Movies and Film: "The Actor's Director": Priming the Prima Donnas

"The Actor's Director": Priming the Prima Donnas

Before setting you loose on your tour of acting and its artistry, we want to make sure you're aware of the obvious but crucial role of the director in shaping the nature of performances in any given film. The greatest directors have held widely varying views on the role of actors in cinema, some of them holding great reverence for the ancient imitative art, others thinking of them as nothing more than props.

Short Cuts

You know that spooky scene in Taxi Driver (1976) when Travis Bickle talks to himself in the mirror while playing with his guns? ("You talkin' to me?" and so on.) Well, it was 100 percent ad-libbed by Robert De Niro on the spot.

A quick comparison of two of the golden era's greatest directorial talents reveals the possible extent of such contrasts. Alfred Hitchcock, by any measure one of the world's top-five film directors of all time, frequently angered members of his casts by allowing them virtually no artistic voice in the blocking, filming, or dialogue of his movies. He thought of them in essence as nothing more than stage props, like a table or a bed. Think of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954), for example: With his leg broken, confined to a bed, Stewart's immobility and concordant ability to see out his window from a fixed point of view provides the perfect metaphor for Hitchcock's more general treatment of actors-as-props. It's a tribute to many of the leading actresses and actors in Hitchcock's films that they've crafted memorable performances while working in such constraining circumstances.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Sir Alfred is Elia Kazan. The most accurate measure of Kazan's privileging of acting in his films is his central role in bringing method acting to the American screen. In 1947, he cofounded the Actors Studio in New York, which became the American headquarters of the method and slowly began to transform acting styles on the silver screen.

Every director has his or her own unique and idiosyncratic approach to the role of the actor. It's up to you to determine how these individual approaches are discernible (if in fact they are) in each director's work.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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