The Primary Quality of Truth
“Get over yourself” might be a common form of dismissal for those too concerned with their own problems, but what does it mean within the context of an actor who has lost him or herself in the process of playing a part? This can be where an aspect of perfectionist need meets the desire to lose oneself in the role. To learn to play an instrument as Robert De Niro mastered the Saxophone in New York, New York, or Emmanuelle Beart the violin in Un Couer en Hiver, is an act of self-improvement most can easily identify with. How many go to evening classes to learn a new skill, to move a little closer to their ego ideal? But this seems very different from Daniel Day-Lewis contracting pneumonia after he refused to wear a heavier coat in cold conditions because, according to Chris Sullivan, the threadbare attire he wore was consistent with the 19th century setting in Gangs of New York. (The Independent). We can think too of Christian Bale losing sixty three pounds for The Machinist. “I had been to a nutritionist and when I had got down to what she had told me was a healthy weight, I just went, “You know what? I can go more than this. I can keep going.” So I lost another 20 pounds below what she said I should stop at…” (BBC) The first examples we give from New York, New York and Un Couer en Hiver suggest social aggrandizement; the second examples bodily collapse. But there are of course other ways in which an actor can get into the role, and bodily aggrandizement has become one of the most popular. So many actors now get buffed up to play in action films that it is close to a prerequisite. Someone like Robert Downey Jnr was always an actor with a skinny edge before Iron Man turned him into a four square thespian with a six pack. To prepare the actor for the part, his trainer “prescribed a periodization program, alternating periods of heavier weight/low reps with lighter weight/high reps. Downey trained at least four days every week, with sessions lasting anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes. Bose varied the length of every training session to keep the actor on his toes. “He couldn’t say, ‘OK, I know I can conserve a little energy because we’re two exercises from the end,’” Bose says. “He never knew what was coming, so he had to work hard all the time.” (Men’s Fitness) He was also given a food plan: “He ate every three hours,” he says. “We kept him on a 30/30/40 split: 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrates. He was taking in more than 5,000 calories a day for nine months. If you don’t eat that much, your body won’t accept the weight.” We can find numerous examples of actors’ bodily transformations in the hands of gym Svengalis: Brad Pitt, Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling’s workout schedules are easy to access online, and linked to specific films, Fight Club, Dead Pool, Stupid Crazy Love. If many fret that films are being turned into video games; then what about the notion of a fitness video? While Jane Fonda became famous all over again in the late seventies for her Workout tapes, then this nevertheless wasn’t an offshoot of Coming Home or On Golden Pond. Yet there is an element here of actors suggesting self-improvement within the context of a given role; Fonda’s wanted to indicate it in a given life – her own – and proselytised the possibility for others.
This is not the place to judge the movie as fitness video, but it is unlikely many actors will win awards for building muscle, though the day might come when an Oscar ceremony turns into a bodybuilding contest, with the actors shedding their tuxes and turning up on stage in their swimming trunks. But, for the moment, what does tend to impress within the sphere of the thespian is the first and the second categories we have identified: the actor mastering a skill or debilitating their body, either in actuality or prosthetically. Whether it is De Niro putting on 60 pounds for Raging Bull, or Charlize Theron changing her diet and applying liquid latex for the part of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster. According to Megan Carrigy in an essay in Star Bodies and the Erotics of Suffering, Theron adopted “a diet of potato chips, soy sauce and Miso soup to attain a bloated look during filming.” “It helped give her that puffy complexion a weight gain diet couldn’t exclusively achieve” De Niro of course also adopted a prosthetic nose to allow for the cauliflower conk that suggests a man quite literally dealt quite a few blows in life. The year De Niro won he was up against John Hurt in The Elephant Man, a masterful performance not especially because of all the brilliant prosthetic work by Christopher Tucker, but despite it: Hurt managed to find encased in make up the heart of a man whose soul would seem more encased than most. So much was done in the delicacy of his body movements and the inflections of a voice that sounded like it was constantly fighting against an advanced mucus infection. However, if De Niro’s role in Raging Bull remains one of the most name-checked and admired it rests on the sheer combination of transformational elements. He put on weight, and donned a prosthetic, but he also learned a skill: he could have boxed at professional level according to La Motta, who helped train him. “I guess I’d rank Bobby in the first twenty middleweights, he says in Patrick Agan’s Robert De Niro. “I swear.” He most importantly seemed to draw on reserves of pain and anguish that would appear the most important quality in an actor’s craft; the aspect that is perhaps closer to therapy than technique – or therapy that one turns into technique.
