I still remember how shocking it was when Heath Ledger died. The widely-held belief at the time, which has persisted for years, was that his role as the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight somehow drove him nuts, that he took the role of the psychopathic thrill-killer too seriously, and this led to his death from drug overdose at the age of 29. Indeed, this perception may have led to his posthumous Oscar win. A documentary was released earlier this year, made with his family's support, that disputes this belief, but one suspects it will forever be a part of his legend, that it will cling to his memory like a shadow. It simply makes for better copy.
In my limited experience in acting, I was taught to find an emotional truth that you can bring to your role, to inform your character. I remember trying to do that, though it was never for more than a scene or two in class. If I were to try it for the length of a play, well, I can only imagine what that might be like. I suspect it's difficult to draw upon that emotional well for an extended length of time and not have it do something to your head.
This is the subject of A Double Life, the George Cukor film written by Ruth Gordon & Garson Kanin about theater acting, featuring Ronald Colman in his Oscar-winning role.
This was one of the most unusual Old Hollywood films I've ever seen. Colman literally did two movies in one: the story of Tony, the Broadway thespian and his descent into madness, and Othello, performed on an actual stage in front of an actual audience, with makeup, costume, sets and everything.
Cukor and the Kanins sought to immerse us in the life of the theater; we see big chunks of the Othello play, but we also see random audience reactions during key scenes, something you don't see often. Colman gives a great monologue about theater acting, set to a montage of behind-the-scenes preparation. Also, the film takes its time to get going. It feels more like a character-driven story than a plot-driven one.
The Othello half looks magnificent. This is one time I can accept seeing blackface in an old Hollywood film, partly because it's Shakespeare, partly because it doesn't feel exploitative. In fact, given Colman's beard, wig, and wardrobe, I thought he looked a lot like a Klingon! (And as we all know, you cannot truly appreciate Shakespeare until you have read it in the original Klingon.)
Tony takes the role of Othello reluctantly, as if he knows he shouldn't get too close to it. Events in his personal life begin to resemble the play, but even before they do, we see him thinking about the role, letting it get under his skin (which we're led to believe is not necessarily a bad thing), even causing him to have an illicit affair with Shelley Winters. He doesn't come across as peculiar or emotionally disturbed at first, but then, Ledger probably didn't, either.
I don't wanna draw too many comparisons between this fictional character and Ledger, especially since no one really knows what he was thinking while he filmed The Dark Knight. His family insists playing the Joker didn't mess with his head; fine, but something did, or else he'd be alive now. Life makes clear the role of Othello did screw with Tony, but something within him made him susceptible. That is less clear. Maybe it can't be known. Why does anyone succumb to mental illness?
Life is so unlike Cukor's other work in terms of subject matter and characterization, one wonders why he, or the Kanins, for that matter, didn't do more work in this vein. Maybe it hit too close to home?