When acting isn’t

I saw the Golden Globes the other night, one of the many award shows this season that will have me glued to the tube. I was sitting there, spellbound, even though I never believe art ought to be a contest. Who is the best is not only impossible to decide, it is pointless. How can you say Casey Affleck had a better performance than Denzel Washington? You can’t. It is only a different performance, each affective in different ways.  The point is, I was affected by both performances, which is what they were supposed to do. Affect me.

So how does a group of people decide on the “best?” Much depends on who is doing the watching and the voting. It could have all come down to: which character and story you liked better, whose career needs a boost, what the temper of the times is, how to divide the awards among the artists so they will want to do more, and so on. In other words, there is no “best” performance. There are only performances that are noteworthy and effective.

So if you were going to assess an acting performance, what do you base it on? There lots of answers, and many of them have to do with emotional range and how technique is used to bring the character to emotional life. In other words, what did they do to bring life to the performance?

This year’s Golden Globes had many great acting performances. I could go on about all the things, the techniques, the raw emotions displayed by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, playing off each other, etc. Marvelous performances, enriched by how movement, bodily attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, etc. were used. The performances amounted to a master class in ensemble acting. Anyone could benefit seeing what these two were able to do.

Yet two other performances also stood out for me, not by what the actors did, but by what they didn’t do.

Casey Affleck, I suppose an actor whose time has come, won for the movie, Manchester by the Sea. Claire Foy won for her performance in the Netflix series, The Crown, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II.

They are marvelous, Affleck and Foy, in completely different vehicles, but their performances are hard to talk about. In both cases, we need to see and understand just how profoundly both characters, in different ways, are affected by what happens to them. In both cases, that something goes way beyond drawing on what acting classes taught. Both actors show profound emotion and thought processes without a lot of externals. Changes are happening internally and that makes it almost scary to watch. We see what these characters are made of and who they really are, not by what they do, but by what they don’t do.

Both actors internalized their characters and because there is a camera involved, an instrument that can pick up the tiniest movements. Even an eye flicker becomes a subtle way to let us know the character has just been dinged by circumstances. So Affleck can let us know by just looking away for a moment, that his character, a man already destroyed beyond any redemption, can still feel and that he can feel, puzzles him.

And Foy, by taking a deeper breath but keeping her body and eyes steady, shows us a monumental moment in which Elizabeth is no longer a proper wife and mother, but in that moment, had become queen of England.

Queen. She keeps steady, a little straightening of her shoulders, her eyes flick away for an instant in a glimmer of fear, and then eyes back and steady. This woman had changed in seconds and in ways us regular folk can only guess at. Yet we didn’t have to imagine, because Foy held us spellbound as we vividly knew, through that breath, that flicker of the eyes, just how much this young woman had changed. Just moments ago, she had to take in the loss of her dear father. He was king. And now, she must be queen. No breaking down, not for Foy’s Elizabeth. No flying out of control, no screaming about how it is not fair to ask her to give up her life. With a slightly elevated breath, her eyes open a little wider, she lets us know that henceforth, she will do her duty bravely and elegantly, and do it because this is what she was meant to do. It is no longer about Elizabeth the young woman and mother. It is about Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and her duty to her people. There is no winning here. No grabbing at the gold ring. No Tweeting. There is only duty and breeding, qualities that manifest themselves quietly.

What Claire Foy didn’t do, in her pivotal moment, is to shudder, grab hold of her husband’s hand to steady herself, sit because she was so overwhelmed she had to keep from falling over. She didn’t reach for a handkerchief and dab her eyes to show her grief at the loss of her father or twist it to show her apprehension at suddenly being the queen of England.

What she did do, by not doing anything big, was to let us in on Elizabeth’s secret strength and her dedication to duty. We understood the woman and the queen in that, and so many other, moments of non-acting, and Claire Foy will forever be associated with this remarkable woman, Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Yep, sometimes less is more.

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The Oscars: Silver Lining for the movie artist?

Every actor who plays major parts in movies, plays, and television has an “intangible” whatever. But there are also standards to measure them against. I saw Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and had to love her. She was a perfect foil for Bradley Cooper’s obsessions. (He was marvelous. It was his movie. I hope he gets his due respect but I doubt if he – or anyone – can match Daniel Day Lewis who immersed himself in his part, so much so that I couldn’t tell you what he was doing. Time after time he just disappears into his character and it’s all good. Besides, he played Lincoln.) She was delightful, showing a side of her we didn’t see in Winter’s Bone and only glimpsed in The Hunger Games.

