By John H. Foote
I love acting – not doing it – but appreciating it. So much more goes into a performance than the untrained eye might realize. The lines are agonized over, not just learning them but how they are delivered. A line delivered too strong can be silly, whereas not enough underplays the role to the point of the character being nearly invisible. A small role can often be a test of an actor’s mettle as an artist.
In 1983, I saw a small independent film called Independence Day, about a group of friends in the American mid-west and a very dysfunctional marriage. A very young Dianne Wiest portrays a battered wife whose husband routinely tosses lit matches at her. She is edgy and ready to explode, and when she exacts a terrifying revenge, her character for me came alive. I came out of the cinema knowing that the film was rather forgettable, but Wiest was instantly unforgettable. Three years later, she won her first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as Holly, the drug-addicted sister in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Eight years later, she gave one of the greatest performances ever put on film as the diva Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Another Allen film, but it belonged to Wiest. In each performance, she is completely different, a quiet terrified housewife, a coked-up nightmare, and a vain actress manipulating the writer to improve her role. Her command “Don’t speak” is hilarious each time she said with a new inflection, the performance was an absolute joy to watch and as expected she collected ever acting prize available to her that year.
Though his career had ups and downs, Marlon Brando was pure pleasure to watch on screen, even in the bad films he made because you knew he was taking risks, doing what no one else could do. He managed to make every line original, like he was saying the words for the first time. Only Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day Lewis, Forest Whitaker, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jane Fonda, Natalie Portman and Robert Duvall have equalled or even surpassed Brando, each a thrill to watch because they make each performance a highwire act.
I began my career as an actor but knew very quickly I had no potential. My talent was directing. I was always able to see the entire play in my head. My professors at Humber College indulged me and I was the first student to ever direct mainstage productions, two of them in 1981-82. I directed until 1996 when my work as a film critic took off and I simply did not have the time. Earning a reputation as an actor’s director, I loved rehearsal, the dissection of the play and the characters, and watching the actors shine under the freedom I gave them. Some were flummoxed, unsure what to do, others bathed in glory under it.
I believe in aspects of the Method system, more the style of Elia Kazan than the brutal Lee Strasberg. The latter used the Method as a tool to control the actors, to make them responsive to him alone, which is both dangerous and cruel. He used the Method to sleep with Marilyn Monroe. Kazan was all about the text.
I would follow his process of researching a play or film first to find out everything you can about the background of the narrative and the writer. Read the play the first time to understand the narrative and themes. Read the second time and pay attention to everything your character says asking yourself why they say it. The third time you read it, pay attention to everything said to and about your character whether they are in the scene onstage or not. How does your character propel the narrative? Merge all of what you have learned together and then ask yourself, who am I, what am I, and why am I? Always be asking why? Effective memory, which Strasberg preached like a religion, works to a point, using a piece of your past for a scene. But what it you need to cry so you conjure memories of a death in the family. Eventually the emotion dims and the tears no longer come. Worse, what happens if you are not emotionally ready to deal with those emotions? Kazan believed, as I do, that everything you need to create the character is in the text of the play (or script). You use that as a foundation to build the character.
Any actor seeking the absolute truth is a method actor.
Clint Eastwood maintains most of his job as a director is done with casting, that the actors are professionals and will show up and do their job. Scorsese, Spielberg, Allen, the greats, believe the same thing, trusting their actors to create. Eastwood in fact has stated the best ideas often come from the actors.
So, beginning Sunday, I am going to explore the Ten Greatest Performances given in each decade, males and females grouped together, leading performances first, supporting to follow when I am through the leads. More than a year of research went into this, but to be honest, it is a lifetime of work. As humans, we connect to the people we see on the screen, and if their performance touches, terrifies or enlightens you, the actor has done their job. As the audience, we do ours by remembering the performance.
I am really excited about this.
See you Sunday for Part I.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.