Monday, July 02, 2007


I thought I'd talk about dramatic acting theories. I should warn you that I've never had an acting class in my life. I'm interested in slapstick comedy and I know of no school where you can learn to fall flat on your face the way Buster Keaton did. Anyway I still have opinions about drama and I'll talk about one or two of them here.

Uta Hagen (in the first video, above) is a terrific actress! You might have seen her in "Boys from Brazil" where she played an imprisoned German nurse. She had a sequence with Laurence Olivier -- Laurence Olivier! -- and your eyes were on her the whole time, not Olivier! Not too shabby! Anyway she's a leading acting theorist. She's always talking about how actions are the result of conscious decisions and I use that insight all the time in storyboarding.

In the video above Uta says she hates to see acting that looks like acting. Aaaargh! With much humility I have to beg to differ. I like acting that does look like acting. Think of Olivier's opening speech in "Richard III" or the way Laurel and Hardy used to act. It was artifice: beautiful, stylized artifice.

Here's (above) a film about Sanford Meisner's Russian-influenced technique. Meisner in his old age had the world's funniest voice. It was gravelly and gulpey like Janice Joplin trying to talk while drinking from a water cooler. Meisner was famous for yelling at students and for promoting the full-strength Stanislavsky Method. This is fine for dramatic actors but I think funny people should be wary of it. Look at how good Marilyn Monroe was in her pre-Method days ("Some Like it Hot") and how horrible she was after the Method ("The Misfits").

Here's (above)Ian Mckellan explaining his acting method. He says he just pretends. MCKellan is just kidding here and his dialogue is scripted, but I've heard Olivier say the same thing and he really meant it. British actors used to be puzzled by the American Method theories. They were more interested in training the voice and in finding rhythms in the text. I feel the same way. If I was an actor I'd want to study elocution for a few years before studying acting. I'd want to do Cicely Barry (famous author and voice coach) before doing Uta hagen.

This last video (above) is by Michael Caine. It's about film acting exclusively. Caine did a terrific job here but it assumes the student has already learned the fundamentals of stage acting somewhere else. It's still worth watching. Caine is remarkably clear and has a real knack for teaching. Watch all six parts on YouTube if you have the time.


Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Uhm... Marilyn Monroe went to the Actors Studio in 1955. Some Like It Hot was released in 1959. She only made 3 films after that. She already was a Method Actress by then, and even had been nominated for a Golden Globe.

I'm of the opinion that acting's different for everybody. You just pick and choose from all the different things you learn. Some things will fit you, other things will not.

A good performance is one that's engaging without feeling forced. Whether it's a completely invisible one, or a blatant comedic one. Though I wouldn't call the second "acting" per se. To me, acting is really about seemingly living out a real life on stage or screen. But comedic indicating can still be great performances (as John K's clips from The Honeymooners proove). Is it acting? Not really. Is it good? Oh yes.

akira said...

another awesome class! i'll have to finish watching the videos later. my college had a collection of the complete bbc shakespeare productions which contained some really awesome acting.. you really have to do a Professional acting job to do shakespeare right. patrick stewart is another awesome actor who was in several of them. i think the shakespeare tradition in england might have a profound effect on the kind of acting they eventually do.

p.s. i mentioned to you about a website where you can track your website statistics.. it's however it only gives your ranking, not pageviews so.. for blogs it might not give very accurate data about your visitors... alas.. well there definitely are free counters out there.. theres a cool one at that shows the geographical location of people who check out your site.. might take a little bit of messing with your blog template..

Dooley said...

I may not be correct, but it seems like Sanford Meisner's voice is the result of a tracheotomy.

My neighbor had the same procedure, and instead of relying on an electronic voice box, he taught himself to talk again in a way that can be described basically as "burp-talking".

You can see Meisner swallow air before he speaks each sentence.

Hammerson said...

>>well there definitely are free counters out there.. theres a cool one at that shows the geographical location of people who check out your site.. << is also excellent. I'm using it already for one year, and it works really well with blogs. You can get the statistics on many different categories (number of unique or returning visitors, keywords from the search engines, geographical location, etc.) If you wish, you can make the counter and statistics completely invisible to any visitor.
Uncle Eddie, if you need any advice about it, send me an e-mail, I'll be glad to help.

Anonymous said...

Jack Lemmon, no slouch acting in either comedy or dramatic roles, once said that there is no difference between the two, other than a level of playing. That approach doesn't fit everyone but it did work for him.

