There are very good books and articles on actors, about stardom, about performance, on acting and about acting. David Thomson and Pauline Kael have often been astute concerning the thin line between the person and the performance, the star that is a product of the life they lead, the parts they play and the frequent dissolution between the two. Richard Dyer’s 1970s book Stars became a basic text in understanding the creation of stardom and Andrew Klevan in recent years has looked at the nature of film performance. Then we have the important tomes on acting from Stanislavski to Sanford Meisner as well as books where actors talk about the profession of acting itself, from Playing to the Camera to Figures of Light.
There are thus various ways in which to approach an understanding of acting. Dan Callahan’s very unacademic tome, looking at English language actors from 1960 to today, is most closely affiliated to Kael and Thomson’s approach, absorbing also the technical side that Meisner and other acting coaches like Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg promoted, and also using interviews (by himself and others) to bulk up the observations. It makes for a very engaging and chatty read, a book that can be picked up and put down, leafed through and argued over even if most of the contentious points he offers have little to do with acting and more to do with films he rates or does not rate without substantiation. “There Will be Blood [P.T. Anderson, 2007] is a portentous film, obscure and awkwardly structured and edited,” (p.63) he says, while seeing Tree of Life [Terrence Malick, 2011] as perhaps the best modern American film. One can admire both and wonder if the claims made against the former can just as easily be applied to the latter. Joseph Strick’s Tropic of Cancer (1970) is described as “a graceless film of the Henry Miller novel”, (p. 118) while in the Pacino-starring Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973) Callahan reckons “the film’s lack of structure finally defeats him.” (p.21)
One can disagree with Callahan’s opinions but might also wonder what lies behind them, believing that Callahan is so concerned with performance that the form of film is secondary to how much space the film gives to the actor. Though the book is chiefly about film acting, the writer does not differentiate between cinematic roles and the TV performances, and also often talks about the actor’s work on stage. Perhaps as a consequence very little is said of the actor in the context of the camera, even in relation to the director. Callahan does say at the end of the book that “of all the directors I have mentioned, Martin Scorsese is clearly the most dominant, with Woody Allen placing a distant second.” (p.209) But he also adds that “the only major collaborations between director and actor covered here are the series of films Scorsese made with De Niro and the films that John Cassavetes made with Gena Rowlands, both of which are somewhat creatively mysterious,” and goes on to insist that “otherwise, from my point view, the actor is often the auteur in this period, far more so than directors like Alan J. Pakula, Bob Rafelson or Sydney Pollack or Jim Sheridan or Lasse Hallstrom.” (idem.) Putting Pakula’s work of the seventies in the same category of Sheridan’s, suggests a wilful disregard for the aesthetic differences between the two directors. Pakula, in films like Klute and All the President’s Men, created a very specific mise en scène in which the actor could work; Sheridan is a director who ostensibly gives space to the performance by retreating as a filmmaker, yet that retreat carries with it a set of conventions that can ruin a performance. Shot/counter-shot, non-diegetic music, predictable framing, can make a performance a very different thing coming out of the editing suite than it was on the set.
If one admires P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood much more than the three films Daniel Day-Lewis made for Sheridan (My Left Foot (1989), In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer (1997) it is not because Day-Lewis’s performance is any worse in the other films but because the direction does not augment the role. Callahan notes that Day-Lewis modelled his accent in Anderson’s film on “the absurdly courtly delivery of John Huston” but while on its own it may have seemed a hyperbolic act of mimicry, Anderson gives to the framing a coolness that counters the exaggeration in the performance. In a scene between the preacher Eli (Paul Dano) and Plainview (Day-Lewis), the two discuss an accident at the well. Anderson films from inside the church as he holds the shot and eschews shot/counter-shot and close-ups. It gives to a scene that hints at the aggressive, even more a sense of the plaintive, a worrisome distance that captures Plainview’s powder-keg personality without turning Day-Lewis’s acting into the overblown.
