‘Not a man, but a work of art…’ This is how Italian author Elena Ferrante described her latest screen crush in her Weekend column for the Guardian last week.
Ferrante writes about the romantic hero portrayed on the big screen as ‘not a physical person but a collection of specialties’; the sum of all the artistry that goes into his movies, from the script to the direction, the lighting to the set design. The resulting hero is ‘a marvellous product of the imagination’.
That is the crucial point of the hero in a romance, don’t you think? That he is imaginary. He is both what the creator has made him and what the consumer (the reader, the theatregoer, the movie viewer) imagines him to be.
But what if the dream became a reality? Ferrante writes: ‘If he should suddenly be transformed into a flesh-and-blood person, poor him, poor me. Reality can’t stay inside the elegant moulds of art; it always spills over, indecorously.’
Her article brought back a flood of memories, of being young and swept up in the romance of big-screen idols. When I was a teenager, my family and I holidayed in a cabin in the grounds of the Montaza Palace, Alexandria, and our stay coincided with an international film and television festival. Unbeknownst to our parents, my sister, my cousins and I hid in a garden, and looked on as sleek cars glided through the grounds, bound for the Hotel Salamlek, where a grand reception was to be held.
As we watched, awestruck, Hollywood icon after Hollywood icon emerged from the cars in all their finery and entered the hotel. Determined to see more, we walked right up to the front door of the hotel. We were, of course, denied access. But that did not deter us. So eager were we to get close to these legends that we climbed in an open window at the back of the building and gate-crashed the party.
To this day, I am astonished that I had the courage – and the front! – to mingle with the partygoers. But I did, and I met some amazing actors. I met heroes of my imagination, and the glitz and the glamour of the occasion and the surroundings did nothing to transform them into ‘flesh-and-blood people’. They were everything I’d fantasised, and more.
It was only later that a little slice of reality would cut into my magical memories of Montaza. Of all the actors at the party, the one I most wanted to meet was Gardner Mackay, star of Adventures in Paradise, and my biggest heartthrob. So, fearless as only a fourteen year old can be, I went up to a man and asked whether he had seen Mackay.
The tuxedo-clad man responded: ‘What about me?’
I stared at him and managed, just, not to blurt out my thought: Well, what about you?
Looking somewhat affronted by my lack of response, the man said, ‘I’m Richard Burton.’
The name meaning nothing to me, I politely took my leave.
Of course, when the movie Cleopatra came out, starring Burton and his wife Elizabeth Taylor, I soon realised my folly. But looking back, I have always been a little glad that my encounter with this famous actor, at least, played out this way. For in Burton I saw that ‘flesh-and-blood person’, the reality beyond the art. I think my mistake helped to ground me, and understand that at Montaza I had in fact met the heroes of my imagination, and not the real people behind the icons.
Now, as a writer, I love to dream and craft my own heroes. But I always remember Richard Burton at that party, his tie a little askew and a drink clutched in his hand, and I try to infuse my hero with not only imagination but also realism, so that my reader can believe in him, and root for him, and yes, fall in love with him.