Then there is Jessica Chastain who gave a technically polished, thoughtful, insightful, restrained performance in Zero Dark Thirty. It was superb based on acting standards.

So who gets the award?  Who deserves it? It depends on the standards. And both used them effectively. So the obvious answer to me is that neither gets it or both do. Lawrence couldn’t give a thoughtful performance. She was asked to do screwball comedy, something funny and physical. Chastain couldn’t be charming and audience-pleasing. It wasn’t what she was creating. What she needed was all the technique she has honed to interpret the director’s vision for the character.

I know Jennifer Lawrence can act without needing many words to convey her character. Just watch her use her eyes and face in Winter’s Bone and you’ll know what I mean. She uses physicality in a dynamic way that keeps you watching her, wondering what’s next. Jessica Chastain has technique (standards of acting) that she has long ago internalized and draws from as needed. She knows how to do comedy. Just watch her touching and funny performance in The Help. She knows how to do serious, earth-changing drama. Just watch her in Zero Dark Thirty.  Who should win? Why even go there? It really doesn’t come down to a Mean Girls’ popularity contest: who do we like best and who would we like to see fail? Just see them both. They are doing different things and both are successful at what they created. Both movies and performances are effective. How can you say which is better? Better than what?

Who’s my bet to win Best Actress? Quvenzhané Wallis. Is she really the best actress? I have to say no. She was great at playing a single note convincingly and endearingly. But light on technique. But she is young, cute, effective, and she could win as Oscar’s nod to a significant movie that needs to be seen, just the kind of thing that makes the Academy believe they are daring and caring. But on the other side of things, if she wins, what will it tell Quvenzhané? That picking up more technique from a good teacher will increase her emotional range and the parts she can play? No. She’ll only know she is already on the top of the acting heap and that gives her nothing useful she can take into her future.

We only know what we like. So how can anyone judge who is the Best? Art just IS. It either fulfilled a vision effectively and creatively, or it didn’t. And here’s another heads-up: You don’t have to like it even if it was effective. You just have to appreciate its effectiveness. (Taste is at work here.) The viewer is either moved by the artist’s vision and skill in carrying that out what they set out to do or the viewer is not.

You tell a high school student just coming up in the arts that he or she came in second, you are telling them that they are second best. But at what? You tell the winning student that they are the best. Best why?  The trouble is you are not ready to hear that you won or didn’t win. You are learning what you need to know to make people cry or laugh in all the right places, to do your bit to give the audience a memorable experience and to affect their lives in the way the play/statue/dance/painting/whatever intended. You win a contest but that tells you nothing you need to know, which is, did I accomplish what I set out to do? What could I do better? Where do I need work, what is already working? You need vision and skill to be an artist and bring your creation to life on your terms, the student’s terms. Developing that vision is what is important and I see, especially at the high school level, only distractions with contests. I would rather see art work showcased at the state level. Let us keep our judgments and opinions to ourselves and just see what you guys can do and help you take the next step in developing your talents and skills. Contests don’t tell you much except that we are supposed to see it as something of a football game. Who crosses the goal line most often. What does that have to do with seeing and making art? None of us, not teachers, critics, nor the artists themselves should shut it all down with a judgment of Best or Not Best. We have to develop the creative urge, not judge it and we need to do it on your terms, the artists, not ours. So you came in second? Irrelevant. What did you do to bring the project to life and how effective was your effort? What did you do that worked? How did you show us your taste in art? What would you do differently next time? What do you need more experience doing?

Watch the Oscars. It will be fun. But just know there is no Best in Show when it comes to the arts. Like life itself, art just is.

See also: ‘Tis the Award Season.

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A movie for our time

When a movie is well-made, one of the things you’ll notice is that time suspends, your regular “real” life is on hold, you are nowhere and everywhere, you are a part of whatever is happening, captivated right through to the credits. In fact, you have a hard time leaving the theatre. You need the credits to get your bearings, like decompressing on the way up from a deep dive. This was my experience of Zero Dark Thirty.

We talk of choices we make as artists all the time. In the hands of director Kathryn Bigelow, I got a real sense of her vision and her style of working. She imagined a movie, what she wanted to say about it, how it would look, how her ensemble would act it, what scenes her cinematographer would film and how, what the movie score would do to enhance what was happening. All choices in the service of a vision. It was a superb dance and everyone did their individual thing all to one purpose, to convey this director’s idea of this movie.