It is this dimension to acting that throws upon us the most questions over what acting is, and it lies in the emotional, even the ontological – in an issue of one’s being. This is close in some ways to the Stanislavski approach, popularised in the US as the Method. It takes many forms and manifestations, yet resides in the actor not mastering a talent, destroying or building their body, in reality or with the aid of make-up, but in risking a dimension of their very self. This is really what we mean when we talk about losing oneself in the role. It is why the recent debate concerning Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando and Last Tango in Paris misses the point, with the film in need of rescuing from the misapprehensions involved in the argument. If we admire De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull it is of course because he put on weight, sculpted his body, wore a prosthetic and mastered a skill. However, these are all finally secondary aspects of the performance, After all, Brando sometimes didn’t even remember his lines yet remains one of the most significant actors in American film. If we define the quality of a performance based on the effort put into the preparatory work, Brando would endlessly be in remedial class, while De Niro would always be getting top grades. Yet what finally links them is a first principle of feeling.
This is what Stanslavski would call emotion memory, separate from the five senses but in conjunction with them. As Stanislavski says, through his teacher Tortsov, there is the “distinction between sensation memory, based on experiences, connected with our five senses, and emotion memory. He said that he would occasionally speak of them as running parallel to one another.” (An Actor Prepares). Tortsov goes on to explain the importance of the five senses, saying for example that sight is the most receptive of impressions, and then hearing. Taste, touch and smell are significant too, yet their purpose is “merely auxiliary and for the purpose of influencing our emotional memory….”(An Actor Prepares) Finally what matters is emotion memory, with the senses on hand to enhance this fundamental aspect of the performance. Equally, we might be inclined to say that no matter the practical effort that goes into the part, no matter the accent mastered, the body built, the skill perfected, it is there to serve an emotional specificity that cannot be guaranteed. The other elements are the ingredients but not the cake, and part of Brando’s genius might reside in his capacity to bake the cake with so few ingredients. If many performances are half-baked, to stretch our metaphor, it doesn’t necessarily rest on the actor failing to put in enough preparation; more that they fail to draw enough on emotion memory. When we watch the body-built thespians putting in the gym hours for various superhero films, the performance remains empty because the work has been done in the gymnasium and not in the being. De Niro was right when he said that “I see so many fight movies where the actors are out of shape. I don’t believe them. So I come to the gym…” (Robert De Niro) But how many actors could have made other scenes in the film believable, the paranoia he feels, the tension he generates out of domesticity, the jealousy he conveys when asking his wife if she is attracted to another boxer. This is primal feeling as excavation, manifesting itself in a performance that makes the word performance seem oddly inadequate.
But let us return to Last Tango in Paris and some of the newspaper reports after its director Bernardo Bertolucci suggested that he had tricked Schneider in the notorious butter scene. It was a remark he made in a 2013 talk at the Cinematheque in Paris, and was picked up three years later by various journalists, including the Guardian‘s Hannah Summers, who drew on an interview Maria Schneider gave to the Daily Mail, in 2007 – four years before her death in 2011. Schneider stated, “during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci.” We don’t at all want to underestimate the feelings of Schneider, but when Jessica Chastain tweeted “To all the people that love this film- you’re watching a 19yr old get raped by a 48yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick”, she seemed to be confusing life and art, and yet missing the point in which life becomes art when art draws upon life to create a meaningful work. Schneider was not raped; if she had been then that would have been a criminal issue and Bertolucci should have been put on trial for it, and no doubt his cinematographer who is also still alive could be guilty by association. Storaro, responding to the scandal said, “it’s something that some ignorant journalist put together. I was really disgusted by what was written, which is not true at all. I think the journalists are making an issue that is not really an issue. I read that there was a kind of violence made on her but that’s not true. That’s not true at all. That’s terrible. I was there. We were doing a movie. You don’t do it for real. I was there with two cameras and nothing happened.… Nobody was raping anybody.” (Hollywood Reporter)
We could say that cinema is make-believe and anybody who thinks otherwise is caught in the naivety of the early cinema viewer who ducks under their seat at the sight of an oncoming train. Our problem with the kerfuffle over Last Tango doesn’t reside there, however. Bertolucci made a film that wanted not so much to cross lines as blur boundaries. A rape would have been crossing the line of course, but what happens when a boundary is blurred? Brando biographer Charles Higham notes that “the action ground to a halt one day when, encouraged by his director, who shot him in a protracted close-up, Marlon actually dropped into personal reminiscence as though he, not the character, were being filmed. He spoke with sentimentality and not a little exaggeration of his father as a drunk…” (Brando) If Schneider felt a little raped, Brando would later say “I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie. I felt I had violated my innermost self and didn’t want to suffer like that anymore… In subsequent pictures I stopped trying to experience the emotions of my characters as I had always done before and simply [tried] to act the part in a technical way.” (‘The Rumpus’)
There may be a key ethical difference between Brando feeling he violated his inner self and Schneider feeling she was violated against her will. Brando was the experienced actor who could choose what to give; Schneider the nineteen year old actress tricked into exposing perhaps more than she would have otherwise been thus willing to offer. Yet if we put aside the ethical question and concentrate on the aesthetic issue, the director wanted from his actors a blurred line all the better to find a new way of showing feeling on screen. Brando suggested this when saying Bertolucci “appeared to me as a man who is capable of extracting from an actor the best of himself…a man capable of doing something new, of tearing away all the conventions, of overturning psychologies and renewing them, like a psychoanalyst.” (Brando) Bertolucci would say, “the idea I’ve always had about cinema: it is not the actors who have to conform and fit the script, but it is the characters who must conform to the actors.” (Brando) This suggests that acting is the opposite of performance, very far away from the mastering of lines at the most rudimentary level, or mastering a completely different skill like a musical instrument to play the character. The actor here doesn’t act to get out of themselves, but instead to find a way in to themselves. Bertolucci and Brando’s ideas weren’t coming out of nowhere, but out of a collision between Method notions of authenticity and theories explored in anti-psychiatry movements of the sixties: R. D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and Erving Goffman, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Goffman believed that life is constantly asking us to perform. In The Presentation of Self in Everday Life he notes: “as human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulses with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters put on for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs.” Laing believed of a patient he was analysing, “his whole life has been torn between his desire to reveal himself and his desire to conceal himself. We all share this problem with him and we have all arrived at a more or less satisfactory solution.” (The Divided Self) Both Goffman and Laing suggest that we perform a role at odds with, and perhaps detrimental to, the self. Even the satisfactory solution Laing talks about might contain within it dissatisfaction of expression: the sense that we are acting out a role to keep in check the self that is too chaotic to expose. As Laing says, “he learnt to cry when he was amused, and to smile when he was sad. He frowned his approval, and applauded his displeasure. ‘All that you can see is not me.’ he says to himself.” Instead one needs to find certain truths about one’s existential position; about one’s being in the world instead of constantly concealing it. Is this not what many great actors achieve? They don’t perform a role so much as find an ongoing aspect of self. This is De Niro in response to a question. “You were on “Inside the Actors Studio” and they wanted you to give young actors advice and you said, “You have nothing to lose, so make it as personal as you can.” De Niro replied, “What I meant was if you’re going for a reading and you got nothing to lose because so many things are stacked against you — there’s a lot of competition out there — so when you read, the only thing you have is your own uniqueness. So, you don’t need to be afraid to follow your instincts about what you think the character is doing. Just go with it, because if nothing else, the people watching you, the director, the casting people whatever, will be impressed by what you’ve done and they’ll take notice. You have to try and be courageous. Don’t hold back . . . “ (Stella Adler: A Life in Art) We can admire the effort De Niro would often put into a role in New York, New York, Raging Bull and others, but it is the uniquely De Niro that is of importance: the ongoing exploration of self. All the rest is a certain type of scaffolding, and for Brando this would even include the givens of situation and dialogue. As he says in Playing to the Camera, talking about the scene in the cab in On the Waterfront. “The situation was wonderful. Everybody feels like he could have been somebody, everybody feels as though he’s partly a bum, some part of him. He is not fulfilled and he could have done better, he could have been better. Everybody feels a sense of loss about something. So that was what touched people. It wasn’t the scene itself.” If the actor concentrates too hard on the general elements of the performance, the five senses might be activated but not quite the emotion memory: the unique individual in concert with themselves.
