There is the life that knows death, and the life that does not and there is no other life.
Or so it occurred last week as I studied the three faces of George Brent that were published with his obituary. Brent, you may remember, starred with Bette Davis in "Dark Victory." It was his best acting job, by far; and although Miss Davis won the Oscar, still Brent's portrayal of the good doctor-husband undoubtedly represented the high moment of his professional life, perhaps of his life, period. yet there were other good movies, too - "The Spiral Staircase" and "TheAffairs of Susan" - and a dozen charming, if merely adequate performances in which he wooed such ladies as Greta Garbo and Merle Oberon, winning their hearts with impeccable manners. He was all gentleman, George Brent: under the shimmering hair; within the dark, noble eyes; along the two perfect lines of a moustache.
At least was the way he looked in the'40s and '50s, the way he looked at the age of 49, decked out like a gambler in the still from "Montana Belle." That was the middle picture of the Three Faces of George. Picture No. 1 showed him at the age of 30 - serious, sensitive, sans moustache. And picture No. 3 showed him as he looked last year, at 74 - his hair thick, but thorooghly white; his earslike oyster shells; his eyes still noble and dark, I'm sure, but overwhelmed by black frame glasses that hung like a balcony over the perfect moostache and a clipped Van Dyke like Freud's.
I had seen that picture before, in a story a year ago. The news then was that George Brent was returning to Hollywood after an absence of 25 years, to play the sort of bit part they call a "Cameo Role" in "Born Again," The Charles Colson Story. I remember thinking: what a movie for a comeback. But then, why not? His fifth and longest-lasting wife had died of cancer 10 years earlier, he lived alone in a three bedroom tract house with a Belgian dog named Skipper; he had very little money, emphysema, and he was stooped witharthritis. Why not? And then there was the monotony of the schedule: boil an egg in the morning. Read a San Diego paper. Drive the ancientCadillac to a nearby restaurant at 4 p.m. for a small steak and tea. Home by five, then, perhaps to chat with friend Milburn Stone (Doc in "Gunsmoke"), or to receive a note from James Cagney, "a life-long buddy."
An ordered, egg box life, but nothing to weep over. Brent enjoyed a consible heyday in his heyday, when he swaggered about several of his ranches raising cane and thoroughbreds, and living like the star he was in Coldwater Canyon, where stars are supposed to live. Among the five Mrs. Brents were Ann Sheridan, who lasted a year, and Ruth Chatterton, who stayed with him just as long, calling him "surly, moody, unreasonable and disagreeable." Long before that, even before the picture taken at the age of 30 when he was still George Nolan living in Ireland, he enjoyed a different sort of heyday entirely, running messages for the revolutionary Michael Collins in the Irish Civil War, risking his neck for the hero who, also a young man then, was shot in the neck, killed in an ambush in Cork in 1922.
The man who served Michael Collins clearly did not know death, except, of course, in the way one knows where Oslo is, or the ring ofF Saturn - he knew death that way. And he knew that his parents had dies. Both of Brent's parents had died by the time he was eleven, which meant that he had to be raised by an aunt - so he knew death thatway, too. But he did not know death deeply, on the pulses. He did notknow death as that to which a life is always tending, That it is a consequence, a requirement of life, and not an accedent. You can see he didnot know that in Picture No. 1. So smooth and hazy the cheeks. The eyeso soft and vacant like a mounted deer.
What happened to George Brent between 1934 and "Montana Belle," I believe, or roughly between the ages of 30 and 50, is what happens to most everyone - a brush with death himself, perhaps, or some sudden indirect intimation of mortality. That youcan see in the eyes of the middle photo. Protected by "Montana Belle" and a professionally handsome smile, they run away from what they see. In the third picture is no fear whatever, or rather a fear felt so long it has become part of the face. That is old man Brent, the one who drives the shaky Caddy and comes in here every day at four on the dot for steak and tea, the one with the wheeze.
If this guesswork has any truth in it, then, the stage of life that is the most successful is also the most fearful, which says much for that stage. Courage may be purer in youth, but it means more when alloyed with desperation. Not that I have the slightest idea whether Brent was desperate or not. I only assume he was like the rest of us, favored with a more handsome face and more glamorous circumstances, but a man for all that.
For he was, after all, quite ordinary in what he did most of the time. Under the nobility assigned him in the name George Brent, he was just an average actor, also like the rest of us, with a high point or two in his career, but on the whole, barely memorable (oh, George Brent died. Remember George Brent?). And while it's true that not everyone gets to marry Ann Sheridan, not everyone gets to marry your wife or husband, or my wife, if you see what I mean. A canyon here, a horse there. Most men can grow a moustache.
So I looked at the three faces of George, and I saw you and me. Sadder and wiser in pictures 2 and 3, we are nevertheless most compelling, in picture No. 1. in a way, that is the most mysterious stage - before the truth, yet also true - when we dodge the enemies we can see, bearing an urgentmessage from Michael Collins.