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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

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.

It’s perfect that Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn are on the cover of The Art of American Screen Acting. She was one of my early favorites. There was something about her that resonated with me. Maybe it was her tomboy thing. Maybe it’s the immaturity of some of her persona.

But she wants maturity, and Holiday is the perfect example of that. That’s why I put them on the cover, because I saw Bringing Up Baby and Holiday when I was eight, and I saw these two people who weren’t conventional. They were offering something other than the clichéd manly guy and feminine woman. Grant and Hepburn on screen together—no, they’re not going to have children, and whatever the sexual arrangement is, it isn’t going to be a conventional one, and it’s going to be friendship-based, by choice. They’re going to go see some shows, go to the nightclubs, have fun. This is what I was drawn to. And part of the appeal—as I say in the book—is their bisexuality. It’s impossible to say whether or not they were entirely gay, whatever that means. But this is why, on screen, they have such a very rich dynamic. They’re not putting themselves into a box. That’s what Holiday is about.

Tell me why you wanted to write the book.

The seed of the book came years ago when I was at acting school at NYU. If I would bring up a name from the classic Hollywood period, one of my teachers would dismiss them and say they were “pre-Brando,” that they’re artificial, they’re phony. And I would get very annoyed. When I was writing this book, I actually had a publisher who was interested in it, but then there was an editor who didn’t like the negative things I was saying about the Method actors, like Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. I was very close to getting a contract, and she rejected it. That was a good thing, in a way, because it showed how necessary a subject this is to discuss, if someone is getting so upset about it. But also, I was a little too negative, and so I trimmed and cut and improved the argument because of it.

What I wanted to do was highlight the positive aspects of the great Hollywood stars of the studio era. James Cagney, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn. Those four people really stand for what I’m trying to talk about. And then I wanted to talk about the change that came with Brando, Clift, James Dean, and Kim Stanley. There were good things about that change and also bad things. I prefer the classic Hollywood actors, even though I make very clear what’s negative about them. I’m just as critical of them as I am of the Method actors. I wanted to upend this idea that was being propagated while I was in school, and everyone still accepts now: that Brando was an earthquake and that it was progress, that it was an improvement. It wasn’t progress. It was something different. It was a reaction and it was necessary at the time, but you need to understand what he was reacting against.

There are different kinds of acting. There’s the heightened theatrical style and there’s the more naturalistic style. What’s interesting about today’s filmmakers—particularly the ones making low-budget films—is that they’re all influenced by Robert Bresson. Bresson called his actors “models,” and that’s all anyone wants now. The young filmmakers are against acting. It’s like they’re afraid of it, they don’t want it. Let me just make clear: Bresson and what he did, Brando and what he did—they are extraordinary and valid, and their example was needed, but they were reacting to the heightened style, and if you do away with the heightened style entirely, then the naturalistic style doesn’t have anything to work against. We need both. We can’t reject one for the other. They should be in dialogue with each other.

One of the things you do so well as a writer is you teach people how to watch, especially the kind of person who thinks Marlon Brando invented “real” or “good” acting. So what you’re doing here is that you’re teaching. You’re not just telling us Lillian Gish invented the close-up. You’re teaching us how to watch her so we can learn from her discoveries.

Lillian Gish experimented. If the camera is really far back, should I go bigger? If the camera is right in my face, do I need to be different? And how? For instance, in Orphans of the Storm, when she’s calling to her blind sister and the camera is down the street, she had to throw her whole body into it so we could see it. It’s beautiful and it’s more like dance than acting. Gish couldn’t use dialogue in those silent films to communicate, and as I say in the book: If you’ve ever tried to communicate something to someone without using words, you know how big and exaggerated you have to get in order to be understood. John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when he transforms into Mr. Hyde, it couldn’t be more extreme, and it’s so extreme it could get a laugh, but it doesn’t get a laugh because he doesn’t just do the surface transformation. He taps into an evil inside that animates him outwardly. And so we don’t laugh. Anyone can tell when someone is just doing the surface.

There’s a big problem where people think acting should only look one way, or that kitchen-sink realism is the only kind of acceptable acting.

