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Marlene Dietrich (#110 of 12)

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.

Through the Years: Madonna’s "Like a Virgin" at 30

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Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at 30
Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at 30

Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.) I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. Madonna infamously unveiled “Like a Virgin” to the world 30 years ago this Sunday, at the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.

Review: Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

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Review: Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
Review: Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast

In 1997, St. Martin’s Griffin Press published Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast to widespread critical acclaim. Now, after several years of remaining out of print, the University of Minnesota Press has released a beautiful new paperback edition of the biography which Stanley Kauffmann called a “permanent resource” upon its initial release. Indeed, Patrick McGilligan’s nearly 500-page treatment of the elusive, demonstrative German director seemingly spares no detail, chronicling Lang’s entire life with a precision that transcends merely ticking off facts in chronological fashion and, more interestingly, revels in the director’s off-screen faults just as frequently as he applauds the on-screen brilliance. Such jarring juxtaposition is epitomized by the books epigraph, spoken by Lang himself: “My private life has nothing to do with my films.” McGilligan looks to test this claim throughout, detailing the life of a man dedicated to artistic integrity and meticulous detail while working, yet also capable of rampant adultery, giving numerous tongue-lashings to cast and crew, and, even, murder.

The final possibility is contained in the book’s most startling chapter; in 1921, Lisa Rosenthal, Lang’s wife, died from a single gunshot wound. According to Lang and Thea von Harbou (Lang’s writing partner and soon-to-be wife), Rosenthal surprised the pair while having sex in Lang’s office. Then, she went into the bathroom and shot herself. However, editor Hans Feld and cinematographer Karl Freund believed something far worse: that Lang had shot Rosenthal, incidental or not, and refused to take any blame for it. McGilligan treats this debate somewhat objectively, though his explanation of logical inconsistencies with Lang’s story suggests, like Feld and Freund, that there remains a reasonable doubt. With this passage, one must remember McGilligan’s opening words, that “Fritz Lang lived his life with the glinted eyes of a maniac.” These tensions drive McGilligan’s prose just as strongly as facts: the possibility that he might be discussing the films of a murderer.

15 Famous Movie Emperors

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15 Famous Movie Emperors
15 Famous Movie Emperors

This weekend, Tommy Lee Jones and Matthew Fox team up in Peter Webber’s Emperor, a rather listless historical war flick, which charts the investigation of Emperor Hirohito and his role in WWII. The film got us thinking about other movie emperors, who’ve varied in race, gender, and even planet of origin. From the animated to the animalistic, the perfect to the perverse, this list is one royally diverse bunch.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Eric Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Eric Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Eric Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time

I approached this project the exact same way I expect I would’ve handled being given a ballot in the actual Sight & Sound poll: by procrastinating until the very last second and making a lot of spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment rules to dictate how I could possibly whittle down dozens of films into a list of 10. (I know, everyone else probably would’ve said “hundreds of films,” but I’ve always been a little cine-anorexic.)

The list of “obstructions” ought to be familiar to anyone with any exposure to this parlor game: one per decade, one per country, one per genre, one per boyfriend. But having willfully backed myself into the corner of having no more time on hand, I am forced to use a list I’ve already built elsewhere: the list of films I previously designated as favorites on MUBI. I like using that as a starting point because my choices there seem neither too conservative nor too outré (or at least both simultaneously), and I first started ticking them off as an exercise toward building a list of my 50 favorite movies. Plus, I limited myself to one choice per director.

The number of “nominees” there now stands at a slightly lower sum than that original goal (how have I still not picked a Bresson?!), but it still seems the best middle ground I can find between favoring my, well, favorites and giving movies I consider to be among “the greatest” their due. The only major wrench in this plan is that, of the 46 movies shortlisted, all but about a dozen of them are from the U.S. And nearly half are from the span between 1966 and 1976.

Well, no point dancing around statistics. A strategy is a strategy, so onward and upward, in chronological order:

15 Famous Women in Black

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15 Famous Women in Black
15 Famous Women in Black

This weekend, Daniel Radcliffe celebrates his first post-Potter effort with the release of The Woman in Black, a horror thriller about an axe-grinding female ghost who need only be seen to claim a child’s life. The veiled phantom surely has the edge when it comes to offing the little ones, but she hails from a long line of ladies who’ve gone all Hot Topic for the camera. Witches, wives, and even Whoopi made this list of women who sport only the darkest uniforms, making them scary, sexy, cool, sophisticated, and in some cases, all of the above.

My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival
My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

I suppose it’s inevitable that some of the bloom would have come off the rose that was last year’s first annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I am, after all, a year older, and the time spent in between the first festival and this year’s model has found life getting more complicated, with less room for the study of cinema, classic or not, than my selfish patterns would prefer. But just because I may be mired in a sophomore slump of sorts doesn’t mean that in 2011 the TCM Festival was equally bogged down. Familiarity hardly bred contempt this time around, or complacency. If anything, there was a certain comfort factor built into the festival for me this year, a feeling that, while not radiating the kind of freshman excitement generated by last year’s fun (and my own initiation into the rites of festival film-going), certainly resonated with the buzz of discovery, of learning, about films unfamiliar, and blessedly, seemingly genetically remembered, and even of the value of an adrenaline rush of straight-up nostalgia. Without a doubt, this 2011 edition was the film festival experience of the year for me.