7. As You Like It: Critical Analysis of Character Acting in the Context of Film Part II

I’ll start this one with a disclaimer.  These pages are meant to be read in book form: one chapter at a time, starting with the first.  In order to understand what I am referring to on this page, for example, you should read all the other pages leading up to it.  It’s a lot of reading, as I am quite long-winded, but worth it.  If you don’t have the time, but really want to read my opinions on acting, read part one of this series first.  Obviously.  In the previous part, I spent most of my time arguing two facets of movie acting.  The first involved the mission of movie acting, the second involved the finer attributes of the oft-criticized typecast style acting.   In this part, I will focus on the history of character acting in the context of film as well as the evolution of consumer taste in film.  The first aspect–the actual history of film acting–will be more factual, while the second–the evolution of consumer taste in regards to acting performances–will be rooted in my own perceptions and life experiences with the general viewing public.  That should lead into the difficult attempt to help determine the most appropriate ways to criticize and laud various acting performances from various eras of acting; including the ever-challenging appraisal of the “character actor.”

The First Golden Age: Of Civilization

Early Greek and Roman theater is perhaps the most logical starting point to examine the historical evolution of acting; considering their direct familial line with the Renaissance/Reformation style acting and the eventual roll-over into modern Westernism.  As the world is now far more global, the definitive characteristics of early Western acting have come to affect the now-cliched “East” as well, and inasmuch as certain other influences find their roots in Eastern ancient theater the history of Oriental will also be covered; those, however, will only be briefly covered since the main points of emphasis exist in Western styles and theories.

It is very important to realize the reality of theory in acting.  Any profession that has, in the format of Western education, a pursuable degree attached to it, deals in theories, and the progress and historical development of theories contextualize the entire practice and bring light to its overall appreciation.  Acting is no different.  It is a specialized profession, just as animation, art direction, musical composition or cinematography are specialized fields.  Greece and Rome–primarily Rome–used slaves as their actors, and I would like–though I have no credible understanding to do so–to believe that these theater slaves found some solace in this specialization, as if they saw their own semi-professional careers as beacons of self-identity and actualization.  There were two important aspects of these theatrical compositions to understand for the sake of this entry: 1) They were fundamentally caricatured on the base level and 2) they were often adapted from religious understanding.

It is the religious, or sanctimonious, element that most intertwines the foreign styles of acting between Mediterranean and Oriental societies predating the Christian era.  These carried over until the present-day, but at the time now in discussion, they were focused in the paganistic and the shamanistic: the former dealing with story, the latter dealing with symbol.  From these two elements, we see the importance of caricature in early acting.  Greek gods (as well as Roman) were representative of singular parts of nature and life.  These entities were one-dimensional, rarely exhibiting multiple motives or layered personality dynamics.  The symbolic representation (which at first was probably not seen as entertainment) of the East also had to be singular-faceted, as deviation from the symbol would mean deviation from the goal.

The manifestation of these caricatures was a bombastic style of acting which would reach its zenith toward the end of the 19th century.  An obvious reason for this is usually explained simply as the need for loud volume both in tone and in movement in order for the audience to see and understand the action.  I submit that my analysis of theatrical motive in the previous paragraphs allow for further vindication of said styles.  More will be spoken about this later.

Minstrels, Mimes and Martial Arts

After Christianity found its way into Roman life, acting as a profession diminished drastically with the vanishing art of theater.  For reasons unknown to me, the Christian era (amid the theatrical, at least) saw a transfer from acting to performance in other areas; among these areas were the arts of musical performance and dance.