Bob Hell said...

Wow Eddie, I love how you pull from so many diffeant places for this blog. Anyway, as far as method acting goes, I think it works very well for certain people in certian acting situations, but I hate it when people talk about it like it's the be-all-end-all way of going about it, (the fact that it gets called "the method" instead "a method" probably has something to do with this.) But I think that adds up to a very narrow definition of acting, while Caine's and Mckellan's definition is far more flexible. You can't very well do Shakespeare using method acting! The language is all poetry and rythem, and you can't be as deeply immersed in character as method requires you to be and still have that lyricism and beauty to the words. And what about "bigger than life" characters? Excuse me if I take issue with Ben's idea: "To me, acting is really about seemingly living out a real life on stage or screen." That is true most of the time, but often a story calls for an actor to be more, (or less depending on how you look at it,) than a psychologically driven human. How would you do Beowulf as a three dimensional character? Or Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name? Several great actors like Clint, Orson Welles, Toshiro Mifune and Klaus Kinski would not be considered nearly as great if they only had to give "realistic", as opposed to beleiveable, performances. I guess the jist of what I am trying to say is that often times, shooting for realism just ends up limiting the performance.

cableclair said...

Very Very interesting stuff! Thanks so much!

Spizzerinktum said...

You'd like to do Uta Hagen?? *immature snicker*

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Benjamin: Holy Cow, I didn't know she was studing the Method that early! I don't see much of what I've heard about the Method in "Some Like It Hot" but maybe there's more to that technique than I know about.

I do believe that the way she acted in "The Misfits" seemed completely unnatural for her. Anyway, thanks for bringing that up.

I meant to write about indicating when you mentioned it earlier. I'm not sure that's a useful word. It's as if a Mercedes ad said driving a Volkswagon isn't really driving. Of course we all know it is driving, it's just a different kind of driving.

Indicating might not have come into use as an insulting term but it's hard for an outsider not to see it that way. It seems to trivialize what geniuses like Laurel & Hardy did.

Method-type acting schools are extremely valuable but like most good things they have a dark side. The Method led to dark and nihilistic plays in such overwhelming numbers that they actually convinced Americans that they were miserable. This had enormous social consequences.

These negative effects aren't inherent in drama. You don't watch "Macbeth" and come out with the feeling that your life sucks. This dark philosophy was excess baggage brought to theater by the Method.

Dooley: I wonder if his condition was a consequence of chain smoking?

Akira, Hammerson: I should get a counter. I haven't because the last company I tried wanted all sorts of personal information and it sounded fishy. Maybe I'm being oversensitive.

Thanks for the offering help and I'll take you up on it if I need it.

Bob: True, so true!

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Eddie: Absolutely. I got my main definition of "acting" out of the wonderful book "On Method Acting" and really feel it has a point. Though in that book indicating pretty much IS an insult. It's just because it assumes the bad kind of indicating. When an actor tries to act, but is indicating, it usually is awful, because he's trying to get the reallife effect, and just completely misses it. Often in a boring or cliche manner at that. However, if one knows how to make indicating entertaining, it can be absolutely wonderful. The Honeymooners would probably be pretty dull with "acting".

Anon: Lemmon says that because that's the way it works for him (in the films he chose to play in!). In Some Like It Hot, he's really being a character, who's just incredibly funny to watch. He's not playing towards the camera/audience as is the case with indicating.

Bob: the problem with "the method" is that people assume it's just the teachings of Strasberg, Meisner or Adler, or straight hardcore Stanislavsky. However, I'm sure both Caine and McKellen use elements of the method themselves, with or without knowing it. "The method" sounds like a singular, clear-cut type of thing, but actually it's a whole series of techniques and ideas collected in a few books talking about how to achieve lifelike acting. "Method Actors" just use more of those elements than others. None use all.

You can't do Shakespeare well with method acting? Really? Then please tell me why one of the biggest fans and proponents of Shakespeare is Al Pacino...

Also, about the bigger than life roles... beware of calling method acting the search for really three dimensional characters. It's the search for TRUE characters. That doesn't mean the character has to behave like you and me, or a person you'd see walking down the street. Nor does it mean the character has to go through a whole range of emotions through the course of the film. It means more something in the vain of the character's actions and behavior being completely justified.

Anonymous said...