It is this part of the self that can seem the most exposed and leads to the actor feeling exploited and violated. Perhaps this becomes especially pronounced in the context of a sex scene. It brings to mind the Julia Roberts remark about refusing to do nudity. Anthony Lane quotes her in the New Yorker saying “I’m really against nudity in movies. When you act with your clothes on, it’s a performance. When you act with your clothes off, it’s a documentary. I don’t do documentaries.” Is this what Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos had such a problem with while making Blue is the Warmest Colour? After its success in Cannes, the actresses questioned the director’s working methods. Kechiche defended himself. “The word ‘suffering’ is completely inappropriate to use about the process of filming. To talk about the suffering of the actor is something I can only laugh at—in such a beautiful profession, where you’re creating through your emotions, your body—to me, there is nothing of suffering.” Even Exarchopoulos admitted after making another film soon afterwards that so little seemed to be asked of her in the new movie. She “came in to shoot an important scene, supposed to be complex. And after three takes the director was like, okay, we’re done. I gasped. I was, like, Oh, no, it’s so shitty—I haven’t given anything!” (New Yorker)
Exploitation and exploration are thin lines, and part of the blurring of boundaries rests on flirting with this risk. When Roberts says she doesn’t do nudity because she doesn’t do documentaries, this is perhaps not too far away from actors who want two-dimensional characterization because three dimensions might risk exposing an aspect of themselves. Their job is to perform a role not expose a self, and the more easily they can hide inside a character of action the better the chance they won’t expose themselves to the verities of their own being. Yet of course, Julia Roberts starred in Notting Hill, playing a character not unlike her Hollywood self: an American actress in London who gets involved with Hugh Grant’s bookseller. She is an actress who has for years starved herself to get leading roles, and the press conferences and launches resemble Roberts’ own. Of course there were disclaimers that the part wasn’t based on Roberts but on Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, as though the whole film was a disclaimer saying that the movie was not based on any persons living, but it would be okay to invoke the dead as a way of not confronting the similarities between Anna Scott and Julia Roberts. What happens in such a performance is that Roberts gets to piggyback on the celebrity status of earlier stars while augmenting her own, without revealing a self behind the star. This is a reverse blurring. While Bertolucci and Kechiche want the actors to reveal themselves through the role they are playing, Roberts would seem to want to augment her celebrity status by echoing stars from the past. One senses this in reference to two scenes in the film. One is where Roberts says to Grant that she took issue with paraphrasing Rita Hayworth’s famous line, “They go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me.” “I hate to say anything negative about what Richard wrote, because he’s a genius, but I hated saying that line,” Robert said. “To me, it was nails on a chalkboard. I don’t really believe any of that.” (Mentalfloss) The other is the scene where someone asks how much she makes for each movie and on each take she offered a different figure. Initially it was 10 million, then 12 million, and finally fifteen million. When Boneville asked her why she kept changing the figure, she replied that “I’m kind of tired of low-balling.” Both statements indicate an actress who knows her worth, or at least doesn’t want to expose any reservations about it in film form. This was a star, after all, who during this period was making a lot of money for the studios. Anthony Lane noticed, “what matters about The Mexican is not that it collared $20.3 million in its first three days but that, in doing so, it completed a hat trick for the Roberts phenomenon: all three of her most recent movies have slid immediately into the top slot. “Runaway Bride” (1999) ran up $34.5 million over the same period, and “Erin Brockovich” (2000) took $28.1 million. Often a lonely figure, Roberts now has the box office to herself; no other female star comes close.” (The New Yorker)
We focus here on Roberts because she represents so well the pragmatic side of an actor’s career: the notion that while they are a living being moving through filmic space and time, they are also a commodity aware of their place in the market. Jack Lemmon acknowledged this astutely enough many years earlier, and how it could hamper the growth of the actor as he had to take into account the nature of his status. “If I find a little gem, for example, that I’d love to do, but my role isn’t the big one, I can’t do it. Olivier can. (As a British actor] Our public is as attuned as the industry is, and the minute I showed up in a character part they’d wonder what the hell happened to Lemmon, he must be slipping. It just isn’t worth it.” (Playing to the Camera) Yet we might recall both Roberts and Lemmon worked with Robert Altman. Roberts had a cameo role in The Player in the film within the film, and Lemmon was one of twenty four leads in Short Cuts. Yet here we have the status of the director giving credence to the actor taking a part that is other than a starring one.
However, isn’t this finally also the case with actors working with Bertolucci or Kechiche: the directors have a standing that means any role is taken on the assumption of a career promotion? We needn’t be so cynical, especially when it proves unhelpful. Did Brando really need to make Last Tango in Paris as a career move; was De Niro’s intensive work on Raging Bull a plea for plaudits? It seems to us much more a need to take acting seriously, to see it not as a branch of the entertainment business, but a wing of ontology. Philosophers have long been fascinated by acting and performance. Nietzche was often suspicious of the actor, saying in Daybreak, “they press close to the soul but not in the spirit of their object…let us never forget the actor is no more than an ideal ape, and so much of an ape that he is incapable of believing in ‘essence ‘or the ‘essential’. Camus was more sympathetic, echoing Nietzsche but suggesting other possibilities: “A mime of the ephemeral, the actor trains and perfects himself only in appearances. The theatrical convention is that the heart expresses itself and communicates itself only through gestures and in the body – or through the voice which is as much of the soul as the body.” Yet he adds, “half a man’s life is spent in implying, in turning away, and in keeping silent. Here the actor is the intruder. He breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush on to their stage.” (The Myth of Sisyphus) Nietzsche’s actor seems to be a flamboyant narcissist, someone who can get the crowd on their side, but crowds out the spirit in their soul. Yet Camus sees in this theatricality the chance to express emotions too often repressed. Nietzsche was writing near the end of the 19th century, before cinema, and Camus was writing during WWII, before the Method was introduced to film. Now if we mark modern cinematic acting as beginning after the war, with performances by Brando, Clift, and Dean in the American context, and the non-professionals and naturalistic performers found in neo-realism around the same time in Europe, then Nietzsche’s criticisms no longer hold true, and Camus’ praise for performance can be opened up to include the non-theatrical. We needn’t exaggerate the naturalism evident in both styles.
