Lights, Camera, Action

A Post-Oscars Reflection on the State of American Acting

By Lee Siegel,, March 1, 2004
Lee Siegel is the television critic for the New Republic and a contributing editor to Harper’s magazine.

The Oscars have come and gone, and the awards for best acting have been handed out. So now, after discussing Charlize’s dress, and Diane’s hat, and Johnny’s hair, and Benicio’s beard, it’s time to talk about... acting!

It’s time to talk about acting because acting as an art with a history of evolving styles—acting as a highly developed discipline that demands specialized training—almost never gets discussed. When it does you’ll find vague references to the Method, the naturalistic style of acting imported from Russia into this country by Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio in the 1940s, which changed American acting, and which, in one permutation or another, still dominates the teaching of American acting. But rarely is there mention of the fact that there were two antagonistic versions of the Method: Strasberg’s emphasis on how actors should draw from their own experience to inhabit a character; and Stella Adler’s insistence that actors must pay closer attention to the play’s circumstances than to their own memories and emotions. Nor does anyone bother to observe that David Mamet has devised the only successful alternative to the Method, training his actors—William H. Macy, Rebecca Pidgeon, Lindsay Crouse, Joe Mantegna—in a style that consists of a high, though subtle, degree of deliberate artifice.

No, the skill or lack thereof with which an actor inhabits a character on the silver screen usually gets cursory treatment: “So-and-so played Ted’s father with exactly the right mixture of surprise and anxiety that one would expect to find in a 44-year-old tax lawyer who wakes up one morning and finds himself in the middle of a peasant revolt in 1282.” Then it’s on to the movie’s themes, to its place in that particular director’s work, to its relationship to other movies, etc.

When critics do touch on acting, their discussion usually consists of a superficial comparison of an actor’s portrayal of a fictional character to how that character would behave in real life if “he” or “she” were an actual person—and stops right there. The analogy would be a critic reviewing a Rembrandt retrospective and praising the paintings as having “figures that seem to have stepped right out of 17th-century Holland,” while ignoring just what it is that makes them work in aesthetic terms: the balance of colors, the deftness of the brush, the technical and symbolic nature of Rembrandt’s use of light and darkness. Writing in the New York Times two weeks ago, A.O. Scott, one of the most astute critics around, made the same omission when he asserted that we are now in a “golden age of screen acting.” His evidence was that many of today’s films are distinguished by “the dense, believable humanity of the people who inhabit the stories.” What he didn’t do was define what it is that makes a character on screen believable.

Film criticism infrequently considers whether real life is a valid criterion for judgment. It almost never reflects on the possibility that what makes a performance memorable can be precisely what makes it not believable: i.e., the larger-than-life mannerisms and bits of business with which an actor will embellish a role. Critics praised Sean Penn for the realism of his “prison yard hunch” in his Oscar-winning performance of Jimmy Markum, the ex-con in “Mystic River.” But why are hunched shoulders the sign of having been in prison? How many reviewers are familiar with ex-cons? Penn’s prison yard hunch is as much a fabrication as Marlon Brando’s “Godfather” mumble, and probably just as far from reality. It represents our idea of something, not necessarily the thing itself. The Method’s so-called naturalism mostly consists of the imaginative embellishment, which makes a star a star the way a trademark image or brushstroke establishes an abstract painter’s reputation. Such embellishments are not the overblown theatrical gestures you find in a silent film like “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). But they are “made up.” They are the imagined representations of what our intuition tells us would be plausible—regardless of whether anyone actually ever behaved like that.

The question of representation brings us to the question of training and style. Some actors are trained in television; others in the theater; others in film itself. If you make “believability” the standard against which to judge an actor’s performance, you have to address the fact that verisimilitude is better suited to television than to film, and that it is suited only to certain kinds of film. Helen Hunt, a wonderful TV actress, has not been able to flourish in film after her appearance in “As Good as It Gets,” and her frustration in that industry has a lot to do with her training and experience. TV actors always act more naturally in serious TV fare because television is a familiar, domestic medium; watched at home, in private, its function is to immediately connect with the viewer’s ordinary expectations of human behavior. The most innovative shows on television—“The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—are rightly celebrated for their closeness to the issues and conduct of everyday life. Go to a play, however, in which the actors come from the different backgrounds of television, film, and theater, and you’ll see why careers made in one medium often don’t translate to the other. Watching the recent production of “Proof” on Broadway with Len Cariou, a great stage actor, and Anne Heche, a great film actor, and several TV actors was like watching six psychotics, each of whom thinks he is Christ, in one room. No one related to anyone else.

This is why few actors who have established themselves in TV roles truly make the transition to film. They have absorbed the small-scale verisimilitude of television too intractably. When a TV actor does make it to film, often the tool that helps him goes unmentioned: the Camera.

For what really revolutionized American acting wasn’t the Method’s naturalism. It was the emphasis Strasberg placed on facial expression. Ironically, Strasberg, who hated what he considered Hollywood’s commercial corruption of artistic values, is the man who trained two generations of American film actors, from Paul Newman to Al Pacino (Brando, in fact, studied under Stella Adler). Strasberg believed that the essential instrument of an actor’s creative expression was the face, and the result of his doctrine was to send generations of stage actors running to the camera from the stage, thus transforming the static, glamorous close-up of Bette Davis’ day—in which the actor’s face was motionless and timeless, existing for a moment outside the storyline—to the busy, emotive, and strategically timed close-up of today, in which the face and the camera work together to create thematic meaning and push the story forward. On stage, the hardest thing for an actor to do is to keep the emotion on his or her face after speaking the lines—the camera removes that hardship simply by moving off the face.

The fact is that no one has ever surpassed the eerie naturalism of Brando in “On the Waterfront” (1954), or Paul Newman in “The Hustler” (1961). To the extent that acting does seem more real today, it’s because the camera moves so fast off the face that it shaves off any sliver of inauthenticity. When certain actors win the Oscar for best acting, they should thank the Lens and the Viewfinder, not Mom and Dad. So, instead of talking about actors’ clothes, or their hair, or their Oscar-night shticks and gaffes, it might be more meaningful if we started talking about acting as the demanding art form that it is. And that would mean, in part, distinguishing between movies where the actors act and movies where the camera does the acting for them.