The strange evolution of movies in the last ten years—with the remaining studios ever more desperate, ever more coordinated—has brought about the disappearance of something that reviewers and film theorists have never seemed to miss: those tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene that make up the memorable moments in any good film. These have nothing to do with the plot, “superb performance,” or even the character being portrayed. They are moments of peripheral distraction, bemusement, fretfulness, mere flickerings of skeptical interest: Margaret Sheridan’s congested whinny as a career woman sparring with Kenneth Tobey (Christian Nyby’s The Thing); Bogart’s prissy sign language to the bespectacled glamor girl through the bookstore window (Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep); or Richard Barthelmess’s tiredly defiant dissolute slouch when he enters the cabana in Only Angels Have Wings (also by Hawks). Such tingling moments liberate the imagination of both actors and audience: they are simply curiosity flexing itself, spoofing, making connections to a new situation.
Even so-called photographed plays—for instance, George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight—could once be made to produce that endless unreeling of divergence, asides, visual lilts which produce a vitality unique to the movies. With the setting and story of a Waldorf operetta, Cukor was able to get inflections and tones from the departments that professional cinematicians always class as uncinematic: makeup, setting, costumes, voices. Marie Dressler’s matronly bulldog face and Lee Tracy’s scarecrow, gigolo features and body are almost like separate characters interchangeable with the hotel corridors and bathtubs and gardens of Cukor’s ritzy and resilient imagination. Cukor, a lighter, less sentiment-logged Ernst Lubitsch, could convert an obsession or peculiarity like Jean Harlow’s nasal sexuality, or Wallace Beery’s line-chewing, into a quick and animating caricature—much as Disney used mice and pigs in his 1930’s cartoons.
Lately, however, in one inert film after another, by the time the actor moves into position, the screen has been congealed in the manner of a painting by Pollock, every point filled with maximum pungency, leaving no room for a full regalia performance. No matter what the individuality of the actor may be—an apprehensive grand-stander (Jeanne Moreau) with two expressions: starved and less starved; an ironing board (Gregory Peck) who becomes effective in scenes that have been grayed, flattened, made listless with some domesticity; a defensively humble actress (Anne Bancroft) who over-values her humanism and eloquence—and no matter how fine the director’s instincts may be, the result is invariably almost the same. In a situation where what counts is opulence and prestige—a gross in the millions, winner of the Critics’ Award, Best Actor at a film festival—the actor has to be fitted into a production whose elements have all been assembled, controlled, related, like so many notes in a symphony. As a full-blooded, big-wheel performer rolling at top speed, the actor would subvert this beautiful construction, and so the full-blooded, high-wheel performance has become an anachronism.
Item: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is almost a comedy of over-design, misshapen with spectacle-like obtrusions: the camera frozen about ten feet in front of a speeding cyclist, which, though it catches nice immediate details of his face, primarily shows him fronted on screen for minutes as a huge gargoylish figure; the camels, by far the most exciting shapes in the movie, photograph too large in the “cineramic” desert views; an actor walking off into fading twilight becomes the small papery figure of an illustrational painting; Jack Hawkins’s General Allenby, so overweighted with British army beef, suggests a toy version of a Buckingham palace guard. While the other technicians are walloping away, the actors, stuck like thumbtacks into a map-like event, are allowed—and then only for a fraction of the time—to contribute a declamatory, school-pageant bit of acting.
Item: Another prime example of this sort of thing is Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele, whose two leading players are made to resemble walking receptacles for the production crew. The story (Patricia Gozzi, a twelve-year-old, goes on little outings to the park with Hardy Kruger, an amnesiac) is made into a rite of style consisting mainly of layer-on-layer compositions in which the actors become reflected, blurred, compartmented, speckled, through some special relation with apparatus, scenery, a horse’s body, windshield wipers. Such things as the tilt of a head, or a face reflected in a drinking glass, become so heightened, so stretched, that they appear to go on echoing, as if making their effect inside a vacuum. Yet all this is in the service of the kind of role that consists of little more than being delightful with a sniffle or looking transported while walking through trees carrying a child who is cutely imitating a corpse.
The new actor is, in fact, an estranged figure merely jiggling around inside the role. Sometimes he seems to be standing at the bottom of a dark pit, a shiny spot on his pomaded hair being the chief effect of his acting. Or he may be a literate fellow riffling the clutter on his desk. But in either case, performance is invariably a charade: the actor seldom makes his own sense. He is no longer supposed to act as close to credible as possible; he is a grace note or a trill; he is a dab of two-dimensional form floating on the film surface for photogenic purposes.
