Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 15, 2012
I started acting in grade school when I was cast in my first play in the first grade. I can’t remember the play exactly but I’m pretty sure it was about the billy goats and the troll. I was a billy goat. I think. Anyway, I kept it up because I enjoyed the experience. Through grade, middle and high school, I participated in the drama clubs, took outside acting classes and even went to a summer long acting/theatre school the year before I went to college where, as you may have guessed by now, I majored in theatre. Acting is something close to my heart and, as such, I write about it quite a bit and have grown to love all the different styles that acting has to offer. When I look back on where I started, though, I sometimes can’t believe where I’ve arrived. The acting that first appealed to me in my youth has long since taken a back seat to a much cleaner and direct approach and when I tell you my favorite actors in the movies of the past now (that is, essentially, anything before the seventies) it’s quite a different list than I initially constructed.
I first started watching classic movies as a child, taking in the late show when I could and catching up on foreign classics on PBS. It was there I first saw Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Battleship Potemkin and American classics like The General. On late night tv I saw movies like A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebel Without a Cause and A Place in the Sun. Yes, in the seventies, late night tv aired movies from the fifties but instead of feeling like long-gone classics from a forgotten age, they were a mere twenty or so years old. Like watching a movie now made in the early nineties. And when I saw those movies, the acting seemed a bit more familiar to me.
The acting in movies from the early thirties seemed a little stiff in comparison. I didn’t understand it at the time but much of that was due to the recent crossover to sound and many actors and directors were still learning how it was done. For instance, for four or five years into the sound period, up to about 1932, the Marx Brothers were the only performers who seemed to understand that in a movie you don’t wait three seconds after a line is delivered to deliver the next. Now, in the theatre this is called “holding for the laugh.” Keep speaking your lines when the audience is laughing and they’ll quickly stop laughing to hear the lines and then you’re sunk. So you clam up while the audience laughs, thus the phraseology of holding for the laugh. But it holds for more than just comedy. On a stage, the actor is projecting and up until microphones were put into use in the eighties onward, that also meant holding a bit while the lines impacted with the audience. That isn’t necessary in a movie where substantial amplification of recorded lines means anyone, anywhere in the theatre can hear even a faint whisper onscreen. Also, in a movie, you’re not sure how much of an audience is out there. Except for opening week crowds, a lot of movies play to houses only a quarter full or maybe even down to a tenth or less at a matinee. Those previously mentioned three seconds of silence are excruciating in a less than packed house where mostly all you get is silence. This results in the pacing feeling sluggish and the actors’ timing feeling off.
This was all corrected by the mid-thirties as directors like William Wellman and Howard Hawks got their actors to talk through the pauses and even if every movie in town wasn’t using overlapping dialogue, at least now things seemed a little more natural. But there was still another problem. Actors from the stage had only been doing sound cinema for a few years, and even by the late thirties the two styles were still separating themselves. The stage style is broader and the lines more properly enunciated because they have to be. A garbled line or mumble word is difficult to pick up in the cheap seats and so, naturally, most stage actors carried this over to the cinema. They hadn’t been watching movies and tv for years like stage actors today to know the difference. As such, instead of low-key deliveries and asides, they were loud and kind of stiff in their delivery. The best, however, figured it out early: Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, James Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and so on. They knew how to act for the camera, not for the audience. Act well for the camera and it’s good for the audience. They got that and they also understood how to be big, again, for the camera. Jimmy Cagney played to the rafters, on the soundstage. In a real theatre he would have projected much more. Cagney played it big but kept the voice low and naturally timed. It was a real skill and the actors of the thirties were absolute trailblazers in the art of film acting. Seriously, they put it all together for everyone else that followed.
But when I was a kid I didn’t appreciate that so much. I dug Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift a whole lot more. First off, they seemed cool to me. Brando not only acted naturally (or so I thought) but he looked like what he played. Watching him in Streetcar or On the Waterfront, I could easily agree, “Yeah, this guy’s a blue collar worker or a boxer. That’s what he looks like.” Watching James Dean contort and whine and agonize over life in Rebel Without a Cause or East of Eden felt exactly like what someone who looked like him would do. And when he became oil-rich Jett Rink in Giant, I found an acting hero. His Jett Rink is so… weird. I mean, he’s really just so… weird. Dean plays him like a cross between a mad scientist and a Dead-End Kid. I found that same weirdness in Montgomery Clift. In A Place in the Sun and From Here to Eternity, he seemed a million miles away, always looking off into the distance with this, “Wait, how did I get here,” look in his eyes. And for whatever reason, that appealed to me. It seemed so… deep to a teenager [hold for laughter].