Today, some might watch Brando in On the Waterfront and Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and believe the acting is very unnaturalistic indeed, and the actors in neo-realism showing body-language that would seem to us more expansive than necessary. The scene Brando earlier invokes has become an undeniable classic, but it has been ripe for homage and caricature it rests on the performances still being performative, as if there is dimension to the role that can be conveyed by someone who removes from it the spirit of the part, the very spirit that Brando invokes and Nietzsche believes is so often missing. “You was my brother Charley, you should have looked out for me a little bit” can be easily repeated if not easily felt. Equally, De Niro’s “You Talkin to Me” speech in the mirror in Taxi Driver can be constantly imitated, but the spirit of the lines are deliberately missed in the numerous renditions. Yet of course De Niro repeats Brando’s lines from On the Waterfront at the end of Raging Bull, and does so as if to convey the spirit of those lines uttered in the fifties and picked up by De Niro almost three decades later. They are both actors interested in the spirit of the role, and are well aware that the representation of that spirit is a secondary quality. In the performance as Nietzsche sees it there is only the representation of the performance; there isn’t the spirit of the role that can convey a deeper obligation to self.
Perhaps Stanislavski’s theories would have answered to Nietzsche’s need. As Stanislavski says, “never lose yourself on stage. Always act as in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting.” (An Actor Prepares) Nietzsche would be inclined to think that almost all acting would have taken this latter form and perhaps he would be right, and we might still see it in numerous performances, even masterly ones of a certain type. When we watch Cary Grant or Clark Gable, we don’t expect the knottiness of the thespian inner struggle; the complications are often in the story as the viewer watches them in His Girl Friday or It Happened One Night working through tangible conundrums. One way of looking at Brando and Dean is to see that the plot is no longer so clearly an external thing concerning the kinetics of action, but an internal skirmish with the warring parts of a self. This would be the Psychodrama as Tyler Parker addressed it: “the world is very consciously concerned with systematic curative; measures of various scopes. There are wide range programs for that, if successfully carried through, will settle social problems of far-reaching extent…in our tight, tortured world, embarrassing ‘explosions’ of discontent take place, ‘areas of danger’ suddenly raise their alarming heads.” (Sex, Psyche Etcetera in The Film) While Grant and Gable busy themselves with misunderstandings, Brando and Dean concern themselves with the misunderstood. A misunderstanding is a social predicament easily resolved, no matter the permutations involved in the sometimes densely plotted screwball comedy, but with the misunderstood the permutations have become so internalised that no external drama can readily be resolved within the story. Whether it is A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront or Last Tango in Paris, Brando plays his characters as though there is an internal drama that is preoccupying him so much greater than any the story can conclude upon. On the Waterfront ends with Brando taking on the corrupt union man after talking out against him. This is populist cinema, but functions quite differently from, for example, Mr Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life. These films have characters fighting for justice and fairness, who are wondering about their place in the world but not so much the place in their heads. George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life might be suicidal as he worries about his financial status and how he will look after the family, but these are tangible problems met by the generosity of the townsfolk movingly displayed at the film’s conclusion. But let us suggest that in the strict sense both George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and Terry Molloy in On the Waterfront could have made the same speech about being a contender. Both are aware of the potentially failed lives they have lived, and this is partly why the angels rectify Bailey’s negative thoughts through showing him how the town would have turned out if he had left it. It would be far less happy a place. Terry in some ways makes amends by doing an honest thing in exposing the union boss years after failing to fight corruption when he was a boxer: the fall he took against a bum he could easily have beaten. Yet Bailey is what we will call a straight figure. The social and the personal are parallel lines, and when the townsfolk come good Bailey is back to his old self. Terry is an entangled figure. He might end up with the approval of those around him, but we might not be convinced that he approves of himself. He is of course not so much the hero as the martyr. The people in the town realise how much Bailey has done for them over the years and they in turn now do him a favour. He may be down on his luck, but it is as though by the film’s conclusion people realise their own goodwill in helping someone momentarily less fortunate. Bailey isn’t remotely tortured and thus hardly an entangled figure. Terry receives a good pasting a few minutes before the end by the boss and his cohorts as if to make good on the faux beating he received in the fight he threw. He has to take a bit of punishment before he can be seen heroically, which is usually one of the defining features of the martyr.
Yet, of course, this is a very contemporary martyrdom that might find its echo in Jesus but finds its meaning in the Method. The actor must pass through the tortuous, the mental contortions of a self in conflict with itself. This is partly what Brando means when saying of eschewing learning the script, “you save all that time not learning the lines. You can’t tell the difference. And it improves the spontaneity because you really don’t know. You have an idea of it and you’re saying it and you can’t remember what the hell it is you want to say. I think it is an aid.” (Conversatons with Marlon Brando) Of course, Brando has often been mocked for this, but an entangled performance is not about the script on the page but about the nuances in the mind that can manifest itself in body language. When Brando says in the same interview (quoting Shakespeare, whose lines he had learnt) that the importance of the reading the face should be the eighth art, “that it should be established among the lively arts, there is an aspect of the Method that might well indicate physiognomy as an art form. The difference between Stewart and Brando rests partly on this aspect, so to speak. Stewart even in his most intensely enigmatic performance in Vertigo remains a Kuleshovian actor at the mercy of the cut. In the Kuleshov effect what we have is meaning residing less in the specifics of facial gesture than in the combination of two shots, so that the meaning comes from the counter shot. It isn’t the man’s expression that conveys desire, it is the shot of the face cut with the body of a beautiful woman. A physiognomic acting style doesn’t work like this. It is, fundamentally, anti-Kuloshivian. The meaning lies much more in the shot itself – in the physiognomic meaning. There is no physiognomic meaning in the Kuleshov effect and that is the very point. The person will have the same expression on their face but be looking at different things, and the audience will read a different expression on the visage on the basis of the counter-shot. But Brando is talking about the face as object unto itself revealing the subjectivity at work behind it and through it. In the scene in Last Tango in Paris with Brando lying on his side as he discusses his upbringing, the film doesn’t cut to Maria Schneider to whom he is telling the story. The camera stays on Brando’s visage, knowing that the energy in the scene doesn’t lie in external factors and the cut, but internal factors and the longer take.
This can bring together several factors simultaneously: emotion memory, the physiognomic and the long take, and all of which might contribute to the feeling an actor may have of struggling to escape from the role after the film has been completed. We wouldn’t want to claim that before Brando entered cinema that complex and emotionally nuanced performances were not offered on film, but if the idea of an actor getting lost in the part is a modern phenomenon, it rests on an acting style that allows for this possibility. In David Mamet’s On Directing Film, always a useful book to bring out the one-sided that needs to be countered, he reckons: “if you, the director, understand the theory of montage, you don’t have to strive to bring the actors to a real or pretended state of frenzy or love or hate or anything emotional. It’s not the actor’s job to be emotional – it is the actor’s job to be direct.” It might be all very well understanding the theory of montage, but what happens if as an actor or director you don’t agree with it. An actor wondering about his motivation would be for Mamet a waste of time, and detrimental to the story. When a student in the book enquires whether they should worry about motivation, Mamet replies: “I don’t think we need to…what you’re talking about is what the illiterate calls the “back story”. You don’t need it.” Yet for a lot of actors and directors they do feel the need for this information, even if it won’t make it onto the screen. Speaking about Manchester at the Sea, a film about a personal tragedy, director Kenny Lonergan says, “with Gretchen [Mol] and Michelle [Williams] who play characters we meet again after five years, I had a lot of discussions with them about what happened to them in between and where they’ve been – none of which is in the script, but [we were] doing that work in forms of behaviour in scenes that are in the script and in the film.” (Sight and Sound) Williams in an accompanying interview says why she took a role that was so small in the film, “the truth is if I don’t love something, I’ll be terrible in it. I can’t fake it.” Williams adds, “because my part is really quite small there’s a lot of information that’s not in the script as she doesn’t appear. So I thought a lot about the passage of time…” (Sight and Sound) All of this might seem irrelevant to someone who is in thrall to the theory of montage, who wants the performance to be conveyed in the cut and not in the actor’s face after many months of musing over the role. Mamet’s ex-wife and regular muse Lindsay Crouse, when asked about making House of Games with Mamet said, “people have asked me whether it was fun to make. It wasn’t fun. I wouldn’t use that word for it.” (Playing to the Camera) This would be partly because the character she plays is a psychologist, “who wanted to serve to the point that she couldn’t bear not being of service.” Yet would this also reside in directorial decisions that would restrict the possibilities in a performance? This wouldn’t make Mamet a bad director; just one not ideally suited to a Method approach, no matter if he, of course, worked with Al Pacino on a Glengarry Glen Ross adaptation, and Dustin Hoffman on a film version of American Buffalo. Mamet, though, usually, wants what he calls the uninflected shot over the physiognomic performance, and no shot is more uninflected than the Kuleshovian. How could an actor possibly lose themselves in a role that doesn’t even ask of them a feeling in the context of what they happen to be looking at? If it is the audience that decides when the actor looks at a baby that he is caring, or at a young woman that he is lustful, this is not a response inside his mind or in his body. It isn’t even on the actor’s face. It rests on the cut: the actor has no interiority at all to recover from.