Item: Keir Dullea’s acting of the psychotic student in Frank Perry’s David and Lisa is broad, swingy, without a moment that suggests either curiosity or the macabre homeliness, jaggedness, that might be expected in a disturbed kid. The set-piece handling of each scene usually finds Dullea’s Frank Merriwellish, chalk-white face in the empty stillness, holding to an emotion for an unconscionable time. His tantrum when a doctor pats him on the back takes so long in evolving that the performance of it (crying, a face rigid with intensity, a stiff-handed wiping at his clothes to get rid of germs) seems to be going backward in slow motion.
The only good acting in recent films has been lavished on the role of the eternal side-liner, as played by John Wayne (the homesteader in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) or by George Hamilton (as the liquescent juvenile in Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town) . These actors salvage the idea of independent intelligence and character by pitting themselves against the rest of the film. Standing at a tangent to the story and appraising the tide in which their fellow actors are floating or drowning, they serve as stabilizers—and as a critique of the movie. Mickey Rooney’s murderously gloomy, suspicious acting in Ralph Nelson’s Requiem for a Heavyweight is another case of superior sidelining, this time among the lunatic effects of apartment scenes that are pitch black except for a 40-watt bulb, a huge hotel sign blinking on and off, actors photographed as eucalyptus trees being ogled from the ground by tourists.
While today’s actor is the only thing in the film that is identifiably real, his responses are exploited in a peculiar way. His gaucheries and half hitches and miscalculations are never allowed their own momentum, but are used self-consciously to make a point—so that they become as inanimate and depressing as the ceaseless inventories in Robbe-Grillet novels. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the cool cat car thief in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, is seen standing before the stills at a theater entrance, doing a smeary Bogart imitation that leans on false innocence instead of developing spontaneously. Monica Vitti, a frightened erotic drifter in Antonioni’s Eclipse, does a scene hog’s cheerful reaction to a dog’s trick walk, full of “meaning” that upstages the characterization.
Falling out of the film along with the actor as performer are other related devices that once had their value. Compare, for example, the heavy, weighted masks of the actors in Lawrence with the caricatured features of William Powell, Cary Grant, or Edgar Kennedy, features that served to offset and counterpoint what might otherwise have been precious, sour, or effete about them. Powell, an artist in dreadful films, would first use his satchel underchin to pull the dialogue into the image, then punctuate with his nose the stops for each chin movement. He and Edgar Kennedy, who operated primarily with the upper torso, were basically conductors, composing the film into linear movement as it went along.
Another loss is the idea of character that is styled and constructed from vocation. In Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (a bowdlerized version of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, with a bossless vagabond who depopulates a town of rival leaders, outlaws, and fake heroes), the whole superstructure of Hammett’s feudal small town is dissolved into an inchoate mass of Goya-like extras whose swarmings and mouthings are composed with naive pictorialism. Swarming, moreover, seems to be the full-time occupation; you never see interiors, work, or any evidence of everyday life. The exposition of character through vocation has completely evaporated and been replaced by a shorthand of the character’s daily habit, jotted into a corner of the role by set-designer, costumer, author. Jean Seberg’s journalistic career is merely wedged into appropriate notches of Breathless: a Herald Tribune sweat-shirt, a quick question to a celebrity novelist at the airport. The source of Monica Vitti’s well-tended existence in Eclipse is snagged in a one-line footnote about her translator’s work. The idea of vocations is slipped into the spectator’s acceptance without further development.
The idea of movement per se has also lost its attraction to moviemakers. The actor now enters a scene not as a person, but like a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, a gaudy exhibitionistic fact. Most of those appurtenances that could provide him with some means of animation have been glacéed over. The direct use of his face as an extension of the performance has become a technique for hardening and flattening; and the more elliptical use of his face, for showing intermediate states or refining or attenuating a scene, has vanished, become extinct. In fact, the actor’s face has been completely incapacitated; teeth—once taken for granted—or an eyeball, or a hairdo, have all become key operators. They front the screen like balustrades, the now disinherited face behind.
The moving body, too, in its present state of neglect has become a burden—particularly on foreign directors, who seem to realize that their actors might be mistaken for oxen, pillars, or extensions of a chaise longue, and so give each of their films a kind of late, sudden, jolt. Toshiro Mifune suddenly conies alive toward the end of Yojimbo, throwing daggers into the floor of his hideout. Before this, he could usually be seen in one of those compositions Kurosawa prizes of three heads sticking out of their respective potato bags watching one another’s faces while waiting for the lunch whistle to blow and break up the photography. Eclipse has a parody, very exciting, of people using their arms and hands in a stock exchange scene; most of the time these actors working on telephones, sandwiches, penciling, seem to be trying to fling their hands away. The Lawrence ensemble travels over literally half a continent with almost no evidence that any legs have been used. No actor is ever trusted with more than a few moves: a thin path having been cleared for him to make his walk down a dune, or to pontificate around porch furniture, he is then choreographed so that each motion, each bit of costume, creaks into place.
