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Marlon Brando (#110 of 13)

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.

Review: Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile

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Review: Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile
Review: Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile

Susan L. Mizruchi’s Brando’s Smile has less to do with Marlon Brando’s physical display of happiness than it does with dispelling the myths that made him a cultural icon. “As the first biographer to have reviewed Brando’s archives,” Mizruchi offers a fuller understanding of the man, “the Brando that was not visible to the world in order to understand the one that was.” Her main purpose, though, which she explicitly identifies in the introduction, isn’t only to question Brando’s legend (the womanizing, the lost interest in acting, his publicity-driven politics), but to argue that his motivations ran deeper than has previously been asserted.

Mizruchi, an English professor at Boston University and a prominent cultural historian, focuses much of her attention on Brando’s library and the books he read, sharing his varied annotations and how his often neglected intellect and eclectic passions in history, literature, and social causes informed much of his acting and the films he decided to pursue. As expected, the biography traces Brando’s life in chronological order: growing-up in Omaha with an abusive father and an alcoholic mother; moving to Manhattan and learning from Stella Adler and those at the New School; and finally, deciding to leave the stage and pursue acting in Hollywood.

Exclusive: 3 Stills from The Act of Killing

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Exclusive: 3 Stills from The Act of Killing
Exclusive: 3 Stills from The Act of Killing

In Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary The Act of Killing, film becomes the medium for a bold historical reckoning—and in more ways than one. While the director travels to Indonesia to interview several of the individuals responsible for the mass murders of suspected communists following the country’s military coup in 1965, and to record the same culture of casual, near-fascist violence that exists in the country today, he enlists his subjects in a singular project. Because many of the men got their start working as petty gangsters enforcing movie-ticket sales, and because many of them modeled their behaviors on American movie stars such as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, Oppenheimer offers them the chance to film their experiences, creating a movie of their own in an assortment of genres of their choosing.

Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat
Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It’s generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It’s-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne’s star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora’s last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway’s vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally’s Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver’s Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark’s novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it’s-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I’m talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it’s hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

15 Famous Movie Psychopaths

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15 Famous Movie Psychopaths
15 Famous Movie Psychopaths

In Bruges badass Martin McDonagh returns this weekend with Seven Psychopaths, the sophomore feature from the Irish multihyphenate and a good source for onscreen nutjobs. Colin Farrell leads the cast of not-quite-sane characters, who include two dognappers played by Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken. Still, we’re thinking this new septet of psychos has nothing on the filmic crazies that have come before, particularly the lot we’ve assembled for this list. You could repeatedly scour cinema history and return with a new batch of lunatics every time. For now, here are 15 that linger strongly in the memory, a rogues gallery that runs the gamut from clingy patient to schizo serviceman.

The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

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The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris
The Conversations: Last Tango in Paris

Ed Howard: The opening titles of Bernardo Bertolucci’s infamous 1972 film Last Tango in Paris lay out, in an especially naked way, the themes and aesthetics of the film to come. The titles sequence is backed by two paintings by Francis Bacon, whose work inspired Bertolucci during the filming of Last Tango in Paris: first, on the left half of the screen, an image of a man in a white T-shirt reclining on a red couch, his body contorted and grotesque in contrast to the seeming languor of his posture; then, on the right half of the screen, a woman sitting primly in a wooden chair, her legs awkwardly crossed and her face, like that of the man, a jumble of distorted features. Only at the end of the credits are the two images placed side by side, and the film’s whole story is encompassed by that single gesture: two tortured, haunted, isolated figures placed together as a study of separate lives, separate pains briefly united. The psychological torment suggested by Bacon’s figures—which seem to be writhing, contorting, straining at the stasis of the paintings, all of their internal ugliness written into their bodies and faces—carries over into the rest of the film.

The man in this diptych is Paul (Marlon Brando), an American abroad in Paris, dealing—rather badly—with the very recent suicide of his French wife. The woman in the diptych is Jeanne (Maria Schneider), a French girl who Paul meets in a rotting, trashed apartment where he pulls her into a violent sexual entanglement, an escalating game of debasement and sex-as-conflict. The simple device of preceding the film proper with Bacon’s ugly/provocative figures, with their fleshy pink tones and sprawling ruin, suggests how we should read these characters, and if it wasn’t clear enough already, the film opens with Paul practically in mid-scream, a howl of unrestrained anguish that’s hardly drowned out even by the roaring train passing overhead. It’s tempting to think that Last Tango in Paris is about sex, for obvious reasons, but it’s not really. It’s about pain. The characters—and Bertolucci—simply use sex as a tool to express things that actually have very little to do with sex itself.

Still, there’s no doubt that the sex got—and continues to get—most of the attention. Pauline Kael, in an ecstatic (I’m tempted to say orgasmic) review, praised Bertolucci for bringing eroticism to the movies. (She goes on to make more nuanced arguments, which I’m sure we’ll get to later; I can’t think of another movie that seems as linked to a single critic’s response as this film is with Kael.) Norman Mailer, responding to Kael, said the film would have been better if it’d been more extreme, more sexually explicit, more real: “Brando’s real cock up Schneider’s real vagina would have brought the history of film one huge march closer to the ultimate experience it has promised since its inception.” But that’s missing the point, no? Did Bertolucci bring sex to the cinema with Last Tango in Paris, or is all that sex just a red herring for the film’s real concerns?

One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films

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One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films
One Solution for Two Problems: Acting in Three Kazan Films

Andrew Sarris wrote of Elia Kazan in The American Cinema that “his career as a whole reflects an unending struggle between a stable camera and a jittery one.” Historically that’s more or less been the rap on Kazan—a highly-acclaimed filmmaker with many strong titles, but one whose work was too simultaneously bland and conflicted for the critical establishment to elevate him to auteur. The son of Greek immigrants and eventually a famed Broadway director, Kazan began filmmaking with a group-directed short called People of the Cumberland, broke into feature directing with 1945’s adaptation of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and left it 18 films later with a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. He came close to greatness on film, though rarely reached it: At his peak period he was at the high end of the middle bracket of several frankly liberal directors, many of whom had crossed over into movies from film and TV. He’s lighter and earthier than the leaden, sententious cinema of Stanley Kramer and Richard Brooks, though he never achieves the pure ecstasy and reverie of the best Nicholas Ray.