Moving into “Chapter 5: Acting” of Barsam’s Looking at Movies, it’s interesting to learn about the ways in which acting techniques have evolved in relation to increasing capabilities of technology. Moving from theater to silent film, to camera with sound, to sound separate from the camera has provided increased actor/audience intimacy and morphed into more natural character portrayals over time.
While this reads as a natural progression, what this technological growth has meant for acting is a regression from a more naturally performed, chronological performance. At present, many takes and set-ups are required and dependence upon location determines the shot sequence rather than narrative order. It’s no wonder that Forrest Whitaker made such an effort to be Idi Amin in Kevin McDonald’s The Last King of Scotland, off the set as much as on. The vast number of performance interruptions can only be a distraction from the feel of the story as a whole. Amin, as a man, was so intense that to slip in and out of character would have been far more difficult than to sustain that constant level of intensity.
I find the transition of classical studio era “star-systems” to present day “star vehicles” interesting as well. In each case the actor is a salable commodity yet the transition has moved away from the studio controlled name, image and persona to an individually governed career. Rather than living a life owned by the industry, actors now promote themselves through the free publicity of magazines, product sales and other such means.
With the tragic fall of Marilyn Monroe under so much pressure to perform in her personal life as much as on film, the new “vehicle” system appears to accommodate an actors’ personal liberation. Unfortunately, from what this chapter suggests, the pressure upon actors is no less, only different. The number of actors continues to increase while contract duration has significantly decreased, offering no guarantee beyond one film at a time. Each actor must rely on the finicky acceptance of the audience at large, yet tastes change like the wind. And then there’s the no small matter of having to compete with the likes of CGI character Jar Jar Binks. I love George Lucas, truly I do, but what was he thinking inserting such an obnoxious pest into three Star Wars films?
Overall, the life and career of many an actor has not been an easy road to travel. Constant adjustment with technique, relationships with other professionals on the set, character interpretation, personal invasion, discrimination (a shifting practice, albeit slowly), agism and maintaining successful manipulation of personal image are just a few obstacles they face. The truly successful ones have a handle on techniques such as method, improvisational and voice acting as well as employing thoughtful rather than emotional performances. Those with the greatest versatility and/or persona can count on the longest careers.
While I understand that this chapter illustrates the different aspects of performance, enabling us to better analyze an actor’s role, I find the other side of this career more interesting. Alex Tunney in “The Camera Loves You” focuses a bit on the life of the actor beyond when he mentions:
the introduction of the movie actor as movie star and celebrity, which leads to not just acting on the set, but in the public with movie goers view of them being influenced by their (previous) roles and the media.
I realize that film trailers and magazine photo spreads are part of the business, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of psychological impact the commodification of acting has on the actors’ personal lives, not just with the overbearing control of the former classical studio star system, but also at present with the sometimes uncontrollable use of star-vehicles for publicity.
I believe it was classmate Lauren Rose who said that being an actor is one of the hardest things to do. (I’m paraphrasing here so, Lauren, I apologize if I got that wrong.) I think she was referring more to the technical constraints. Still, it’s not a far stretch to say that those high demands create emotional effects. As Alex pointed out:
Actors try to figure how to inhabit the character and sometimes overtaken and almost become the character. Some people have though about this with Heath Ledger playing Joker and how it affected his mental state.
On set, especially with method acting, there is a very real emotional approach and certain amount of personal emotional toil in playing a tyrannical dictator, abusive parent, tortured soldier, yet these types of roles are necessary to drive the plot. What does it feel like to slaughter hundreds of people, beat your child to death, or to be on the verge of death at the hands of a foreign government? We’ve often heard that actors experienced anxiety, fear or terror, even on the controlled set. The unreal has a very real emotional impact, which we as viewers experience over the short course of the viewing. Actors work within these roles for months.
Additionally, at the end of the day when an actor just wants to be genuine, they must continue to present a certain persona on the street, in restaurants, at a club. If rabid fans are chasing them down and asking for autographs, or the paparazzi invades their space by shoving a camera lens in their face, they must remain calm and demonstrate grace under pressure. We know how well this works when the story becomes “So-and-so punched a photographer on Friday night.”
Even with careful attention to the public image they attempt to create, People magazine, Access Hollywood, Hello, and the lower tier of gossip mags are incredibly invasive and often present information about celebrities that is untrue. As a result of such public scrutiny, we often hear about reckless behavior, a loss of reference to fictional vs. real life consequence, and out-of-control emotional spirals into deep, dark places, drug and alcohol abuse – accidental or otherwise – particularly with the younger generation of celebrities. The more experienced generation carefully orchestrates seclusion and privacy to preserve their sanity and arrange for highly constructed public appearances. You just don’t hear about Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts clubbing with Paris Hilton.
So, while I respect the fact that acting is a demanding career and there are many techniques to consider when evaluating the performance, I find the emotional roller coaster to be cyclically in concert with both the internal and external, at least with method acting. You draw upon personal emotion to portray a character’s experience. You then learn more about that particular emotion by experiencing it from the safe distance of performance. Still, it changes your point of view as a person, offering deeper understanding to draw on for the next role. As an actor, if you’re a good actor, your experience and understanding is compounded exponentially. Unfortunately, If you can’t handle the emotional burden, things can also go very badly.