And then I grew up.
Okay, that’s not quite all there is to it. What happened was I acted a lot more and watched a lot more and by my mid to late twenties made a startling discovery: Brando, Dean and Clift weren’t natural at all. Their performances were as stylized, if not more so, than most of the performances of the thirties during the stage-to-screen learning curve. And this made me like them even more. When I watch Brando in something like Mutiny on the Bounty now, I still think, “Jeezaree, what a loopy performance,” but I appreciate it more now in that I know Brando wasn’t just going out there giving some dull as dirt “naturalistic” performance that you see by practically everyone nowadays. He was playing his Fletcher Christian as a strange, bemused, kind of foppish dandy. And it works. And Dean? Oh brother, I still love that performance as Jett Rink and I can only imagine how much fun Dean had creating that insane character. A lesser actor would’ve made that performance so boring. But Dean made the character into a virtual a mental patient. Ditto on all of this for Clift. Those performances of his are wonders of laying bare the internal mechanisms of the character’s thoughts and painting them all over his face. That kind of performance takes acting guts and Clift had it.
And it was this realization of their stylized acting masked as natural acting that led me to truly adore other earlier actors, like Bette Davis, who absolutely went crazy in half of the performances she ever gave. Or Charles Laughton. Or Susan Hayward. Or Dorothy Malone. I love that kind of big, bold and brash acting and Brando helped me get there. But what finally happened was this: I watched a few big time classic movies more than a few times and the actors in them gave performances that never, ever got stale: William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. And I watched over and over and I thought, “Unlike Brando and Dean, I don’t notice they’re acting. I think I like that more.”
Now don’t get me wrong or get all bent out of shape. I still love Brando and Dean but when I watch those old pros, like the ones mentioned above, I see something that reminds me why I loved acting in the first place. It was all about being the character. It’s ironic that those classic actors came off as more “being the character” than those known for the Method (which isn’t really about “feeling” the character anyway – I read all the books by Stanislavski for acting classes in college and you wouldn’t believe how misunderstood they are), like Brando and Dean. And there was one performance in particular that really sealed the deal for me. I used to talk about it all the way back in college with a classmate who felt the same way so the transformation from the styles of acting I liked originally to what I liked eventually was clearly already beginning. By my late twenties and early thirties, I’d seen this particular performance probably forty or so times. That’s right, forty plus times. And it never got old. The performance is by Jimmy Stewart and the movie is It’s a Wonderful Life.
Now, everyone here knows the story of the movie and everyone here knows it was out of copyright protection for years and so it was played over and over every December. Seriously, over and over. I would probably come across it at least twenty times during the holidays just changing the channels and probably fully watched it three or four times each December. And Stewart’s performance not only never got old, it got better and better every time I watched it. From his youthful college years (which he absolutely pulls off) to his disgruntled twenties and his harried thirties and middle age, there is not a frame of that film where I think for a second there isn’t actually a person out there named George Bailey living through all of this as I watch. In fact, Stewart and the movie have so repeatedly impressed me that by this point, “Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life” is my rote answer if someone asks me, “What would you rank as the greatest performance in the movies?” And I say that knowing full well that Stewart could no more succeed as Stanley Kowalski than Brando could as George Bailey. Or perhaps I should say, they’re both good enough actors to somehow make those roles work for them in a very peculiar way and the results would most certainly be interesting but the point is, I realize different actors have different strengths and to rank one above the other is foolhardy. Still, Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life is kind of hard to beat.
And so I’ve gone round and round in my years watching the actors of classic cinema. I still love all of them and appreciate Brando, Dean and Clift even more now that I see how stylized many of their performances were. The actor often listed as their forerunner, John Garfield, was far more centered and solid. And better than all three of them in my book (how he lost out Best Actor for Body and Soul in 1947, I still don’t know). But that’s because he hearkened back to that “in the character” efficiency and discipline of the actors of the decade before him. Those actors of the thirties, forties and fifties remain my favorites. While I admire and love the modern work of actors like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and others, it’s those classic era actors that really do it for me now. And I haven’t even mentioned how wonderful it was when I first realized Cary Grant was a genius, but that’s for another day. And another part of the journey. And, yes, it’s been a heck of a journey but one worth the distance traveled, even if there are still miles to go.
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