Brando might insist, in the same interview where he talks about the physiognomic, that he doesn’t think acting is much of an art. “If Kenneth Clark said that I was an artist, I would immediately get him to a neurosurgeon.” Brando reckoned everybody is an actor, you spend your whole day acting. Everybody has suffered through moments where you’re thinking one thing and feeling one thing and not showing it. That’s acting.” “Allowing yourself to feel things, to feel love, or wrath, hatred, rage…It’s very difficult for people to have an extended confrontation with themselves.” (Conversations with Marlon Brando) Yet the point is that while everybody is acting this doesn’t mean that their acting finds a truth; its purpose is usually to hide it. Taking into account remarks from anti-psychiatry and philosophy, we are arguing that while acting might be everywhere, truth is not. The great actor lies for a truth; most people, taking into account anyone from Goffman to Laing, lie to conceal it.
This, of course, means we do not admire the actor for the flexibility of their repertoire but for the singularity of their resolve. When we look at De Niro’s roles between 1976 and 1980 – in Taxi Driver, The Last Tycoon, New York, New York, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull – we don’t see great range; we are witness to immense intensity. Now the notion of De Niro as an intense presence during this stage of his career is close to cliché, but perhaps we can escape the obvious by trying to say a little about what intense means exactly in the thespian context of the role, and also why an actor may not easily find their way back out again. The synonyms for intense we can acknowledge in De Niro’s performances include profound, deep and concentrated. To master the sax or even learning to box like a professional middleweight does not generate the intense; it indicates a will, certainly, and a very strong one. But the skill learnt is not the will revealed. We notice a manifestation of the will but not the will itself. This is why when we see actors bulk up for a role in a superhero film we don’t assume any of the intensity expressed in De Niro’s display as Jake La Motta. “He never breaks character,” says June Guterman, his assistant on Raging Bull, “even when filming stops.” Comedienne Sandra Bernhard, who improvised with him so brilliantly in King of Comedy, added, “He is totally concentrated, totally absorbed in the role.” (Vanity Fair) This is a manifest intensity that keeps the actor concentrated throughout the filming. He doesn’t so much lose himself in the role, as refuse to allow himself to dilute the part. When De Niro is asked about a particular moment in New York, New York, and what he happened to be thinking about as different thoughts seemed to be crossing his mind, he replied: “I don’t know. You probably thought I was really working…you have to know that as an actor you don’t overstate it and say “well now I am going to kvecth a little here to show them how I feel.” De Niro adds, “the less you show the better.” (Playing to the Camera) What De Niro’s remarks convey is the importance of being over acting. There is the suggestion that to act the thought would be to externalise a character when the point is the opposite: to internalise the performance so that no ‘acting’ need any longer take place. If De Niro would appear the most intense actor of the period, it rests on this capacity to create a self that doesn’t perform.
This is partly why we have invoked Laing, Goffman and others: the actor takes the opportunity not to add to the ‘lies’ of the world by acting their socks off, but finds the truth in the performance that creates a silence within the self out of which a performance can come. In The Divided Self, Laing quotes Kafka: “You can hold yourself back from the suffering of the world, this is something you are free to do and is in accord with your nature, but perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering that you might be able to avoid.” In Vanity Fair, actor Burt Young was asked why De Niro would attempt to remain invisible in public. ”He’s gotta be. This guy is so sensitive—he has antennae out for everybody. If he’d let himself, he’d be eaten alive by people. He’s that giving.” There is in De Niro’s finest performances a thespian will to truth that at the same time demands a distance from the societal. As Goffman says, there is a “structural place of sincerity to the performances they [certain people] offer. If a performance is to come off, the witnesses by and large must be able to believe that the performers are sincere. This is the structural place of sincerity in the drama of events. Performers may be sincere – or be insincere but sincerely convinced of their own sincerity – but this kind of affection for one’s part is not necessary for its convincing performance.” (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) Goffman acknowledges that most people are usually more or less who they are, but this nevertheless is a performance that is often managed. Camus’ point is contrary to our own in the sense that the great French writer believes that the actor is the mime of the ephemeral, and we are very far away from Nietzsche’s remarks about the actor as an insincere figure. Of course, Camus was mainly talking about the stage and Nietzsche would be right to assume that many performances play up the flamboyant lie over the subdued truth, but we are interested in how actors lose themselves; not how the audience simply suspends disbelief. We are also, of course, talking specifically about film, which usually demands a very different performance from the theatre: modulated rather than expressive. Lindsay Crouse describes this quite well when saying that “in the theatre an actor is a kind of force field; but in film, it’s as if that force is so amplified, it’s like shooting sound through a microscope.”(Playing to the Camera) Elsewhere, Crouse says that “the biggest thing about film acting is that the physical restriction is just unbelievable…if I hold a paper when I have to read something very important to you, the audience can’t see it if it’s down here. So I have to hold it at an unnatural height, like in advertisements for a product, but not appear unnatural doing it.” (Figures of Light) Henry Fonda reckoned “the main difference between theatre and film is projection. “In film your camera – that lens – is your audience and you don’t have to do anything that you wouldn’t do naturally.” (Playing to the Camera) Wha is clear here is that the actor doesn’t perform for the camera; the camera attends to the acting, and the more Method-oriented the more attentive the camera would seem to be. The theatrical performance can, of course, appear more one’s own in the sense that it is needn’t attend to the camera but, as a consequence, it has to attend much more to an audience: it projects the performance outwards, rather than modulates it inwards.
This suggests that because screen acting is made up usually of very small units of information, edited together by the director at a later stage, then the actor has to find a means by which to make the performance his own. Finally, the director can dictate the perception of the performance: the filmmaker is usually in the editing suite with the editor not the actor. As Sidney Pollack says, discussing a disagreement with an actor. “I win those arguments, because I have the ultimate weapon, which is final cut of the film.” What the actor has is the integrity of their role, the sense in which he or she can stay in character no matter what technical demands are made upon them, or the editorial decisions that are later insisted upon. It is, of course, an integrity that could drive an actor mad, feeling that all they have to hold on to is the integrity of their part given that is going to be cut up in the editing room. Sometimes this problem can be over one specific role; sometimes it can be over film acting itself. With James Fox it would appear to have been his role in Performance that he couldn’t quite expel. “It was traumatic to make that film. I’m a Dirk Bogarde in that way. He always said he found it very hard to put the clothes back in the trunk.” For Renee Jeanne Falconetti it was The Passion of Joan of Arc. In Figures in Light, the writer Carole Zucker says that the “director did torturous things to Falconetti, so he could get into the suffering of the character. And she ended up after that experience, spending most of her life institutionalized. Of course we don’t know what her mental state was before doing the film, but that’s the archetypal story of something disastrous that can happen when an actor embraces a role very completely.” The Dirk Bogarde comment is probably relevant to many actors whose acting demands an integrity of character that threatens to disintegrate the self.
There is, of course, the famous Hopi Indian claim that the camera can steal your soul. Yet perhaps in film terms this depends on how much of one’s soul goes into the performance; how much truth the actor is willing to have extracted from them for the part they are playing. When the religious philosopher Simone Weil discusses the idea of pieces of truth in The Need for Roots, she differentiates between the boy who discovers what the capital of Brazil happens to be, and the husband who discovers his wife has been cheating on him. In the former the boy has an additional piece of information; in the latter a truth has been revealed. “The acquisition of knowledge causes us to approach truth when it is a question of knowledge about something we love, and not in any other case.” The accumulation of skills like violin-playing and boxing are not negligible ones to attain, but they remain what we could epistemologically secondary: they are there to serve a deeper truth to be found in the acting. To admire the actor’s assiduousness is to admire their hard-work, but we would merely be praising a skill learnt not a truth attained. When Brando plays the ex-boxer in Last Tango in Paris, he suggests his strength and poise in an otherwise exhausted body with a backflip. This one gesture indicates a quiet power, and while another actor might insist that the torso would need to present itself constantly showing a man of former prowess, Brando offers it in one moment that lasts no more than a second. It is a brilliant piece of acting from the position of thespian economy: how to convey an aspect of character with the minimum amount of information. We can also, by all means, admire this show of strength and suppleness by a forty-eight year old man, but what matters aesthetically is the economy of means for maximum revelation. Obviously, we needn’t then insist that Brando’s ‘flabby’ performance is better than De Niro’s in Raging Bull; that De Niro goes to great lengths to capture La Motta’s physical condition as middleweight champion, and overstates his case; Brando does the minimum in Last Tango in Paris and understates his. Not at all; the question is one of what the performance needs for the truth attained, for the revelation to be offered. We don’t sense this revelation in Sylvester Stallone bulking up for Rocky III or Robert Downey Jnr for Iron Man. There might be performances where this sculpting of the physique is truth-telling (as in Raging Bull), but it must always remain a secondary quality of the performance. It is this secondary aspect that one might wish to retain: someone learning a language for a role or a mastery of particles physics would probably be happy to continue broadening that knowledge. But someone exploring the contours of emotion-memory and potentially traumatic moments from their own lives might wish to leave this most important dimension behind after filming. Yet this would be the truth discovered – the gift the actor has shared with others in the creative experience. It is this primary quality that we need to acknowledge when commenting on acting: it is the ontological dimension that links it to philosophical questions, psychiatric enquiries, and behavioural fundamentals.