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Acting in the Cinema

Acting in the Cinema

James Naremore
Copyright Date: 1988
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    Acting in the Cinema
    Book Description:

    In this richly detailed study, James Naremore focuses on the work of film acting, showing what players contribute to movies. Ranging from the earliest short subjects of Charles Chaplin to the contemporary features of Robert DeNiro, he develops a useful means of analyzing performance in the age of mechanical reproduction; at the same time, he reveals the ideological implications behind various approaches to acting, and suggests ways that behavior on the screen can be linked to the presentation of self in society. Naremore's discussion of such figures as Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, and Cary Grant will interest the specialist and the general reader alike, helping to establish standards and methods for future writing about performers and their craft.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91066-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    This is a book about the art of film acting, but I had better make clear from the outset that it will not teach anyone how to become a successful performer. My approach is theoretical, historical, and critical, and I write from the point of view of a voyeur in the audience. Terry Eagleton has remarked that such writing ought to produce bad actors. Perhaps he is correct, but my own aim is simply to make readers conscious of behavior they usually take for granted.

    At a certain level, of course, we easily recognize the flourishes, emotional intensities, and expressive...

  5. Part One Performance in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

    • 2 Protocols
      (pp. 9-33)

      Imagine for a moment that the short film I am about to describe was shot by some Los Angeles-based Dziga Vertov, a man with a movie camera setting out to record an incident on the streets. (The illusion will be dispelled almost immediately.)

      The date was early 1914. In Venice, California, next door to Santa Monica, the citizens were staging a soapbox derby, and a director and his cameraman went out to catch some of the action, bringing along a second crew that would take pictures of them at work. They were well prepared to get candid footage, and everything...

    • 3 Rhetoric and Expressive Technique
      (pp. 34-67)

      The quotations above indicate how much our conception of acting has changed during the past century. Hitchcock’s remark sounds a good deal like Spencer Tracy’s famous advice to his fellow players: “Just know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” Charmingly unpretentious as Hitchcock and Tracy may sound, however, they are quite misleading. All performing situations employ a physics of movement and gesture that makes signs readable; in this sense Nietzsche’s observation that actors translate their person into a simplified version still holds true. The actual work for people who appear in movies or television seems to involve a...

    • 4 Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance
      (pp. 68-82)

      At one level, an informal conversation between friends can allow for a good deal of incoherence, inconsistency, or irrelevance: speeches may overlap, persons may glance away from one another, insignificant movements or interruptions may occur. At another level, however, the situation is quite different. Most of the people we meet at close quarters are quick to spot affective discrepancies: the smallest signs of distraction, weariness, or irritation can stand out in the midst of an ostensibly friendly exchange, and inappropriate degrees of sympathy, interest, or amusement can easily be detected. The flicker of an eyelid, the hint of a smile,...

    • 5 Accessories
      (pp. 83-96)

      A recent textbook on acting refers to props, costuming, and makeup as the “externals” of performance (as if anything were “internal” in a public show).¹ My remarks on this theme are grouped under the vague rubric of “accessories,” but my real concern is with the ways persons and inanimate materials interact, so that we cannot tell where a face or body leaves off and a mask begins.

      As every impressionist knows, Katharine Hepburn once said “the calla lilies are in bloom”—first in a Broadway flop entitledThe Lake(1934) and then again a few years later, when the opening...

  6. Part Two Star Performances

    • 6 Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (1919)
      (pp. 99-113)

      Griffith’sTrue Heart Susieopens in a one-room Indiana schoolhouse, where a teacher is conducting a spelling bee. The students are standing in a row around the walls of the room, arranged according to their ages. The camera isolates two students—William and Susie (Robert Harron and Lillian Gish)—showing them facing the camera as if in a police lineup. Susie stands on the left, holding herself at attention with her arms stiffly at her sides; her head is cocked slightly, her eyes opened wide, her brows raised in an exaggeratedly cute, almost dopey, innocence. Next to her William stands...

    • 7 Charles Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925)
      (pp. 114-130)

      Gish’s performances were designed to harmonize the various potentialities of her roles and acting skills; but Chaplin, who worked in a different mode, sometimes created vividly antirealistic dissonances or disjunctions. In fact, Brecht once wrote that “the actor Chaplin . . . would in many ways come closer to the epic than to the dramatic theater’s requirements” (56). The idea is not surprising, partly because of the social criticism in Chaplin’s films, but chiefly because theVerfremdungseffekthas a good deal in common with the standard techniques of comic alienation. To cite an example from an unBrechtian context, Cary Grant...

