(Article translated from Spanish original: Os Presento a Deborah)
By Peter Viertel. (Nickelodeón, March 1996)
Of all good qualities, the most mysterious, most admirable and most surprising is, without a doubt, talent. Beauty, intelligence, courage, adaptability and optimism we can attribute to genes or even human relations. But talent can’t be explained.
One child has musical abilities even when his parents can’t even sing a song. One child can mimic, draw or sing. Yet his brothers and sisters are good at other things, but don’t posses any specific talent. That’s why we tend to admire those who have duende* more than others. It’s not that we love him or pamper him, we simply admire him.
I know quite well of what I am talking about. Deborah, my wife for the past three decades and a half, has indisputable talent. An innate ability to become, on stage and on screen, a human being that is completely different from her, and make her performance of the character of her choice so believable that when we see her we forget she is an actress playing her part. And what’s more surprising, she has this ability since her adolescence.
She is so convincing and accomplished in her early films as in those later in her career, Because Deborah is not the kind of actress who improves with the years and learns her craft as she performs. If we see her in one of her early films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,for instance, one realises immediately that she is as capable in her profession in her youth as she has been later in her life. An extraordinary record only achieved by Chaplin and Orson Welles, although none of these enormously talented actors was ever as versatile in their performances in characters so radically different.
This is another fascinating aspect of Deborah’s work. I can’t think of any other actress who has played such different variety of characters and has played them so convincingly as the shy ugly-duckling from Separate Tables, the mistreated and seductive wife of the captain from From Here to Eternity, the partner of the shepherd from The Sundowners, the nun in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, or the widow housewife from The Assam Garden, just to set some examples.
There’s one particular quality that becomes evident through all her work, an essential humanity, a greatness of spirit that is constant in all her portrays, and the camera can’t lie: Her innate nobility (if you forgive what it seems to be unashamedly flattering), that has rewarded her with a lot of faithful fans who still send her hundreds of letters a month, even now, after being retired for so many years. A “cult following” is reserved for the dead but some stars (if I may use such vulgar denomination) can have a following while being very much alive. Deborah es is one of those.
The most extraordinary thing about my wife is that in her private life is extremely shy. I remember that, many summers ago, Garbo came to lunch to our home in Klosters, in Switzerland. The previous fall and winter, Deborah had been playing in Edward Albee’s “Seascape” on Broadway, a play that had won a Pulitzer prize, and remembering that experience that say, Greta asked her something she had been meaning to ask for quite some time: “How do you do it?” she asked. “How can you get onstage and perform day after day in front of all those strangers?”. “I am not there”, Deborah replied, “I forget about myself and become the person I am playing”, she said.
Garbo shook her head in amazement. “I couldn’t do that in a million years”. Deborah could have said that she was a professional, but she abstained from making a remark that could have come out as pretentious and critical to the great Sweedish actress who, in the late years of her career couldn’t even stand the crew watching her perform and had her sets surrounded by black panels to protect her intimacy.
When she was working in the theatre, Deborah required an audience as a vital ingredient. She had to influence it, judge it and control it. The audience was a basic part of her interpretation. During the run of the eleven plays Deborah did in London and New York, she never skipped a performance, a record that few actresses have matched. She admits that she enjoyed acting live in front of an audience so much that when the eight performances a week took too much from her frail physical state, she chose to quit performing altogether, giving up the profession of her choice.
And she has motive of pride. Many nights, in our small house in Marbella, without a word to explain herself, she asks her secretary and long time friend to put on one of her films in tape. Then, without a comment, she watches herself in any film she felt for watching again. I am sure she then has a feeling of satisfaction, simple satisfaction that doesn’t necessarily imply a nostalgia of the past. She admits that she was very lucky through all the years she worked. Except for one or two, all of her movies turned out to be good films, and she joins those coworkers and friends who say that, even if the pay had not been so good, they would have enjoyed their work
Spain, March 1996
*In Spanish in the original. Duende is a word used to describe a quality that’s a mix of talent, charisma and magnetism.