The winner by more than a nose

I happily recorded one of my favorite movies, the 1950 version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring José Ferrer, which aired on TCM late last night. Had I started watching, I probably would have kept watching, and I haven’t been sleeping well lately as it is. Anyway, I’m watching it now.

jose-ferrer-cyrano-de-bergeracI can think of few movies that have such a perfect match between actor and character, and that are so much fun to watch. “Cyrano” has been well-referenced in popular culture, and I certainly like Steve Martin’s modernized version of it, “Roxanne,” but there’s something about Ferrer in the part that is just perfect. For me, Ferrer is Cyrano, and Cyrano is Ferrer.

In case you have somehow missed it, the title character of Cyrano is a larger-than-life hero. In the beginning of the movie, he engages in a swordfight while reciting a poem, promising to kill his opponent exactly at the end of the poem. And he does! Of course, people associate Cyrano with his comically overlong, Pinocchio-like nose, and another terrific scene from the movie comes when some smart-aleck tries to mock Cyrano’s appearance. Cyrano then humiliates the man for his feeble wit by coming up with a long list of much-more-clever ways to ridicule someone with a big nose. (Steve Martin’s version of this scene is also quite funny.)

Ferrer is so great in the part because he’s believable in the larger-than-life aspects of Cyrano’s character, but also in his weakness: an insecurity which prevents him from declaring his passion for the lovely Roxane. Roxane, a distant cousin who thinks of Cyrano only as a friend, asks him to look after a young swordsman named Christian, to whom Roxane is attracted.

Cyrano is so dedicated to keeping his word, and to Roxane’s happiness, that when Christian stumbles in his wooing of Roxane, Cyrano writes words of love for Christian to recite to her outside her window. The words are actually an expression of Cyrano’s feelings, of course, and Roxane recognizes the beauty of them right away but only later discovers their true source.

Many of the pop culture references to Cyrano focus on the idea of one man writing words for another to use in wooing a beautiful lady. Many sitcoms, especially those with teenage protagonists, have done some version of a Cyrano story. But for me, the appeal of the story is the character – gloriously confident with both a sword and a pen, but somehow unable to tell the lovely Roxane how he really feels.

Robert Osborne said in his introduction that Ferrer is one of only eight actors to win both the Tony and the Oscar for playing the same character. (I’d love to see the full list.) It’s a majestic performance, and a wonderful movie.

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