Ferrer's Artistry

GARRY WILLS

February 08, 1992|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- The death of Jose Ferrer took away many talents contained in a small body. His short stature was what first struck me when I met him in the late 1950s. I was used to hearing that great voice's nasal booming on my phonograph, and it seemed out of scale to this body.

He was the first movie star I had ever shaken hands with. The conservative columnist of the Chicago Tribune, Willard Edwards, was leading him through the old Senate Office Building, and he stopped to say hello to my companion. Ferrer was still cultivating right-wing protection after his subservient appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The blacklisters had threatened to end his career when it was at its very peak, between his stage and his screen appearances as Cyrano, a performance it is hard to imagine any other Cyrano equaling. My second son, then a pre-schooler, first started asking what death is after watching Ferrer die when the movie ran on our little black-and-white television set.

Ferrer meant even more to me. He and Judith Anderson first jolted me with a realization of the human voice's range and expressivity. I was in high school when I heard Anderson's Medea, and Ferrer's Iago. I was staying over at the house of a friend, and his parents owned a vast range of theatrical records, including Paul Robeson's 1942 performance as Othello.

The Robeson appearance in that play was so famous that even I had heard of it -- for one thing, it was still unusual for Othello to be a real black man, not a white actor in blackface. I had been told that Robeson's huge voice made Othello incredibly noble. My friend and I started listening, and were both disappointed. Robeson read poetry with stilted cadences; he swallowed small words and lapsed into singsong.

But Iago was another matter. I had never heard of Jose Ferrer. Yet he leaped out of the phonograph's speaker, funny, deadly, smooth. He danced rings around this Othello. There was an evil crooning in his delight that . . .

Not poppy, nor mandragora,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday.

He lingered out the repeated vowel sounds of ''sweet sleep,'' hugging himself with delight in his own villainy.

When he prodded Othello to jealousy, Ferrer feigned anger at being asked to give more damning details. He made Othello drag out of him the claim that Cassio lay with Desdemona. ''With her?'' Othello pursued him. ''With her, on her, what you will.'' Iago's deadly ''on her'' was not insinuated slyly, but blurted out -- in exasperation, as if to stop Othello from this line of questioning. It maddened him further, of course.

When I later came to realize that I agreed more with Robeson's politics than with Ferrer's, I did not change my admiration of the actor who could do so perfectly what he set out to do. Ferrer was a learned, complicated man. He was not a hero before Congress. Who of us can be sure we would be? He was intent on his artistry at the time. I am glad it is preserved for us, on records and on film.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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