Item: The lack of athleticism in Requiem for a Heavyweight is, under the circumstances, peculiarly comical. The cast seems made up of huge monolithic characters being held in place, incapable of a natural movement—particularly the over-rated Anthony Quinn. Walking down a lonely street sparring at the sky, or mumbling while he puts on shirt and tie, Quinn plays the role as though the ground were soft tapioca, his body purchased from an Army-Navy store that specializes in odd sizes.
The late work of certain important directors—Cukor’s The Chapman Report, Huston’s films since The Roots of Heaven, Truffaut’s since The 400 Blows—shows a drastic change into the new propulsive style. Every element of the film has been forced into serving a single central preoccupation, whether of character (gelatinous frigidity), metaphysic (elephants are the largeness and mystery of life), or situation (the kid as misunderstood delinquent). A key, symbolic feature of the new style is the transformation of dialogue into a thick curtain dropped between the actor and the audience. The words spoken by Alec Guinness in Lawrence (prissily elocutionary), by Montgomery Gift in Huston’s Freud (mashed, faintly quivery), by Laurence Harvey’s Washington journalist in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (girlish, whispering) sound like valedictory speeches coached by Archibald MacLeish, or the way Indians talk on TV Westerns. The peculiar thing is that each word has been created, worked over by a sound engineer who intercepts the dialogue before it hits the audience. There is no longer the feeling of being in close to the actor.
Joan Crawford—despite the fact that each of her roles was played as if it were that of the same dim-witted file clerk with a bulldozer voice—always seemed hooked up to a self-driving sense of form which supplemented exactly what the movie couldn’t give her. The current population of actors must probably be said to have more real skills than Crawford, but they don’t come off as authentically. Geraldine Page, for instance, an actress of far greater sensibility and aplomb, must go through an entire glossary of mouth-shifting, sinus-clearing, and eye-blinking to make her character in Sweet Bird of Youth identifiable as anything. The difference between Crawford’s tart in Grand Hotel and Page’s obsessed ex-star is as great as that between George Kelly and William Inge. The effect of Miss Page’s increased power and leisure, which expects no resistance from the movie, is to eviscerate the entire film. The same is true of Gregory Peck’s pious Lincoln impersonation in To KM a Mockingbird, and of Angela Lansbury’s helicopter-like performance in The Manchurian Candidate in which every sentence begins and ends with a vertical drop.
The first sign of the actor’s displacement could be seen in a 1952 Japanese film whose implications were not made clear until the New Wave, Antonioni, and others incorporated them into that special blend of modern-art cliché and Madison Avenue chic that now makes such good business. Just about every film aimed at American art theaters has come to be a pretentious, misshapen memory of Ikiru that plays on the double effect of the image in which there is simultaneously a powerful infatuation with style and with its opposite—vivid, unstoppable actuality. The fantastic clutter and depression of a petty government office; mouthed-in tepid talk that dribbles endlessly (as in John O’Hara’s fiction, where dialogue now devours structure, motive, people, explanation, everything); the poor ghosts who crawl in trying to push a request for a playground in their spot of a slum—each of these items in Ikiru seems overrun by a virus of creativity without concern for its direction, everything steaming together into an indictment of drudgery that finally muffles the actors.
The same fungus-like creativity and narcissistic style appear in an almost dead-handed way in Freud, Lawrence of Arabia, and Eclipse. Here the actors show up as rugs, or an entire battle scene is converted by artful lighting into an elongated shadowy smear. Just as Ikiru moves from a white emptied abstract death ceremony to a jammed city scene, Lawrence employs the split between desert and crowded Cairo to accent the peculiar density of each, and Antonioni juxtaposes the frenzied stock exchange with inarticulate lovers in emptied streets. Even in the crudely constructed Divorce, Italian Style, a din of diverse technical energy moves over streets, trains, the very bodies of the acting team. Mastroianni’s face, sleep-drenched and melancholic, stares out of a dining car at the flat, parched Sicilian fields; and few actors have looked so contaminated by sleaziness, a draggy kind of living: it is the whole movie that is sitting on him. Divorce, Italian Style is like a parody of the realism in Ikiru; there is nothing to touch this unfunny farce for the sheer jarring effect of eager-beaver technicians charging into one another, trying to put in more—more funny stuff, more realistic stuff, more any kind of stuff.
