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The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

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The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan
The Mystery of Screen Acting: An Interview with Author Dan Callahan

Most film critics have a pretty good handle on what it is a director does, what a cinematographer does, what an editor does. Acting, however, remains a little bit mysterious. That's why writers who know enough about the craft of acting to not just describe what they see in a performance but break down how the actor is doing it can be counted on only a couple of hands. The trick is to translate acting technique in a non-academic vocabulary, making it comprehensible to an audience of non-actors. You have to train your eye. You have to know what to look for, the “tells” of falsity or indicating, how to perceive a sketched-in performance as opposed to a full one.

It's difficult to write about acting well. If it were easy, more people would do it. The rare writer who writes about acting really well, longtime theater and film critic Dan Callahan can home in on why and how a performance lands, or doesn't. He pays attention to the actor's technique, the actor's tension, the prosody of the actor's voice, all of these being “tells” as to whether or not the actor is truly engaged, or pumping up something artificial to fill in the blanks. This is tough stuff, but reading Callahan is an object lesson on how to do it.

Callahan's first two books were biographies, the first on Barbara Stanwyck (Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman), the second on Vanessa Redgrave (Vanessa: The Life of Vanessa Redgrave). In both, Callahan moves behind the confines of traditional biographies. Traditional biographies often lead us through the events in an artist's life, giving us backstage stories, maybe a couple of anecdotes, maybe some description of how the artist's work was received. Callahan gives us all that, but also gives us his analysis of the performances, leading us to an understanding of Stanwyck and Redgrave not just as subjects, but as artists. Why is Vanessa Redgrave so good? That's not as simple a question as it might seem. One of the great gifts of Callahan's writing is that he makes you want to re-watch movies you've already seen, hoping to pick up on all the things he's illuminated.

Callahan's latest book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, is made up of profile pieces and artistic analysis of the major figures from the silent era up until the moment before the collapse of the studio system. With chapters on Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Louise Brooks, Joan Crawford, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich, to name a few, it's a lush and complex look at the art of acting, and how it developed alongside the development of cinema itself. Callahan looks at the rupture represented by Marlon Brando, adding some necessary shadings to the almost universally accepted simplistic reading of Brando as an “improvement.” The earlier, more heightened style is still seen as “lesser” in many circles, or “over the top,” “heightened,” “phony.” In the book, and in our talk about it, it's clear that Callahan is determined to set the record straight.

Watch: Star-Studded “On Columbine” Video Reflects on Two Decades of Gun Violence

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Watch: Star-Studded “On Columbine” Video Reflects on Two Decades of Gun Violence
Watch: Star-Studded “On Columbine” Video Reflects on Two Decades of Gun Violence

The music video for “On Columbine,” a track from the star-studded concept album Guns: The Album, made its online premiere last March but understandably got lost in the flurry of media attention surrounding the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and the historic March for Our Lives demonstrations that followed. The song, featuring singer-songwriter Claudio Parrone Jr., and its accompanying video are moving meditations on America's school shooting epidemic, featuring clips of three of the last four U.S. presidents lamenting the lives lost to gun violence (Donald Trump, meanwhile, can be heard, in a speech at the NRA last year, declaring an end to the “assault” on the Second Amendment).

RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap Season 10, Episode 7, “Snatch Game”

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RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Season 10, Episode 7, “Snatch Game”

VH1

RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Season 10, Episode 7, “Snatch Game”

A few rucaps ago, I dismissed the acting chops of the girls on this season's RuPaul's Drag Race. I surmised that, much like Marilyn Monroe's Miss Casswell in All About Eve, they ought to consider heading back to the Copacabana School of the Dramatic Arts for some remedial classwork. Apparently they did, because the long-awaited Snatch Game episode not only boasts some truly fine performances, but also brings all things dramatic into razor-sharp focus.

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

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The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

TCM Classic Film Festival

The 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival's programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I'd registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year's fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.

Christina Aguilera Gets Liberated in Kanye-Produced “Accelerate” Single & Video

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Christina Aguilera Gets Liberated in Kanye-Produced “Accelerate” Single & Video
Christina Aguilera Gets Liberated in Kanye-Produced “Accelerate” Single & Video

Christina Aguilera kicked off her recent media blitz for her upcoming album, Liberation, with a striking photo spread in the latest issue of Paper magazine. Stripped of her usual heavy makeup and bleached-bombshell waves, the naturally freckled pop singer was nearly unrecognizable. “Accelerate,” the lead single from the album, is similarly barebones. For a track audaciously titled “Accelerate,” it never really takes off, even when Aguilera begs, “Come on, babe, pick up your speed.” And that's by design.

