Essay: Hide and Seek

July 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: On a recent “Today” show, Matt Lauer asked Morgan Freeman an interesting question about playing character roles. In an otherwise middling movie, did Freeman, Laurer asked, “hide” in the role? Freeman’s answer was more interesting still, at least in its tone of surprise.

MORGAN FREEMAN: Your desire always as an actor is to hide, to find enough cover. The fear is always that we’ll be seen.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Freeman said it as if this were a truth among actors so well known, it must be obvious. I suppose it should be, though it does not seem obvious when one is looking at a movie with the character actor of Morgan Freeman in it — Freeman or any first rate actor. We do not think, “who’s hiding in there?” The first rate actors would not want us to do that.

We rarely think “who’s hiding in there” with anyone in pubic life. Who’s hiding in Morgan Freeman; in Laura Linney, in Albert Finney, in Katie, Barbara, Diane, Dan, Wolf, Wink, Storm? Who’s hiding in Matt Lauer? Inquiring minds don’t want to know. Once your mind starts playing hide and seek this way, however- – mostly seek– our inspections grow both analytical and unnerving.

I carelessly assume that the character roles played by public figures are all there is to see. But just as it was obvious to Morgan Freeman that the actor lives in hiding, it ought to be equally obvious that everyone lives in hiding, including the President and “All the President’s Men.” Including Osama bin Laden– what we may see of him. Including Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat these days. Unvarying, consistent, persuasive in their parts. Peek-a-boo. Is anyone else at home?

(“Tonight Show” theme playing ) The game gets more intriguing when one considers that public faces are deliberately designed to create a single, uniform impression. One reason that Johnny Carson was so successful for so long was that he remained the same in his appearance, his effect, even when we knew that his life was in turmoil. One speaks derisively of sound bites as being inadequate for conveying complexities. But Johnny Carson was a sound bite, and we were more than content with the shorthand impression.

ED McMAHON: Here’s Johnny! (Cheers and applause)

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Laurence Olivier was one of the great stage actors of the age, but he was a far less successful movie actor because of the ambiguities and nuances he brought to every role. See him as the entertainer. See all the subtle invitations to look inside for another character within the one on display. Too rich, too much? Do we only want to see one part?

“I am Robin Williams, the funny, even though you know that I am often much better at being unfunny.” “I am Mike Wallace, the probing.” “I am Oprah, the all-embracing,” or Bill O’Reilly, the all- antagonistic; or Regis, the all- friendly; or Lou Dobbs, the all- business.

What tests of human charity might the game encourage? “I am a pedophile priest– both pedophile and priest.” “I am an executive and crook”– both executive and crook, and husband, and lover, and father, and chef, and reader of books, and walker of dogs, and laugher and brooder and weeper in the dark.

“The fear is that we’ll be seen,” said Morgan Freeman. Maybe the fear ought to run the other way. We might want to see another Sharon, another Arafat. Or would we? Would they want to see the one in hiding? And this game of hide-and-seek requires complicities. Do I really want to see the fatherly Osama bin Laden? Hardly. I want to fix my gaze on the enemy– unvarious, unambiguous. I want the funny man to be funny; the foolish man, foolish.

And so it goes in circles; in the movies, out of the movies. We are all character actors, more actor than character, more hide than seek. Who am I? Who are you? Who’s it? I’m… well, you know.