In my much younger years, I was trained as a film scholar. Even before that, I had a fascination for Yul Brynner’s star image. While I more rarely work on film these days, the Yul fascination has never gone away. Two years ago, I wrote some of this up in an article that’s just out with Screen, titled “Striking poses: the fantastic figure of Yul Brynner” – and, behold, the issue cover comes with a Yul in drag. Since this is a penultimate pet project, the fact makes me very happy. And here’s the abstract:
Since his successful 1956 appearances in the Hollywood films The King and I (Walter Lang), Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille) and Anastasia (Anatole Litvak), Yul Brynner’s star image emerged as elaborately masculine, foreign and exotic, as well as markedly flexible in the range of ethnicities that it was set to convey. Combined with his varying mythical tales of international origins and sexual prowess, Brynner’s intense gestural register and striking body aesthetic, as encapsulated in the trademark baldness, rendered the actor a spectacular sight in 1950s Hollywood. In fact Brynner’s mere physical presence dominates many of his films in ways suggestive of elasticity between acting and presence, role and actor – as well as of the centrality of screen presence more generally. This article explores Brynner’s fantastic cinematic figure image in terms of its fabrication, flexibility and reappearance by examining both his film work and biographical accounts. It tracks transformations and continuities in Brynner’s performance style with specific attention on its idiosyncratic and repetitive elements in terms of pose, gesture and motion, with the aim of foregrounding the role of physicality – both material and represented – in the creation of star image.