- more interested in training the voice and in finding rhythms in the text. I feel the same way. If I was an actor I'd want to study elocution for a few years before studying acting.

There is a side of acting that is about realism, and there is a side that is about clear communication and storytelling. It is especially true that you can't really mumble incoherently on stage and be effective, if those words need to be heard. What is more important really depends on the circumstance. If you are getting close ups, and want to attract psychological attention from the audience, a mumble might be best, and truest to the emotion that needs to be put forward.

The two styles needn't clash, and can coexist.

Even the most naturalistic of setups tend to have that fourth wall to attend to.

I always find it amusing when some people (some actors themselves) simply put forth the epithet "can't act", but waver on how the scene SHOULD be played.

peldma3 said...

I think we love old movies with acted acting so much because it was new... and closer to it's theatre and stage roots and the actors had to project out more.. Of course I love this quality..I always loved acting that looks like acting...
John Waters has his own unique version of acting.. and I like it in his movies from Hairspray on up.. I think he really developed his own unique kind of "acty ", acting delivery and he knows how to direct his actors to act they way he wants...whether you like his movies or not.
That's the only modern director I can think of who appreciates and pushes his actors to do "acted" acting...

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Benjamin: Interesting comments! I remember you put up a good YouTube video of a pantomime you did. Do you have any others like that?

I should rent that Pacino "Merchant of venice."

Spizz: Well not really. She'd tear me to shreds.

Anon: I didn't mean I'd want to take elocution simply to be clear. Elocurion is about making the human voice resonant and nuanced like a Stradivarius (spelled right?). Maybe I should have said elocution and oral interpretation. I'd want to learn to read and to orate before learning to act.

Peld: I like some of Waters' films but i never thought of him as an actor.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Youtube video? I ndon't think I ever uploaded a video to youtube myself. Either you're confusing me with somebody else, or I linked to a video which wasn't mine (I doubt it).

If you're interested, I'll upload and link a collection of my schoolwork tomorrow. Tomorrow because here in Belgium, there's no such thing as unlimited bandwith, and I've only got about 20 Mb upload/download left. Tomorrow the counter'll be reset.

JohnK said...

>>The Honeymooners would probably be pretty dull with "acting".<<

What a crazy statement.

The Honeymooners has better acting than most dramas.

Jackie Gleason is brilliant and extremely observant of human nature.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

It's not a crazy statement. We're talking about the difference between the art/craft of acting and indicating. The Honeymooners is full of indicating, but in a wonderful way (as I said, great performances, but not *really* acting). If you don't get the difference, look it up. It must be somewhere on the net, and it surely is in Edward Dwight Easty's "On Method Acting", which I already suggested you to read before, on your own blog. Or was that in that comment I spent over a half an hour writing on, which you decided not to let through your comment filter?

Anonymous said...

"It's not a crazy statement. We're talking about the difference between the art/craft of acting and indicating. The Honeymooners is full of indicating..."

Yes it's a crazy statement. How about this: you're not really writing your own opinion, you're regurgitating some modern acting book's doctrines. Are you a real hardened actor who has worked alongside other famous actors? Yeah, didn't think so.

I would have loved to see the look on Jackie Gleason's face when you would tell him that he is indicating, not "really" acting. Although, I doubt you would tell a real actor that to his face, only behind the veil of the internet.

"If you don't get the difference, look it up. It must be somewhere on the net"

I typed it in google and couldn't find it, at least nothing that made any sense. So if it's such a secret why not just link us all? Some of us dont have time to read the books that you suggest. Your argument doesn't really hold water if you're not even going to clarify what you're talking about. Think about that for a while before you comment again, and save us all the headache.

Jenny said...

I don't know, guys...I think it's coming down to semantics here: acting vs. indication--whatever. These are all labels, and the definition of exactly what "good" acting is has changed so radically over the millenia...Gloeason was a fine dramatic actor by any reckoning if you watch only "the Hustler" and nothing else; "Honeymooners" is an obviously different sort of presentation with different aims: to make the audience laugh and get the comedy. Nothing is harder than that as has been said many times. I'd bet a "real" stage-trained actor-Ian McKellan?-would look at the Honeymooners and say "that's great acting".

Glad that someone pointed out that "Some Like It Hot", funnily enough, was TOTAL Method from Monroe(if you read any accounts of the filming-particularly Billy Wilder's, much was made of ever-present Paula Strasberg coaching Monroe through her performance). Did she really need the Method to be good? Who knows? But that's her private business--all that matters to an audience is what's on the screen, really.

