Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Is it any wonder that Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet couldn’t keep it together? Given the pressure they’re under, not really...
The news that the film director Sam Mendes and his actress wife Kate Winslet are to separate after seven years of marriage will be received with genuine sadness by a profession known for its sense of schadenfreude.
In a business in which the maxim “It’s not enough that you succeed, your friends also have to fail” normally applies, Mendes and Winslet are regarded as good guys. He is renowned as a champion of British actors and acting and as a personable type, while she, despite being blessed with rare talent, is not above sending herself up (as her memorable appearance in the television comedy Extras showed).
There is no suggestion of a third party being involved. But you can bet your last Malteser that the demands of showbusiness will have played their part in the break-up.
The fundamental problem, despite what drama coaches may insist, is that acting is all about being irresistible to your peers and the paying public. If you can also manage to be funny, sassy, witty and mysterious you will further enhance your chances of success.
If a leading film star agrees to accept any role that means appearing in an unfavourable light, he or she is praised for an act of profound altruism, as if such roles were not covered by the job spec. Popularity is everything.
W.C. Fields once said, “Show me a great actor and I’ll show you a lousy husband. Show me a great actress and you’ve seen the Devil.” The point is that a continual need for validation can skew even the most laconic of temperaments — and that, in showbusiness, self-absorption is not merely common but necessary. And those involved are continually being slung together with others as insecure as them, spending intense weeks preparing projects that will eventually be thrown to the critics.
Once you are involved, only your new best pals can properly share in your triumphs and disasters. Your partner back home is simply not part of the big adventure.
Then there is the sheer physical proximity that the work entails. At 10am on Monday you are introduced to a member of the opposite sex on whom you have never clapped eyes before. By 10.15 you may be climbing all over them, smothering them with kisses and swearing undying love. In no other business is taking such liberties so casually accepted.
Another occupational hazard is the strain on domestic routines — all that time away from home, days spent drifting around unfamiliar town centres waiting for the evening show or, for film actors, hanging about on location. No wonder so many thespians take comfort in each other’s arms, if only to pass the time.
In the modern era it is much harder to hide dalliances. In the old days, what happened on the road stayed on the road. Or, as the actress and party girl Tallulah Bankhead put it, “Darlin’, it happens on tour, it ain’t adultery.”
Not so now. The mobile phone has changed all that — no more claiming that your car broke down, you mislaid the keys to your digs or you were brushing up your lines in the corner of a bar. There have been chilling tales of actors forgetting to turn off their phones after late-night calls home, only for their subsequent nocturnal activities to be relayed live to the horrified spouse. The marriage of one film director, who had just returned home from a six-week shoot in Canada, evaporated in the ten minutes it took him to pop out to the local Londis for milk, after his wife unthinkingly intercepted a text on his mobile. The moral of that tale is simple: never have identical phones.
Thankfully, most affairs don’t survive much past the wrap party or the final performance. That person who seemed so fascinating at the first-night party or in the studio can seem much less so once the job is done and you are both unemployed, staring at each other over a tepid cappuccino in Starbucks.
Of course, some long-term partners learn, in the face of all temptation, to keep their lives in perspective. One showbiz couple I know have a rule that, whenever one of them returns from a job away, they spend their first evening back together having a meal in a good restaurant. This simple ritual on neutral ground helps the recently absent party to regain a sense of equilibrium after the make-believe existence of weeks of filming. They are, I’m happy to say, both working and still happily married.
But however faithful you manage to be, the business still finds sneaky ways to get in where it hurts. A common source of marital strife is when one partner finds his or her career taking off while the other is languishing in pub theatre or, worse still, behind the desk in a minicab office. If there is one thing actors fear, it is being asked if they are working when they are not — and when this happens while their partner is busy attending glitzy first nights or film premieres, fear can turn to phobia.
Even if you are both successful, like Mendes and Winslet, the pressure will still be on. With camera phones making a potential paparazzo of every Joe Soap, the slightest transgression or wardrobe mistake can be laid bare for the world’s delectation.
Paul Newman may have said of his 50-year marriage to the actress Joanne Woodward “why fool around with a hamburger when you can have steak at home?” but, with so many celebrity magazines clamouring for scandal, the most innocent peck on the cheek can be construed as a trip to McDonald’s.
Not that everyone manages to keep temptation at bay, even in showbiz circles far removed from the Hollywood red carpet. At one post-performance discussion of Hamlet, the story goes, an ageing academic asked the play’s director whether, in his opinion, the Prince of Denmark ever actually consummated his relationship with Ophelia. The director thought for a moment. “Yes,” he replied eventually. “If memory serves, it was during the second week at the Grand Theatre Wolverhampton.”