Movies and Film: The Schools of Film Acting

The Schools of Film Acting

There's a famous Hollywood story about an exchange on the set of Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976). Hoffman plays a student who gets caught up in a nasty black-market diamond-smuggling scheme involving a Nazi war criminal (Olivier). In an attempt to make sure the diamonds are safe, Olivier's character straps Hoffman's to a chair, pulls out some dental implements, and leans over his victim. Thus begins one of the more notorious torture scenes in modern filmdom.

In preparing for the scene, legend has it, Hoffman stayed up for three nights straight, refusing to sleep or eat, so that he'd look properly haggard, bedraggled, and exhausted for the shooting of the torture scene. When Hoffman showed up on the set the third day, Olivier couldn't believe the young American had sacrificed himself to such an extraordinary degree in creating the role. The great English actor rolled his eyes, turned to the director, and asked a simple question: "Why doesn't the boy just act?"

The now-legendary exchange typifies the contrast between the two most prevalent acting styles in English-language film. Understanding the differences between these styles will go a long way toward helping you appreciate some of the finer aspects of the actor's performance as an artist.

The Repertory System

Like practically all well-known actors from the United Kingdom, Olivier was trained in the repertory theaters of England, where he received rigorous training as a Shakespearean actor. Repertory actors learn all kinds of skills in the course of their "classical" training: gesture, accents, body movement, dancing, the use of makeup, and so on. What this variegated training allows the "rep actor" to do is create his or her character by moving from the external accouterments of the trade to the "inner reality" that is the character: In other words, the repertory actor studies the various aspects of the character and decides what particular attributes of his or her craft—a certain dialect overheard at a Norfolk pub, a facial expression copied from an old silent film, the idiosyncratic strut of a pompous aristocrat on the evening news, or perhaps a particular way of applying eyeliner to make her gaze more sinister—will render the most effective performance possible.

Filmophile's Lexicon

The repertory system is an English network of local and national theater companies that has turned out most of the country's foremost acting talents.

To see repertory work in action, consider the filmography of Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis began his acting career with a few bit parts in some British films (including Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971) before beginning formal repertory training at the Old Vic theater in Bristol. He first came to international attention for his performance in London's theater circles for his performance in Another Country.

Watching the following four film performances by Daniel Day-Lewis will give you a taste of the range and skill that a classically trained actor such as this brilliant star can bring to cinema.

  • A Room with a View (1985). Playing a prim, wimpy aristocrat with a nasty cruel streak, Day-Lewis performed this role with a cold precision that made audiences just hate him. His flawless diction and precise body language is a direct product of the repertory system.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). In this adaptation of Milan Kundera's international bestseller, Day-Lewis plays a serious yet unbelievably sensuous and attractive doctor whose secure masculinity and effortless charisma could not contrast more vividly with his character in Room with a View.
  • My Left Foot (1989). This film features Day-Lewis's depiction of an artist afflicted with cerebral palsy, which won him an Academy Award as best actor. Though Lewis's performance is earthy and heartwarming, it's also highly cerebral, and it's obvious how much intellectual preparation went into it.
  • In the Name of the Father (1993). Playing a young Irish man wrongly imprisoned for years for a terrorist bombing he didn't commit, Day-Lewis successfully combines a flair of youthful irresponsibility with a deeply moving familial loyalty to his dying father. So convincing was his Northern Irish accent and persona, though, that many American reviewers wrongly identified him as "Ireland's most promising star."

Despite its extraordinary influence upon American film acting during the past 50 years, the classical, "external" training provided by the English repertory system has had to face a powerful challenge from another direction during the past five decades.

"The Method" to Their Madness

Filmophile's Lexicon

Method acting (often called simply the method) refers to the system of acting developed by Constantin Stanislavsky that emphasized the emotional and psychological bond between actor and character, the goal of which was to discover the "inner spirit" of the latter.

Short Cuts

"If the ability to receive the creative mood in its full measure is given to the genius by nature, then perhaps ordinary people may reach a like state after a great deal of hard work with themselves—not in its full measure, but at least in part."

—Constantin Stanislavsky

Filmophile's Lexicon

Emotional memory, a term from nineteenth-century European psychology, refers to the method-based idea that an actor has had certain life experiences that will allow him or her to forge a deep-seated psychological connection with the character being portrayed.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Typage was the term given by Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin to the practice of casting nonprofessional actors in motion pictures to create a heightened sense of realism.

Shortly after the end of World War II, a Russian theater director named Constantin Stanislavsky started experimenting with new ways of making his actors and actresses identify more closely with the characters they were performing. For Stanislavsky, the actor must "live the part" he is playing, identifying on a deep emotional level with the "inner spirit" of the character by figuratively joining the character's sense of self to his own.

While Stanislavsky rejected the privileging of raw technical elements of acting as the most important, it is wrong to see the two systems, method and repertory, as diametrically opposed; indeed, most method actors, whatever psychological intensity they bring to their roles, are masterful at exploiting the "external" details that make up the technical side of any performance. Dustin Hoffman, for example, was fanatical about getting the makeup right for his role in Tootsie (1982), while Paul Newman made a long study of pool shooting before playing opposite Jackie Gleason in The Hustler (1961). And no method actor will ever portray a brilliant serial killer more effectively than the rep-trained Anthony Hopkins was able to in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

But it can't be denied that method acting created an entirely new way of bringing characters to life on the silver screen. While repertory-trained actors might spend months thinking about the specific techniques to bring to bear on a given performance, method actors searched their own personal experiences and emotional lives in order to immerse themselves profoundly (and often obsessively, at times even unhealthily) in the lives of their characters.

One of the generally unacknowledged dangers of the method, you may be thinking, is the possibility that the method actor will actually assume on more than a temporary basis the personality of the character being portrayed. In the case of, say, Mother Theresa, this might be fine. But if an actor is portraying a serial killer or a deranged rapist—well, enough said!

"You talkin' to me?": Improvisation and Amateurs

One final mode of film acting you should keep in mind is improvisation, the spontaneous performance of dialogue and action that hasn't been written or rehearsed (at least in detail) beforehand. Not surprisingly, silent cinema is full of improvisation; Charlie Chaplin rarely knew what exact facial expressions he would use at specific moments in a scene. Some sound film directors—Jean-Luc Godard of the French New Wave is the most famous example—hired untrained people virtually off the street to portray their characters, thinking (usually correctly) that nonprofessionals would deliver convincingly raw performances without the baggage of their training.

In recent times improvisation has been used most effectively by less Hollywood-constrained directors, such as John Cassavetes, who built entire films around it, and Martin Scorsese, who integrated it skillfully into otherwise scripted films.

Robert Altman is also a big improv partisan. That amazing nine-minute opening tracking shot around the movie studio lot in The Player (1992) featured entirely adlibbed dialogue. As Altman explained it, he didn't want to tell folks playing themselves how to act like themselves. Makes sense to us!

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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