Bigelow’s choices were sure, effective, and all pervasive. The director holds a vision and in Zero Dark Thirty, we felt it, experienced it. We saw what she was doing: telling a true story from the point of view of the kind of person it would take to track down the most elusive terrorist on the planet. Like the main character in Bigelow’s  movie The Hurt Locker, Maya has given up what ordinary people take for granted and call a normal life to get resolution for the rest of us. The hint of obsession is everywhere and from everyone from the supporting cast to cinematography to the score, her choices supporting the story and the character became an almost living thing; a compleat movie; a highly skilled and stylized movie; an artistic vision carried out on film.

It goes from dark indoor scenes in a Black Ops world where captive detainees are water-boarded to extort what they know about terrorist activities, to sun-drenched vistas establishing place in the world, to colorful jumbles of cities where there is decay and so much life existing in the same space, to spaces where you sense, where you just know that pretty soon a bomb is going to explode. You know this, not because the camera zooms in on a spot to clue you that it will blow up in a moment, but because of the casualness, the ordinariness of people’s demeanor and the atmosphere the director has taken great pains to create for us.  Suicide bombs are a way of life in some parts of the world, happening among ordinary every-day occurrences. The bomb goes off and ordinary life is suddenly tense and chaotic. The peace we take for granted is evaporated and so is ordinary life.

Director’s choices. Actor’s choices. They both make this movie what it is, but even the acting choices are firmly under Kathryn Bigelow’s focused direction. She has actors working to their strengths to create what are mostly real people, but they work with each other to bring together Bigelow’s point of view that is carefully, methodically laid out so we can experience it as she sees it, one scene at a time until the scenes have accumulated and we feel the terror of a people who need 9/11 explained and stopped forever, a people who refuse to be held hostage any longer, and yet we see the terror of individuals, specific people who are not like us and yet they are, whose job it is to bring our collective anguish to some kind of close. These people who are standing in for us are not living the kind of normal lives that we are. They are cutting themselves off from our comforts and assumptions about daily life to give us a kind of global peace that will let us get back to our cherished ordinariness. These people give it all up to get even with the enemy, to bring the enemy down, to get some kind of truce in the world. We don’t know, and I believe Bigelow thinks we can’t know what motivates these individuals. To say it is patriotism is only a beginning point in the analysis. You have to bring in obsession somewhere.

The scenes. You can feel the dust. Smell the food and spices in the bazaars, but yet we aren’t allowed to forget why we are looking at these very scenes. We are sniffing the enemy out. This is no travelogue, no beautiful vistas to lull us into thinking we are all brothers under the skin. Under these pretty colors is an enemy we are beginning to see is as ordinary as ourselves. Only our purposes are different. But understanding our enemy isn’t important in this movie. We need to understand ourselves first. And we need to understand obsession.

Jessica Chastain, whom I have admired elsewhere in this blog, has done several things. She has made Maya, an inexplicable and complicated woman, understandable and has done that by giving us the best kind of master class in acting. Everything she does resonates with character and choices about how to show that character, even when that character does nothing. She uses technique easily and to moderate the pace and timing of her lines, of her movement and non-movement, of building emotions and then, even more impressively, backing down from them. It is through impeccable technique that she gives us glimpses of character that is so much more telling than big explosively emotional scenes. And she does this with technique that is so much a part of her that only an acting coach would notice. And she does this with an intelligent sense of style―hers and Bigelow’s.

Most impressive, she has picked up on and immersed herself in the style and tone the director has set for the overall production.  She plays within the confines of Bigelow’s vision and sensibilities, blending in seamlessly yet standing out to create this remarkable movie. She makes no false moves. She blends, molds, yet stands out within a perfectly realized artistic vision.

The most telling scene is the last, with Maya, mission over, with nothing, I mean nothing else in her life, takes the first seat in the cavernous troop transport plane. Chastain is a small woman and seems almost swallowed up in the bowels of this mammoth plane. She is completely alone. She can choose any seat, but can’t seem to make a decision anymore and takes the first one. The giant door closes her off from the world she has known for so long. She is asked where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer. She can’t. There is nowhere else for Maya. Tears come but they barely get out. There is no flood of emotion. No euphoria that she has succeeded. No relief. All that is left is that it is over. There isn’t any more. There doesn’t need to be and there isn’t. The credits roll over a black screen and the excellent music by Alexandre Desplat that has taken us to places we had no idea existed, puts the final touch on a completely realized film.

