Apr 5, 2014

Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor

In the eight years between 1929 to 1937, Paul Muni managed to grab Oscar's attention five separate times*. Publicized by Warner Bros. as "the screen's greatest actor", Muni had enough clout to sway his studio into making The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. And as poorly aged as some of his films and performances are, at the very least one gets the feeling that his own involvement with a project brings a certain aura of importance. That's because he was constantly transforming himself on the screen--from a violent gangster to a chain gang convict to a Mexican-American casino partner to a Hungarian coal miner to a French microbiologist to French author reviewed here to a Chinese farmer to a Mexican president--Muni was likely the bravest and most transformative actor of his era. He was constantly challenging himself, which can't be said about the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, huge stars who rested on a particular base persona in much of their roles.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-04-01at70043PM.pngI've had a troublesome relationship with Paul Muni as I've gone through his Oscar nominated works. I didn't think he did enough in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, I thought he did too much in Black Fury, and I felt he fell somewhere in between with The Story of Louis Pasteur. I will however, give him this much: he is an absolutely stunning chameleon--his transformations, especially that as the older Emile Zola here, is astonishing (the only modern day comparison that comes to mind is Daniel Day-Lewis). From a purely physical standpoint, Muni is thoroughly convincing as an older Zola, down to the way he carries his body when he moves--looking at Muni, I really felt he was somebody else. Nevertheless, Muni's acting style as always been a peculiar merging of naturalistic and over-the-top. When Muni goes into a monologue, he can utter a line that sounds so organic to the ears and then follow it up with another line where he abruptly shifts into hamminess...and this occurs constantly in The Life of Emile Zola. There are points within the film where he slips into straight-on over-the-top hysterics (YOU BLOCKHEAD WHY DIDN'T YOU COME AND ASK ME?!) which are pretty cringeworthy. He has tics he constantly uses while acting which I assume are supposed to make him look serious and concerned and "in character", and these tics may very well have been effective 77 years ago, but from a 2014 perspective they look affected and forced. He'll squint his eyes on a particular word, arch his brow on another, and oscillate his vocal tone from a quiet inside voice to an all out howl and vice versa from one line to the next. At the end of the day, I felt that this performance was just another depiction of a real person--not very fascinating at all though a lot less awkward than Muni's work in The Story of Louis Pasteur. The film can't quite figure out if it wants to tell us about the life of Emile Zola or if it wants to tell us about the Dreyfus Affair, and I don't think that Muni is magnetic enough to make the drab picture more interesting. This would be the last nomination of Muni's fantastic run in the thirties, and he wouldn't be nominated again for upwards of two decades. My feelings towards his work here are just about the same as my feelings towards his work as James Allen--I'm just okay with it. I may not always like Paul Muni's acting, but I respect that he constantly brought new things to the table, that he sought interesting roles and stories and turned them into successful films (however dull they ended up being), and that he ultimately enlightened Depression-era audiences with his work, however indifferent towards it I may be.

*if you count his runner-up placing in 1935 for Black Fury, in which he was a write-in nominee.


  1. I can't remember a thing. Except that he was indeed slightly better than the film. Hope you'll like March.

    1. I hope so too! I've liked a lot of his thirties work thus far!

  2. While I enjoy much of Muni's work, I appreciate your reservations. He could be a calm, naturalistic center to a scene and then an over-the-top ham. I believe film acting was his 'avocation' and that his real dedication was to theater. Unfortunately, film acting must be smaller than theatrical acting because the screen is big and there are those damn close-ups. Muni never quite made the shift and it shows in his performances. I find him entertaining and at times quite moving in his role here as Zola. At the same time, those mannerisms you've mentioned are all too apparent and would probably read as 'subtle' from the 10th row of a theater but are just too much in a film close-up. Still, I've seen enough of his work to have gotten use to the mannerisms and can appreciate his finer virtues as an actor.

    His final film performance, 1959's "The Last Man", is very good indeed.