“The course of true love never did run smooth,” or so Shakespeare tells us. In fact, I am one for whom the course of any type of love tends to be shot through with a few rapids. In general, love is a tricky thing, because life is more complicated when other people get involved. There are also many unknowns in love; things that seemed certain and solid can suddenly shift into forms more akin to those squiggly lines from Fantasia.
Fairy tales and rom-coms taught me love was something that I would recognize on-sight (more or less). I’d be unable to keep myself from bursting into song (which is suspiciously how I am most of the time), flowers would smell a little sweeter, and so-on. However, on both occasions when I thought I had stumbled upon my “one,” it turns out that, although it quacked like a duck, and waddled like a duck, it was in reality a confused porcupine. It is fitting then, that one of my would-be-someones first shared with me my favorite cinematic version of Cyrano de Bergerac. As summarized on its IMDb page: “The charismatic swordsman-poet helps another woo the woman he loves in this straightforward version of the play.”
I recall first falling in love with the gallant Cyrano after reading the play in the fifth grade. He was an ideal companion for the lonely little girl who had just moved, dropped into a classroom full of new and unfriendly faces. He was charming and cunning; he possessed a sharp wit (and even sharper sword); he was a fighter and a lover; but most important, he was imperfect. In spite of all his achievements, Cyrano’s “prominent proboscis” (in short, er, long, his nose) made him traditionally unattractive. And although he outwardly embraced this “flaw,” eloquently expounding on it in the play’s (and consequently any film’s) best scene, he was also convinced that it made him unworthy of the affections of his beloved, Roxane.
The remainder of the tale has long since entered the social consciousness; Wikipedia lists some 30 direct adaptations, and I have seen elements of its plot echoed in everything from Boy Meets World to Star Trek. However, for me, the 1950 film has become the standard by which all others are judged. This is in no small part thanks to the charisma of its lead, José Ferrer. As Cyrano, Ferrer manages to portray every aspect of the hero’s personality. This is an impressive feat when one considers the list of adjectives it comprises: funny, tragic, romantic, caustic, sensitive, boisterous, athletic, clever, vulnerable, angry, insecure, debonair, compassionate. Yet rather than bouncing between these emotions from scene to scene, Ferrer’s Cyrano is consistent, and almost always self-contained (until he isn’t). The actor is like a summer storm. Even during moments where he is very quiet, you can still sense his restless energy, often expressed physically through a flick of his fingers or a sharp tilt of his head. And then there are scenes where the actor’s booming theatrical baritone leaves one thunderstruck. It’s no surprise that Ferrer won an Oscar for his work in Cyrano (beating out William Holden, Jimmy Stewart, and Spencer Tracy that year)!
However, in spite of Ferrer’s magnetic performance, I admit that the film has its flaws. This is due, in part, to its source material. Edmond Rostand’s 19th century play focuses squarely on its protagonist, which is why a production lives or dies on the strength of its lead actor. Although there are a few memorable supporting players like Ragueneau (Lloyd Corrigan), the poetically-proficient-pastry-chef, there is very little for the other characters to do. While this is perhaps to be expected in the case of the beautiful, but bland, Christian de Neuvillette (William Prince), it is most glaring when we consider Cyrano’s dearest desire, Roxane. In Rostand’s play, the audience is told, many times over, that Roxane is not only the most alluring woman in Paris, but also one of its most brilliant, yet we are rarely shown any examples of this intelligence. In fact, one of the story’s shortcomings (especially for a modern audience) is how easily deceived Roxane is by the men in her life; she only figures out the truth in the penultimate scene. This holds true in the 1950 film as well, where Mala Powers gives a competent, if not altogether moving, performance. For those looking for a more empowered romantic heroine, I recommend Steve Martin’s delightful 1987 re-imagining of Cyrano, which is fittingly titled, Roxanne. In this version, Daryl Hannah’s Roxanne is an astronomer, and, well, let’s just say that all the characters get the endings they deserve.
According to Turner Classic Movies, the 1950 production was the first time that Rostand’s play was adapted for the American screen (France and Italy had already made several). Cyrano is a story all about expression, whether it be through words exchanged at the theatre, or in deeds carried out on the battlefield, which is why I believe it continues to be popular. Its central character is a man of action; the audience cheers him through every struggle, both internal and external. Whatever he does, he does it with style, but his vulnerability enables readers and theatergoers to still identify with this larger-than-life figure (who has overshadowed his own historical namesake). I look forward to seeing him (or her, according to Netflix) continue to grace our screens for many a decade. May we all hope to live, and love, with such exquisite panache.
In closing, here is what Cyrano de Bergerac has to offer:
- A beloved story, and an even more beloved hero, brought to life by an Academy-Award-winning (for this performance) actor
- Simultaneous sword and wordplay that is nothing short of rhapsodic
- A narrative that is accessible, memorable, and suitable for all ages
Head’s Up: Not a lot to be worried about with this one. There are duels, but no blood. For parents interested in watching this with their children, Cyrano’s story is an excellent opportunity to talk about the importance of embracing everything (good, and maybe not so good) that makes you who you are, and how much courage it takes to be yourself in a world that will (often) tell you that some part of you is “wrong.” As concerns the play upon which the film is based, it is perfect for reading aloud and getting your little one excited about the fun they can have with words.
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”