which he chose later roles. 
Firth answered, “I didn’t see it as strategically as that.  I don’t really work with an overview in that way...  It’s much more random.  Something lands in my in-tray and I will weigh it according to its merits.  Sometimes its merits are it pays well and I haven’t worked for a while.  Sometimes those merits will be working with friends.  Sometimes they’ll be ‘This is a wonderful opportunity’...  But it never has to do with how do I steer perception or how do I get away from that.”
Durling then gets more specific:  “So did you see the whole Pride & Prejudice thing and being considered Mr. Darcy a blessing?” 
Firth does too:  “You put that in the past tense.  It’s still there.  It has not gone away.  Nothing will make it go away.”  Perhaps needless to say, this drew a huge laugh from the audience.
“I think George Falconer might,” Durling offered hopefully. 
But Colin Firth knew the answer.  “No.  This has as good a shot as any of at least broadening the picture.  Whether a film succeeds or fails is the luck of the draw in a lot of ways.  But I’ve done things which I would have sworn would kill Mr. Darcy.  With Trauma, which nobody saw, [though there were claps from the audience] I thought killing a woman by putting a tarantula in her mouth would do something.  I don’t do that as a gesture to Mr. Darcy, believe me. 

But frankly, Darcy will be dead when he’s buried at midnight with a stake through his heart.  It hasn’t happened yet.  It’s not going to happen here.  I’ll take him to the grave, and it’s fine.  It doesn’t really follow me anywhere unless I’m talking publicly about this thing called a career.  It’s journalists, and if I were to read about myself a lot then the name would come up.  But it’s not a name that gets mentioned in my household very often.” 
It seemed that Darcy would not go away in this interview either, for Roger Durling brought up the subject again – and rightly so since it catapulted Colin Firth into international stardom and became the foundation of his fan base. 
Firth described advice he got at the time – to not play Darcy, because the character was “unplayable. He’s a great device in the novel, but you can’t play the guy.  He doesn’t say much, he doesn’t show up much.  When he does show up, he stands and smolders in the corner.”  Firth couldn’t help smiling here.  “I remember an agent at the time saying, ‘You can’t play that.  You’ll just be smoldering for the whole movie.  It’ll be the end of you.’  I was bombarded with advice against it.” 
Naturally, Durling asked, “So why did you do it?” 
“It was literally one of those wake-up-in-the morning things where I thought I had a take on the character which might work – which was all mine, because Jane Austen doesn’t write male characters, really, from the inside.  There isn’t a single scene in any of her six novels that is two men alone.  She didn’t know what men talked about, when there were no women around.  So she didn’t presume to write it.  There’s a brief passage at the end of the book where Mr. Darcy explains his motives, but there is nothing in the book to say why he is the way he is...  So I had this idea of him as someone who is socially dysfunctional.” 
Roger Durling noted the similarity of characterization across several of Firth’s roles, from Darcy to Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) to George Falconer in A Single Man:  “There’s a pattern with your characters where there is not much dialogue.” 
“I suppose I am interested in what happens when words are not possible,” Firth went on to say.  “I think the things that aren’t said are critical to good writing.  As an actor, I don’t create the language, I interpret the language.  So my entire job is doing what words don’t do.” 
By the time Durling gets to talking abou Bridget Jones’s Diary, Darcy comes up again, of course. 
Firth explained, “The Bridget Jones thing, in a way, was an irresistible opportunity because it was a way of playing with this Darcy thing that had hung around.  I didn’t know how to react to it.  I still don’t know quite how to answer the questions about Mr. Darcy...  It was 1995.  I’m not involved in it, really.  It’s like carrying around a kind of twin.” 
When Durling asked him his reaction to being called the “thinking woman’s heartthrob,” Colin Firth deadpanned, “It can continue.”  We in the audience not only rolled with laughter, we agreed. 
Revealingly and not surprisingly, when Durling asked Firth who the most important women in his life were, Firth replied without hesitation, “My mother, my wife, and Jane Austen.” 
Returning again to George Falconer and A Single Man, Roger Durling asked about the role of clothing in the film and Firth’s attitude toward the stylish suits.  One of the opening scenes is George, very neatly and precisely, laying out and putting on his suit in the morning.  Firth’s narration as George makes the visual metaphor crystal clear when he explains how he must pull himself together for the outside world every day.
“He’s playing to what is expected of him,” Firth said.  “It’s not who he would necessarily choose to be.  He feels he has to conform...  As you get older and your public duties change, then you dress up differently for the part...  Actors are notoriously bad dressers anyway.  We have no idea how to be between roles.  You’re so used to being dressed by somebody.  I like putting a suit on, but I like getting rid of it even more.  In my daily life, I don’t come down to breakfast like this.”
He went on to say “Tom provided the suit and the look and lit it.  Everything else was pure freedom.  In a funny sort of way, given a very carefully circumscribed world, the structure means you are no longer thinking about those things.”
Finally, Colin Firth accepted the actual award from writer and friend Nick Hornby Fever Pitch, An Education).  After jokes and praise for Hornby, Firth praised Tom Ford as “entirely responsible for this. 

He has changed life for me in ways that are impossible for me to measure at the moment...  Here we are, over a year later, still very much in the belly of the beast and it’s not quite finished yet.  It’s a tribute to the immense courage and creativity of the man.” 
He ended the evening on a note that the Santa Barbara audience ate up:  “I like everybody I’ve met here in Santa Barbara...  You can’t generalize about a city, but strangely enough, when the city gives you one of these, you can.  So anybody I haven’t met yet I will be predisposed to adore to the point of impropriety.” 
Many in the audience could identify in a reciprocal fashion, adoring Colin Firth to the point of impropriety.  

For my previous research on Colin Firth and his star image, see “Colin & Renee & Mark & Bridget: The Intertextual Crowd” in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (2006) and “Diving in the Deep Pool of Pride & Prejudice Fan Fiction” and “Lust Actually: Bridget Jones’s Men” here at Entertainment Magazine

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