Musings on Film Acting – Part II

Monday, October 26, 2009

“I love acting.  It is so much more real than life.”
--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

“We're actors - we're the opposite of people.”
--Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

greek-tragedy-and-comedy-masksI was once photographed at an extremely dramatic occasion in my life. A host of emotions were roiling inside me, but when I saw the picture later on, there was… absolutely nothing there.  I might as well have been thinking about lunch or what was on TV that night.

Now imagine if Marlon Brando had been portraying the character of me in a film, living through that very instant. His expression wouldn’t have been banal like mine, it would have been extremely moving. Because Marlon Brando was one of the most remarkable and charismatic men who ever lived, he would have been able to imbue the fictional character of me into something profoundly greater than the less than the fireworks-free real-life me.

But the way I looked at that moment was the truth. What Brando would have done wouldn’t have been the unadorned truth but rather an elevated representation of “truth” that surpassed the ordinariness of what actually happened. In other words: it would have been art. The plain truth is usually boring, or if it happens to be exciting, it’s exciting in a clichéd way that wouldn’t get good reviews for its “screenplay.”  To portray life in all its complexity, art must fly above it,  like a bird. If you get too high, you lose it; if you’re too earthbound you’ll never get there.  Hence many actors study their craft in a class rather than standing on the street corner.  Which isn’t to say that actors they can’t and don’t do both, just that there is an understanding that acting is different from real-life, and you need a coach to help you fine-tune the distance that must exist between life and its poetic imitation.  

Which leads to the two big questions, so often posed: Can acting truly be taught? Or can it only be developed? 

Often when you watch a film you will see people who have spent a lifetime studying acting at the highest level working alongside someone who just got lucky. But some people who are highly trained are painful to watch and some, like Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious,” can give an inspired performance, despite having next to no training.   Can Cate Blanchett (one of my very favorite actresses) ever give me an experience like that any more?   Blanchett has been brilliant so many times that I assume greatness from her. That’s my fault, but that’s the way it is.  I don’t think it’s possible for me to experience her in the way I am hyper-alert to what Sidibe does. 

It was Louise Brooks who said that acting was one of the most difficult arts to explain. We all "know" it when we see it, but how can we describe it?  And what is there to describe?

When our defenses are battered by something fresh and unexpected, we forget that anything called “acting” exists.   We plummet into something like love.  It is anti-logical.  Critics can search through the Thesaurus trying to tame that feeling but it’s futile.  You can’t suture ineffable joy with words, critical theories or competitive awards. The power and wonder of acting lies in its unquantifiable beauty.   It’s something that the actors don’t necessarily need to know how they do, and its something that we shouldn't attempt to measure, because in doing so we lessen our own pleasure.  When we seek to reveal a magician’s tricks, we deprive ourselves of magic. 

River Phoenix once told me that he was sure there were a lot of people out there in the world who felt the same way he did. When he acted, he said he was trying to form a connection to these strangers he saw as friends.   And he knew that if he sent that message out there with a pure heart,  they would receive it.

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