I feel like it’s fear, in a way. Maybe it’s this American thing of “I don’t want to be phony, I want to be real.” But what is “real”? Everything is a performance. Quotation marks are around all of it, no matter what you do. If you realize that, you can go as big as you want. Now, if that’s all you’re doing, it can get boring. Like in the 1940s, when Ingrid Bergman got sick of everything being false and heightened, so she went away with Roberto Rossellini and tried out this new type of acting. That was very bold of her. She could do the big extravagant acting and then she proved she could do no-frills realism. That’s what’s so intriguing about her. I don’t think anyone else I write about in the book worked in such different styles. Put Bette Davis in a Rossellini movie and I think she would have walked off the set. Katharine Hepburn pushed herself when she got older, but she pushed herself in the opposite direction toward Shakespeare, toward the most challenging heightened way of doing it.

Define the concept of “indicating.” Actors understand this term intimately. Actors can clock indicating from a mile away. Critics, not so much.

Indicating is a kind of cheating. It’s a conventional response. What’s tricky about it is that that’s what reacting is though. An actor has to find the right look for a response. That’s what Lillian Gish did. But you can’t just have the right look for the response—like making a sad face during a sad moment—because the feeling has to be there too. For instance, yesterday I was watching Port of Seven Seas starring Wallace Beery. As I watched Beery, I thought: “He’s close to mugging here, close to indicating.” It’s a very big performance. But Beery gets away with it because it was coming from such a real source of vitality. You need to be connected to something real.

The chapter on Gloria Swanson was so much fun.

Unfortunately, so many of her films are lost. She’s very good in the movies directed by Allan Dwan. In Dwan’s Zaza, she’s very heightened, very detailed. With Sadie Thompson, she wanted to challenge herself, and she’s very good in it. It’s very different from what she’d done before, and she went through hell to get Sadie Thompson on the screen, to get it through the censorship restrictions. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh. In writing about all of these actors, it was so clear how certain directors were very important for certain people, and one thing became very, very obvious: Walsh is the actor’s friend. He directed Swanson in Sadie Thompson and set her off beautifully.

Did Joan Crawford have a relationship like this?

Crawford was kind of on her own. She worked with great directors, of course. She worked with George Cukor three times and he did well with her. But when you think of Crawford, you don’t think of one director. Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich—they all saw her in different ways. Ingrid Bergman worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Cukor, Leo McCarey, Rossellini, Ingmar Bergman. She did it all. Of all the great stars, James Cagney is the one who doesn’t have enough great movies on his resume, unfortunately. There’s a lot of Cagney movies that aren’t worthy of him, and he knew it too.

Your observations about his curiosity about women, how engaged he was with them onscreen, were really illuminating.

Cagney is so alive. He’s so alert to possibility that when he interacts with people on screen he wants to get as much out of them as possible, and this is very sexy and very romantic if he’s dealing with an attractive woman. And with him, with an attractive woman, he soaks her up. He listens so closely.

He and Joan Blondell were a great team in all those Warner Bros. movies.

She’s so steady, she lets him be as volatile as he is. When he’s in prison at the end of Blonde Crazy and she comes to visit him, she’s got this fur jacket on, and he starts touching the jacket. I mean, you talk about Brando putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront—Cagney was doing things like that in the 1930s and in a way that’s more all-embracing. Sexier. Cagney’s funny because, in real life, he was married and kind of a retiring, cautious guy. I think the difference between his real life and who he was on the screen was huge—especially in comparison with some of the other people I write about.

You also really dive into the difficult subject of Louise Brooks.

She did her best movies in Europe, but she remained very American in them. I also wanted to include her because she really came into her own as an older woman as a writer, and she wrote about a lot of the people that I write about in the rest of the book, so I was able to establish her as a character and in the later chapters I quote from her. She’s a key American actor. She herself said she never was an actress. But she’s the ultimate example of someone who is present. It’s like what I was talking about with these directors who don’t want anyone to act, they just want you to be a “model.” With her, in those three movies she made in Europe, it worked out exceptionally well.

There’s also an element of mystery about Brooks, and I tried very hard to get at what it is about her on screen, but words do fail at a certain point. You have to finally just experience it. It’s really interesting that she looks directly into the camera in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She looks right at us. Some of the other actors in the book will also look straight into the camera. Crawford doesn’t, because I think she was a little afraid of the camera. You’re not supposed to look at the camera. You’re supposed to pretend it isn’t there, but we all know it’s there. You know you’re being looked at. So the relationship with the camera gives us the feeling of who they are as a performer, if they can engage with it, with us. Brooks looked straight into the camera. Twice. And boldly. Those moments could not be more bold.



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