In contrast, Sean Penn’s performance in The Tree of Life is “hampered” by Terrence Malick’s direction because Malick is looking for a choppy aesthetic that keeps carving up screen space and time, dissolving the performance into the juxtapositional. When we see Sean Penn in the office discussing his architectural plans, eyeing up a woman who passes, talking on the phone to his dad, sitting in a meeting, the editing never lets a shot hold and the camera is hyperactively moving through the mise en scène, flitting away to take in the architecture of the building’s interiors, then cutting to exterior shots. Callahan says that “Penn was publicly upset when he saw […] The Tree of Life (2011) because so much of his work had been cut.” (p.76) However, it was as if Malick wanted a radical reformulation of the Kuleshov effect, with the actors never quite knowing what emotion they need to express because the editing would decide it for them after the event. Instead of the performance ending up on the cutting room floor (a common occurrence in Malick’s work), Penn’s character is conjured up out of a directorial enquiry into loss. Yet his performance in Malick’s film becomes all the more complex as a consequence. In contrast, in Mystic River (2003), Penn’s performance is all of a piece, with a clear character through-line. If the acting can seem bad it isn’t because Penn is poor but that the direction is emphatic. When his character discovers his daughter’s body the intense expression of Penn’s grief is exacerbated by Clint Eastwood’s direction: overhead crane shots and non-diegetic music turn the performance melodramatic. If “Penn is an actor who can’t transcend poor or gaudy or pedestrian writing (which he has often been given) as much as separate his own characterisation from the words he is saying” (p. 76), then we would say that Penn’s problem often is not the script, it is the direction that accompanies his acting. Better surely Malick’s enquiry than Eastwood’s obviousness. Here we have two films about grieving but Eastwood closes it down and Malick opens it up. Perhaps Malick needs to be more in tune with the actors and what might happen to their work in the editing suite, but he is never one to pursue thespian tautologies, where the performance is given and the direction insists on underscoring it with further accoutrements. Of course Penn, a (fine but flamboyant) director himself could have seen that the camera would contain some of the feeling his performance registers and perhaps should have toned down the display, but our point is that acting in film is a specific thing and contains what we could call its own dispositif, an apparatus involving a number of variables that make it very hard to say what the film performance is in itself.
More could have been made on such a point in the fundamental contrast Callahan sees between the Method approach to acting, where the performance is felt, and the behavioural approach, where it is expressed. We need not assume that such a contrast does not contain disagreements within what would be seen as loosely the same approach. “When I studied at the Stella Adler Conservatory in the late 1990s, we were told over and over again that Strasberg was a damaging and pernicious figure whose teaching led to chaos and ruin.” (p.3) Strasberg actors include Fonda, Burstyn and Pacino, while Adler actors include Brando, De Niro and Martin Sheen. But the outside eye would not be able to differentiate Pacino’s method from De Niro’s. However the gap between Method actors of either school, Adler’s and Strasberg, would be small next to the gap between, say, Fonda, Pacino and Brando, and non-Method actors Olivier, Hopkins and Dench. Both Adler and Strasberg, as well as Meisner and Hagen, all worked from Stanislavski, while Olivier, Hopkins and Dench are from the theatrical tradition of externalisation: the important thing is not to feel an emotion but to recreate it on cue. The latter allows for consummate professionalism; the former the danger of forgetting your lines while finding your feeling. There is no doubt which approach a director might prefer when hundreds of people are waiting on your utterance, when the minutes are ticking away, the lighting crew are getting fed up and the money men are getting antsy. Dench trumps Brando; but how many great film performances has Dench given beyond a very effective reimagining of M in Bond movies? Brando offered at least a dozen, from On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1953) to The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), Burn (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969) to Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972), One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961) to The Missouri Breaks (Arthur Penn, 1976). And we haven’t even mentioned Kurtz or Kowalski.
