Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Great Acting

I'm hardly an expert when it comes to film, but I watch my share of movies, and like most people, I love talking about them. (No, I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ yet; for a variety of reasons, I rarely go out to see films without Melissa, and since she has no interest in seeing the movie--she knows she wouldn't handle the level of violence very well--I don't know when I'll get around to it. Perhaps soon, but perhaps not until it's out on dvd.) I especially like thinking about, and talking about, what makes movies (some of them, at least) work as art--the cinematography, the editing, the dialogue, the staging, and certainly not least the acting. Thus I was delighted to discover this informative little essay by Lee Siegel, in which he takes up the opportunity which the Oscar season provides us to reflect on the art of film acting, and runs with it. Siegel could no doubt say a lot more on this subject, but what he does say was insightful and provocative. He gives us a little bit of history:

"It's time to talk about acting because acting as an art with a history of evolving styles--acting as a highly developed discipline that demands specialized training--almost never gets discussed. When it does you'll find vague references to the Method, the naturalistic style of acting imported from Russia into this country by Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in the 1940s...But rarely is there mention of the fact that there were two antagonistic versions of the Method: Strasberg's emphasis on how actors should draw from their own experience to inhabit a character; and Stella Adler's insistence that actors must pay closer attention to the play's circumstances than to their own memories and emotions. Nor does anyone bother to observe that David Mamet has devised the only successful alternative to the Method...a style that consists of a high, though subtle, degree of deliberate artifice."

"Deliberate artifice"--that captures Mamet wonderfully. There's also this:

"[W]hat really revolutionized American acting wasn't the Method's naturalism. It was the emphasis Strasberg placed on facial expression....Strasberg believed that the essential instrument of an actor's creative expression was the face, and the result of his doctrine was to send generations of stage actors running to the camera from the stage, thus transforming the static, glamorous close-up of Bette Davis' day--in which the actor's face was motionless and timeless, existing for a moment outside the storyline--to the busy, emotive, and strategically timed close-up of today, in which the face and the camera work together to create thematic meaning and push the story forward. On stage, the hardest thing for an actor to do is to keep the emotion on his or her face after speaking the lines--the camera removes that hardship simply by moving off the face....To the extent that acting does seem more real today, it's because the camera moves so fast off the face that it shaves off any sliver of inauthenticity. When certain actors win the Oscar for best acting, they should thank the Lens and the Viewfinder, not Mom and Dad."

What a sharp observation--and perfectly true, when you think about it. Representing a story on a stage--or indeed, simply being a great story-teller--requires the ability to do more than speak lines and relate scenes; what is necessary is the ability to use those scenes, those words, to channel a whole mise-en-scene, a completely realized emotion, to the audience and hold it there, capturing the viewer in what's being said or done. Film can aid or undermine this kind of capacity in a variety of ways; I'd never thought about it in terms of how numerous takes are stitched together in order to create that captivating moment, but obviously a lot of what our contemporary film actors and actresses do is throw out one thing after another, until finally something sticks. A skill, surely....but is it the craft Siegel has in mind?

This line of thought leads to me wonder about those moments in certain movies when the director and performer put together a scene or two--usually simple ones, but not always--where real acting is on display: where the power or hilarity or wonder of the visual isn't due to the set-up (at least not very much), but really is a product of what the actor or actress is channeling. The result won't necessarily save a bad movie, but it usually infinitely improves what is around it--and for me at least, makes the performer's character utterly compelling. I can't take my eyes off him or her; if I'm watching a video or dvd, I replay scenes over and over; if it's something that comes on tv and I've seen it a hundred times I'll still watch it again, because the peculiar alchemy on the screen never fails to drag me in. For instance:

Kevin Spacey in L.A. Confidential
Holly Hunter in The Piano
Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies
Bill Murray in Rushmore
Michael Caine in Get Carter
Lauren Bacall in To Have and To Have Not
Toshiro Mifune in The Seven Samurai
Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot
Robert Shaw in Jaws
George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove
Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil
Jimmy Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life
Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca
Jean-Pierre Leaud in 400 Blows

I'm sure I could include many more if I thought about it. A lot of these are justly celebrated performances; others are either mostly forgotten or overshadowed by other moments in the performer's career. Indeed, not all of these films are especially great. But regardless, I could watch any of these movies over and over again, if only to be emotionally worked over by the scenes they include. Great acting, indeed.
Update: I went to bed after posting, and woke up having thought of a couple more to add. I realize that there are numerous classic performances that ought to be on this list just by virtue of critical acclaim: Siegel mentions Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and Paul Newman in The Hustler. But maybe that's one of the mysteries of acting--even when you know it's happening, it doesn't necessarily happen to you. In the case of those two classics, for example, I don't find myself captivated, compelled to watch, as great as they admittedly are. But on the other hand...

Marlon Brando in The Godfather
Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool
Gong Li in Ju Dou
Richard Harris in Unforgiven
John Goodman in Barton Fink
Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married
Robert De Niro in Brazil
Angela Bassett in What's Love Got to Do with It?

Anyway, no doubt I could go on and on...