These were of great value in medieval Europe, as the population expansion (as well as the vast migratory experiences) created a drift in population density and an uprising of rural community.  The spread facilitated traveling minstrel shows, as well as larger circus shows.  Stories and plots were still represented in these performances, so the necessity for portrayal and actualization (two things that call for acting) was not dead, and hence the need for proper actors remained.  These were far more physical, as mimes and dancers were and still are obviously required to house and develop skills of dexterity and grace.  Mimes, in particular, were important.  While, insofar as I am aware, technical criticism did not exist among the spectators of medieval dance performances, pantomime certainly was something that anyone could critique.  The necessity for precision in emotion began to develop, bringing to light the subtleties of performance that did not exist in the earlier stages.  However, one can know even today that silent acting must, as a necessity, aggrandize motion, and so, even as subtlety was developing, it was certainly not a subtle acting form yet.

To further demonstrate the evolution to modern acting styles while still showing the early need for brazen and oblique imagery and sound while acting (big movements and big voices), consider the aforementioned shamanistic rituals in China, which even before the Christian era blossomed to the west, continued to become more and more physical in nature.  This form of physical acting and representation is known today as martial arts, and still influences movie-making even now.  The movement was part of the role as much as the dialogue (if any), and the movements had to precise, particular and poignant.

This medieval period saw acting develop in two forms, both of which inherently required a lack of subtlety while still depending on professional-level precision to survive: accompaniment for music and recitation of script.   It is the latter that seems most important to focus on next.

Theatre (or Theater)

Already, the potential for re-creation of script was emerging as a marketable art-form.  Notice, among the arts, literature is its own subgroup, and acting is another.  But, the greatness of acting consists in that it remains part motion, part emotion, and part words.  Sophocles had to write his plays.  In the Middle Ages, men such as Geoffery Chaucer inspired other great ones such as Shakespeare and Byron to pen some of the most fantastic words ever written.  So great is the influence of Shakespeare today that children actually believe that all 16th and 17th Century Englishmen spoke like he wrote: soliloquy, sonnet, structured syllablication and all!  In reality, these men were doing just what Bach did with his concertos, what Da Vinci did with his paintings, and what Yeverley did with his castles.  They were making art, their own art, in their own spheres.  And, it was with realization of the fineness of their art, that the skills of an actor were better appreciated: not so much in recitation and memorization, but in the rejuvenation and bestir of the art that was the words.

It was at this time that theater reached its high point again, for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, really.  And it was at this time that acting really reached its modern zenith as an aspiring career and lifestyle.

An Irish-English actor by the name of James Quin was among the greatest of these early theater actors, known well for his portrayal of King Richard III in Shakespeare’s play by the same name, and for his earlier roles in Tamerlane and Rose’s Fair Penitent.  He was among the first to bring stardom into the realm of acting, starting a new surge of famous performers that saw its lineage go through the likes of the early composers.  Like today, his personal life effected the proliferation of the persona, and most likely the success of the show, as public opinion shaped not only around his performances, but also his rivalry with new up-and-comers such as David Garrick.

Unlike another actor of the next generation–who was purportedly killed in a duel with Quin–Garrick developed a cool rivalry with Quin after years of development, mostly circling around Richard III.  Garrick’s performance was usually the favorite.  This was perhaps because of a great talent that he developed which balanced the volume of theater acting while maintaining a precise delicacy that could certainly have been the familial predecessor to modern method acting.  Developed alongside acting sage Charles Macklin, a famous actor and playwright, the acting style of David Garrick rejected the more bombastic acting style of the past.  This was a time of revolution both political and cultural in Europe, and England soon caught on to Garrick’s preeminence.

With these changes of style and stardom, other such celebrities began to emerge over the 18th century, and into the 19th.  As in the previous generation, a rivalry of Richard IIIs took center stage and defined the careers of two men: Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth.  Kean received most of the glory, considered by many as the greatest performer of the century.  He dealt mostly in tragedies, and Booth followed.  Both performed the same roles on multiple occasions, in the same venues even, along Drury Lane.  Junius Brutus was named after the assassin of Julius Caesar fame, and it is only irony that just as Brutus of old was often overshadowed by the Caesar (to the point where even the play itself, which kills off Caesar half way through, was still named after Caesar), so was Booth often overshadowed by Kean.  Maybe that constant comparison was what eventually drove Booth to America, where yet another act of irony would occur a generation later, when his son, John Wilkes, would–like his father’s namesake–kill the leader of the most powerful Republic on earth.