    • 8 Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930)
      (pp. 131-156)

      Dietrich’s work with Josef von Sternberg involves what Freud, in another context, called a “transvaluation of values.” Neither a realist nor a comic, she inhabits a realm where visible artifice becomes the sign of authenticity. She also challenges our ability to judge her acting skill, because her image is unusually dependent on a controlled, artfulmise-en-scène.In fact, to hear Sternberg tell it, she was little more than his masochistic slave. In his curious autobiography,Fun in a Chinese Laundry,Sternberg treats her with a mixture of cool admiration and catty, paranoid contempt—exactly the tone of a spurned, neurotically...

    • 9 James Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)
      (pp. 157-173)

      Like many viewers, I often have difficulty recalling or even registering the names of the dramatis personae in old Hollywood movies. For me at least, it is usually John Wayne getting on a horse, seldom the Ringo Kid or Ethan Edwards. But then who is John Wayne? In a very real sense he is as much a character as anyone else in a story, the product of publicity and various film roles, represented by a fellow whose original name was Marion Morrison. I think of him as real (Marion Morrison may have thought so, too), but he is just a...

    • 10 Katharine Hepburn in Holiday (1938)
      (pp. 174-192)

      Although the images of players like James Cagney and Marlene Dietrich were eventually adjusted to the demands of the Production Code, stardom for Katharine Hepburn involved a series of subtler, more complex negotiations. Throughout her career, her name connoted not only breeding, intelligence, and “theatah,” but also New England austerity, athleticism, and feminine emancipation. Occasionally, she played tomboys or charmingly lost her dignity in screwball comedy, but screenwriters and publicists had trouble making her sufficiently ordinary—a quality successful movie actors need, because they function both as ego ideals and as common folk with whom the audience can identify. Hepburn...

    • 11 Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954)
      (pp. 193-212)

      Unlike the other stars I have been discussing, Marlon Brando is commonly associated with an innovative “school,” a theoretical approach to acting that gives us an opportunity to compartmentalize him. The technical distinction between Brando and his predecessors, however, is sometimes more apparent than real. The more one studies Brando’s work, the more one doubts that it can be explained as the result of a pedagogy or that the pedagogy itself can be neatly separated from the main tradition of American film acting.

      Consider one of the most celebrated moments in Brando’s career. Early inOn the Waterfront,he and...

    • 12 Gary Grant in North by Northwest (1959)
      (pp. 213-236)

      Gary Grant entersNorth by Northwesttrailing clouds of glory from twenty-seven years of movie acting, and like Cagney inAngels With Dirty Faces,he asserts a star persona even before his character, Roger Thornhill, has emerged completely from the narrative. In his opening scene he strides across a crowded office building, issuing orders to a secretary and tossing a joke over his shoulder at an elevator operator; as he weaves between passersby, hunching over slightly to accommodate conversations with lesser mortals, he leaves in his wake familiar traces—a clipped and jovial, somewhat English, accent; a generous but rather...

  7. Part Three Film as a Performance Text

    • 13 Rear Window (1954)
      (pp. 239-261)

      Rear Windowgives most of its collaborators a chance to show off their technical skill. The script, adapted by John Michael Hayes from a Cornell Woolrich story, is an ingenious “claustrophobic” narrative, grounded firmly in the cinema’s love of subjectivity and monocular vision: the set, designed by Hal Pereira and a team of Paramount craftsmen, is a charmingly detailed fantasy based on Greenwich Village architecture, like a doll’s house backed by an ever-changing cyclorama; Robert Burks’s color photography is richly sensual, filled with elaborate camera movements, delicate reframings, and tricky manipulations of focus—as in the opening panorama of the...

    • 14 The King of Comedy (1983)
      (pp. 262-286)

      The previous chapter onRear Windowdeliberately avoids mentioning a well-known minor player in the film whose work is more appropriately discussed at this point. Viewers will recall the moment when James Stewart glances into the window of a songwriter’s studio, where Alfred Hitchcock makes a cameo appearance. Hitchcock’s work is no different in kind from that of Ross Bagdasarian, who plays the songwriter; nevertheless, the gap between his professional identity and his minor part is so great that it breaks the fictional illusion. The effect he creates is ironic and witty—almost Brechtian, except that it has an aesthetic...

  8. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 287-294)
  9. Index
    (pp. 295-307)