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Gloria Swanson (#110 of 7)

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.

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

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Odie “Odienator” Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Odie “Odienator” Henderson’s Top 10 Films of All Time

I’m a compulsive. It’s no surprise that my list is full of movies about compulsion. Whether it’s a man who must play God in his relationship, casting his beloved in an image of his design, or a guy who can’t stop working, whoring, and drugging, I find myself drawn to depictions of people trying to find order in chaos. I’ve discovered this has only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. When I dug up my 2002 list of this type, I shuffled the order and kept eight of the titles. I dropped the most emotional and the most rigorously organized movies, replacing them with films that were twice as organized and emotional. By this rationale, I’ll drop four movies in 2022 and be driven bat-shit insane looking for replacements.

This isn’t a list of my favorite movies, though two of these would appear on that list. This is a list of movies that profoundly affected me more than any others. With that said, a caveat is in order: Movie lists always inspire grouchy comments reflecting what a person felt should have been on them. Let me stop you now. You have no say in what should or shouldn’t be here because you are not me. Thank your lucky stars for that.

Oscar Winner Predictions 2012 Supporting Actress

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Oscar Winner Predictions 2012: Supporting Actress
Oscar Winner Predictions 2012: Supporting Actress

It’s more than just a little politically chancy but still unavoidable to look at Octavia Spencer’s sunny Oscar odds though the filter of co-star Viola Davis’s ascendance in the Best Actress category. But if voters are capable of feeling all right with themselves for rewarding Jessica Chastain’s miracle year with what most cognizant viewers recognize as one of the least distinguished of her six or seven roles last year, then we don’t feel quite as bad regarding Spencer and Davis as a mutually beneficial tag team, a thematic (ahem) salt-and-pepper-shaker duo that makes audiences feel mighty proud about honoring both. If anything, it’s Spencer’s role as The Help’s secret ingredient-wielding Minny Jackson (the maid who knows her value and thus must remind herself “no sass” even when walking up to Chastain’s absurdly understanding heiress) that strikes the most direct hit upon the movie’s target audience. Davis’s Aibileen absorbs an unjust world’s every last dribble of shit, but Minny literally excretes it and serves it up with a smirk. In the end, both women get to dress down Bryce Dallas Howard’s microcosmic representation of Southern evil, but only one of them has the satisfaction of sending her gagging out of the room.

New York Film Festival 2011: The Artist

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New York Film Festival 2011: <em>The Artist</em>
New York Film Festival 2011: <em>The Artist</em>

With The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius stretches a feather-light gimmick to feature-length. The writer-director’s tribute to silent movies begins with a movie buff’s tongue-in-cheek premise: What if we made a silent movie about the silent film era, where the stars all act the same way in their real lives as they do in their film-within-a-film movies?

It all begins at the end of Hollywood’s silent film era, as star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) and aspiring starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) meet cute and fall for each other. The rest of the movie chronicles their long journey to a happy ending while their careers careen in opposite directions as he laughs off the talkies as a fad, fading into impoverished obscurity, while she embraces the new technology and becomes one of its biggest stars.

The two mug like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, exaggerating the already extreme expressions and gestures employed by most of the stars of that era. George flashes his blindingly white grin on the red carpet like Dudley Do-Right, and Peppy’s signature move—on screen and off—is a two-fingered whistle followed by a blown kiss. But then everyone in this world overacts, even the studio head (John Goodman) who bellows things like “the public is never wrong!” and the audience members who radiate oversized emotion at a screening, some clapping their hands to their cheeks in amazement.

The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve

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The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve
The Conversations: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve

Jason Bellamy: On the same weekend that Robin Hood opened, Cate Blanchett turned 41. At least, most of her did. Watching her play Marion to Russell Crowe’s Robin, I found it difficult to ignore the glaring (apparent) reality that some of the actress is considerably younger. Blanchett’s cheekbones, for example, have such a suspiciously hard, dramatic contour that they look less like features of a human face than like accents of a sporty Mercedes-Benz, probably because they are equally unnatural. Blanchett, I think it’s safe to say, has undergone some cosmetic surgery throughout her movie career. And while I want to make it clear that it’s none of my business what Blanchett does to or with her body, I do feel I have every right to make the following observation: In Robin Hood, Blanchett’s too-perfect cheekbones look neither middle-aged nor Middle Age.

5 for the Day: Wilder’s Wares

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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: