Everybody is an actor, each of us wears a mask - except for saints and simpletons. Our motives may be several: affectation, emulation, defence, attack, manipulation, self-indulgence. We select our own role, choose when and where to perform (thereby selecting our audience), write or improvise our own scenario, decide how much is too much and when to stop. Each of us is the sole recipient of full satisfaction and (hopefully) understanding of our own performance. If we misunderstand we come to believe in the Role and mistake it for the Self; we are in 'bad faith' as we delude ourselves. The situation chooses us and we become misguided critics of our own acting.
The vocational actor must put hemself at the disposal of other intelligences, other values, other strategies; and must simulate emotions germane to an imaginary situation which is the product of someone else's imagining. The psychology of the vocational actor's practice is radically different from that of everyday 'social acting'; his technique requires more skills, his psychology requires stronger discipline.
The historical origins of vocational acting cannot be dated accurately; it may be two and a half millennia since drama detached from ritual. Four centuries have passed since European drama became 'theatre', its production commercial, acting professional and commentary influential. In this phase the text of the play was 'company property'. Commentators drew upon ancient precepts and contemporary prejudices, and their comments were published.
Drama theory had little to say about acting theory, which did not become a topic in the public domain until the Romantic backlash to industrialism and absolutism, when the term 'art' acquired its current predication and yielded its old territory to 'craft'. Before that, theory of acting had been virtually a guild secret. I think it reasonable to assume that most of such theory was pragmatic and normative. The advice I am going to offer later in this article will fit that description, too.
Nowadays theory of acting makes it into print for the general reader ('at all good bookstores'), yet radical differences between live drama and photographed drama are not widely understood or practised. Often film actors are undeservedly blamed - and praised - for creative decisions made by other artists: directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, designers, editors.
Much of the art and some of the craft of the stage actor provide the basis for the film actor's practice. Most actors come to film work after some stage experience, and with some stage preconceptions and traditions. There are still things to learn - and maybe some to unlearn, depending on how 'filmic' the particular film or TV drama is.
Because the vocation of stage acting is so long established, rich in expertise and lore, and its virtues more widely understood than those of film acting, I will delineate my concern with my topic - film acting - by frequent reference to what it is not - stage acting.
A play written for 'live' production on the stage has a permanence and an artistic status which a screenplay does not. The play exists on the page, is open to scrutiny, analysis, critical debate; it is part of the (self-conscious) culture, it has 'quidditas' - all this even if it is never produced. Further, it survives any number of productions with its dramatic integrity distinct from those productions.
A screenplay enjoys neither the status nor the critical independence from production. It is not published, it has no standing in the print culture. (Most of the alleged screenplays we see in bookstores are actually post-release transcripts; they coincide with what the audience can see and hear on the screen, but they are not what director, cast and crew worked with to get the film made.)
If a movie goes into remake the screenplay is almost always rewritten by other hands. Even if there are few changes in the writing, there will be significant differences in direction, production values and cast. When we speak of 'the original' in the movies, we mean the production, not the screenplay.
Plays become 'classics', not their productions; movies become 'classics', not their screenplays. The stage play is a written constant and commands greater respect of the actor when he addresses the task of memorising dialogue. (This applies even if the stage director has made alterations to the playwright's text; the actor's lines are fixed from the beginning of rehearsal.)
It is a maxim of theatre that the actor who 'goes to the words first' will find it hard to gain insight into his character's function in the play as a whole. Hence memorising dialogue is a task distinct from creative interpretation and realisation. Unlike the stage actor the screen actor has to become accustomed to changes of dialogue after it has been memorised and rehearsed, even as late as the time of arriving on the set ready for shooting. He will have settled hemself into the logic of the scene, and its place in the logic of the whole movie, and will have prepared his delivery accordingly. Fortunately, last moment changes of dialogue and/or action are usually consistent with that logic, so learning different words and/or moves entails a qualitative but not a structural change to his characterisation.
The screen actor has to guard against losing respect for the script when it is so demonstrably not 'sacred'. Stella Adler cautioned her stage students: "The ideas of great playwrights are almost always larger than the understanding of most actors". [note 1] The screen actor does not often feel that he is enacting the work of a great thinker (unless the screenplay is adapted from a 'great' play or novel) and has few, if any, of the responsibilities of a 'sacred trust' towards the author(s) of a script which is being continually revised during production.
Some screenplays have ideas as large and lofty as those of prestigious plays, but the screen actor's sense of sacred trust is more likely to attach directly to the ideas and the characters, even when he is acquainted with the screenwriter. He knows that he will have to become those ideas' and characters' definitive embodiment; the movie will be the only 'published' version of them. The public will not be able to read the screenplay and make its personal meditations on them - unless the movie acquires 'memorable' status in the culture, by which time it may be out of circulation. Even so, memorableness as rationalised by the book market is only lightly contingent upon a movie's artistic merit. By the time the alleged screenplay makes it onto the shelves it serves as an archaeological trace of a production which is commercially inaccessible, perhaps even extinct.
Personally I prefer the movie business relationship of actor to writer; there is less temptation to pretentiousness and you are free from vain competition with the ghosts of the famous who have played the part before you. Admittedly 'great ideas' are not the staple of movie productions, but technically skilful writing is. The movie actor can be compensated by the simple joy he gets from working with motives, issues, words and actions, which come together so 'naturally' that they ease the tasks of establishing credibility while opening up opportunities for he own creativity.
When working in either medium the actor should study the script - not merely read it - understand its structural logic, the organic necessity for each element large and small, and build his characterisation on that. This should be a maxim for cinema as it is for theatre (though not always observed: Stanislavski complained of contemporaries who didn't read the final act of a play because their character didn't appear in it). [note 2]
The movie actor has to expect to play scenes catachronically, that is, in a different order from that of the narrative which unfolds for the audience. For some productions he may have to play his last scene before his first, and within the one scene he may play the climax before the opening or the turning point. It is major part of the movie actor's discipline and a crucial test of his art to maintain consistency of characterisation when scenes are shot out of order, sometimes at intervals of days or even weeks.
If it be possible, the movie actor must know the logic of the drama and his character's part in it even more thoroughly than the stage actor does. He does not have the latter's advantage of absorption in the continuum of performance and the presence of a 'live' audience drawn into the illusion he is creating.
Catachronicity permits large savings in production costs and movie actors accept it as an unavoidable condition of their professional practice. Less excusably, economics has been used by producers to justify inadequate rehearsal (none at all for some supporting roles).
Conscientious movie actors find it frustrating to do almost all their preparation off the set and without collaborators. This, combined with the realisation that most producers want acting excellence but won't pay for it while many directors want acting cliches (why? because cliches are more predictable, manageable, less likely to upset the shooting schedule?) can stifle joy and lead some actors to regard creativity as a luxury they can't afford. To maintain consistency of characterisation they settle for superficial, easily repeatable techniques which can't explore the dramatic opportunities of the screenplay (despite what I said a few paragraphs back some screenplays don't offer much opportunity). The stage actor confronted with an inferior play script is supported by the economics of his industry; he is given preparation time with his colleagues to embrace the challenge to 'make something of it'.
Dramatic intelligence and aesthetic sensibility belong as much to the audience as to the actor, but the most discerning theatregoer won't make an actor without presence, technique and discipline: internal control and external command of emotion.
Presence counts for less on camera than on stage, though physique may count for more, in the case of leading players whose photogenic qualities are sublimated by economics into 'star' quality.
Alexander Knox, an actor whose screen work seems to me too deliberately restrained, made a distinction between 'acting' and 'behaving'. [note 3] There are some actors who can be dramatically convincing on the screen by behaving - being themselves. They imagine themselves, not the character, in the dramatic situation: 'What would I do?' rather than 'What would he do?'. If they have lead roles the characters they play may be written to accommodate their technical or temperamental limitations. Even when they are 'behaving' they need some measure of technique, for it is not really themselves but their habitual personae that they are playing.
I can't pretend to know all the personal factors that amount to 'presence'. I think of 'physique' as a sum of formal qualities (which may be adjudged either 'beautiful' or 'ugly') as apprised in some fixed contemplation. 'Photogenic' persons by the standards of still photography don't necessarily make the most attractive performers in motion pictures. I think of 'presence' as apprised kinetically, in motion. It is the sum of body language, idiosyncratic elements of posture, carriage, gesture, etc., together with timbre, cadence, modulation, etc., of speech. This sum has idiosyncratic configuration; it is different for each one of us, beyond the power of words to describe, yet distinguishable to the unlettered eye and ear. It is not only what nature has endowed upon us, it is how we, both vocational and 'social' actors, use that endowment. And beyond our inherited characteristics are our acquired ones - I remember hearing a radio interview with John Gielgud in which he admitted that he could never play a garbage collector convincingly.
The stage actor's presence is necessarily a conscious fashioning, an other-than-everyday orchestration of behavioural elements, to establish credibility, then receptivity to the emotions he enacts. (This is not to deny there are a few actors who bring some of their theatrical rhetoric to their everyday behaviour, and there are non-vocational actors who adopt theatrical mannerisms in their everyday behaviour - with the result that terms like 'to make an entrance' have become proverbial.)
The movie camera sees behavioural detail which is imperceptible even to the front row of the stage audience. The screen presence of actors can be quite similar in scale to their everyday behaviour. For some of them it is a deliberate putting aside of their theatrical technique; for others - the 'behavers' of Knox's distinction - there may be no choice.
This is not to deny that stylisation is practised by screen actors. A screen performance may be as highly mannered as the 'biggest' stage performance, but if it is a genuine filmic piece of work it will use different materials - many of them the everyday details which would be perceived as 'weak' if perceived at all in theatre.
The camera can submit the actor to a scrutiny which is as daunting as it is indulgent. His face in close-up has to be as informative, as commanding, as planned, as controlled as the entire contents of the proscenium arch. The eyebrow that is lifted a centimetre too high, the pucker that creates one shadow too many, the mutter that articulates its phonemes too distinctly - any of these can lose credibility in the duration of a ten second close-up and put the rest of the scene at risk.
There is the microphone as well as the camera. It is a gentler medium than the stage actor's auditorium. The screen actor can play his entire role in a register which would be annoyingly indistinct to a stage audience. The stage actor has the advantage in the high registers; the best sound recording can't emulate the reverberations of 'the house' when an actor lifts his volume. The technology is defeated by its own fidelity; it's too 'clean'. Overall, the screen actor has a wider vocal range to work in, hence more tools of trade at his disposal, hence he needs a finer sense of discrimination in order to use them wisely but not too well.
Camera and microphone provide a critically wider range of sensuousness to the domain of dramatic representation. The film actor who works in the outer reaches of this domain has his work enriched by them, but he does not rule them.
The arts of lighting and design have radically more to contribute on screen than on stage, and sometimes they take artistic precedence over performance. Editing, a concept and practice alien to theatre, can be more important than lighting or design in giving a performance its final, optimum form.
The stage actor's gestures and intonations are principally rhetorical, of necessity bigger and louder than everyday behaviour (unless he is performing in an 'intimate' space like Melbourne's La Mama Theatre), and more strictly codified. This is not the occasion to offer an inventory of the codes of gesture and intonation (they are familiar to you - you are 'competent' to decode them). Their existence, their currency, make possible most of the good actor's creative opportunities, his variations and/or refinements of common usage of these codes.
I chose the word 'usage' by analogy with lexicography. The transmitters of the codes, the actors, are few; the receivers, their audiences, are many. The majority of the theatre public are not users of stage rhetoric (except, perhaps, in their personal relationships), but they are its paying customers ('customer' has a interesting semantic history when you think about it). They are the arbiters of its 'value', hence the validators of its usage. And they are, in their box office numbers, the arbiters of the actor's 'value'.
Hovering somewhere in their minds are 'standards', a hallowed though ill-defined canon of virtues, graces and mysteries, which our culture postulates as mediator between the actor's performance and the viewer's appraisal. These standards are beyond the bounds of the commonplace, and while they lack authoritative formulation they imply the existence of an authority somewhere outside the theatregoer himself.
When I conduct classes in screen acting, one of the exercises I give students is to walk into a room, approach a person sitting at a desk and make a simple greeting. I give them the following 'variables':
- this room is familiar to your character or it is unfamiliar
- your character's motive is strong or it is weak
- if it is strong, it is either positive (eg. expecting a promotion) or negative (expecting to be retrenched)
- your character is a person who shows or hides his feelings.
I ask each student to select one of the dozen possible combinations of these variables and perform the action without telling us which he has selected. Each performance is shot on video and played back for the class to identify his selection. We are usually correct. Why ? Because most of the actors (some stage experience is a prerequisite for joining the class) 'telegraph' their chosen variables. They use theatrical codes according to a canon they have internalised and can apply to theatrically conceived objectives of character/personality, motive and orientation.
When I ask them to formulate their ready repertoire of behaviour signals it is a rare student who can articulate anything analytical. When I ask them to justify actions they cannot formulate the most frequent response is something like, "Well, you wanted me to act". Ah, that explains it! From that beginning we go to work to become film actors.
Actors, audiences and the culture at large know the 'actorly' behaviour signals; these are rhetorical and can be formulated semantically. They are needed in conventional/traditional stage drama, and the stage actor's art is to commence with the signals and modify them with his idiosyncrasy. The film actor's art is to know himself, to be aware of and have control over his idiosyncrasy. He commences with his own 'non-acting' behaviour and modifies it (either 'up' or 'down') with the signals which have cultural currency.
The movie actor's gestures and intonations are rarely free from rhetoric, but it may not be recognised as such; hence no canon will be postulated between performance and audience response. The movie actor will often be expected to work within a range which is no more ostentatious than everyday behaviour. If it is more restricted than the everyday it will be stylised and may be perceived to be so. There will be a code, but no canon, or 'external' rules for that code. Codes are vulgar and de facto, canons are elitist and de jure (the more vague the canon, the higher the 'cringe coefficient' of its culture).
The movie audience know the everyday because they live there. The phantoms of the silver screen can cast a larger-than-life spell, invoking the demonic or the seraphic within the private chambers of a million psyches, yet they are closer to the commonplaces of existence than the most finely executed naturalistic performance on stage.
The moviegoer perceives, accepts, evaluates screen performances as part of the continuum of his own behavioural world, no matter how fantastic the setting or extreme the passions; and he confirms their 'truth' by direct, unmediated comparison with his own experience.
Consequently even the least sophisticated moviegoer believes himself as good a judge as the next person of 'good acting'. He feels no need for a canon to intervene between him and the actor's work. What is more likely to be happening is a process of accepting an amalgam of the actor and his character, the person and the persona, into the moviegoer's own circle of acquaintances, to be admired, imitated, emulated, etc., or conversely execrated, condemned, mocked, etc. Such feelings arise unmediated by any consciousness of aesthetics or other components of the theatrical canon.
Personally testable verisimilitude underlies audience acceptance and evaluation of the most impassioned or fantastic movie character. A canon, often muddled or misconceived but always presumed to be 'objective', underlies audience acceptance of the most naturalistic stage character.
Verisimilitude is a cautionary term; literally 'it looks like the truth', which is not to imply that it is the truth. In realistic or 'low mimetic' drama the actor's goal is to enable the audience to deduce the character's inner life - desires, fears, dilemmas, obsessions, etc., along the same lines of inference they bring to their own relationships. In stylised or expressionist drama it should remain the yardstick against which every mannerism or 'over the top' effect is calculated.
For some audiences - perhaps the majority - verisimilitude and credibility do not always coincide. And verisimilitude can be dramatic failure to eyes conditioned by box office and market generated 'prestige'. I'd like a quid for every 'educated' person who has reported that he finds Ozu's films 'boring'; some have even said this about the Apu trilogy, though Satyajit Ray's mise en scene uses some expressionist devices current in mainstream films.
Movie audiences are often misled by mannered performances, extending credibility to acting which does not have verisimilitude. There are self conscious 'quality' films, for both large and small screens, which are marketed on their literary credentials, invoking a spurious canon which equates theatrical mannerism with filmic merit. And there are 'hard ticket' films with grandiose production values for large screens. These often have 'transparent' screenplays, devoid of subtext, and have become the last refuge for the kind of acting that went out of fashion in Deadly Theatre 4 a generation ago (dare I mention David Lean?). Regrettably, this is the stuff that nominations are made of; even the electorates of film awards, their fellow actors, can be sold a dummy.
Bad, Good, Great
It would be easy to say that 'acting' actors subsume themselves into their roles while 'behaving' actors subsume their roles into themselves, and leave it at that. But 'actors' can become as narrowly circumscribed in their technique as 'behavers'. Some actors have sustained long careers in leading parts of star status, eg. Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ronald Colman, David Niven, etc., with little appreciable variation of technique over decades. Similarly, for some supporting actors who often got billing, eg. Sidney Greenstreet, Shelley Winters, Kathleen Harrison, to name a few (of other people's) favourites. In some roles they were great: Davis in The Old Maid, Hepburn in comedies for Stevens, Hawks, Cukor; but in other roles they were grindingly bad.
What do I mean by a 'bad' performance? One which breaks the dramatic illusion peculiar to cinema. 'Behavers' often appear in bad films and give mediocre performances, but they rarely give bad performances because they rarely venture roles beyond their limitations. 'Actors' often do, perhaps out of ambition to test themselves against a theatrical canon which they mistakenly believe is relevant to their movie work.
What do I mean by a good performance? One which has either grace or fury, and which delivers either wisdom or mystery. By grace I mean a condition in which form and sensuousness are complementary; by fury I mean emotional intensity, what Garcia Lorca called 'duende'; wisdom, like 'artistic truth', is knowledge already held in the world but now made unique by grace or memorable by fury; mystery is that which is beyond intellection, what Longinus called 'the sublime'. And a 'great' performance? One which has both grace and fury, and delivers both wisdom and mystery. There have been few great performances on the screen, though many good ones.
Necessary, but not sufficient, for a 'deep' performance is the ability to portray a shift from one emotional state to another within a passage as brief as a few words or a single action. Emotional shifts usually 'raise the stakes' in the drama by syntagmatic acceleration ('flow') and/or paradigmatic amplification ('impact'). As vectors, or 'force lines', in the diegesis they increase the number and the complexity of cause-and-effect relationships in the unfolding story. When an actor makes an emotional shift credibly he 'drives' a vector or converges a number of vectors, and his characterisation is perceived to have 'depth'.
In the orthodoxy of classical narrative cinema an emotional shift is covered in a 'single' (ie., a shot with one person in it), probably mid-shot or tighter, and culminates the cutting rhythm established in the preceding shots (as well as marking the commencement of a different rhythm for the subsequent shots). These crucial dramatic points are the ones where film technique differs most from stage technique.
Good actors deliver more with less, they are 'economical'. Many 'acting' actors, even in lead roles, can't do this emotional 'shift', yet their careers prosper as long as their looks and their confidence last. Some 'behaving' actors are capable of the shift; they have 'emotional range' even when they don't have 'character range'. Conversely, some 'acting' actors capable of many different impersonations can't give a 'deep' performance (dare I mention Alec Guinness?).
Of course, many movie actors don't get the opportunity to play such 'shifts' because it's not in the role as written, or the director covers the moment of transition in separate set-ups, or the editor breaks it up into separate shots. Sometimes these lapses from orthodoxy are necessitated by the actor's inability to make the shift as scripted, but sometimes they are misguided attempts by director or editor to create more flow or impact than the text can bear. It is a rare critic who can tell the difference.
Critical evaluation of a film, and of any of the various artistic contributions to it, needs to distinguish between 'beauty' and 'art'. Beauty pertains to the work, its qualities and relations, its intrinsic and extrinsic properties. Art pertains to the maker's achievement, his purposeful activity. Too often the distinction is not observed, and evaluation of the work (which may be the film, or one of the performances in the film, or the cinematography, etc., etc.) confuses the objects of its praise or blame. An actor who gives a good, not 'great', performance in a well written and/or well directed role stands to win undeserved praise - perhaps an award, since awards are bestowed upon roles rather than performances.
An actor who exercises artistry beyond the call of duty in a poorly written and/or directed role is more likely to be blamed than praised. There are thousands of examples of this: I think of Peter Cushing's remarkable struggles with many of his roles for Hammer. His work is equally admirable in a bad movie like Twins of Evil, where a role of rich potential is undermined by trite screenplay and direction, as in a good one like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, where he has a routine role. And I think of Richard Chamberlain's futile virtuosity in a piece of exploitation like Casanova. (Actors are not the only film artists to suffer from critical malpractice. Film awards, where the electorate is one's professional peers, persist in judging 'best' editing on the release print, without examining the footage presented to the editors. An intelligently directed film may win a prize for its editor whose job was easy, while another editor who has done a heroic 'rescue job' on a badly directed film won't get a nomination.)
In modernist, 'post classical' or otherwise radically stylised films mise en scene may preclude or suppress performance at key points to communicate emotional shift within a character or vectors in the force field between characters by lighting, design, camera movement, cutting, music, etc, and sometimes with cryptic or 'impressionist' dialogue. An extreme - and arguably perfect - example of this is Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. Melville's style is austere, totally formalised and consistent with performances and Henri Decae's cinematography.
By comparison with the style of most of Bresson's films Melville's mise en scene is more overtly 'aesthetic' - even canonical! Bresson's austerity is implicit in his whole style, Melville's is explicit in his pictorial and histrionic components. I don't expect anyone to disagree that the beauty of Delon's Jeff is exceptional. But in respect of that beauty, whose is the greater or the prior art, Delon's or Melville's?
Sometimes directors deliberately contrast strong acting styles within a strong pictorial style. In Josef von Sternberg's Paramount films his characters (not his actors!) become increasingly absurd as they exercise power over others and/or mistake Role for Self. Frank Perry's direction of Play It As It Lays 'suppresses', and thereby favours, the central performance by Tuesday Weld, whereas Monte Hellman's direction of Two-Lane Blacktop 'suppresses' all the cast except Warren Oates. A grotesque example of this strategy is the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing; my feeling is that Gabriel Byrne's 'underacting' is so disciplined and attuned to the pictorial style of his scenes that his work doesn't need accentuation by the rest of the 'overacting' cast. By comparison, look at Raoul Walsh's direction and Ernie Haller's lighting of the central relationship between George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, their subaltern relationships with Marlene Dietrich, and Dietrich's 'shadow' relationship with Eve Arden in Manpower.
Acting is a representational art within the larger representational art of drama. Acting roles are either agonic - their characters have a range of two or more emotions, or ancillary - with no emotional range, they evince only one emotion, or none.
Actors in ancillary roles may be required to portray a personality, or salient elements of a personality. Sometimes they may be required to represent a single emotion which contributes to the prevailing mood of a scene. More often they are not required to represent any feeling which passes the threshold of everyday intercourse while they deliver messages, tend wounds, serve drinks, repair fixtures, carry spears, etc. Usually they get the opportunity to give their character a sliver of personality - irritation, pomposity, cynicism, absurdity, etc.
Actors in agonic roles will be required to register 'emotion' which in dramatic usage means emotional states more energised, more intense, more revealing than the tenor of the everyday.
Sometimes a role calls for depiction of a personality or an emotion which is contrary or threatening to the actor's own psychic imprint. An introvert may have to play an extrovert, a sensualist play an ascetic, a phlegmatic play a cyclothymic, or vice versa.
I believe - I can't prove it - that each of us has all or almost all of the psychic traits within us. In arriving at our mature personality we combine some and suppress others, perhaps very deep, under potentially explosive pressure. The actor has to find the suppressed emotion or propensity within hemself, and having found it, release it; then having released it, control it.
An emotion is represented successfully by an actor if the audience believes it. That belief - credibility - may in turn evoke an emotion, but it will not be the same emotion as that which is represented.
This is not the occasion to attempt a review of theories of the psychology of 'the dramatic illusion', 'the histrionic experience', etc., so I must proceed at the risk of being vague and/or simplistic. I will refer to one source, Otto Baensch's article "Art and Feeling", [note 5] which discusses the notion that artistically induced emotion privileges the reader/viewer/listener to 'know' emotion but not to 'have' it - or 'be had' by it. The 'knowing' of an emotion gives rise to an excitement, a surgency. Some kind of release of strong feeling occurs which is not subject to the Aristotelian purgation. Ultimately, that is what we remember, and value, and want to return to. It is part of, and may be the core of, aesthetic experience.
What feelings does an audience have, or know, when it witnesses the enactment of...
the melancholy of Chekov's Sonya, or her Uncle Vanya, or Demy's Roland Cassard (Lola)...
the pride of Coriolanus, Tom Garner (The Power and The Glory, 1933), or Charles Foster Kane...
the rage of Seneca's Hercules, Timon or Ethan Edwards...
the vengeance of Medea, Millwood (The London Merchant, 1731), Hjordis (The Warriors at Helgeland, 1857), Lang's Kriemhild (1924) or Vance Jeffords (The Furies, 1950)...
the moral cowardice of Karsten Bentick (Pillars of the Community), Isabel Minafer (The Magnificent Ambersons) or Gabriel Lidman (Gertrud)...
the belligerent courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, or Bonny and Jeff (Only Angels Have Wings)...
the desire of Angelo for Isabella, de Flores for Beatrice and she for him (The Changeling, 1622), or Jerome for Claire's knee (1971)?
Perhaps the aesthetic experience is not properly an emotion, but it certainly is attached to emotions, in a special kind of bonding. I offer the term paramotion, and leave theorists to analyse it more usefully. What I want to do here is contrast this paramotion, the compound of the emotion enacted and its response in the viewer, with another compound generated in the dramatic process.
The actor who wants to do more than imitate other actors must release some emotional force within himself. It is not really the emotion he represents (there would be havoc on stage and on set if that were so), yet it needs to have an equivalent force within hm. He needs to 'know' the emotion without 'having' it (or 'being had' by it). I offer the term epimotion to denote the compound of the actor's emotional force and the specific emotions he enacts. The honest actor puts hemself at risk by this epimotional release, hence the necessity of discipline to keep it in check and avoid doing himself a psychic damage, and of technique to shape it deliberately into the representation, the paramotion which moves the audience.
Put simply, and begging the question of epimotion, the actor's task is to find the emotion within himself, then show it, then transmit it - to the audience as well as to other actors. To do this effectively the actor needs an unusual degree of self-knowledge, self-control and self-command. If the emotional territory he ventures into is 'dangerous', he needs courage, though courage alone is not sufficient. (I recall a review of Gregory Peck's portrayal of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick which concluded "... he lacks not courage, only art".) If the actor cannot find the emotion within himself, or dares not confront it, his epimotional process is blocked. The only alternative for him is to imitate.
Some actors imitate life; they observe the world around them. If they are insightful observers and skilful imitators their performance can be credible and moving. Without epimotion they can still deliver paramotion. Insight and sympathy with others may suffice when self-knowledge and courage fail.
There are also actors who choose - for various reasons ranging from a false sense of professionalism through to laziness - to imitate art rather than life. They try to do what they have seen other actors do - a bit from this one, a bit from that one, etc. Rarely do selections like this lead to discovery about the art of acting. Since their sources are other roles in other dramas, their paramotion suffers 'generation loss', a gradual decline in quality with successive reproductions.
Such performances can be credible only in the eyes of audiences less discerning, more lazy or equally cliche dependent as themselves. Regrettably, such audiences are often in the majority, and include many fellow professionals.
Most dramatists want to depict experiences of which the larger public have little or no firsthand knowledge: mad scenes, deathbed, slaughter, rape, torture, world-shaking-decision scenes (even some love scenes?). And many dramatists like to create characters who have physical or mental afflictions: cripples, lunatics, etc. (Bad actors relish such roles; good actors approach them with trepidation.)
Scenes of such extraordinary stress and suffering are usually accentuated by directors. They are seen as the 'big' scenes, and are played up by actors who are no more likely than their audience to have lived through such situations. And these are the scenes most likely to win praise for a verisimilitude they do not have. "The production of 'real' feelings through 'false' images": when Thomas Elsaesser wrote that about the influence of Hollywood in Fassbinder's films [note 6] he was referring to a deliberate falsity, a falsity perceived to be false, hence a sophisticated artistic strategy.
But the fulminations of actors imitating actors imitating other actors are too often perceived to be 'true', to be accurate representations, and this perception, or misperception, becomes the basis of their prestige. This in turn lowers craft standards amongst their peers, and lowers criteria of merit in the eyes of the public and their purblind arbiters, the 'critics'. Robert Bresson in one of his meditations wrote: "Avoid paroxysms . . in which everyone is alike". [note 7]
If you are a vocational actor and you are required to enact a trauma you have never lived through, how can you distinguish true from false? If the emotion is 'true' it is within you, and your epimotional force will be directed inward to withhold its release. If your force is directed outward, in an effort to convince your audience, you haven't plumbed yourself, you're 'faking it'. Still, chances are your public - the audience and the less perceptive of your colleagues - will think it's the real thing and they'll love you for it.
Faking protects you from the emotion within yourself, and protects the audience from the emotion that properly belongs to the subject of the scene - or scenes, if you have a major role. You show them false cruelty, false suffering, etc.; they experience false horror, false compassion, etc., and believe it all to be true. Unconsciously they are grateful for having been spared confrontation with the very thing they can pretend to have confronted. Or maybe you have deluded them, and they believe they have confronted 'the real thing'. In either case they have been made safe in the eye of the phoney storm you have whipped up, and they praise you for a truth, a power and a courage you do not have. You get the glory for showing your guts, but what you are actually showing is your hide. The older the ham the thicker the hide. In terms of the emotional current between actor and audience you are faking it when you take more than you give. You pretend - or delude yourself - that you have replaced epimotion with 'real' emotion; they are deluded into believing that their paramotion has been replaced by 'real' emotion. You and your audience enjoy a mutual massage which is good for the ego but bad for art.
Fakers must have technique so the audience can't 'see through' them. But that is what blocks the audience 'seeing' the character. If you give a 'true' performance they do see through you, and through you they see the character.
When talking about technique we often borrow Stanislavski's term 'building a character'. When talking about the emotional force underlying technique it might be better to talk about growing a character, in order to stress the organic quality of a 'true' performance. Go to the root of the character, which is the writer's creation, thence the branch, which is the director's creation, and finally the flower which is your creation. Let your flower grow from that root, don't graft it from some other source.
Dramatic illusion applies to both live and 'canned' performance. The illusion on stage survives as long as the audience chooses not to notice the proscenium or other physical limens of the performance space. The audience is the active sustainer of the illusion by virtue of its 'willing suspension of disbelief'.
Virtually all screen drama, except for some reflexive cinema and naive jokery in mainstream movies, is conditional upon a comprehensive illusion, induced by the technology of the medium, at the audience's wish but not by the audience's effort, uninterrupted and coextensive with the film's screening time. The movie audience enters a condition of hypnagogy, between sleep and waking, where fantasy flourishes disconnected from awareness of its particular occasioning.
The movies are also a physical illusion. Those photographs projected onto a flat screen have formal properties that register behavioural detail, intensify sensuousness and stimulate inferential processes in ways radically different from a live presentation of the same dialogue and action.
These formal properties constitute an artistic domain peculiar to screen drama, screen art 'proper', and a non-aesthetic domain of psychological manipulation. Other artists often have creative priority over actors in both these domains.
When you are acting on stage you must work in rhetorical space. Your actual locus plus your body language are continuous with a three dimensional tableau whose formal properties compensate the audience for its suspension of disbelief. If you are on stage you can be seen even when all resources of direction are bent to turning audience attention to other parts of the proscenium. Even when you have nothing to do you have something to do: be present. The spear carrier in the shadows is equally subject to spatial rhetoric as the principal at the peak of his 'big' scene - if the production is not to become a shambles.
Constantin Stanislavski wrote, "All our acts, even the simplest, which are so familiar to us in everyday life, become strained when we appear behind the footlights before a public of a thousand people. That is why it is necessary to correct ourselves and learn again how to walk, move about, sit, or lie down". [note 8] Stanislavski considered this was necessary for both high mimetic and low mimetic drama.
Whatever you do on stage (and that includes 'doing nothing') must be under the gaze of observers whose angles of incidence are sectored within an arc of perhaps thirty degrees, but this can extend to the full 360 degrees in the case of theatre-in-the-round.
However, every cinema seat has the same angle of incidence and the same distance from the action as every other seat (these relate to the illusory action, not to its physical locus, the screen). This is because the screen's space is effectively not volume but area, two dimensions representing, presenting an illusion of, three.
Your 'space' is profilmic, it is where you are in front of camera. What the audience sees is your 'area' - strictly speaking, your character's area - a two dimensional representation of your space along the camera's angle of incidence. For reasons yet to be explored by physio-psychologists the filmed image induces a sensitivity to form. Formal properties which are not noticed in the profilmic present themselves in the filmic.
Rhetoric is the cultural administration of form. What the camera sees may not be rhetorical, but what the camera shows must be. Mise en scene, the movie director's province of creativity, decides how complex and how consistent that rhetoric will be, and whether the profilmic will also be rhetorical.
A movie director may require your performance to have no rhetoric, no overt stylisation. So your area will be rhetorical but your space will not. Your non-rhetorical performance must still be deliberate; you can 'behave' but you are still 'acting', playing to someone else's tune. This entails technique peculiar to screen drama. It cannot be practised on stage, and receives little acknowledgment in our prestigious drama schools, if I am to believe some of their graduates I have worked with.
It is not easy as some inexperienced actors believe and some lazy actors pretend. In some respects, tasks of self-command such as taking and giving cues, repeating, segmenting, modifying 'up' or 'down', can be more difficult for your habitual body language than for stylised movements geared to stage conventions. Your material on camera is your everyday physicality - some of which you may not be conscious of rather than consciously acquired and practised codes of theatrical visibility, audibility, interpretation, etc.
The difference is not merely a matter of scale. If it were, a 'proper' screen performance would be only a subdued stage performance. True, the judicious use of detail corresponding to everyday behaviour usually requires a reduction of scale, but more important is the matter of selection of detail. The good actor in either medium strips his character down to essentials before he proceeds to build it up, add details. The screen actor usually doesn't build so far 'up'; he has more tools but uses less material, hence he must select more discriminatingly, practise greater finesse.
'Finesse' reminds me of the legendary meeting of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin (don't ask me for my source, it's a legend; and this is the version that suits me). Both were famed warriors and each believed in the superiority of his chosen weapon. To make his point diplomatically the Angevin swung his broadsword and severed a tent pole, a feat which the Kurd's scimitar could not emulate. Saladin's retort was to toss a cushion in the air and slice it in half as it descended. Prowess, finesse.
If you are playing in a tightly framed shot your performance will be most effective if you 'express' only one of the resources of voice, face and body. If you have to act disapproval, an indignantly intoned 'Well!' will tell as much as a grimace or a gesture, like arms akimbo. If you use two of these resources you don't communicate any stronger sense of disapproval, there is no increase in paramotion. You don't buy extra dramatic effect, but you pay two units for something that should have cost one. That's inflation, artistic inflation, you debase the currency and devalue your art.
The resources of voice, face and body have their own components, and their 'purchasing power' is lessened by overacting. You don't have to shout or twist your face or wave your arms to overact when you're on camera. If you decide to act disapproval by a grimace only, not by voice or body, it should be sufficient to activate an eyebrow or widen your eyes or purse your lips or jut your chin - but only one of these components. More than one is overacting under the scrutiny of that 'devil's eye', the camera.
My objection to overacting is both idealistic and practical. For those audiences who appreciate screen drama as distinct from stage drama, overacting flaws the illusion nurtured by the technology, and thereby flaws the aesthetic. For audiences who don't appreciate the deeper distinctions between the two media, overacting is often enjoyed because misconstrued as evidence of 'acting ability'. Its excesses are seen as merits and can even become norms to which more economical actors are exhorted to 'raise' their efforts. Regrettably, the exhortators include quite a few casting agents as well as producers, directors and reviewers who like to be called critics.
There are occasions - scenes, even entire films - when overacting is part of a director's artistic strategy, in which case the illusion will remain intact. 'Going over the top' is not necessarily overacting. You may consider that Thomas Gomez overacts the role of Ben in Force of Evil, but I find it admirable how the florid verbal resource of his performance is held in formal balance by the underacting of face and body - seemingly expressionless, shapeless, but actually a calculated counterweight to his over-the-top delivery. Jack Lemmon puts much noticeable effort into his portrayal of a craven bully in The Out-of-Towners, but the purposeful energy of the actor is necessary to dramatise the wasted energy of the character. His 'up' performance is stabilised by Sandy Dennis' 'down' performance in what may be the definitive 'thankless role', a rare example of a lead role which is almost entirely enclitic (see later for discussion of enclisis).
The more 'filmic' the movie the more your performance will be qualified by how you are seen and when you are seen by the camera. Between your epimotion and the audience's paramotion the director's art intervenes. At his behest so too do other arts such as cinematography, design, effects, music and editing. Unlike the stage director, the movie director has authority over your performance during the performance.
The stage director works with you longer and more thoroughly in rehearsal, gets further inside your head, and may even pin up comments on the dressingroom wall after each show (cheers, Draff!), but while you are on the boards hey has neither authority nor power to intervene. The movie director is working with you continuously during your performance, at intervals which may be as frequent as each line and/or move, and for as many 'takes' as there are of each line and/or move.
Your working relationship with the director can vary from idyllic collaboration to bloody minded war, but you are on the same mission. Both of you are necessary and neither is sufficient for its success. Each should depend upon the other. If you falter in confidence or technique or epimotion it becomes a one-way dependence and the director's authority must manifest itself as power. He must either drive you (the whip) or carry you (the wheelchair). The result on the screen may please audiences, it will have beauty, but you and everyone on the crew will know that your performance lacks art - your art.
The more you understand the medium the more you can improve technique, gain confidence, imagine creative opportunities, release epimotion. The better you understand mise en scene, the director's art, the better your chances of anticipating what might be done to your performance in post-production. It is reasonable to assume that all, or almost all, the screen dramas you are going to act in will observe some variation within the broad principles of classical narrative cinema. The most meticulous or subtle directors of screen drama in this country still work on the basis of analysing the dramatic elements of force, tension, flow and impact along literary lines of quantification.
Their methods of mise en scene may be entirely free from theatrical conventions, but their choice of when to apply these methods will be based upon an essentially literary rationalisation.
Expressionist art operates on an 'overload' principle: the viewer/listener/reader is aware of the formal intervention of the artist's technique, and responds 'aesthetically' to the perceptible difference between the representation and the represented.
An expressionist work of art has an imaginative concept of its represented which is 'bigger' than the audience's concept. Expressionism anticipates audience response to the represented (indeed, influences it), and 'expresses' this response in the formal properties of the representation.
Opera is necessarily expressionist; the formal properties of the music are an emotional colouration, a built-in response to the story which the music helps to represent. Most stage and film drama is expressionist, but optionally so. Hollywood's 'melodrama' and 'film noir', which are styles not genres, are identified by their pictorial and musical expressionism, though 'noir' is at its best when it uses impressionist acting.
By contrast impressionist art operates on the principle of 'closing the gestalt'. A 'gap' is perceived in the representation vis-a-vis the represented. (I should say the presumed represented; audiences don't always perceive or presume the same things). If the 'incomplete' representation is structurally consistent the viewer supplies its completion from his own personal storehouse of experience/intelligence/imagination/sympathy.
This is a cognitive act which draws upon the text preceding the 'gap' (by 'text' I mean the film, not just its screenplay), and which instantly precedes the paramotive response to the part of the text in which the 'gap' occurs. The viewer is thereby implicated in the creative process; part of what he is responding to has been 'created' by hemself. This can happen without arousal of his 'aesthetic faculty', without realising that the 'gap' has anything to do with art.
If you will allow the metaphor that drama 'captures' its audience, then expressionism ravishes, impressionism seduces.
Impressionist acting can be found on stage, but it is not likely to 'key' the production unless the play is unusual (eg. Kroetz's Farmyard or some of Beckett). The range of the movie camera, its proximity and - more importantly - its enhancement of formal pictorial factors offer more opportunities for the actor to implicate the viewer in the 'creation' of his character. Impressionist movie acting can be further enhanced - even 'created' - by editing after the actor's work is done. Shrewdly inserted cutaways to a character merely being attentive to other characters can accumulate the 'impression' that he is compassionate or hostile, insightful or uncomprehending, strong willed, weak willed, etc.
Cutaways have a different syntagmatic function from reaction shots. The latter mark 'steps', shifts in narrative rhythm and/or dramatic intensity. They are implied, if not commanded, by the screenplay. Either they propel the flow of the narrative along the direction it is already following, or they impel it in a new direction. Their mode is emphatic, whereas cutaways are phatic or enclitic (see later for further discussion of these terms).
The actor in a reaction shot may be entirely inert, but his inertia will be a strong signal to the audience. They are 'outside' his character, receiving new information about the dramatic development.
Cutaways and reaction shots are vectors in sequences of dialogue and/or action which 'step' or 'turn' the narrative. They facilitate 'exchange' between characters, raise dramatic 'temperature', excite the what-happens-next syndrome.
'Soliloquy' shots show a character on his own at a point in the text when narrative drive has slowed or is quiescent. Dramatic temperature is low, what-happens-now momentarily displaces what-happens-next, and the audience feels they are 'inside' that character.
At the close of a 'hot' scene, when the temperature is rapidly 'cooling', after all the dialogue has been delivered and the last action performed, there can be a single on one character as hey unemotionally looks out a window or takes a slow drink or draws on a cigarette. That single may have only a few seconds' duration, yet it can recapitulate all the emotional energy of the scene up to that point.
For those few seconds the audience is given privileged access to that character. They will be drawn into the 'emptiness' of his face and movement, filling it with their own sympathetic - or empathetic - response to the scene. Having invested the character with their own feelings they will remember what a moving performance the actor gave in that scene. (More than a few people have remarked to me that they 'don't care for Kirk Douglas as an actor' but thought he was good in Paths of Glory . I think that can be explained more by Stanley Kubrick's use of his 'empty' moments than by the subject matter of the film or any improvement in Douglas' technique.)
The kind of effect I've described won't happen if the character strikes the window, throws the glass away, squashes the cigarette or registers any of the standard signals of stress: the clenched jaw, the furrowed brow, etc. These are 'expressions'; they remind the audience where they are, 'outside' not 'inside' the character.
It begs the question to say that impressionist acting is merely 'underacting'. This term and its contrary, 'overacting', imply a norm, 'acting', which is everywhere presumed but rarely examined. All I intend to do in this article is point to the task and offer a few tools to help dig it out from the mullock of marketing hype, prestigious mediocrity, pollutant theatricalism and cringing snobbery where it remains embedded after more than sixty years of sound film.
A 'soliloquy' shot suits impressionistic mise en scene, and impressionistic acting is appropriate to it. There are other kinds of shots, and scenes, when a sense of narrative climax is best served by impressionistic acting.
An Australian writer-director now established in Hollywood once told me of a problem he had on one of his early films here: the young lead actor had to play a white-collar worker who couldn't stand the routine of his job any longer. At the start of yet another day he had to approach the work entrance and baulk as others filed past him. The director wanted his face to be a blank (to close the gestalt), but after half a day on this one set-up the actor still could not overcome his recent NIDA training and trust the camera if he were to 'do nothing' for ten seconds. Less extreme examples of the same problem happen repeatedly in the movie business. It has to be admitted that the reverse problem - directors instructing actors to overact - happens more frequently.
For what it is worth, I try to draw a distinction between wit and humour along the lines that wit depends upon surprise, the intersection of two separate planes of thought (puns and cryptic puzzles are familiar examples; the discovery of their common element is delightfully unexpected and memorable). Wit can be quoted out of context, whereas humour depends upon recognition within the text (one element reflects or 'rhymes' with another) and isn't funny if recalled or retold out of context. Now I want to make an analogous distinction between expressionist and impressionist acting: the former remains memorable when the text it contributed to is forgotten; the latter can not be remembered unless the text it contributed to can be brought to mind also.
Needless to say, expressionist performances win most of the awards; performances which favour impressionist techniques are rarely even nominated.
It would be instructive to compare Bernard Miles' character, Joe, in Great Expectations with Victor Kilian's character, Sparks, in Only Angels Have Wings. Both are scripted as kindly, none-too-articulate fellows who sympathise with the tribulations of the main character but have no power to influence events. Miles' director David Lean gives him favoured coverage, the mise en scene sets our attention on his performance; we admire it and remember it - deservedly so, it is a beautiful 'up' performance. Kilian's director, Howard Hawks, doesn't give him any singles; he is seen moping around in group shots, except for his two scenes with the principal character, Bonny (Jean Arthur). These scenes are covered mostly in two-shot, and his 'down' performance repeatedly transfers attention, insight and contemplation to the principal character. Miles' performance is emphatic, Kilian's is enclitic.
The more skilled an actor, the subtler will be his shifting from one mode to another within the same scene. The task becomes less difficult, though still praiseworthy, in the case of a chronologically segmented narrative, eg. F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus acts expressionistically as the aged Salieri and impressionistically in the flashback scenes.
Yes, I have to admit he got an award for that predominantly impressionist performance. He had the advantage of a well-scripted role and indulgent mise en scene (even though it was edited a little too mechanically, this may have drawn even more attention to his work). Now consider the opening scenes of Antonioni's La Notte. The director wants to show us a moderately affluent couple whose marriage is creeping toward mutual indifference. Their demeanour is reserved but 'proper' as they park their car and enter a large hospital to visit a sick friend. The camera stays with them on the long elevator ride. Two people in close proximity in the most featureless of settings - why should such unremarkable, uneventful action even be shown? Is it 'dramatic'? Some audiences and reviewers didn't think so!
Antonioni's point is made by having the two not look at each other throughout the two-shot coverage. The formal properties of the screen's 'area' sees them with a concentration that is not possible in a stage production. During the long dialogue scene which follows with the friend and his mother, Antonioni's framing separates the married couple from shot to shot; throughout this scene they are not seen together in the frame. Even when the friend draws their hands together with his, we see only the hand of each enter from opposite sides of the frame.
The two actors, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, have 'behaved' minimally, but the audience knows something important about the relationship between their characters because of the way the mise en scene has presented them. Antonioni's direction of these scenes is an unconventional alternation between expressionist and impressionist methods which few directors would, or could, attempt.
Compare this with the dramatic effect of averted eyelines in Dreyer's Gertrud and Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, which are amongst the most profound screen dramas I know. Dreyer's actors look away from each other in the midst of intimate conversations; the effect is studied, an example of aesthetic intervention. The performances are 'underacted' but the direction makes us 'see' them as though they are 'overacted'. Sirk's characters, members of a depressingly 'ordinary' suburban family, never exchange an eyeline until the final scene, yet we 'see' them as merely 'acted', or in the case of the remarkable Fred MacMurray, 'underacted'. Sirk's pictorial expressionism is subtler than Dreyer's (this is not to imply that it is superior; their artistic strategies are different) and audiences may never become aware of his artifice of averted eyelines though they respond to its cumulative 'impression'.
In their quite different styles Dreyer, Sirk and Antonioni take delicately judged risks of breaking the cinematic illusion, and depend upon their actors' skills and respect for a medium where the theatrical canon is irrelevant. Somewhere towards the other end of the artistic spectrum is a film like The Gallant Hours. Robert Montgomery's mise en scene relentlessly locks us into one tight shot after another with almost no relief while James Cagney dominates the screen as not even TV actors are allowed to do; but his pictorial domination is counterbalanced by meticulously sustained 'underacting'.
I might have written 'acting, overacting, underacting', by analogy with 'steady, up, down' - holding attention, claiming attention, transferring attention. However their respective predications are similar but not the same. The decision to shift from phasis to emphasis is as necessary in classical narrative cinema as it is fraught with risk, the risk of miscalculating the audience's capacity to interpret and evaluate in accordance with the artist's desire. (I use 'desire' purposely, not to open a debate now, merely to flag it for discussion in some other forum.)
The shift from phasis to emphasis is always clear to perceive. The shift from phasis to enclisis and vice versa works less perceptibly, transferring stress (which I think of as the trope pointing to the emphasis to come, 'protoemphasis') from its anticipated or 'normal' place to some other, less obvious but still conventional, place in the text.
Accomplished stage actors can do this by voice alone, weaving patterns of 'steady, up, down' with sentences, words, syllables, even phonemes, exciting admiration of their skill. Some parts of their delivery will be enclitic, the art of the throwaway: Olivier's accelerated consonant chopping, Gielgud's quivering glissando, Schofield's artfully flattened drawl, Cusack's ruminant murmur. But you recognise these, don't you, even from the movies? These ostensible de-emphasising devices are the actor's trademarks, where personal (the actor's) emphasis opposes textual (the character's) enclisis. Technique becomes mannerism and a public who can't tell the difference loves them for it.
This is not to deny that genuine enclisis occurs in their work, but for principal players, especially stars, it may be construed as weakness, a declining of their powers. Their body language - carriage, posture, gesture, etc. - is customarily emphatic, so their vocal enclisis is overridden by other performance signals. When I said the stage actor's space and his use of space are rhetorical I might have said 'expressionist'. Even his silences and stillnesses are expressionist.
Experienced movie actors may sometimes work enclitically by choice, frequently yielding emphasis to other actors (Spencer Tracy at his best was a master of this) because they are confident that mise en scene and editing will provide a compensating emphasis. Actors in minor roles can't be so confident; editing in this country, especially in TV series, often imposes a rude enclisis on support players, cutting away from them to 'regulars', even at the cost of losing optimum dramatic effect.
On my observation the majority of movie actors in this country organise their 'steady, up, down' modulations in accord with theatrical conventions, while good directors organise their mise en scene on filmic conventions but ground them in theatrical priorities. Bresson, not a conventional director, sees this as a prescription for failure: "No marriage of theatre and the cinematograph without both being exterminated". 9
The history of sound film offers many examples of attempts to reconcile the collision of these conventions. Some directors customarily take the 'lower' position, adapting or 'depressing' mise en scene in favour of performances (eg. Cukor, Wyler, Prevert, Asquith, Naruse, and many who followed them, though none so radically as Cassavetes). Some directors 'depress' performances (eg. Bunuel, Kluge, Rocha, Antonioni), even going so far as to eliminate acting conventions (eg. Bresson, Godard, Pasolini, Akerman) - and you notice these latter directors work outside (beyond?) classical narrative. There are directors who have made remarkable attunements of directing and acting conventions (eg. Ozu, Dreyer, von Sternberg, Becker, Rossellini, Rohmer, occasionally Olmi and Chabrol, Bergman in Winter Light), usually resulting in some deconstruction of classical narrative. I thought of Hawks in this group, but it seems to me that when his actors are not well suited to their roles (eg. Grant in Only Angels Have Wings, Nelson in Rio Bravo, almost the entire cast in Redline 7000) Hawks does not compromise mise en scene to accommodate their deficiencies (which are deficient only in relation to the specific role; Grant is supremely efficient in his comedy roles for Hawks).
For most movies in classical narrative the story unfolds with dramatic emphasis on only one of the three parameters of dialogue, performance and directing. If the dialogue is 'up', performance might be steady and directing might be self effacing, 'down'. One draws attention, another holds it and the third transfers it to either or both of the other two. Often dialogue is 'steady' and either directing or acting is 'up'. Of course there are degrees of 'up' and 'down', and there may be frequent regravitations of emphasis among the three. A scene which has too many 'ups' will usually betray strain, and usually because the director has lost his nerve and is pushing the audience into responses which exhaust the meaning of the story.
Expressionist directors have to take this risk. Perhaps the only director who consistently succeeded in keeping all three 'up' is von Sternberg. He managed to do so by sustaining a massive counterbalance of irony - much of it in the stylisation of the acting. This suggests a clue to the achievements of directors such as Stahl and Sirk, and to reservations about the work of, say, Borzage, Kurosawa, Bertolucci.
Not everyone will agree with my high opinion of Joe the Pants Presser. Pauline Kael singled out one of his finest films, Morocco, as an example of 'trash' (she was gracious enough to call it 'great trash'), 10 and a Cahiers Collective was roused to frenzies of reductionism by consideration of the same film. 11
But professional actors should always feel grateful to him, if only for the blow he struck for many of us in his insolent credits to Shanghai Gesture. In big letters he pays tribute to the work of extras, those movie actors whose roles as well as their performances are wholly enclitic, and he gives principal billing to an actor, Maria Ouspenskaya, who appears in only one scene, speaks no lines, and is foregrounded only for one gesture - a nod. But that nod constitutes a turning point in the diegesis.
Most actors have had stage experience before they work in front of camera. They have watched plays, acted in them, absorbed 'stage consciousness'. So they will have some self-esteem which has been earned, some proven skills and professional pride when they first come face to face with 'the devil's eye'.
The first and toughest thing to acquire in preparation for this new medium is humility. You have to recognise that yours may not be the most important art at the director's disposal. There will be scenes where cinematography, design, effects take precedence over your performance because they have more to contribute to the mise en scene. After your work is done editing and music will qualify what the audience sees of it. On stage, lighting, design, effects, etc., usually function as ancillaries to performance; they are in service to the actors. On camera the actors must sometimes serve them. In live performance the actor 'owns' his space; in movies the space owns him.
There are exceptions: John Cassavetes' films such as Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz, Husbands are radical in letting the actors own their space, thereby throwing responsibility on the camera operator and the DOP to serve them. Some Australian movies have been made this way: Bill Bennett's Backlash, Mortgage, Prejudice, Malpractice, and most notably, Albie Thoms' Palm Beach. The dialogue in these last named films is fully or in greater part improvised, on location and in naturalistic mode. Thoms' film is shot on the principle of the 'sequence take' (although the party scene was subsequently edited), and deserves an article on its own. Mike Leigh's telemovies and films are radical in the freedom he gives actors in pre-production; their characterisation undergoes long gestation in rehearsal before his mise en scene places them in careful framing and camera moves.
Actors on stage control tempo and rhythm, flow and impact; actors on camera are subject to them, although Cassavetes' strategy was to give much of this control back to his actors. Of course these matters are addressed while shooting but they are decided in post-production. As the stage director 'dies' when the curtain goes up, the movie actor 'dies' when the last 'cut' is called. He may be brought in for post-synching, but this entails fine tuning of craft; it's too late for art. The show goes on without you once you're 'in the can'.
Some movies use long takes, even the unbroken sequence take, as a formal device, eg. films directed by Jancso and Tarkovsky, and Hitchcock's Rope. In these films the acting is overtly stylised or theatrical. The actor's task is more difficult in films where the long take is less overtly formal and performances must seem more 'natural', eg. Walkover (Skolimowski), Summer With Monika (Bergman), Under Capricorn (Hitchcock), or where the long take is judiciously broken up by inserts, eg. Where the Sidewalk Ends (Preminger).
The audience's frustration at the cut that doesn't happen is subsumed into narrative flow by the director's plan. Entire films made to such a plan are extremely rare, and even individual scenes are none too frequent. One that is worth studying is the riverbank scene in Two Rode Together (Ford) where the tension of the withheld cut becomes pleasurable as a formal determinant of the skilful work of the two actors. The actors do control flow and impact in this scene, but their positions in 'space' are determined by the 'area' within the frame. The camera's 'position' takes precedence over their position.
The stage actor has the advantage of being able to build his characterisation within the continuum of his performance, within an unbroken illusion (allowing for 'curtains'), in the same order and same duration that the audience witnesses it. His performance has 'aura'. Very rarely can a film or TV drama shoot its scenes in the same order as they occur in the screenplay; even when this happens, the work presented to the public does not have aura.
I used the term 'aura' as Walter Benjamin coined it in his oft anthologised essay "The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" [note 12] to describe the cultural value which attaches to a work of art (or other cultural phenomenon) because of the uniqueness of its occurrence, and hence can not be found in a repetition or imitation of it. A screen performance does not have aura (though each screening of it will have its slightly different aura, this attaches to the viewer's personal history not to the movie).
Perhaps motion pictures were still too recent a phenomenon in 1935 for Benjamin to consider that technological reproduction could induce a contrary condition to aura, and perhaps it will always be a minority who watch the same film or sequence repeatedly until its details become familiar - lovingly familiar in the case of film buffs, clinically familiar in the case of film scholars. They 'know it by heart', as the saying goes.
This repeated scrutiny of the filmic text is akin to the burnishing of an object - an urn, a medal, a boot - until it acquires a kind of radiance, a glow which emerges from the object by virtue of the buffing of it, and forms a special bonding with the one who buffs. I expect that most of us have favourite movie scenes and movie actors as we have favourite poems, paintings, passages of music.
I propose the term lamprotes to designate this condition/practice/value which is the contrary to Benjamin's aura.
Not only performances but the performers can become invested with lamprotes, and it may be that this is a function of cinema rather than film - on Cohen-Seat's distinction between the two. 13 The lamprotetic qualities of movie stars would require an article on their own, as would those of featured players whose presence and technique repay scrutiny: Chishu Ryu (my nomination for lifetime achievement in screen acting), Fredric March, Beulah Bondi, Haruko Sugimura, Jane Alexander, Gwen Watford, James Whitmore, Lino Ventura, and a hundred others you might wish to name. I wanted to include Anne Revere for her memorable 'good mother' roles in Body and Soul, A Place in the Sun, Song of Bernadette, National Velvet, etc, but I am embarrassed by the memory of her 'actorly' portrayal of a militant suffragist in The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
There are support actors and 'bit' players whose lamprotes have come to outshine their particular roles. I'm not thinking of 'cameos', for these by definition are foregrounded, emphatic, but of those actors whose names we may not learn after seeing them in numerous films, and actors we recognise as more or less 'regulars' for a certain director, eg. Dominique Zardi for Chabrol, Laszlo Szabo for Godard, and whole teams for Ozu and Ford respectively.
The radiance can emerge from the sum of bit parts we have seen an actor play. Amongst those who are lamprotetic for me are Morris Ankrum, Cliff Clark, Philip Ahn, Joseph Crehan, Clarence Kolb, Connie Gilchrist and Katherine Warren. No matter how cliched the characters they play and the dialogue they must say, they give enough of themselves to transcend, however briefly, mere professionalism. It is a joy to see them again; I feel a sense of welcome. For the short time they are on the screen their performance qualifies the narrative, rather than vice versa. These, and others, are hard-nosed, time-worn professionals who can become endeared to us just for 'doing their job', as they merge into our personal map of the American industry.
Occasionally a bit player can gain apotheosis from a short scene which remains radiant long after the movie is out of release, eg. Walter Baldwin, after countless parts as caretakers, office drudges, garbage collectors, had his great moment as the grieving father who rejects his boss's sympathy in I Want You; or sometimes the scene has become lamprotetic and the bit player's enclitic contribution fits it perfectly, eg. Harry Hayden, the ubiquitous ticket collector of the 30s and 40s, was immortalised when he played the manager of the diner in the opening scene of The Killers (1946).
And there are some movie actors who seem so naive or idiosyncratic that while they believe they are acting we perceive them to be behaving, eg. Billy Gilbert (Mr Pettibone in His Girl Friday), Hank Worden and Timothy Carey.
Sometimes a support actor presents an epiphany, a character of strong individuality, who also embodies a type (I might have said 'definitive', but I am careful not to conflate an example with a definition), eg. Lenka Peterson's querulous single mother in Someone I Touched, Margaret Tyzack's sugary authoritarian matron in Thank You All Very Much, Alice Brady's mother unable to make the choice of Solomon in Young Mr Lincoln. Less frequently, a support actor gets the chance to play a lead and makes the role epiphanic, which Bob McDarra did as a certified alcoholic in 27A, and Liz Smith as a housewife worn out by a lifetime of destroyed self esteem in Hard Labour.
And there are scenes where an actor otherwise unknown to me has brought a radiance inexhaustible to meditation, eg. the laconic waitress whose name changes from Milly to Fanny to Jacky inside two minutes in I Love Trouble, or the sultry groundling who loses Gary Cooper's attention when Marlene Dietrich sings in Morocco, or the languid fellow who caresses Dietrich's feather boa later in the same scene.
In the same essay in which he discusses aura Walter Benjamin uses a comparison of the methods of the magician and the surgeon to analogise the epistemological revolution of the age: the technological address to a subject ('coverage' we used to say in film making) entails 'penetration' of it, in terms of how the mass consumer comprehends it. Benjamin refers specifically to cinema (television was in the laboratory at that time, but his insights still apply) as a modern art whose mechanical reproduction feeds back into the production process and forward into the consumption process.
The movie audience is able to 'penetrate' the dramatic text in ways that the stage audience can not. The technology makes possible the film director's art, and alters the actor's art by allowing for technique which penetrates the performance. The stage actor's technique provides the audience with a limited 'penetration' of the playwright's text, but the performance itself is not 'penetrated' so much as it is conjured.
The movie actor grounds his work in behavioural commonplaces and/or details on the scale of the everyday. If his role calls for complexity of personality and/or emotional range and if the director's method is 'filmic' rather than 'filmed', he realises the revelatory passages of his characterisation in the succinctness of body language rather than the dynamism of proscenium tableaux where characters are seen and 'read' in crown-to-heel completeness. The movie actor's art of portrayal resembles more the miniature than the tapestry.
The good movie actor still acts from crown to heel whether he is in wide or tight framing, but only in order to give subliminal credibility to the telling detail which is the focus of his performance at a given moment. Even in close-up the actor does not use everything of hemself that is on view: you can overact with a finger in a close-up on your hand.
In a genuine movie performance only the detail 'tells'; in a stage performance the whole body 'tells'. The stage actor's technique can give focal priority to the detail but it is still read as a part of a whole. In a well directed, well edited movie that detail can be the whole, ie., can be read as the whole. Of course it is not the whole of the actor's behaviour at that moment, but in the stylistically enhanced screen illusion it is the whole of the character's behaviour.
Characterisation is a construct of perception and inference. Classical narrative cinema, whilst flexible enough to admit a variety of directing styles, has evolved a repertoire of rhetorical devices which organise priorities of perception. These in turn control, or significantly influence, inferences drawn from the data perceived. Broadly speaking, pictorial and musical devices have paradigmatic implications, editing has syntagmatic implications, but there can be complex interplay between devices and implications. The more polyvalent the interplay the greater the 'penetration' of the film text.
Experienced movie actors know where they are in the frame and how they are lit; they play for 'area' - how they will be seen on the screen. If an actor uses only stage technique on camera he is playing for 'volume'. In a tight framing the whole of the purposed text (his performance being a major component of that text) will not be on the screen. The text can not be read in its entirety because the performance is both too 'big' and incomplete.
Compare the screen portrayals of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Frederic March and Dustin Hoffman (1951 and 1985 respectively). In the former the signs of strain we see are the character's, in the latter they are the actor's. March squeezes hemself into the role, Hoffman squeezes the role into hemself. The 1951 version is scarcely a distinguished example of the art of film directing but it gives us freedom to scan the contents of screen and soundtrack to 'find' the detail and deduce its significance. In the 1985 version gestures and intonations are thrust upon us, their significance predigested and magnified. This is essentially the art of caricature, but sufficiently modified to be mistaken for 'strong' portraiture (do I hear the ghost of Joshua Smith knocking?).
Experienced movie actors become sensitive to the filmic rhythm of a scene and can anticipate the most likely cutting points the editor will impose on the footage. They 'place' their telling details at points likely to be favoured by camera and cutting. The actor who persists in giving a stage performance on camera (as Hoffman does as Loman, presumably out of exaggerated respect for its theatrical origin) conceives of rhythm as a continuum under the control of the cast. The chances are slim indeed that the rhythm in his head, the product of his 'actorly' preparation, will coincide with the cutting rhythm in the editor's head. An artistic conflict ensues; its resolution will be on cinematic rather than filmic grounds. If the actor has a 'name', i.e., some publicity value, his performance will be favoured at the expense of optimum film effect. If he has no exploitation value the editor will cut away from him/her at some points of his actorly emphasis; his paramotion will be diminished.
Some actors regard the camera as a willing servant but a cruel master. I have found the reverse: it is a generous master but a recalcitrant servant. Lighting, framing and blocking take chronological precedence in determining the actor's space, hence the actor's area. Whether they take precedence in dramatic significance is the director's decision.
In return for the camera's gift to you of redeeming behavioural detail lost to a stage audience and bestowing a new aesthetic territory of pictorial sensuousness, you must submit to a spatial discipline quite different from any stage. First you need to know who or what are the other occupants of the frame with you. Even in a single when you are the only actor on view, you will be sharing the audience's attention with furniture, fixtures, window, wall, etc., or natural objects: tree, hedge, cliff, etc., whose dramatic priority may be higher than yours (your character's).
Then you need to know whether you are framed 'wide' or 'tight'. In a full shot you can be seen from head to toe and you fill the frame; in a long shot the audience can see all of you but will miss detail. Most of your singles will be in mid-shot (from the waist up) or close-up (head and shoulders). However, the practice of relying on the medium close-up has become so widespread that the term 'MCU' is often heard on shoots. To me this usually spells 'compromise', like a tennis player who can't decide whether to stay on the baseline or go to the net.
No matter how tightly you are framed you should act with your whole body. The way you put your foot to the ground or favour one knee will show in the carriage of your neck and shoulders. And it can grievously effect the image: tilting forward or back a few inches can cause your nose or your ears to go out of focus, and shifting your weight from one foot to the other can cause you to disappear from a tightly framed shot.
When required to play in restricted or awkward postures with no margin for error some actors adopt a task mentality. They approach this part of the job as a hardship they have to endure before they can give the performance they 'know' is in them. With enough grit and concentration they override discomfort and the distraction it brings. Because they know their space is 'false' they find it difficult to persuade themselves that their character's area is 'true'. No wonder they regard the camera as a cruel master.
The movie actor who thinks of the space first is as faulty in method as the stage actor who 'goes to the words' first. As theatrical logic leads you to 'want' the words, film logic should lead you to want that camera set-up. The discomfort becomes the price you choose to pay to get what you want; it is not an imposition or an arbitrary command.
Of course there will be times when your sense of screen logic is not the same as the director's; his choice of coverage will not be to your liking, but his command will not be arbitrary, merely authoritative. You have to be a professional and take orders. In order to survive as a professional you need to develop a strong will, yet you must be subservient to the will of another. Stanislavski warned that the actor must subject hemself to the iron discipline of the soldier. The stage actor may be as thoroughly drilled as the movie actor, but he has the whole parade ground to perform his drill; the latter must do his duty in a pillbox. Calling these personal imperatives 'logic' is scarcely less contentious than calling them 'grammar'. They have been established by usage. The makers of movies practise their usage; the consumers of movies, the public, practise theirs.
The metteur en scene, the director, has at his disposal a repertoire of pictorial factors or signals which attract and control audience attention. They assign dramatic priorities to the formal occupants of the framed area.
Let's say you are working with another actor in a two-shot where the audience can see both of you and 'read' your enacted behaviour (not an over-shoulder shot, where only one of you can be clearly seen and 'read'). Your performance should be qualified by your awareness of pictorial factors which may give either of you dramatic ascendancy over the other.
FRONTAL: If you are full face to camera you have more to work with, more resources of 'expression', than the actor whose face is seen only in partial aspect.
COMPOSITION: If you are framed centrally or one of the vertical 'thirds' the audience's attention goes to you more readily than to the one who has a less advantageous position in the frame. Other pictorial elements, eg., areas of light and shade, linear abstracts like borders of furniture and fittings, may be guiding the eye toward or away from your position. If they are toward you they give you pictorial emphasis, you are 'favoured'. If they are away from you but your position in the frame favours you, audience attention is 'balanced' between you and the other actor.
LIGHTING: The 'key' light commands more attention, is pictorially ascendant over the 'fill' lights. You should know if you are favoured by the key, or sharing it with the other actor, or lit by some combination of fills. You should know how much, if any, shadow falls on you, and whether it is full or broken shadow. Depending on the dramatic situation, you may be helped more by shadow than by light. If a specialised light, such as a 'pencil spot', is on you, you will be told how to position yourself for it. Some actors submit passively to positioning instructions and regard them as restrictions on their freedom to perform. Other actors welcome them as facilitators of an effect they could not achieve unaided.
CONTRAST: As well as lighting contrast there is design contrast. You have to consider how well your pictorial background supports you (if it supports you), and whether that support functions as blend or contrast. Your background may be 'busy', with intricate patterns of objects in motion (crowds, traffic, machinery, etc.), or it may be something featureless like a blank wall. Even that 'featureless' expanse has properties of texture, luminosity, hue. Your background will occupy only part of the frame, so there is the further consideration of how your area blends or contrasts with the other actor's area. Remember, your space is greater than your area but the audience sees only your area.
CAMERA ANGLE: Apart from aspect - frontal, profile, etc. - there is the factor of whether you are perceptibly higher or lower than the camera. For some directors choice of camera angle 'makes a comment' about the dramatic situation. You ought to be aware if your character (not your performance!) is being commented upon by the camera placement.
Other pictorial factors which can give dramatic ascendancy to one character over the other in a two-shot are:
Height in frame
Distance from camera (= size in frame)
Usually, the less 'busy' the background of your area the more these factors will restrict freedom in your space but enhance your performance.
If you are working with a prop - tool, accessory, weapon, etc. - you have to be mindful that it too may have claim upon these factors (or they upon it). Stella Adler was able to tell her theatre students, "The prop will keep you truthful", [note 14] but on camera the prop may be a competitor and/or a source of distraction. Since you are handling it the responsibility is yours to ensure that it gets the requisite positioning for light, composition, focus, design contrast, etc.
You may feel the prop's needs are different from yours, that it threatens your 'truth', making your action 'false'. If you are directed to hold it in such a way that it picks up a star filter 'ping', it becomes the master and you the servant. Whether you regard it as 'cruel' or 'generous' depends upon your appreciation of screen aesthetics.
The factors I have been describing apply in the case of a static shot where the camera, the two actors and other pictorial elements are all stationary. When there is movement in the frame by one or both actors, the interaction of any or all of these factors becomes dynamic. More possibilities for expression come into calculation.
When the actors are stationary and the frame moves (pan, dolly, crane, etc.), other dynamics and other calculations apply.
