Jake Toper looked into the mirror and watched himself disintegrate.
Still recognizable as the handsome, virile matinee idol of the ’30s and ’40s he may have been but the features that always leaned toward cragginess had long since begun to crumble. In a way, Toper was glad. Here he was in location in Montana, preparing to go on set, and he was drawn to the mirror; not out of narcissism, or some lunatic hope that he would see himself rejuvenated in his reflection, but rather to derive satisfaction from gazing on his ruin. He’d come to see that the ruination of what he once was, could be a key to his future on-screen and, he hoped, in his private life.
For years he had allowed himself to descend to the depths; his youth mourned for; the joy he’d once taken in life, love, acting (*if* the price was right, of course), sport, sex, extinguished, turned to ashes; friendships become burdens, leaden responsibilities. His myriad resentments over unfair studio contracts (even if a few of the movies he’d groused about having to make had garnered him Oscar nominations and a species of immortality; no one ever claimed all actors are blessed with judgment) and, what he saw as, low pay, had festered within him. The relish he’d once taken in making movies, a relish that had raised him up, soured into anhedonic uninterest. Down, down, down he’d gone. Tiredness was his constant companion, a partner for the booze. He’d half-heartedly tried to deny the drag of age but that had only made the sensation of time lost all the more acute, all the more painful.
That personification of testosteronic manhood, of all-American virility, on-screen had soon shown the weight of weariness settled onto his features. True, it wasn’t as if his life had been bereft of all pleasure as the years lay heavy upon him: there had been his fourth wife, and his fifth, and his sixth and – he hoped – last; his children, Guy and Annie; and a few movies that had reignited the spark. Moments of joy. But mostly he felt bound in limbo.
Gazing at his mirror-self Jake reflected ruefully on those limbo years; now he could feel cynical amusement at his ego-driven bitterness but the greater emotion was shame; shame at the time and opportunities lost to solipsism, shame at his very masculine fixation on his diminished machismo, his shrunken potency, as he saw it; a shame that now burned into him like a brand (or, he thought in his more vulgar moments, like the rather more intimate burning sensation he’d felt as a young man through a particular kind of carelessness) when he thought of those years, of his behaviour. On-screen he had still been an imprimatur of a certain kind of manliness but it was obvious, from the look in his eyes and the lassitude of many of his performances, that his faith in himself, the invisible, impermeable, masculine self-belief that he had worn like armour had all but gone, rusted away, replaced by what appeared to him now as the querulous impatience of a man old before his time.
Now, it was 1965 and he was almost as old as the twentieth century itself, he really was, in the eyes of many, an old man. And the face he saw in the mirror looked older by five years at least. So it was strange that he, Jake Toper, suddenly felt for the first in two decades as if he had a future.
The change came gradually and the cause was mysterious. In fact, he had gained this impossible new perspective by finally facing and acknowledging all the worst parts of himself, by casting his memories back into the turbulent waters of his past and confronting those things that had made him an icon on celluloid but on-occasion a louse in “real life”. And, then, there was the hardest thing of all. In order to come to this painful revelation of a spiritual inadequacy that equalled – or surpassed – the physical primacy that had made him an idol he had had to face the event that led to his long slide into despond, the loss of a woman who had for the time he’d known her helped to make him a better, more carefree, less self-centered man…
Jake Toper waved an errant fly away from his face, looked down from the mirror to his watch and took a sip – of water, nothing stronger – from a glass on the dressing table. Then he returned his gaze to the mirror, both soaking in his grizzled visage, using its effect to power the performance he was about to give, and looking beyond it to the past, each crease, each crevasse transporting him more deeply into the past. The mirror-Jake like a monument of a noble figure gone to ruin while still retaining some semblance of how it used to be, the memory-Jake, young, tan, muscular with the devilishly seductive smile, the lively eyes, and the rakish mustache.
The mirror’s surface seemed permeable as if, were he to touch it, he could slip through it and touch the memories gathering, a jumble, within his mind. He saw his first wife Carolina, nine years his senior and from old money; Carolina simultaneously lovely and worn Carolina enchanted by his macho charisma and vitality; ever-encouraging of his acting ambitions, ecstatic when he won even the lowliest role; Carolina, who had stood by him as he moved from being a carhop to a gas station attendant to a roughneck and, then, actor; Carolina who he’d divorced just after they moved to Hollywood, even though he *had* loved her somewhat and after a fashion, not her money alone. How it stung now to recall his youthful callousness, the towering belief in his sexual aura and the rightness of his actions, it stung *more* that she’d never blamed him and had dropped dead of a stroke at forty-five.
To be continued and completed tomorrow…