The Kean/Booth dynamic greatly influenced the important aspect of acting which I covered in part 1 of this two-part acting analysis, namely, the typecast.  Typecasting, as I argued earlier, comes from two phenomena: a lack of versatility that pigeonholes an actor in a single genre or platform, or, on the other hand, an incredible aptitude for acting that keeps the audience asking for more of the same (with slight variations that really test the actor’s true versatility).  The latter phenomenon arises from stardom, true stardom. At the height of Kean/Booth, audiences were literally divided between Keanites and Boothites, and show-stopping riots were not a rarity.  While we today do not break into riots and duels like Quin-, Garrick-, Macklin-, Kean- or Booth-fans, we certainly do like our favorite actors to be typecast, and empower them to do so, as we argue who is the better of the two.  DeNiro-ites v. Pacino-ites?  Talk about praise inside of a typecasted bubble.

Already in this age of theater we’ve seen two important developments: the rise of stars, and the emergence of a more realistic acting style that rejected the old, declamatory methods.  I would like to submit a third and a fourth.

In the late 1800s, supposedly by inspiration from Kean, who attempted to utilize historical accuracy for his period pieces (Richard III being one of them), Georg II Duke of Saxe-Meiningen created a team of directors, artists and actors to tour throughout Europe, putting on performances that would gently harness the aspects of acting and art direction to create aesthetically charming and emotionally stirring performances.  What Duke Saxe-Meiningen did exceeded even that expectation.

The “Meiningen Ensemble” changed the cultural dynamic of theater in two ways, while at the same time retaining the aforementioned changes of the period: first, it created a much more director-driven theatrical experience, where everything was made in conjunction with everything else in order to create a unified demonstration of plot and character on all levels; and second, it created a new aspect of acting wherein the star could become the stars, and chemistry within the ensemble became a very important aspect of theater.  While I do not claim that chemistry was not important already, I do claim that we can see from the emergence and success of the Meiningen Company that the interaction between actors to make their performances even more palpable came firmly–and, forgive my wording–to center-stage in terms of priority in a production.

The Modern Golden Age: Of Cinema

As all of these facets of acting were being combined into delicate and powerful performances all throughout Europe and into America, where an even more popular street than Drury Lane became the ultimate goal of all aspiring actors: Broadway.

Then, Eadward Muybridge invented his zoopraxiscope, a series of multiple cameras, adjacent to one another, that alternated photographing a single even at high speeds to create a roll of action from one image to the other.  This zoopraxiscope was, within ten years, improved to a single camera, capable of firing multiple flashes for an indefinite amount of time, projecting th0se images on single threads of film called celluloid.  Then, in 1888, Louis Le Prince, with a single-lens camera, filmed Roundhay Garden Scene, the oldest movie in existence.  It’s magic was inspiring, and still is to this day.  It revolutionized forever the art of acting, though at the time they may not have anticipated that.  After all, how could one squeeze a great monologue into a 2.11 second movie?

However, it wasn’t long before people started to try.  The first step, obviously, was to make the movie longer.  That required funding, but that is a different story.  The focus in acting, remember?  It didn’t take long to recognize not only the practical advantages–scientific documentation, ancestral preservation among the rich, etc.–but also the industry that this new moving picture could provide.  I can only imagine the world that opened in the minds of aspiring and well-informed artists.  No longer were they bound to a single medium to portray their emotions, opinions, and visions.  The technology was limited however, and perhaps some of these visions remained purely aspirational.  But, an old and time-proven method of story telling could prevail in these moving images.

