Movies and Film: Artists or Stars? The Aesthetics of Acting

Artists or Stars? The Aesthetics of Acting

When actors and actresses, whether on stage, television, or screen, speak their lines, move their bodies, or change their facial expressions, they are participating in a tradition of imitation that goes back to the ancient Greeks and the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes. Actors have long been most despised of all artists, principally because their craft requires them to become someone they're not, with all the fakery, disguising, and chicanery such imitation requires. Yet despite its deliberate artifice, acting is one of the most demanding and all-absorbing of the arts, requiring extreme coordination of voice, body, gesture, and movement.

Playing the Human Instrument

Short Cuts

At the risk of shameless authorial self-promotion, if you want to read more about the long and often gruesome tradition of figuring the human body as a musical instrument, check out Bruce Holsinger's Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer (Stanford University Press, 2000).

In one of his many treatises on the art of oratory, the Roman writer and politician Cicero compares the body of the orator to that of the actor, which is "tuned" just like the strings on an instrument: "For nature has assigned to every emotion a particular look and tone of voice and bearing of its own; and the whole of a person's body and every look on his face and utterance of his voice are like the strings of a harp, and sound according as they are struck by each successive emotion. For the tones of the voice are keyed up like the strings of an instrument, so as to answer to every touch."

Compare Cicero's vision of the actor's body with this one, which was written in the last century: "To exercise daily is of utmost importance. The body is an instrument which must be finely tuned and played as often as possible. The actor should be able to control it from the tip of his head to his little toe."

The writer of these lines? The classically trained actor Sir Laurence Olivier, by any measure one of the twentieth century's greatest and most versatile performers. Despite the centuries separating these two visions of the craft of acting from one another, perhaps things haven't changed all that much: Acting is an art of the body, a "tuning" of the self that enables the actor to portray the variety of emotions, neuroses, and personalities he or she is called upon to perform.

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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