In Character: Actors Acting
Directed and photographed by Howard Schatz
Foreword by Roger Ebert
Bullfinch Press, NY, 2006
Are movie actors actually doing anything when they act? Or does film acting really take place in the viewer's imagination? A famous experiment suggests the latter. Shown a blank, expressionless face, audiences saw intense expressiveness--of hunger, lust, anger, what-have-you--based on the other, contextual images with which the face was intercut. With the actor in the experiment literally doing nothing, the seemingly brilliant performances were really the work of the film editors who created the montages, and the audiences who viewed them.
Be that as it may, photographer Howard Schatz and film critic Roger Ebert consider film acting a true art. To prove their point, they have given us In Character: Actors Acting. The idea behind this coffee table book is pretty simple. Actors and actresses are photographed in close-up, by themselves, expressing various emotions or situations with their faces alone. (Hands and arms appear occasionally). Some of the pictures are in color, others in black and white, but all are posed studio shots with a plain white background. Each picture has a blurb that explains the set-up. There's James Cromwell, holding his head in one hand, with an anguished expression. The blurb says: "You are...a man who has just been told you have inoperable cancer." There's Marianne Jean-Baptiste looking sad and hurt. The blurb says, "You are...a ten-year-old taunted by your older brother's friends." The blurbs are situated away from the photos, and readers are invited to look at the pictures and try to plumb their meaning before reading the blurbs.
These faces are anything but blank--they burst with expressiveness. You may not be able to tell that Cromwell is supposed to have terminal cancer, but you can certainly tell that something horrible has happened to upset him. You may not be able to tell that Jean-Baptiste is supposed to be a picked-on ten-year-old, but it's obvious she feels wounded. And there is no visual context--nothing but the
actors acting. (They must be doing something after all!)
Does this invalidate the earlier, famous experiment--the one with the infinitely "expressive" blank face? I don't think so; the two phenomena can coexist. In fact, they can and usually do coexist within a single film. No less an authority than Michael Caine has advised film actors to match the scale of their emoting inversely to the degree of close-up. He cautions against overacting in close-up, insisting than a blank face is often an actor's best choice, especially in an extreme situation like discovering your murdered wife's body. That sounds right, but blank moments are still going to be the exception, not the rule. (Otherwise, wooden Keanu Reaves would be considered a great actor.) As Ebert puts it, film acting "looks into [actors'] eyes and souls and shows us not only what they can control of their presentation, but, crucially, what they cannot."
Some situations, like James Cromwell's inoperable cancer, suggest only one plausible expression. But other situations could inspire various emotions. For example, Larry Miller's eight-year-old-girl winner of a spelling bee is purely happy--but she could have been smug or surprised. The interpretive choices that actors make also tell us something about those actors' understanding of the world and the human heart.
Peter Falk, Kelsey Grammer, Ellen Burstyn, Martin Landau and some others are photographed many times, acting out whole scenarios, and are even quoted at length on the process of acting. Hal Holbrook writes movingly of the thrill that only the theater gives him:
"On stage the first time, that light hit me out there--that blue light--and a great silence of anticipation, waiting out in front of me--this great heart-throbbing going on out there that you couldn't see. And it was an overwhelming sensation that I never forgot. It was the first time in my life that I felt people were going to listen to me." (p. 74)
Actors, fans of actors, students of human nature, puzzle enthusiasts, and maybe even serious psychologists will find much to engage them here.
Gratifying as this is, it's not why I got In Character. James Booth's son Matthew told me before the book came out that it would contain "something about dad." That "something" turns out to be a color photo of James screaming. The set-up? "Over the top." The picture's on page 94 (and good luck finding it--the page isn't numbered). Booth looks handsome but so unlike himself in his open-mouthed pose that I wouldn't have recognized him from the picture alone. A short bio of James contains no new information, except for the revelation that he attended Municipal College (no time or location is given). This has not been mentioned in any other source I know of. (According to She, James went from school to the army at 17. Most sources say he went from the army to business in London, and thence to RADA. )
© Diana Blackwell 2006