Stanislavski’s acting techniques may have been designed for theatre and would have seemed in marked contrast to the performances needed in the Soviet montage school, but one of the advantages it has for film is it allows the actor to create an embodied character within a discontinuous art form. While a theatre performance is all of a piece, cinema is little pieces of time (as James Stewart once said). The Method seems a very good way of holding the performance together in the face of a technological art form, which might leave you in medium shot or insist on a close up, which might play music over your lines or insist on a shadow over your face. We might look at Day-Lewis’s work from this point of view and nevertheless see in it a relative failing. There are many stories online concerning Day-Lewis’s insistent need to stay in character. They may be apocryphal, but what few dispute is that Day-Lewis carries the performance beyond the clapper-board. When you have directors like Sheridan, Spielberg and Rob Marshall taking the performance out of your hands with directorial heavy-handedness – with clumsy reaction shots, non-diegetic music and haloed lighting – then all you can hold onto is the integrity of your character, the intensity of your own feelings.
It is as though the Method covered one half of the actor’s problem but left the other half untouched: how does an actor have control of the way their performance is edited, how to have a say not only on the set when you might alter your expression based on the length of the lens, but also how you might have played it if you knew the director was going to add music and intercut your dialogue with cutaways to other characters looking on concerned? Aware that the cutaways might add sentimentality to the performance, would the actor be more inclined to pull back, make the performance tighter and more internal? Occasionally we hear of actors very involved in the whole filmmaking process (De Niro’s involvement in Raging Bull [Martin Scorsese, 1980]), and there are plenty of actors who have directed their own films, but given the actor’s power in Hollywood we might be surprised that they rarely make it into the editing suite. Stories of the actor on the cutting room floor are frequent; but there are very few about them in the cutting room themselves.
However, rather than actors insisting on greater control of the material, many have instead accepted the limitations and moved away from the integrity of the performance and towards the demands of the film generally. One can see this if we think of comments Ethan Hawke has made. Speaking of the shift from naturalist integrity of the performance to a more showy, expressive approach to acting, Hawke says: “Here’s what happened. Julia Roberts happened. The newest thing that happened to acting […] was Julia Roberts.”1 Roberts famously said, “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.”2 Vital however to the Method was an aspect of the documentarian, chronicling the performance within the film being made. Callahan allows a couple of passing mentions to Roberts but while he might not agree with Hawke specifically, he would so more generally, seeing Meryl Streep as the important figure. “Streep rejected the teachers she had at Yale, who wanted her to delve into her personal life for a role. It is Streep’s rejection of this orthodoxy that is the secret of dramatic happening that explains the change that occurs as this book goes on.” (p. 3) Though Callahan sees that actors are free to adopt any number of acting approaches, the Method is now far from dominant. If the actor could only control half the performance, then why bother exposing yourself if one does not have any control over how the material is put together? Better instead to turn up on set, read your lines, meet your mark and go home. You do your job well but remember that it is a job.
Yet not at all contemporary actors work like this, and especially when a director insists that the performance is part of a coherent aesthetic shape, which means the director acknowledges the actor less as box-box-office appeal and more as artistic co-creator. P.T. Anderson’s recent work (There Will be Blood, The Master , Inherent Vice  and The Phantom Thread ) bring out of Day-Lewis’s and Joaquin Phoenix’s performances something that suggests an integrity and intensity the director does not only respect but insistently augments, finding the directorial means to bring out the ontology of character, the being-there of the person the actor is playing instead of merely the performing of a role the script demands. “I genuinely adapt to the actor. […] Working with Joaquin kind of requires looseness, it requires an ability to improvise, instinctually, where he might go. Trying to plan something out while working with him is very difficult. Because if you feel he should sit on the couch, he’s going to find a way to sit over there on the chair.”3 There is in Phoenix a constant, improvisatory zeal, as though his being knows how tenuous everything happens to be. Such performances are far away from the Julia Roberts school of acting. “…Julia Roberts comes along with Pretty Woman…it launched ten years of smile-and-say-your-line-acting” Hawke offers. He admires Roberts as a ‘phenomenal actor’ but rues her influence.4