And although it's a drama and not a technicolor musical comedy, "The Misfits" is a fine performance if a bit of a cruel part for the woman have to to play--since her soon-to-be ex-husband wrote it using real scenes from her life in the spoken dialogue, forcing her to be totally vulnerable onscreen. I think that while she looks beat and unhappy in the film it sure does fit the character--herself. I much prefer "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", myself but that's a cartoon--not that there's anything wrong with that. ; )

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Jesus, what's the hostility for? Do you feel personaly offended because I have a different opinion?

I'm not even adding a negative connotation to the word indicating... I've even tried my best to do otherwise. It's just an observation that's two different things. Why is it so important that Jackie Gleason or whoever is a great actor, and isn't it sufficient that he's a great performer? I'm just stating the difference between two different crafts. It just happens that indicating is considered bad acting if you're really working toward true acting (in which case it's probably not just indicating, but BAD indicating). If you have a different goal (as in The Honeymooners) indicating can be absolutely wonderful.

I am stating my own opinion. What's wrong with getting your opinion through a book? Isn't a book supposed to give you new insights into things? So you learn from them? If I just happen to agree with it's definition, it's not my own opinion?
And as far as I've heard, it's one of the seminal books on method acting, and is pretty much completely based on Stanislavsky's book. It made some slight alterations because times changed, but it's very much based on the same ideas. So even if you'd call a 25 year old book modern, its contents hardly are.

Sure, I'm not a hardened actor. Are you? Then why is your opinion more valid than mine? Does being a professional actor change anything if you can SEE the difference? (And for your information, I haven't worked alongside bigshot actors either, though I have worked with a director who's directed John Hurt, Ben Kingsley and Fred Astaire among others. I don't think that changes anything, but maybe it does for you.)

I'd love to see Gleasons face when I'd say that too, because that's exactly where you can see that difference. The face. (And please, keep the ignorant "behind the veil of the internet" comment for yourself. At least I'm citing my name. If I were working with actors, and they were open to critique, I would give them my opinion. If I met John K. in reallife and this came up I'd stand by my opinion). Plus, once again, if I'd be saying to him he was indicating, I wouldn't mention it as an insult. He uses it brilliantly. He's a magnificent performer.

Let's try to clarify indicating now. I actually already kind of did before ("He's not playing towards the camera/audience as is the case with indicating."), and I definitly tried to to John on his own blog when he posted those Honeymooners clips (yet for some reason he didn't let all my comments through). And the look it up comment WAS aimed at him. But anyways, here goes:

The reason I don't count indicating among acting is because they are clearly distinct in craft, and there's simply no other term for my kind of acting than simply "acting". If there were a sub-term, I'd probably be using that, and count indicating and this both among "acting". Now I replace that with "performing". Acting is trying to make it seem as if the character is alive and unaware of the fact that he's part of a play or movie. Creating a completely lifelike performance. Unselfconscious (unless of course the character is a selfconscious type). Indicating is really *showing* certain emotions the character feels or thoughs that go through his mind. In the Honeymooners that happens all the time. In the clips John K posted, Jackie often was annoyed by the other character in the scene, and expressed that behind his/her back, through histerical expressions. If it were lifelike, he'd be annoyed too, and would have that inner struggle going on behind their back too, but he wouldn't be trying to show or express it (aside from rare cases). It'd just be going on. However, Jackie Gleason has really wellobserved how that feels, and shows that wonderfully through his facial expressions and bodypostures, in a manner that we think is funny. He consciously changes his facial expression to get a funny effect. His face doesn't just subconsciously (or seemingly subconsciously) change because of what he's feeling inside. And I'm glad he does, cause if it was just going on inside and becoming clear through completely lifelike bodily reactions, it wouldn't be as funny. That's why it's so often used in comedy. Recent examples would be most roles of Jim Carrey, or Friends, and so on (whether you like those or not isn't the issue). Usually, the more original and extreme it's done while staying clear, the funnier it is.

Now why is it so easily perceived as an insult? That's because it's bad acting if you're really trying to get something lifelike. Just look at so many bad soap opera's. When the characters are supposed to feel sad, the actors put on kind of a sad face, or when they're angry they start to tremble and frown, etc. They're basically saying "Hey look! I'm sad! Boohoo me" or "hey look! I'm angry! Feel the tension in this scene!" They're playing to the audience, instead of being completely true to the character, and let it come from inside the character (doesn't matter if it actually comes from the inside through "the method" or comes from more constructed performances like Michael Caine's). They're often overacting. It's completely unconvincing as a dramatic performance.