The Films of Guillermo del Toro Ranked

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The Films of Guillermo del Toro Ranked

Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Films of Guillermo del Toro Ranked

Given how often his name has been attached to projects, particularly over the last 15 years, Guillermo del Toro could easily be mistaken for a tirelessly prolific director, whose near-annual output of darkly fantastical visions seems to make him the genre fanatic’s Woody Allen. But while del Toro has amassed roughly 30 film credits since making his 1985 debut with the horror short Doña Lupe, he’s only been at the helm of eight features. Other works, like The Orphanage, Kung Fu Panda 2, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which he famously came very close to directing, have seen him serve as everything from writer and executive producer to voice actor and creative consultant. With Pacific Rim, the latest (and most massively budgeted) of that limited del Toro line, hitting theaters on Friday, we’re looking back at the director’s body of work, which reflects a man as interested in the social, political, and existential as the bloody, the slimy, the fleshy, and the scaly. R. Kurt Osenlund

2018 Tony Nominations: Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical Lead, Followed by Angels in America

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2018 Tony Nominations: Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical Lead, Followed by Angels in America

Helen Maybanks

2018 Tony Nominations: Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical Lead, Followed by Angels in America

Nominations for the 72nd Tony Awards were announced this morning by Katharine McPhee and Leslie Odom Jr. Leading the pack with 12 nominations each is Mean Girls and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical, followed by The Band's Visit, Angels in America, and Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, all three with 11. And with 10 nominations is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two and the revival of My Fair Lady. The awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 10 on CBS.

15 Greatest Madonna Non-Singles

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15 Greatest Madonna Non-Singles
15 Greatest Madonna Non-Singles

Madonna’s done it all. And we’ve pretty much covered it all. So when we sat down to decide the best way to celebrate the anniversary of Madonna’s debut album, released in 1983, we elected to dig up some of the forgotten or unheralded gems scattered liberally throughout her three-decade-spanning catalogue rather than predictably rank her best albums, singles, or videos—which we’ve more or less done on various other lists over the years anyway. With the exception of one B-side, one compilation cut, and one remix, all of our picks can be found on a Madonna studio album—a testament to the singer’s strength as an album artist, particularly in the ’90s. These are songs that, in a more adventurous world, could have been hits, and in some cases where the releases were nixed last minute, almost were, their breadth and depth reflective of an artist unwilling to allow herself to be defined. And just for shits and giggles, we ranked ’em.

The Emperor Has New Clothes Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

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The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña
The Emperor Has New Clothes: Jon Robin Baitz’s Vicuña

In 1960, Gore Vidal wrote The Best Man, a play about two politicians vying for their party's nomination for president, in addition to the sitting president's endorsement. Both men can be seen as stand-ins not only for the political figures of Vidal's day (John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson in this case), but also for the political archetypes that American voters have come to expect. Watching (or reading) The Best Man today reveals the timelessness of Vidal's perspective on American politics and the familiarity of the style of politics he portrayed.

Jon Robin Baitz's Vicuña is populated with characters even more thinly veiled than Vidal's were 60 years ago. Although Baitz wrote the play during the 2016 election—and later appended it with a new prologue and epilogue after the results—if he'd written it even five years ago, it might have seemed too outrageous and farcical in certain parts to be believable. The line between the familiarly louche brand of politics Vidal portrayed in Best Man and the brow-furrowing shock of Vicuña is only navigable by the map 2016 laid out.

RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap Season 10, Episode 6, “Drag Con Panel Extravaganza”

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RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Season 10, Episode 6, “Drag Con Panel Extravaganza”

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RuPaul’s Drag Race Recap: Season 10, Episode 6, “Drag Con Panel Extravaganza”

No one ever accused RuPaul of shying away from shamelessness, but usually the bald-faced self-promotion is a footnote, not the full paragraph. Ru's “available on iTunes” winks have always been in tune with the show's funhouse satire of reality competition tropes, and are more often than not balanced out by the moments when Mother Ru's protégées unleash emotional realness: Roxxxy Andrews coming to terms with the moment her mother left her at a bus stop, Ongina revealing her HIV-positive status, Monica Beverly Hillz affirming her identity as a transgender woman. Look, RuPaul's a high-powered businesswoman who, working in a trade that seldom allows for second acts, managed to build one of pop culture's most unexpected empires. But she also knows from what film—basically the urtext American comedy of selling out—comes the line “We take the cash, we cash the check, we show them what they want to see.” With a smile.