When there is both movement within the frame and movement by the frame the expressive possibilities increase exponentially. So the actor's 'camera sense' becomes a complex responsibility. Lazy actors who don't bother to develop their understanding of the medium merely wait to be instructed on their positioning and blithely deliver the same performance without fine tuning. They really have no right to be offended by Hitchcock's reported comment that movie actors should be treated like cattle.
Any one of the factors I have been describing, and any one of their numerous combinations, may distribute formal emphasis equally between both actors, or it may favour one of them. The favoured one will gain pictorial ascendancy, priority of audience attention, over the other. With occasional exceptions - perhaps for irony or stylized effect - pictorial ascendancy means dramatic ascendancy.
Most camera set-ups balance 'favouring' factors with 'shared' factors, and balance the favouring factors between the characters: if one is taller in frame the other may be frontal to camera; if one is in sharper focus the other may be closer to camera; if one gets the 'fill' the other gets the 'busy' background, etc. There are numerous combinations for obtaining balance, as there are for various levels of ascendancy, from subtle to pronounced.
If all the factors are shared the pictorial result has a low 'dramatic temperature'. Even if the dialogue is sharp and performances energetic the audience will feel an overall blandness in the scene. If all, or most, factors are favouring rather than shared, the 'temperature' rises. If the temperature is 'up' and the favouring factors are equally distributed between the two characters, the audience will feel an overall tension in the scene. However, if pictorially induced tension is 'up', but dialogue and performances are 'down' (conflict is low or the issue is trivial), the scene may seem pretentious. In an extreme case all the factors may be 'favouring' and they may all favour the one actor. In pictorial terms his character is dominant, and in dramatic terms, ascendant over the other character. It is the actor's process of characterisation that is ascendant; the character he is playing may be a dominated person, a victim. But the image sends out ineluctable signals to the audience that his character is the ruling object of their attention, and the recipient of their ruling emotion/paramotion at that point.
What I have been describing are only the formally pictorial factors of acting for camera, and only in relation to one camera set up. Almost any scene you play will cut between different camera set-ups, and a differential calculus of factors will operate for each. A movie scene which runs for a minute or two may have half a dozen shots, taken from three or more set-ups. So it can involve hundreds of factorial combinations, and some of them may be intended by the director to have more dramatic impact than your performance. The chances are that the audience will perceive these as part of your performance. Some of the beauty of your performance will result from the art of others.
If your character has been favoured by the pictorial factoring your paramotion will be greater than your epimotion. If the other actor's character has been favoured your paramotion may be less than your epimotion; you may put more into your work than the audience notices - because the factors are not in your favour. Your performance will have more art, less beauty.
Further discipline is required to observe 'continuity' - in its specialised sense in film making. You can expect that each shot will be 'taken' more than once by camera and microphone. The economics of production frown upon a high shooting ratio: i.e., the proportion of film footage shot to footage used in the release version of the movie.
A ratio of 5:1 is not unreasonable (lower for television), but it can be higher if the budget permits. (The highest number of takes I've been called upon to do is 33. That was for a 27-1/2 second 'sequence take' with precise movement and delivery. It was a TV commercial. These usually have much more generous budgets than dramas per unit of running time, and sometimes require greater precision of performance, calling upon a technique as concise and delicate as composing a haiku - though not as lofty in their sentiments.)
The director may instruct the actor to modify some part of his performance from one take to the next - hopefully subject to the dramatic logic they have agreed upon, so that characterisation remains consistent while allowing creative variation in details. Such consistency must hold from take to take of this shot, from shot to shot within the scene, and from scene to scene within the entire movie.
Since the usual practice is to cover the drama from different camera set-ups, the actor will have to play some of his speech and action in both wide and tight framings. The wide shot is usually taken first, and may be a 'master': i.e., the whole scene or a major portion of it is played in the one shot, without a cut. There will be more than one 'take' of this 'take', and subsequent tighter shots will be cut into the master.
What screen drama treats as a scene is likely to be considerably shorter than a scene on stage. When we look at a conventional movie scene lasting three minutes with speaking parts for actors A, B, C and D, we may see something like this:
The scene opens with Take 3 of the master showing A, B and C, cut to Take 2 of a mid-shot single on A, cut to Take 1 of a mid-shot single on B, cut back to the master but this time it will be Take 2 that is used, cut to Take 5 of a two-shot on B and C, return to Take 1 of the master when D enters, cut to Take 3 of a close-up single on A, cut to Take 3 of the two-shot on B and C, cut to Take 1 of a mid-shot single on D, cut to Take 3 of the master, cut to Take 4 of the close-up on A, cut to Take 2 of a close-up single on D, cut to Take 6 of a close-up single on B (he had trouble getting his eyebrow to lift in the way the director wanted), return to Take 3 of the master for the final shot.
This is basic stuff for the editor. What he needs from the actors is postural and gestural consistency so that the various takes of the various shots can be matched for cutting points. The editor needs A to say his lines at exactly the same moment of sitting down and standing up, B has to have his left leg crossed over the right for each take of each set-up (unless he uncrosses and recrosses them during the master (which can double or treble the hazards of continuity), C's cigarette has to burn down at the same rate in each take of each shot and his gestures with it have to be the same each time, and D must open that envelope with the same action at the same point in the delivery of his and the others' dialogue.
These continuity requirements are regarded as essential for preservation of the technologically induced dramatic illusion (actually, urgent narrative and/or intense paramotion can override continuity lapses). If a lapse is noticed by the audience it invades their hypnogagic condition and punches a hole in credibility. Since there is no 'aura' to protect it, credibility is more fragile on screen than in live theatre; too many holes and the fabric perishes.
Some actors approach continuity tasks as a nuisance. Actors who are mindful of their character's continuity can anticipate the post-production process and modulate their work accordingly. They can structure their playing of a scene for the 'high', 'low', 'sharp' and 'flat' moments to be seen by the most favourable coverage.
They get satisfaction - pride, if you like - from being able to do this, rather than depend upon the hard-worked continuity person. Or their motives may be less idealistic: the better you understand the editing choices inherent in the footage the fewer rude shocks you'll get when you see what's left of your performance in the release print!
The more conventional the mise en scene the greater can be the modifications to text and subtext in post-production. I used to do an exercise for my acting class to demonstrate the influence editing can have on the 'meaning' of a film text: I would have three of them play a short scene on video, then edit it in different ways, favouring one, then another, favouring one against two, then two against one. Even though students were alert to the purpose of the exercise and had acted the scene themselves, they usually reported different responses - even different interpretations - from one version to the next.
Even an experienced movie actor can't expect to anticipate every cutting sequence correctly. If he could second guess other minds the movies would be ruled by a dead grammar (some film critics believe this is happening!). So there will be disappointments for the actor when he sees the release version of the movie. Perhaps the takes in which he thought he did his best work will have been lost because the camera is on another actor in the final edit.
More important for continuity than cigarette lengths and levels in drinking glasses are actors' eyelines. In the functional alternating attention of a short/reverse-shot dialogue sequence, a character's eyeline to his collocutor is normally needed to achieve a phatic cut between their respective singles. When a character redirects his eyeline the effect is emphatic. It marks a diegetic 'step'; the audience expects a cut to the new object of his (and their) attention. This is basic grammar in classical narrative cinema. So the actor has to be careful of when and where he holds or adjusts his gaze. A misplaced eyeline can escape the vigilance of the continuity person during shooting and deny the editor the cut he wants to make. His editor's logic forbids him to use that shot: his skill will find another solution, but that scene won't work as effectively as it should have.
Throughout this discussion of factoring and continuity I have concentrated on technical aspects of the movie actor's discipline. It should go without saying that these are merely contingent upon his creativity - the art of characterisation which he shares with the stage actor. Other operations of editing 'penetrate' his character in ways that are more than contingent.
Editing fixes the dramatic rhythm of a scene after the performance. It is a function which has no equivalent in stage production. Since the economics of the movie business prohibit covering an entire scene from different set-ups and only partial overlaps are tolerated, the director needs to have at least a rough editing plan in mind for a dialogue scene. His analysis of the scene on paper (usually a theatrical analysis) determines his choice of what set-ups to schedule for various segments of dialogue.
The art of mise en scene does not end with consideration of the pictorial factors mentioned earlier; it also entails decisions about the duration of each shot, when to cut and what to cut to. The more assured the director the fewer will be the decisions left to the editor (it has to be admitted that some directors derive their assurance from devotion to cliches).
The creatively attuned actor will also be aware of editing possibilities for dramatic rhythm. By assessing these he can 'play for the cut', making subtle modifications in his performance to meet the likelihood of one set-up being preferred to another where there is overlap between their respective coverages.
He becomes accustomed to distinguishing between impellent and propellent editing. Sometimes a diegetic 'step' is created by a cut from one set-up to another. The cut impels the shift in narrative tension. An experienced movie actor can anticipate the likelihood of such a cut from his reading of the screenplay; an inexperienced actor who remains alert and curious about the medium will probably 'feel' it during the shoot. If the actor is not the one to be favoured by the cut he should play his lines enclitically, yielding dramatic attention and coverage to another actor(s).
Less predictable is the cut that merely propels the narrative flow along the course already established. Cutaways and reaction shots take the camera off the speaking actor to his listener(s). Sometimes a cut is made to a different angle or framing because the editor judges that one set-up has been held too long and needs 'variation'.
The impellent cut is associated with emphatic and enclitic performance, the propellent with the phatic. You can play for the cut confidently with impellent editing but not with propellent editing. There are other methods of editing, such as 'intellectual montage', which I would include in the category of compellent editing, but these usually do not influence modifications of performance.
In classical narrative cinema the character's eyeline is a more powerful factor for commanding audience attention and controlling response than any of the formal elements I have been calling 'pictorial factors'. Bresson refers to it as 'the pistol shot'. 15
When a character who is ascendant in the shot switches his eyeline, and when the eyelines of two characters in a group shot converge on the same object of attention in the frame (the object may be another character), 'grammar' impels the expectation of a tight shot of that object before cutting back to the owner(s) of the impellent eyeline. When the switch or the convergence is addressed to something or someone out of frame, there will be an even stronger impulse to want the cut.
The experienced movie actor realises that he will not be on camera for at least those seconds of the release version, even though he has been covered at that point by both wide and tight set-ups. There are some exceptions in classical grammar, for example devices for irony or suspense, and there are exceptions in highly stylised and unconventional films.
Conventionally, the listening character's eyeline complements the speaking character's delivery. Even if the listener is not looking at the speaker there are rhetorical support devices he can use in the acting of an averted or vacillating gaze.
It is part of the actor's technique to be able to perform the eyeline clearly and sharply; if it is to be held, held firmly (but not rigidly), and to deliver the look with as much relevance for the dialogue and its subtext as the speaker's delivery of the words. It is no paradox to say that even a vacillating eyeline can be acted firmly, with precise orchestration of every little shift in gaze while making them seem random and uncontrolled.
Part of the speaking actor's power over the audience's paramotion is passed on to him by the listening actor's eyeline. When I see contemporary actor Robin Williams in some of his movies I worry for his fellow actors. Their performances have to start behind scratch because he rarely sends a disciplined eyeline to anyone or anything that might compete for audience attention. In his radio studio scenes in Good Morning, Vietnam, he couldn't give one to his broadcast microphone!
When I interviewed John Seale, the cinematographer of Dead Poets Society, I commented on how few occasions Williams sent a firm eyeline to another actor in that film. Seale seemed surprised that anyone had noticed, and explained that Williams' career as a stand-up comedian had imprinted the practice of scanning his live audience for feedback. Well, that is an explanation but not an excuse. To paraphrase Bresson: what is unobtrusive on the boards may be obvious on camera - but not to the majority of the audience, it seems.
