Gabriel Byrne in Death of a Ladies’ Man. Image: Sebastien Raymond – Corey Marr Productions Inc.
In Death of a Ladies’ Man, much-loved Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Samuel O’Shea, a college professor in Montreal who’s given a terminal diagnosis. As his world slips between fantasy and reality, he must come to terms with ghosts from his past, his failings, loves and losses to find some sort of redemption. As suggested by the title, the film is inspired and infused by the profound words and music of Leonard Cohen. So when The Big Issue spoke to Byrne about the film from his home in Maine, who better for us to channel than Cohen himself, asking questions inspired by the legend’s lyrics?
The Big Issue: There is a crack, a crack in everything, is that how the light gets in?
Gabriel Byrne: We’re all imbued with this idea of perfection of one kind or another. And we all fail to reach perfection because it doesn’t exist in any area of life. I let go of the idea of perfection a long time ago.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. It’s such a beautiful metaphor because it’s about hope. It’s saying there’s nothing so bad that there’s not some element of hope within. It also recognises that every person is imperfect. The crack is really the crack of failure, of not measuring up and that’s where the light gets shone. I’ve always regarded failure as much more of a lesson in life than success. Success is very ephemeral and fleeting. Whereas failure is something that you really learn from.
Death of a Ladies’ Man is musical without being an actual musical. But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
I love music. I don’t know that my taste in music would be everybody’s taste, but that’s the way it is. I use music in my work. I can be transported by music into a particular mood. When I was doing A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway, I used to listen to John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy) every night before I went on stage. I also used music when I was a teenager. Reality was grim and grey, and it didn’t seem there was any crack, any light coming through.
Music transported me into this other world of possibility and imagination. Leonard Cohen is more than a singer. He’s a poet who puts his words to music. And he’s been a soundtrack to my life because I think that he was always trying to find an answer in spirituality. I don’t mean religion, but things of the spirit. That’s what I’ve been trying to do. I rejected religion a long time ago, but I do believe in nurturing the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it. That inner flame that you have to keep alive.
“I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with a gift of a golden voice.” Was there a gift that you were born with?
It’s interesting that he says he had no choice. Do many of us have a choice in the qualities we’re given, the advantages or the disadvantages that we have to contend with? Beckett said: “Birth was the death of him”. The idea that you’re born and continue on a particular road is true up to a point. You can change the circumstances of your life, that is the crack of light that gets in.
I was born in Dublin at a time when the Catholic Church and the government together were very repressive forces. Your life was limited in terms of scope and possibilities. You were encouraged to be a good Catholic, get a good job, raise a family and then shuffle off your mortal coil. I didn’t want that kind of a life for myself. I saw how my father lived his life. He was a working man, a labourer, and he and his friends were made redundant at 47, and that was the end of their lives. They could never get another job. They lived with a meagre pension. They didn’t feel they were entitled to anything more than that. I thought at the time my father was ancient. He was only 47. That’s not old.
Looking back, I see how much a victim he was of society at that time. And I began to resent the hold of the Catholic Church on me. It’s cult-like. To this day I have to say to myself, where’s this feeling coming from? And I realise that it’s the result of the inculcation, the education, I had as a kid. So something I was born with was this sense of not wanting to be bound in by the strictures of society. I had friends that got married at 18 and 19 so they could have sex. Then they had families and there they were, 30 years of age with three kids. That was a cul-de-sac I didn’t want to be in. That was something that influenced the rest of my life, wanting to break out.
One of Cohen’s later songs was Going Home – “without my sorrow… to where it’s better than before”. What’s it like when you go back now?
I suppose what he’s talking about there is going back into the past. Your recall of the past can often be very mistaken. We have a way of papering over the past, to reduce its sense of disquiet. It doesn’t get better when you go back. It doesn’t get anything. The past is the past. We have no control over the past and we have no control over the future. The only thing we have control over, to a limited extent, is now. We learn from the past… but what does the past teach you? You make the same mistakes over and over again, until one day you realise banging your head off a wall is only hurting your head, so don’t go back there.
Is the notion of a ladies’ man dead?
The guy in the film, he’s sexist and a misogynist. He believes he is entitled to behave as he behaves towards women. That idea has changed. A ladies’ man was often a euphemism for a guy who slept around a great deal. A woman who indulges in the same behaviour is called a slut. I like to think of a ladies’ man being a man that women like.
There was a time in Irish culture, and it’s true in other places too, where there was an envious admiration for people who drank a lot. The idea of the mythical drinking, tortured, drug-addicted artist was something glamorous. Of course, there wasn’t anything glamorous about it, and there still isn’t. All those people that died at 27, the subject of some kind of glamorous curse. That notion that the artist is somehow different and revered because they are addicted is a dangerous myth. It’s especially in working-class culture.
Going to the pub on a Saturday and Sunday night, getting into a fight, that’s the way you live your life as a man. It’s a seductive myth. And it’s one that I learned, through a lot of pain, I had to let go.
Is democracy coming to the USA?
It’s debatable whether democracy exists at all. I mean, it’s a Greek word that means the rule of the people for the people. The reality of living here and in Britain is that democracy is the rule of the few for the fewer.
The divisions in America are not just about race, a lot are deliberately caused and inflamed so that society can be kept at war with itself. The Tories in Britain are the embodiment of neoliberal privilege and economics. It’s a lovely thing to see that asshole Johnson gone but it’s a many-headed monster. You cut off his head, what’s the next head that’s going to grow? The Labour Party better shine its shoes as well. But is America falling apart? Yes, it is.
Leonard Cohen saw the future and it was murder. What do you see?
The ancient writers in Greece and Rome were writing about the same things that people are talking about today. The one thing I worry about more than anything is climate change. It’s nice to save a plastic bottle or whatever, but corporations are about making money, so they don’t really care. Those people will lead us off the precipice into death and destruction, that’s what I worry about. But I think as a society, if we can deal with that we will survive.
How have you tried, in your way, to be free?
Well, I think there’s a lot in there. He doesn’t say I am free. The process is an ongoing battle. Because are we ever truly free? I think the only way you can be truly free is inside yourself. To not be seduced by the goals that people say you should have. Trying to free yourself of religion, economics, social expectation. That requires you looking deep into yourself to say, what ways can I do that? What do I need to get rid of in order to try to be free? It’s a great use of language. I have tried – in my way – to be free. You could take one song, and sit around with six people and get six different perspectives. That’s the beauty of a great work of art. It means one thing to one person and something to another person, but in general terms, it means the same thing to everybody.
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