House Logo
Explore categories +

James Cagney (#110 of 8)

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

Comments Comments (...)

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.

15 Famous Movie Savages

Comments Comments (...)

15 Famous Movie Savages
15 Famous Movie Savages

Oliver Stone returns this weekend with Savages, a nasty crime thriller based on Don Winslow’s drug-cartel novel. The dictionary defines “savage” as “an uncivilized human being,” “a fierce, brutal, or cruel person,” and “a rude, boorish person.” In other words, it covers just about every villain who’s ever graced the screen. To whip up a list of 15, we set our sights on vicious characters as fierce as they are remarkably uncouth. There are no classy rogues here, folks. These are teeth-gnashing, eardrum-piercing, elbows-on-the-table types, and from a child murderer to a furry monster to two more Stone creations, they comprise a choice selection of scoundrels.

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

Comments Comments (...)

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.

Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar

Comments Comments (...)

Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar
Oscar Prospects: J. Edgar

It’s extremely fitting that Clint Eastwood uses film in J. Edgar to illustrate changing public opinion, charting the evolution of America’s view of law enforcement as it was reflected by Hollywood, with screenings of James Cagney’s crime-denouncing G Men replacing those of its pro-gangster predecessor The Public Enemy. Such cinematic shifts in perspective are directly applicable to Eastwood’s work, as the 81-year-old has had one of the more erratic late careers of any active filmmaker. The Oscar-favored Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby marked a marvelous artistic peak, and led to a wave of grand ambition and varying success. Good and bad were neatly juxtaposed with Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, while the appealingly self-reflective Gran Torino was followed by the insufferable Invictus and the listless Hereafter. Though already panned by some, J. Edgar is likely to readjust viewers’ mindsets yet again, as it’s Eastwood’s most accomplished movie since 2004. All but gone is the palpable detriment of his hasty shooting style, which in recent years has yielded a great many subpar takes. And while there will be those who’ll dismiss J. Edgar as textbook-ish, its adamant leafing through history proves increasingly fascinating, and for Eastwood, the film represents not a return to form, but a new horizon.

Joan Blondell: Working Girl

Comments Comments (...)

Joan Blondell: Working Girl
Joan Blondell: Working Girl

Fleshy, often blowsy and intrinsically good-humored, Joan Blondell was a Warner Brothers’ dame of all trades, where she made 54 films over a ten-year period in the thirties, seven with her best partner, James Cagney, and eight with the harder-boiled Glenda Farrell. She displayed what she cheerfully called her “big boobs” and batted her even bigger blue eyes in every variety of Warner Brothers’ picture, from comedies to gangster dramas to Busby Berkeley musicals like Footlight Parade (1933), where she memorably tells a rival girl, “As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve gotta job!” In his third major biography of a worthy but nearly forgotten figure, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, Matthew Kennedy makes a persuasive case for Blondell’s natural talent as an actress, and details the hard times of her life with sympathy.

5 for the day: Authority and Subordination

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the day: Authority and Subordination
5 for the day: Authority and Subordination

D.A. to Callahan: “Where the hell does it say you got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects? Deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must’ve heard of the fourth amendment!”

Back in school, my friends and I routinely joked about making compilation videos of certain formulaic scenes that appear in movies, so you would have, for instance, a four hour video of episodes where the good guy cop visits the captain’s office to get his orders or a (new) partner or an ass chewing. That’s more or less where this 5 for the day topic starts: the relationship between an authority and its subordinates - police chief and beat cop, captain and sailor, lord and vassal - there are infinite manifestations of this relationship expressed in countless genres beyond cop thrillers. Each picture has something a little different to say about authority and the people below it—though invariably, when discord between the authority and the individual develops, sympathy goes to the the individual, never the authority.

5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares

Comments Comments (...)

5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares
5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares

While accepting the Foreign Film Oscar for Belle Epoque, director Fernando Trueba said “I would like to believe in God in order to thank Him. But I just believe in Billy Wilder, so thank you, Mr. Wilder.” Legend has it that, to request a screening of Epoque, Wilder called Trueba and greeted him by saying “Hello, Fernando? This is God.”

I’ve thanked De Lawd plenty of times, but somehow never got around to thanking my favorite director. Today’s Five for The Day attempts to reconcile that grievous error. Yet rather than listing five Wilder films (which you are welcome to do), our five for the day goes the thematic route, opting to cite five themes consistently found in Wilder’s work. This is not a scholarly lecture nor is it a reach-around and post-coital foot massage for auteur theorists. I’m doing it this way solely so I can cheat. I’m greedy, and asking me to talk about only five Wilder movies is like asking Matt to disregard The New World.

The cynic in Mr. Wilder would be proud. After all, his movies are full of greedy characters out for themselves no matter what the cost. Herewith, the Wilder Side of the Odienator: