In any real-life scenario, saying “I love you” to someone is a very dicey thing. It’s not a rumor — “show it, don’t say it” does tend to work. I know that an actor blurting this out to another in a movie is risk times infinity. One reason these words don’t appear that much in screenplays is that “I love you” can’t be confessed by just anyone. And I’m not saying that only great actors can say it and make it stick. The key thing is a mixture of open-heartedness and bravery and a kind of steadiness of the soul, and I’m not sure that’s something you can necessarily “act” with technique.

One of the very few times that I bought a simple declarative “I love you” was when suburban dad Robert De Niro said it to suburban infidel Meryl Streep in Falling in Love, that 1984 homage to Brief Encounter, in part because DeNiro said it clumsily. Another convincing sell came from Marlon Brando when he said it softly to Maria Schneider at the end of Last Tango in Paris. And I just watched a couple of women exchange marriage vows in a scene from Joe Swanberg‘s Alexander the Last, and they clearly believed what they were saying. As did I.

I know that if you’re going to blurt these words out in any kind of half-grounded drama, you have to convey at least two or three of these things: (1) the adolescent inside you is feeling enormous emotional vulnerability in voicing this confession, (2) you’re nonetheless transported, levitated, stunned and/or melted down by this realization, and therefore (3) you don’t care if the beloved returns the sentiment or not because you’re at one with the universe and the inner adolescent needs to face up and get down.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because I recently watched a certain actress say these three words in a film. She said them as plainly and honestly as she knew how (I guess), and there was just no buying it. The instant she said the words you could hear a spoonful of mashed potatoes hitting the kitchen floor….whup. Part of the reason is that as she’s gotten older she’s begun to radiate a certain guarded attitude about life and human nature that has felt a little bit like bitter, calloused and frosty (or some combination). What man or woman who’s lived and loved and been around doesn’t have some of this stuff rumbling underneath? The bottom line is that “I love you” and where this actress seems to exist in her head and heart feel like different realms. The old pitterpat thing is a tough bugger to find and reanimate.

I was talking to an acquaintance yesterday who feels somewhat the same way, and we decided that this actress had moved into her Bette Davis-in-All About Eve phase. Davis was either 41 or 42 when she acted in that Joseph L. Mankiewicz film, and the actress I’m speaking of is in that very same region. And just as Davis of All About Eve was no longer the tearful young bird with the broken wing that she was in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and had come into her element so that no one else in the world could say “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” quite as perfectly, our present-tense actress has arrived at a point in her life in which the old sunny and spirited radiance just doesn’t fly like it used to, and she needs to dig another mine.

Not a bad thing, but a life thing. Not a criticism, but a statement of fact. Not a tragedy, but an opportunity. I’m saying these things as a reminder to myself more than a criticism of anyone in particular. Whatever it is, wherever you are…be that thing and work from it. Grow into it, become it, etc.