Silent film played on the art of pantomime that prevailed since the early middle ages.  Critical response to these silent films when it came to acting was just as it would have been among the peasants and lords of medieval Burgundy.  With the ability to zoom in to a face, subtleties of human nature in body language could be expressed before a large audience like never before.  However, the acting remained limited to explicitism, subtle aspects of implicit human nature could not be as well voiced–since, of course, there was no voice to be heard.  So, while certain elements of precise method acting were more easily noticed and practiced, others were lost to the silence.

-Undoubtedly, there existed carryover from theater and silent movies all through the golden era even after the invention of synchronized sound.  These elements included a heavy emphasis on the physical and the facial (from the silent films) as well as the voluminous recitations from theater.  Bombastic theater-style acting was seen as a negative to Alfred Hitchcock, who didn’t see it as fitting his revolutionary “slices of cake;” most directors, however, wanted it.  Like I have stated in previous articles, realism was not something they considered a consumable art.  The movie industry created an art medium that was more literal and real-life than any of its predecessors.  But, it was still an art, and something had to keep it that way.  We still feel this way.  There is no real police team like the one in The Other Guys nor do NYPD police officers enjoy the proper training to conquer a team of thief/terrorists like in Die Hard.  The difference between today and the “golden age” is that we, today, place emphasis on believable acting despite unbelievable plots.  Back then, I don’t think  that would have made a lot of sense.  Actors were supposed to contribute to the film, not the expectations of human behavior that the mundane world would have merited.

The transition to a more realistic form of acting developed, of course, outside of Hollywood.

A Norwegian and a Russian

Henrik Ibsen, supposedly the second-most performed playwright in history (behind William Shakespeare), changed forever the art of drama, and actors had to keep up.  The predecessor to such dramatists as Tennessee Williams and George Bernard Shaw, Ibsen “swept away romantic melodrama heavy with the passions of stereotypical heroes and heroines to create dramatic words that presented real-life characters in action that reflected and questioned prevailing morals and mores.  Dialogue, once florid and poetic became sharp, pointed, and often witty” (quoted from theaterpro.com).  His most famous play, A Doll’s House, for example, aroused controversy over its pessimistic approach to 19th century marriage culture in Norway.

The aforementioned effects on dialogue and it’s delivery which came from this monumental shift in theater placed pressures on actors, which they were able to live up to due to a contemporary of Adler named Constantin Stanislavski.   Perhaps the most influential theater actor in history, Stanlislavski’s fame–at least today–is contributed not so much to his performances as to his praxis.  His praxis was, in essence, a theorized process whereby one could obtain a theatrical and philosophical form of  “spiritual Realism” (his own words).  “Praxis,” said Calvin O. Schrag of Purdue University, “as the manner in which we are engaged in the world and with others, has its own insight or understanding prior to any explicit formulation of that understanding…Of course, it must be understood that praxis, as I understand it, is always entwined with communication.”

Stanislavski’s method of realizing the character was designed to work for all actors, based primarily on the idea of “emotional memory.”  A character obtains self-actualization within the persona of the actor as the actor emotionally attaches his or herself with the character by recalling emotions as tied to literal memories of his or her literal past.  It’s the classic “think about your dog dying” to trigger tears approach, only much more studied.

This realistic form of drama and its accompanying acting forms inevitably would make its way to Hollywood, as the moving picture was a far better medium to portray the vices of reality as it could go anywhere and do most anything.  Once Stanislavski and Ibsen’s influences seeped into Southern California, two geniuses of acting would take Stanislavski’s words to heart: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”

Strasburg and Adler

While Lee Strasburg is the most famous and influential of the two, both he and Stella Adler have greatly influenced modern acting procedure, as the actualization of Stanislavski’s method has been tweaked and redefined to provide three of the most prestigious acting schools in history: the non-profit “Actor’s Studio” in New York, The Lee Strasburg Theater and Film Institute in New York and Hollywood, The Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City, and the Stella Adler Academy of Acting in Los Angeles.

