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Joan Crawford (#110 of 11)

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.

Lypsinka Speaks: Interview with a Surrealist

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Lypsinka Speaks: Interview with a Surrealist
Lypsinka Speaks: Interview with a Surrealist

You don’t easily forget Lypsinka—those eyes, the hands, and the rubbery lips that give new life and meaning to the mashed-together snatches of songs, dialogue, or just screams, previously voiced by other larger-than-life divas. The man behind this fabulous creature is John Epperson. “I’ve been called so many things over the years, none of them that I really like,” he says. “Drag queen is offensive to me, and performance artist is kind of ’1980s nonprofit’—and I need to make living at this! So I call myself a ’surrealist,’ which is, I think, the same word that people use to describe Barry Humphries, who plays Dame Edna.” Over lunch at his favorite Italian bistro in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, the tall, diffident, Mississippi-born performer spoke about the genesis of his mute but oh-so-expressive alter ego, and about Lypsinka! The Trilogy, currently playing in repertory through January 3 at East Village’s Connelly Theater.

15 Famous Movie Hosts

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15 Famous Movie Hosts
15 Famous Movie Hosts

This weekend, a Stephenie Meyer adaptation will likely top the box office yet again, as The Host, based on the author’s only non-Twilight novel, lands in theaters. A supernatural, dystopian soap opera, the new film stars Saorsie Ronan as Melanie Stryder, the titular vessel for an alien life form that overtakes her body (things get especially tricky when possesser and possessee fall for two different strapping lads, played by Jake Abel and Max Irons). The movie got us thinking about other hosts in cinema, and we decided to keep the definition loose. On our list, the folks in question host game shows, parties, and, yes, troublesome phantom entities. Click on to see who made the cut.

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.

15 Famous Movie Sisters

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15 Famous Movie Sisters
15 Famous Movie Sisters

In Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton directs Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt as complicated siblings, whose relationship is further tested by Mark Duplass’s grief-stricken houseguest. Both Blunt and DeWitt have played the sister role before, Blunt as recently as 2008, when she starred as Amy Adams’s sis in Sunshine Cleaning. From The Parent Trap to Crimes of the Heart, divine secrets to divine intervention, cinema has given us all manner of sisterhood, with no shortage of tears, laughs, and catfights. Herein are 15 films that stand out most in memory, their ladies leaving a mark as strong as a thicker-than-water bond.

15 Famous Movie Bullies

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15 Famous Movie Bullies
15 Famous Movie Bullies

Serving as the latest bit of evidence that a camera, a cause, and a whole lot of headline-friendly promotion can net unwarranted prestige, the Harvey Weinstein-backed Bully begins its nationwide rollout this weekend, its demand to be liked carrying an ironic whiff of oppression. From the schoolyard to the psych ward, the bully was a cinematic staple well before becoming a hot-button news topic, and we’ve got examples to prove it. The meanies in Lee Hirsch’s new doc may commit acts of school-bus terrorism, but they’d cower to these soul-crushing jerks.

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

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Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence
Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Poet of Violence

“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” —Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)

I. Introductory

The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.

You, the Jury: Joan Crawford, Otto Preminger, & Daisy Kenyon

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You, the Jury: Joan Crawford, Otto Preminger, & <em>Daisy Kenyon</em>
You, the Jury: Joan Crawford, Otto Preminger, & <em>Daisy Kenyon</em>

Peter Bogdanovich observed that Otto Preminger’s films were “a trial in which the audience is the jury.” He wasn’t just speaking of Preminger’s penchant for stories involving the law and institutions; he was talking about Preminger’s style as a director. He preferred long, unbroken takes, and he used close-ups sparingly. A close-up is the most efficient way into a character’s psyche; Preminger resisted that efficiency, preferring to let the audience do half of the work—to be “the jury.” Preminger said, in an interview with Bogdanovich, “...every cut interrupts the flow of storytelling. When I want a close-up, I either have the people come closer to the camera or move the camera closer to them. But always with some motivation, not wildly. You can cut without being too obvious, but it still interrupts the illusion, unless you want to use a cut to shock the audience. But this is only a theory, and I am an enemy of theory.” Preminger’s almost-meandering long-take style creates a supremely unbalancing effect. You keep waiting for the opinion to be handed to you, you keep waiting for the judgment to be rendered for you, but it does not come.