The movie and the movie makers will win awards or they won’t. It is beside the point. This movie and the people who made it, with Kathryn Bigelow conveying what is needed to complete her vision, stands on its own. It is a beautiful thing what Bigelow and Chastain and company have made. Art.

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TED and the theatre

I while ago a friend of mine suggested I see a video on the TED website (you do know TED, don’t you? my friend asked. I mumbled something vague while I headed for Google) of Jill Bolte Taylor telling the audience what her own stroke was like. Outside of theatre, I had never seen anything so compelling and so emotionally off the charts as this woman reliving her stroke.

So today I thought that I’d check out TED to see what innovative things were happening in theatre now for an article I’m writing, and came upon Patsy Rodenburg, voice and acting coach, talking about “Why I do Theatre.”

Once again I was riveted. I couldn’t move, couldn’t stop watching her, fascinated with how alive she is. Once again I was emotionally grabbed and wanted to cheer when it ended.

If you ever wanted a better reason than fame and fortune for doing theatre, see this video for yourself: “Why I do Theatre.”

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Acting… or is it?

Quick. Name your three favorite actors. Got them? Now tell me are they actors or are they interesting personalities who act for a living?

I’ll give you my three: Jessica Chastain (The Help among other recent movies), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon a Time), and Sandra Bullock (lots and lots of movies).

Let me first say that there is nothing wrong, bad, incorrect, or anything else negative about being a popular personality. Nathan Lane is one and he’s made a good living doing it. (Note: If you don’t know any of these people I’m talking about, take the time to Google them.) Nathan Lane is hilarious; he has a good musical comedy style that delivers that wow factor. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry – (well, maybe not real tears.) You’ll be enthralled. You’ll say he was worth the exorbitant price you paid for that theater ticket. That’s his shtick and you have to love it.

But. Is that acting? Or is it his enormous personality? The answer to that is the answer to this: What is acting and how is it different from a popular, likeable personality?

There are lots of definitions of what acting is and you’ll see and hear many in your theatre career. One that has caught my eye was in a review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als about Goodman Theatre’s (Chicago) exciting production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The review mentions not only Nathan Lane, but addresses the what-is-acting question much better than I could. Als wrote, “…he [Nathan Lane] is not an actor, at least not one who transforms himself for a role or allows his overwhelming personality to be subsumed in a character.”

The key is internalizing the character. Jessica Chastain did that in The Help. She disappeared into Celia Foote. I can’t tell you the first thing about what Chastain must be like in person but I know so much about Celia. She came alive for me in a way that has nothing to do with the person Chastain is but everything to do with what she dug out of the script and brought to light. What was essentially a stereotyped blonde bombshell marrying up and out of her class, became a person whose back story was evident in every brave reaction she had to the cruelty of the other women.  I felt something so true about Celia, what was  good and bad, her need for acceptance and her almost painful vulnerability seemed alive to me. The depth Chastain brought to the part, combined with technique – she has to have gobs of technique or how else would she be cast in Shakespeare (Coriolanus with Ralph Fiennes?) – became a transformation from a person playing a part into a scripted character. So yeah, I’d say she’s an actor.

Robert Carlyle disappears in two distinct characters in ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Yes, yes, the rap about him is that he is shy and wants nothing to do with stardom and fame so of course he has no overbearing personality to flaunt at us and make us eager to know him or at least hang with him. But every time I’ve seen him act, he is someone new.

And Sandra Bullock. What’s not to like? I still remember my first reaction to her in Demolition Man, that she was an absolutely delightful personality and how I’d never seen anything quite like her on the screen. She was so much fun to watch and I couldn’t wait for her next line. I still have that same reaction, but since then she has also done some remarkable work where she was still delightful (that personality can’t help but peep through) but let the character she was playing come through (especially in some of her lesser known films like Practical Magic.) She’s a personality and yes, she can act, but it is hard for that personality to take a back seat and completely disappear?  So I need someone else to make the call. Sandra Bullock: Personality or actor?

Now it’s your turn. Can you pick out someone working as an actor and then identify whether you think they are actors or personalities? Can you tell me why you think that? (Please, feel free to leave comments so we all can dissect your choices. You know we will. Also know there are no right or wrong answers.)

Note:  If you don’t know who Eugene O’Neill is, you need to get started with a summer reading program. See my upcoming blog on “What to do with your Summer Vacation.”

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