Good enough for ya?

Bob Hell said...

The truth is, Ben, there is no definition of acting floating out there on the net or in a great book of all things acting. Like "art" and "love" and other stuff like that, people invent their own definitions, and then sub-definitions, and then definitions of the sub-definitions, when mostly what there doing is just getting their own thoughts straight in there head.

I agree with the others that what Jackie Gleason is doing is straight up acting, not uber-realistic acting because that would be boring. What he does (or did, I guess,) was kind of like caricature, really good caricature, where the artist picks out the defining traits of a person and blows em up to make them really obvious and entertaining. Of course this makes it all really broad, but just because it's broad and the movements are big, this means it's not acting? There's plenty of subtlety there too, in Ralph's facial expressions, inflections in his voice, etc. and he can switch between borad and subtle in a snap whenever he needs to. Plus, Ralph is a real human being! Everything he does is justified, believeable and empathizable, (I know it's probably not a word, but you know...) because Ralph is played consistently over time with the same specific traits, and if I recall correctly, since the "character's actions and behavior are completely justified," I'd say he at least meets the base requirement of being an actor.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Hell said...

Oh crap, looks like Ben posted while I was writing.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

Jenny put it much more eloquently than I. I agree with her completely. It just so happens that I had my own definition of what acting is, and that I mentioned it to talk about how they are two different crafts. For some reason, John took offense to that, even though I clearly put quotation marks around the word acting to emphasize that connotation.

Bob: I never tried to convince anyone that my definition of acting is the right one. I just needed to mention it to emphasize the difference.

Bob Hell said...

Well, it kinda looks like I accidentaly answered a few parts of the other post too...

Bob Hell said...

Damn it, it looks like Ben and I are on at the same time, so I'll just go ahead and say agree agree to disagree and let it be at that.

Anonymous said...

I told an actor friend I thought that the reason Dianetics/Scientology appealed to certain actors, because it reinforced systems of belief in pretending, sort of that "I think therefore I am", something I would think Method actors would love, that is a lifestyle/philosophy that reinforces their practice of their craft.

I don't pretend to know what "the Method" is, but he did, and he said, that isn't the method. He seemed insulted by my theory. I don't think he is a fan of Dianetics, but I think there is a relationship there, I mean, they apparently think using a galvanic skin response device to train themselves not to sweat, is solving all of their psychological problems. Is my theory Wacko?

My apology to practical actors, pretenders, method actors and scientologists, that may be reading.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Jenny: Very interesting! I didn't know anything about Marilyn having a Method coach on the set of the Wilder film. I didn't know method people were even interested in comedy!

I'm a huge fan of Arthur (spelled right?)Miller but I can see why Marilyn regretted the relationship with him. Her strong suit was comedy, which he probably had disdain for. I'm afraid I'm not a fan of "The Misfits."

Benjamin: Wow! Arguments about acting still generate a lot of emotion! Maybe that's a sign that the field is still alive and healthy. Nobody ever gets emotional about whale bone carving.

I ordered "Method Acting" from the library. Thanks for the tip!

I thought you did pantomime. I must be confusing you with someone else. Anyway if you have student work to show I'd be interested to see it. You're the only commenter with acting experience so I'm always curious to see what you think about this stuff.

cableclair said...

I think Method acting has very interesting parts to it, but I don't believe it's the One and Only approach to acting, not by far!

Actually I have attended an acting workshop a month or two ago (I'm an actress myself) that was really an eye opener to me. So many interesting techniques, you should really read the book "The Power of The Actor" by Ivana Chubbuck, Eddie, if it interests you. It was such an awesome workshop, very inspiring, very inspiring book as well.

I quote:

"It takes the theories of the acting masters, such as Stanislavski, Meisner and Hagen, to the next step by utilizing inner pain and emotions, not as an end in itself, but as a way to drive and win a goal. The result motivates real human behaviour - from it's source - creating a fundamentally accurate and compelling result."

I believe Laurel and Hardy and Jim Carrey and the Honeymooners is just as justified acting as anything else. My two cents.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Cable: "The Power of the Actor?" Sounds interesting! I'll look it up!