Strasburg and Adler both developed their own approaches to Stanlislavski’s system, and their differences on its interpretation and proper practice led to a rift in their respective correspondence.  Strasburg developed his own take on Stanislavski called “method acting,” which played greatly on the ideas of “emotion memory” around which Stanlislavski had originally built his system.  His inspiration came from seeing Stanlislavski’s Moscow Art Theater when it came to America in 1923.  Stanislavski’s attention to detail in training every member of his ensemble–a la the Meiningen Company–was so inspiring to Strasburg in that he could see the intensity and respect each actor gave each role, irregardless of the prevalence of that role in the production.  He saw, as he put it, actors put their egos to the side for the good of the work.

In order to do this, to completely forsake self for character, required forsaking the bombastic nature of early acting, and the character became the most important person in the picture.  Strasburg, while recognizing this element, also recognized the importance of the actor himself.  The reality of the character’s emotion and conflict was dependent on the emotion memory of the actor.  Marlon Brando, perhaps the poster child of the Actor’s Studio, said that method acting “made me a real actor. The idea is you learn to use everything that happened in your life and you learn to use it in creating the character you’re working on. You learn to dig into your unconscious and make use of every experience you ever had.”

While Strasburg’s teaching obviously worked (consider just a few of the students: Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Steve McQueen, Martin Landau, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Paul Newman, Eli Wallach, Sindey Poitier, Gene Wilder, Eva Marie Saint, Sally Field, and Al Pacino.)  However, the great disparity lied in the theory itself.  The success of a character depended on the memory of the actor.  How, then, could an actor play a certain role if he or she had no real connection to it?

This where Adler came in, with her reformed method, which, considering she was the only American to ever study with Stanlislavski directly, was certainly more in line with Stanlislavski’s original system.  Stanlislavski, himself, admitted to the flaw surrounding emotion memory and he, himself, had eventually lessened its importance in his own acting dynamic.  Many students caught on to Adler’s theory in training sensory imagination over memory, utilizing extensive research of each role in all its elements to better enable an actor to perform the task at hand.  Among these students was, not surprisingly, Marlon Brando, who said of Adler that “through her work she imparts the most valuable kind of information – how to discover the nature of our own emotional mechanics and therefore those of others. She never lent herself to vulgar exploitations, as some other well-known so-called ‘methods’ of acting have done.”  Others included Judy Garland, Robert DeNiro, Martin Sheen, Harvey Keitel (another dual-disciple, like Brando), Warren Beatty, Mark Ruffalo, Selma Hayek, and Sean Astin.

How We See Acting…and How We SHOULD See It

In essence, we today criticize the actor when we should, instead, be criticizing the character.  This is the Nicolas Cage dilemma.  In my earlier post, I quoted Roger Ebert, who praised Cage for never “winking at the audience.”  He never sacrifices the character to save face.  We find ourselves, as we criticize, in a paradox.   We criticize a film for not being realistic enough because it’s too cheesy or presumptuous, but then we criticize an actor because we didn’t like the way he portrayed his character.  But, we contradict ourselves because in reality, we don’t love every person we come in contact with.  Alan Rickman purportedly is quoted to have said that “if you judge the character, you can’t play it.”  I think that is very true, and can be applied in other ways.  If you judge the character, you can’t appreciate it.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as bad acting.  There are still elements of movies that have to happen, and if they fail to happen someone messed up.  Staleness in a character is the fault of the screenwriter, not the actor.  Inconsistency or fakeness is the fault of the actor.  Overbearance is the fault of the actor, but movement continuity problems are the fault of the director.  But, a good actor and act well a bad character.  It’s a careful and precise art to find the bad among the good and the good among the bad, but we too often jump to rash conclusions that just aren’t fair to the actor.  Even worse, they are unfair to the viewer, as they may very well be missing out on greatness because of their own preconceived notions of good acting.

