In our lives, are we giving a performance or is it something more real? I act differently around different people to some degree. It’s not that who I’m with determines my behavior entirely. It’s more like creating a rhythm with the other actor, so the show can go on. When I’m with someone funny, I’m funnier too. Once a rapport is established we might start improvising. Moods can switch or change direction then, energies can vary and a better dance number is the result.
When Burt Reynolds was a young actor performing on Gunsmoke, he got some advice from Spencer Tracy, who was walking to a set at the same studio. Tracy asked Burt what kind of work he did there. Reynolds told him he did a little acting, and Tracy responded, “Don’t let anyone catch you at it.”
Performing on camera is much more difficult than stage acting, because it has to be more subtle. If you do any “acting”, that camera’s going to record and amplify it, and it won’t come across as real any more. On stage, actors have a distance buffer even in small theaters. You can get away with a certain amount of faking it (sorry, TECHNIQUE).
Sometimes actors will give a non-realistic performance on purpose, under the assumption that behavior should be “pushed forward” so the audience can see it better. While this can work on stage and in places like the circus, it usually comes across as weird on TV or movie screens. The reason situation comedies used to be routinely taped or filmed before a live audience is because the actors in them often did not know how to act for the camera, and needed the energy of having people there to watch and react. The best actors, however, know how to balance between camera and stage acting methods. This kind of delicate balance doesn’t always last. When Lucille Ball first went from a movie career right into TV, she was one of the best at what I would call being in control of being out of control. In the classic first series I Love Lucy, she used the audience’s energy but balanced the clowning with scenes depicting more realistic behavior. Unfortunately as the years rolled by her performances got more and more “stagy”, probably because she only worked in front of audiences for a long time.
Child actors present a special case. Sometimes they get to be very successful for acting nothing like real children. Shirley Temple would be the prototype. I’m not saying her movies aren’t enjoyable. She just wasn’t allowed to act like a child in them. She’s a kind of song and dance prodigy with abnormal courage, who only breaks down (appropriately) because the studio is unwilling to keep her onscreen parents alive for an entire movie. On the other hand Margaret O’Brien mostly kept it real, though they did make her sing in Meet Me in St. Louis. She sang rather badly like an actual child, which I admired.
This dichotomy has continued on TV. It’s too bad there are so many more kids doing the Temple style than the O’Brien style. I can’t think of a realistic kid actor on a current comedy. Not since Ronny Howard (Andy Griffith Show). They seem to only show up in the dramas now. Fill me in if you know of any. I may be out of touch.
Some people talk about Method Acting and how “the Method” revolutionized acting for the camera, and for stage too. There are techniques and traditions (Stanislavski, Grotowski, Strasberg) that can help actors learn how to be authentic in performance. Sanford Meisner said acting should be “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Mainly though, the Method is whatever works. Using what’s going on inside you and then interacting with the text is called working from the inside out. Some actors get real when they put on the costume and makeup, or when they walk onto a set. That’s working from the outside in. The late, great Peter Sellers said that once the “voice” came to him, he had the character. I don’t know what that’s called – Peter’s Method I guess.
******* Next UP – L’ Bad Cinema (Stay Tuned) ********