Callahan’s book would have been a great deal more significant had it searched out its initial premise, absorbed a few more philosophical influences (from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Camus, all of whom have interesting things to say about actors) and explored the difference between an exploration of being and the dramatisation of a performance. Instead, in the biggest and most fundamental weakness of the book, Callahan offers potted bios of all the actors he covers (half of them on men; half on women), suggesting he has watched an awful lot of everybody’s work but runs through their careers from beginning to end without finding an essayistic focus. There are plenty of good observations: Albert Finney’s “talent was best served in his two marriage films, his Mark in Two for the Road [Stanley Donen, 1967] and his George Dunlap in Shoot the Moon [Alan Parker, 1982], both uncommonly painful and honest performances that also drew on that tenuous charm he was often so squeamish about showing us and his on-screen spouses.” (p. 52) Jack Nicholson “hits on a kind of pissed-off energy that had seldom been seen on screen before, and the way he loses his temper with an officious waitress [in Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)] was felt as liberating, even if it is a largely pointless and even unfair gesture.” (p. 7) There are also interesting biographical details that may well be known but not commonly discussed. Robert De Niro’s mother had an affair with the artist and critic Manny Farber, the writer who has perhaps written better on Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) than anybody else. Glenn Close was brought up in a cult and Debra Winger took time out from acting and taught literature classes at Harvard. Yet the observations don’t quite add up to insights, and the biographical details sometimes become vulgar rather than exploratory: “By the time of Klute [Alan J. Pakula, 1971] it [Jane Fonda’s voice] was rich and throaty. She was actively bulimic for most of her adult life, and all that vomiting is bound to affect the throat.” (p. 107)
Nevertheless there is space here for Callahan to open up his research more deeply, to use the many observations he has about the many films he has watched to work out more theoretically what has shifted, why Streep and Roberts, in their very different ways, are much more influential figures today instead of actors given to a more Methodical persuasion. Forty years ago, David Shipman produced a series of entertaining, engaging books, The Great Movie Stars, that did not pretend to have any value beyond a layman’s casual browse. If that has been Callahan’s purpose (as well as his previous volume The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912 to 1960) he has succeeded well enough, but his book is often too chatty to arrive at more than superficial observations; there is little that elevates it. Yet if we think more broadly of acting there is a space that allows us to begin to understand its complexities. Camus notes in The Myth of Sisyphus that the actor “always concerned with better representing […] demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being.”5 Camus is commenting specifically on the theatre but there is an underpinning question much broader that anybody from Brando to Erving Goffman have understood. As Brando says, “everybody is an actor, you spend your whole day acting. Everybody has suffered through moments when you’re thinking one thing and feeling one thing and not showing it.”6 Goffman reckons, “scripts even in the hands of the unpractised players can come to life because life itself is a dramatically enacted thing. All the world is not, of course, a stage but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”7 Acting remains a slippery thing to explain. It may be what we most obviously see in front of us when we go to the cinema (much more so than camera shots, cuts and cue music) but the thin line between acting and living, being and performing, makes it very hard to analyse – and all the harder perhaps when the shots, the cuts and the score are doing much to augment it or undermine it. In Callahan’s earlier and more impressive volume, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912 to 1960, the book better explains and explores classical acting. But many modern actors seem to require from the critic a deeper understanding of the nature of being. A hint of the philosophical and an exploration of the technical would have made Callahan’s book a work of some interest. Here, the mystery is too readily intact.
Dan Callahan, The Art of American Screen Acting 1960 to Today (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2019).
- Ethan Hawke, interviewed by Gary Bettinson, “Screen Acting and the New Hollywood: An Interview with Ethan Hawke”, Cineaste 40:2 (Spring 2015), pp. 4-11, here p. 11. ↩
- Gilberto Perez, “Looking for Imperfection”, London Review of Books 23:16, August 23, 2001. ↩
- Paul Thomas Anderson, interviewed by Pierre Sauvage, “Beware the Golden Fang: An Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson”, Cineaste 40:2 (Spring 2015), pp. 18-22, here p. 21 ↩
- Hawke, “Screen Acting and the New Hollywood”, p. 11. ↩
- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (Penguin, London, 1975) p. 75. ↩
- Laurence Grobel, Conversations with Marlon Brando (Bloomsbury: London 1991) p. 43. ↩
- Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Pelican, Harmondsworth, 1978) p. 78. ↩