In reading this examination of acting theory and its evolution, we can get a little arrogant, as we always do when we start looking at history.  I am reminded of a friend of mine, who said that since we’ve learned all these things about movie making over the last century, movies have gotten progressively better, and we are therefore foolish to expose ourselves to older movies as they are sub-par in both acting and direction.  While I see his reasoning, and appreciate a cogent argument, I see a fundamental flaw. We begin to see all this evolution as improvement, when in all reality it is merely progression.  The very nature of progression implies that we’re still progressing.  If we supplant the word “progression” with the word “improvement,” all of a sudden logic like my friend’s will put us in a catch-22: we are watching movies now that will be considered cheesy and terrible in later decades.  No, the truth is this: we can appreciate it all.

It is important to consider the industry, and the genre.  No one complains about lack of emotion in a slapstick role.  Furthermore, no one is going to complain about bad special effects in a silent film.  But, we can still find ourselves holding certain eras and genres up to unfitting and inappropriate standards.  For example, we shouldn’t fault Jimmy Stewart for never changing his vocal inflections.  He was in an era where that wasn’t important, and era before Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer.  The viewer would do well to ask his or herself, what was important?  What am I missing that could make my viewing experience so much better?

When asking these questions, you start to examine the acting in context with the rest of the film.  The style cannot be too self-assuming in an ensemble picture, or necessary facets of the mise-en-scène will be diminished and the movie as a whole will be tarnished.  It helps, instead of going to the movie with your favorite actor in it, to watch a movie trying to understand the intent of the writer and the director.  Focusing on an actor will only disappoint, usually.  What makes a great actor is his or her ability to dominate a role, and even dominate a film, without ruining the entire experience.

Considering the role in this way will help to understand which style an actor is going to use.  In The Artist, which only came out two years ago or so, bombastic body language and facial expressions were absolutely necessary, because it was a silent film.  Another example: what if someone was to remake a film version of The Lord of the Flies?  The brilliance of that novel is born from its characters, much less than its plot.  But, its characters are incredibly primal–teenage boys usually are–and singularly-faceted.  This was calculated, as each character represents a societal virtue in an allegorical setting.  What would be the job of the actor in this case?  Would we criticize them for being too one-sided, perhaps for extolling too much effort and expression towards a single emotion, the way Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman used to in their old films?  If we were to do that, we’d be wrong.

There are many things to consider when we analyze an acting performance.  I think that if we really start to consider what makes for a good performance, we will change a lot of our perceptions.  For example, we may start to recognize how wrong we have been about this whole “versatility” thing.  We may start to recognize that, while the ability to impersonate a character or create a caricature are honorable (particularly in the fields of comedy), all those cosmetics, all those voices, all that absurdity, and all that presumption which make up today’s ripe field of “character actors”  may just be tricking us into misplacing our praise.  While we go on criticizing the typecast actor to the point where a lot of great actors are thrown by the wayside of our own critical opinions, we fail to realize that today’s character actors (Johnny Depp, Heath Ledger, and Christoph Waltz, for example) are the very definition of typecast stars.  And with a few exceptions (you’ll see all three in my most recent list of best acting performances–so obviously I like them), their form of typecast acting is the worst of all, because it contains the same negatives while rejecting the subtle variations and emotions that make each performance unique.

In conclusion, this two-part article has covered the purpose and mission of good acting, the emergence of stardom, the controversy surrounding type-cast actors, the history of acting, and the lessons the history of acting gives us.  Furthermore, I have examined the problems with our current biases surrounding acting and have provided a few simple considerations for changing those biases.  In the end, it is bias that must be conquered.  Just as a good piece of music can come from practically any genre–for every “Stairway to Heaven” there is a “Beethoven’s 5th”, and for every “The Message” there is a “My Girl”–good pieces of acting can come from any era, and from any category.  I do believe that bias gives the world its flavor, but in order for a casual movie-goer to turn into a competent one, that movie-goer must cede a little bit of that bias and find the diamonds that are scattered throughout the history of movies.

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