Most directors have been pushing Kurosawa’s invention to the extreme of treating actors with everything from the fancy tinker-toy construction of Lawrence of Arabia to the pure sadism of The Manchurian Candidate. One of the wildest films in its treatment of actors, The Manchurian Candidate is straight jazz all the way through—from the men who are supposed to be brainwashed to the normal ones in army intelligence. When Sinatra, for instance, moves in a fight, his body starts from concrete encasement, and his face looks as though it were being slowly thrown at his Korean houseboy opponent, another freak whose metallic skin and kewpie-doll eyes were borrowed from a Max Factor cosmetic kit. Janet Leigh seems first to have been skinned and stretched on a steel armature, and then compelled to do over and over again with hands and voice things supposed to be exquisitely sexual. The audience is made to feel unclean, like a Peeping Tom, at this queer directional gamboling over bodies. And Sinatra’s romantic scenes with Miss Leigh are a Chinese torture: he, pinned against the Pullman door as though having been buried standing up, and she, nothing moving on her body, drilling holes with her eyes into his screw-on head.
In one advanced film after another we find an actor being used for various purposes external to him—as a mistake, a pitiful object, a circus sight. The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor, who is not unlike the Tin Woodman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, and then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick short strides). Consider also the squashy ineffectual performance by Peter Ustinov in Billy Budd (which he himself directed) or the pitiful ones by Jeanne Moreau in Orson Welles’s The Trial and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. A frightened actress, Miss Moreau is never there with enough speed, sureness, or grace, but her directors realize that her inadequacies can be exploited photogenically. Watching her stretch out in a sexy bed pose, or teeter on a diving board, or climb up a bridge abutment, stand poised and then leap off, you get the feeling that her feeble creaking is intentionally being underlined as something to sorrow over.
What we have, then, is a schizoid situation that can destroy the best actor: he must stay alive as a character while preserving the film’s contrived style. Thanks to this bind, there are roughly only two kinds of acting today. With the first, and the least interesting type, the actor is hardly more than a spot: as in Antonioni’s films, where he becomes only a slight bulge in the glossy photography; or as in the endless gray stretches of Truffaut’s, where his face becomes a mask painted over with sexual fatigue, inert agony, erosion, while his body skitters around weightlessly like a paper doll. Huston’s work, too, has moved in a progression from the great acting of, say, Bogart and Mary Astor in Across the Pacific to no acting at all: in Freud the actors do not escape for one moment from the spaces Huston has hacked out of the screen for them in order to make an elegant composition.
The second style of acting turns up in fairly interesting films. Here the actor does a movie-ful of intricate acting by turning his back to the camera. He piles a ferocious energy and style into sorrowful characters who have lived through dismal orphanages, or alcoholism, or life membership in Alcatraz—precisely the characters who should have nothing in common with his kind of joy in performing, happy animal spirit, all-out vigor. The result is that there is no communication at all between the setting—which is flat and impressively accurate—and the actor, who splatters every second with a mixture of style and improvisation. Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses drags unbelievably while Jack Lemmon kicks in a liquor store door or stares drunkenly at the dirty sea water. Lemmon in this movie is a blur of pantomimic skill, though with enough cynicism in his performance to cut the mechanical writing of the role. However, inside all the style, the actor seems to be static, waiting around sourly while the outer masquerade drags on.
There has, finally, never been worse acting, nor more mistakes made by actors being given impossible things to do. A fan’s memory gets clouded by these weird performances: a jilted intellectual (Francisco Rabal in Eclipse) who goes through an entrance gate as though he had learned to walk by studying an airplane taking off; a U. S. Senator imitating Lincoln at a costume ball (James Gregory in The Manchurian Candidate), picking up his didactic acting from several garbage heaps left over from the worst propaganda films of World War II. The poor actor today stands freezing, undone, a slab of beef exposed to public glare as never before. Clift’s Freud may be hidden behind a beard, buried in a tomb (his walk to the cemetery must be pulled by earth movers), but he is still unmercifully revealed as an unused performer. Some actors, like Jackie Gleason in Requiem for a Heavy-weight, haven’t yet moved into their act. And Kirk Douglas, as a gesticulating angry ex-actor in Two Weeks in Another Town, is a body on display, one now shrinking in middle age while the mind of his employer is fixed on other things. Criticism of acting has always been quick to cover a performance with a blanket word, but trying to consider today’s actors as auxiliaries of the story in the pre-1950’s sense is like analyzing post-Jackson Pollock painting with an aesthetic yardstick that esteems modeling.