If the director instructs you to hold an unbroken eyeline on your fellow actor and wants this to indicate that your character is intent but not obsessive, you should have the technique to 'humanise' the fixity of your gaze by slight flexing of body language. Actors working with Steve Martin don't seem to get full support from him because his body language competes for audience attention, even when his character is supposed to be in phatic listening mode.
Williams and Martin compete when they should be supportive. I'm not saying they are selfish actors; I suppose they lack the technique rather than the will to be good team players. Their popularity testifies to how far talent can outweigh technique.
There is more to be said about Bresson's 'pistol shot'. That sharp, sudden, commanding missile actually has a two-way trajectory; it might have been better described as a bazooka! That bolt which is launched from the seeing/listening character to the seen, and commands the audience to look at what he is looking at, simultaneously opens up his - the seeing character's - interior state. The force of the bolt travels both ways, into the seer as well as the seen. It 'penetrates' them. It reveals the dramatic content of the instant while it commands the dramatic imperative of the instant that follows, which may be in the same shot or the next shot. It extends the complexity of both paradigm and syntagm, and compounds them.
Since the Janus Bolt looks both ways, the eyeline you judiciously perform to 'feed' your fellow actor also reveals your character to the audience. Your character is a 'receiver', you the actor are a 'transmitter'.
Established stage actors who go straight to TV drama don't need to understand much about the subtleties of lighting, design and editing. Playing to a three camera set-up means they aren't troubled by the mysteries of 'crossing the line'; the 'line' now corresponds to the stage's 'fourth wall'. Lighting and design have to suffice for three different camera coverages simultaneously. And so do the actors.
Consequently, actors can rely upon their stage consciousness and technique, with some diminution of scale. They can do their job to the satisfaction of producer and director, then resume their theatrical commitments, innocent of the art of film acting. You don't need an understanding of film language to tread a successful career path between The Cherry Orchard and E Street.
I remember working with an eminent Australian actor, well known in theatre and 'soaps', whom I had seen play Shakespeare for BBC television. A group of us were discussing 'technique', and I cited this example: a movie scene requires my character to suffer interior stress. I know I can show this without changing either face or voice, if I am favoured by the key light. I can tilt my chin down, just a few degrees, and my eye sockets will fill with shadow. The audience witnesses the pictorial transition and their imaginative perception, their apperception, completes the metonymic process: 'tilt' = 'shadow' = 'stress'. They 'penetrate' my character in that moment and attribute to me an emotion they have helped to create. The eminent actor's response to my example was, "No one's ever told me that". The ruminant expression on some of the others' faces suggested that it was news to them, too, although they had all worked professionally on camera.
If you are asked to act impressionistically, as in my example of the shadowed eye sockets, you will realise that the cinematographer, or DOP, is the major contributor to that effect. He has to get the lighting arranged for you to slot yourself into. Your contribution will entail less effort and less calculation than his, but you are going to get the credit for it. The audience will attribute its paramotion to your epimotion. If you deserve admiration it is not for your epimotion but for your technique, based on a knowledge of the creative possibilities of the medium.
The shot might be remarkably 'beautiful', by a dramatic rather than pictorial criterion. If so, how will the attribution of its 'art' be apportioned between director, cinematographer and actor? Most critics I have read don't look closely enough at the text to recognize such a distinction. Theorists do look carefully enough but for most of them, concerned with politics and semiotics rather than aesthetics, the distinction is irrelevant.
You are not likely to be called upon to do impressionist acting for multi-cam TV drama. Specialised lighting for one camera can make the coverage by the other two unusable. Even in the case of single camera shooting for TV the economics of production have resulted in stylistic norms that are debased variations of classical narrative cinema. Impressionist acting entails less overt effort, but takes more time to set up. Time is money so the prevailing attitude is save it for something with 'appeal', like overacting (that's cheap).
Film budgets are usually more accommodating to impressionist acting, but some directors don't ask for it because they don't understand it. Many of them spent their formative years watching economic TV or spendthrift cinema - those award-winning movies that lavish their production values on Deadly Theatre acting conventions.
TV drama can't afford the David Lean scale of indulgence, and abhors a vacuum. Unfortunately, many TV directors regard any 'gap' in the flow of words and/or action as a vacuum, and don't consider that a well-judged silence or stillness can express anything but 'suspense'.
One of the scenes I played in a well-respected mini-series in the early 1980s required my character to lower dramatic tension after the youthful hero confronted a potentially violent criminal. The crim backed off and I had to say to the hero, "You're pretty brave, d'you know that? And also pretty stupid". For economic reasons there was no rehearsal, only a 'tech run' (to get the chalk marks straight). When I spoke the line in the tech run I left a pause after " . . . know that?". The director instructed me to drop the pause and run the line on for the actual shoot. Since he was the kind of director an actor could talk to about such things, I pointed out that I was hoping to build a 'step' into audience response: give them a moment (it was two beats) to feel good about 'brave', then bring them back to reality with 'stupid'. It was justified by dramatic logic and would add to entertainment value.
Basic stuff, you might think, but the director's reply was, "This is television, not an art movie." There was nothing arrogant about the way he said it; he was simply asserting that he knew his medium and his audience (ABC prime time) better than I did.
Although it asks less of your talent, TV drama is more reliant upon the actor than cinema is, but only by default. Television's mechanically alternating ping pong between talking heads began in the new industry forty odd years ago as a naive economic rationalisation due to the costs of continuity, retakes, sets and lighting for complex camera moves. It has become a rudimentary dialect of film 'language'. So TV drama is a writers' and actors' medium (and could be a composers' and costumiers' medium). The arts of mise en scene, lighting and production design are artistically marginalised. These arts come to their flowering in film drama, with its more generous production values (the euphemism for 'budgets').
If you are going to be a movie actor, not a slumming stage actor, you have to expect that the marketplace in this country is not interested in helping you perfect your art - unless it can be shown to have commodity value. Most of those who employ you will congratulate you for overacting (it was ever thus: Spencer Tracy, one of the finest film actors, and a star to boot, got an Oscar for possibly his worst performance, in Captains Courageous).
The actor's condition is trebly schizoid. Without self-knowledge, self-control and self-command you can't co-exist peacefully with the characters you play. You need robust, ever renewable confidence to believe you can play every role you audition for, though you will be rejected for most of them - by most I mean a count of more than twenty to one. That's a lot of battering for your confidence to withstand when you've told yourself you're good enough for each one of them. When you do perform you are tempted to play for acclaim from public and peers - 'the bubble reputation in the cannon's mouth' - rather than knuckling down to the artistic discipline you must respect if you are to respect yourself.
If the audience are convinced by a portrayal, and moved by it, isn't the actor a success in the role? Only if you equate popularity with success. Art must have some standards which are not dependent upon immediate recognition and acclaim. Performance is a high risk art, in the sense that you prejudice your chances of further work if you are judged 'below par'. Not to be noticed at all is more insulting than an unfavourable review but it is preferable from the point of view of employment prospects.
Recognition by a minority (director and cast) may be sufficient while the shoot lasts. Meeting self imposed standards can be sufficient for some artists' sense of success; some will say this is the only criterion that matters. But that's a lonely place to be (the best film Hollywood ever made about Hollywood was called In a Lonely Place); playwright, painter, composer, architect, etc, can wait for the merits of their work to be 'discovered' in a dreamed-of future. If the actor's merits aren't recognised he doesn't get the chance to practise his art again.
The movie actor doesn't get the immediate feedback which allows the stage actor to fine tune his performance from night to night, scene to scene. Apart from the judgement of his peers on the set and at rushes (was there ever a movie that didn't look great in the rushes?) the actor's reputation is put through the slow grind of distribution/exhibition/publicity/box office and casting for the next one - if there is a next one.
The actor's career vulnerability (James Mason, one of the most 'established' of international actors, lived in continual anxiety that he might never be offered another role) makes him extraordinary amongst artists. Some actors are so insecure they even believe what reviewers say about them! 'Career' can make you craven, 'vocation' gives you courage, but only art gives you integrity. Some actors assume a cynical or insolent persona ('What are my lines in this scene?') to protect themselves from the mediocrity of the roles they get. This is misconstrued by producers as laziness. Other actors stay in demand by virtue of developing performance mannerisms which casting agents can easily classify and remember. This is misconstrued as talent. The business gives them a living but they are in a vocational rut.
Most of us aren't going to get a lead role in a lifetime of movie acting. If it helps, look on your career prospects as those of an old time prospector. You might spend your working life doing it hard, eating dust, and never make that lucky strike - not because you don't have the ability but because you weren't in the right place at the right time. You have to become inured to the chagrin of the bit player. You may never be called on to play a scene depicting a test of emotions and morals, or crucibles of history and mythology. You might go on working for years, decades, playing ancillary roles whose function is merely propellent to the narrative.
The bit player comes onto the set for a day, maybe a few days, and does not get the opportunity to feel that he 'belongs' with this company of his peers - cast and crew. No matter how cordial may be his reception he is only a journeyman who doesn't stay around long enough to feel 'bonded' to the production. He gets his pay and goes his way and may never know whether the show got released.
The technical discipline of being a movie actor goes along with the social discipline: behave yourself, take instruction - even if it is unimaginative and unchallenging - don't suggest changes to the mise en scene unless an opening is left for you in the etiquette of production, eg., if the director asks for your opinion. Otherwise your conduit is via the second assistant director to the first assistant, and thence to the director.
For most of your career you should be developing skill and sensitivity which few, if any, producers will invite you to use to the full. And if they do ask for your heart, and you give it to them, you run the risk it will end up as chopped liver on the screen. You go on, trying to improve your technique and preserve your integrity because you have an ideal. You take the unchallenging jobs because it's the only way to remain a professional as well as a vocational actor. I think of those lovingly fashioned gargoyles high up on cathedrals which went undiscovered for centuries until the steam cleaners put up their scaffolds. I like to think that the lives of the anonymous artists who sculpted them were illuminated by pride in their work, adherence to an ideal that did nothing for their reputations. They were paid for craft and they delivered art.
In no other profession do you put as much of yourself on show and at risk. Your self-esteem and your livelihood are continually vulnerable. However, unless you're an exceptional athlete or musician you won't find another profession where 'play' and 'work' are synonymous. When you act professionally you are in a high place. People look up to you, but you can fall a long way. If you are lucky and get that principal role, remember the platform you are ascending may lead to the throne - or to the gallows. Break a leg!
1. Stella Adler, The Technique of Acting (New York: Bantam Books,1988), p. 32.
2. Constantin Stanislavski, Building a Character (London: Reinhardt and Evans,1949), p. 177.
3. Alexander Knox, "Acting and Behaving", in Manvell and Baxter (eds.), The Cinema 1951 (London: Penguin, 1951).
4. Peter Brook, The Empty Space (London: Penguin, 1972), Part 1.
5. Otto Baensch, "Art and Feeling", Logos, vol XII, 1923-4; also in Langer ed., Reflections on Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 10-36.
6. Thomas Elsaesser, "A Cinema of Vicious Circles", in Rayns (ed.), Fassbinder (London: British Film Institute, 1976), p. 27.
7. Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer (Great Britain: Quartet Encounters,1986), pp. 57-8. [Editor's note: It can never be pointed out often enough that the French title of Bresson's book, Notes sur le cinematographe, refers to the cinematograph, which is something like 'the cinematic apparatus' or 'cinema as expressive instrument', but certainly not the cinematographer or director of photography. - AM]
8. Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares (New York: Theatre Arts Books,1977), p. 73.
9. Bresson, op. cit, p. 9. Translation altered.
10. Pauline Kael, Going Steady (Boston: Little Brown, 1970).
11. A Collective Text, "Morocco", in Baxter (ed.), Sternberg (London: British Film Institute, 1980) (translated from Cahiers du Cinema 225, November-December 1970).
12. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968).
13. Cited in Christian Metz, Language and Cinema (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), chapter 1.
14. Adler, The Technique of Acting, chapter 5.
15. Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, p. 120.
New: 7 December, 1995 | Now: 20 March, 2015