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The Phantom of Hollywood

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: January 14, 2005 | Publication: Buffalo News | Author: TONI RUBERTO

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A disfigured icon makes his way to the big screen again in the latest adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical

He is one of the most filmed literary characters of all time and the centerpiece of the world's most successful stage musical.
Gaston Leroux's Opera Ghost from "The Phantom of the Opera," has entertained readers, film buffs and theatergoers for nearly 100 years, yet he's not the most likable guy. A disfigured man who haunts the Paris Opera House while pining away for the lovely Christine, he might be better described as insane or a murderer.

No, he's not your everyday romantic hero, yet the Phantom remains an intriguing figure who has once again been brought to film in the opulent big-screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's much-loved stage musical, "The Phantom of the Opera."

What is it about "The Phantom of the Opera" that resonates so deeply in our psyche?

"It touches on a universal theme of loneliness that transcend age or gender," film reviewer Scott Holleran says by phone from the California offices of the Web site Box Office Mojo. "Anyone who has ever felt lonely can identify with it. Anyone who has ever loved anyone who couldn't love himself can identify with it. And I think its appeal broadens because everyone feels lonely from time to time or everyone wears a mask from time to time."

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun Times that it is the "idea of the Phantom that fascinates us: The idea of a cruelly mistreated man going mad in self-imposed exile in the very cellars, dungeons and torture chambers where he was, apparently, disfigured in the first place. His obsession with Christine reflects his desire to win back some joy from a world that has mistreated him."

And now, as depicted in filmmaker Joel Schumacher's grandiose version of Webber's musical, on screen in area theaters, the Phantom is a multidimensional character who pulls the audience in as many confused directions as he does to the ingenue Christine. Part of that dramatic conflict comes from casting the strikingly handsome Scottish actor Gerard Butler, whose sympathetic Phantom just needs to be loved. (Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers wrote about the film: "With a cast of young hotties, it smolders.")

"For the first time, the Phantom isn't only handsome, he's downright hot - which a lot of fans, including myself aren't happy about," laughs film buff Gene Thompson of Snyder, who saw the movie with his wife and 12-year-old son. "Christine is supposed to be attracted to him for his soul, not his looks."

Director Schumacher took full advantage of Butler's good looks and acting talents - teary eyes, trembling lips - to play up the dichotomy of the Phantom and increase the emotional ties with other characters. And focusing on his face - the tragic element that sets the story in motion - is something the film medium can use to full advantage. Afterall, that masked face tells both sides of this Phantom's story: He's broodingly handsome, yet under his mask is an ugliness that festers down to his soul.

"What is the one element of the Phantom that is so important and that is so obvious? It's his face," Holleran says. "Joel Schumacher went with close-ups of characters. In the stage musical, the Phantom is a caped figure flying around the stage. But you're not focused on his face unless you have really good tickets or are using opera glasses. In the film, you could see Christine's face, you could see his face up in close-up repeatedly for two hours. I found it moving. It evoked emotion."

While there has always been a tragic element to the Phantom's story, Hollywood's interpretations have varied - sometimes greatly. On screen, he has been everything from a shy violinist to an orphan raised by telepathic rats in sewers. But perhaps the two versions that have struck the strongest emotional chords may be the two separated by 80 years - Lon Chaney's disturbing 1925 silent film classic and the new romanticized musical.

Thompson, who has been a fan of Chaney's version since he was a kid, sees a parallel to the newest movie.

"Chaney's film downplays the romance, but before he's unmasked, Christine is still under his spell. He's the spirit of music for her and he's very graceful in his motions. That's not so far from the modern interpretation. But once Chaney is unmasked, he's a monster. I think that's because audiences in the 1920s wouldn't be able to understand Christine's attraction to him after the unmasking. Andrew Lloyd Webber played that up in his musical and this film takes it up a step further."

The unmasking that is pivotal in the "Phantom" is also a hallowed Hollywood tradition in films such as "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Batman" and last summer's blockbuster "Spider-Man 2." But seeing actor Tobey Maguire's cherubic face under the red Spidey mask was child's play compared to what is still, 80 years later, the greatest unmasking in Hollywood history: that of Chaney back in 1925.

Even those who have never seen the silent film masterpiece are familiar with the grotesque sight: a cadaverous face with sunken eyes, rotted teeth and a disintegrating nose that is barely more than nostrils. It remains the truest visualization of Leroux's own description: "His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man's skull. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can't see it side-face; and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at."

Flash forward through some of the Hollywood Phantoms since Chaney: Claude Raines, Herbert Lom, even old Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund. Here's a look at some of the more prominent Phantoms of Hollywood.

1925: Lon Chaney, the "man of 1,000 faces," creates one of the most horrifying sights on film with his cadaverous Phantom makeup.

1943: Claude Raines stars in a Technical remake from Universal as a shy violinist disfigured by acid and left homeless. The film, a vehicle for Nelson Nelson, was nominated for four Oscars.

1962: Hammer Films gets in on the action with Herbert Lom as the Phantom, again a man disfigured by acid and fire who has his great body of work stolen by another. His mask is a dirty, bloodstained canvas.

1974: Brian DePalma crafts a tongue-in-cheek rock version with Faust overtones about a rock composer who seeks vengeance after being wrongfully imprisoned and grotesquely maimed. In the "Phantom of the Paradise," this Phantom dons a metallic helmet with a bird-like beak.

1983: TV movie stars Maximilian Schell is an opera conductor with a face burned by acid who wants vengeance on the man responsible for his wife's suicide.

1989: Robert Englund gave up his Freddy Krueger claws to play the Phantom. He makes a pact with the devil that turns bad, as they tend to do. Left with a fleshless face, he stalks victims to harvest the flesh from their face. His gory unmasking, involves ripping off his face instead of a mask.

1990: A romanticized TV miniseries directed by Tony Richardson is based on Arthur Kopit's 1982 play. Charles Dance stars as a tragic figure who wears masks on top of masks. Burt Lancaster also appears.

1999: The Phantom (Julian Sands) in Italian horror master Dario Argento's film is raised by telepathic rats.

2004: The film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage musical makes it to the big screen after 18 years with a new-look phantom. Gerard Butler's phantom is so handsome and sympathetic that most women would be blind to the ugliness beneath his mask.


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