Monday, July 28, 2008

Ramblings About Actors and Acting -- MIND AND BODY, BODY AND SOUL

The actor Henry Samary, painted by Henri de Toulouse-:autrec, 1889, said painting hanging in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris

copyright Wikimedia Commons/public domain

Acting is physical. I know I already said that, or at least that emotion is physical but I mean something different this time. There are five actors I can think of offhand who consistently and with absolute integrity "live in their bodies" and I am on shaky ground here trying to explain, even to myself, what I mean by that, especially since although I believe that this physicality is vital to acting, I am not putting these folks forth as the best five actors in the world or anything of the sort. The world is too big and the one percent of its working actors who are superb amount to a great many actors indeed! Still, I do not hesitate to present these five actors as special in the way I am about to describe: they are Alan Bates*, Martin Shaw, Gary Cole, Glenda Jackson and Scott Bakula. I repeat that there are many fine actors about, some of whom have qualities that shine above those of the gang just mentioned, but what I see among other things in these five is that they are so intensely physically present during a role. They don't just say lines, they don't just feel emotions, and they don't just run and/or jump and/or climb and/or fall and/or take off their clothes (and I think Bates takes his clothes off more, and takes off more clothes, than Bakula!) They don't even just use their whole bodies to express themselves, although that's part of what I mean.

I saw Bates in a pretty bad movie once, one of two bad movies he did in the late sixties/early seventies, one called "Very Like a Whale," which is a reference to Hamlet, and the other called "Impossible Object." There is a scene in one of these two bad films (I can't remember which one) in which he is sitting in a chair. That's it. Nothing else about the scene is in any way memorable, at least to me -- just that he was sitting in a chair. Exciting, huh? -- but I remember his hands. They weren't doing anything. He wasn't shaking them or gripping anything with them, clenching them, moving them or in any way calling attention to them. There certainly was no closeup of his hands in that scene. Yet there was turmoil in his heart and I knew everything he was feeling by looking at his hands.

detail of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa; her smile is mysterious; what do her hands reveal?

copyright Wikimedia/public domain

Most of my friends are by now tired of my harping on a particular scene in an inferior but pleasant "Quantum Leap" episode, "Animal Frat." Sam is in the library, trying to persuade Elizabeth to give him another chance, when Duck comes to her "rescue." He and Sam struggle briefly, and he accuses Sam of not caring about ending the war in Vietnam. Sam backs Duck into some shelving and books tumble down onto their heads; this and perhaps Sam's recollection of why he is there effectively stop the fight, and Sam walks away. Suddenly he turns back and, barely containing himself, tells Duck that he lost a brother in Vietnam (this episode precedes the "Leaps Home," in which Sam reverses his brother's fate). As he turns again to leave, Duck shouts out that maybe Sam didn't care enough about his brother. Sam stops but does not turn. We can see everything he's feeling in his back, just as Bates' hands told all. Most likely Bates didn't sit there and think, I am now going to do something with my hands. He probably wasn't even aware of what he was doing with his hands, although he might have been; what an actor intellectualizes and what s/he does intuitively is his or her own business, as long as it works. Bakula surely wasn't thinking, now I'm going to do something with my back. No: he was feeling that pain all over and it came out of his back the way Soon-Teck Oh's death came out of his stomach.

The 1968 Oscar-winning Ken Russell film "Women in Love" has so many scenes in which Bates' physicality is an integral part of his expression of the character as well as of the moment that it is hardly worth picking one or another to describe, but in the same film, Glenda Jackson's dance for the bulls and subsequent taunting of Oliver Reed is astounding. She, like the four gentlemen I mentioned, is so physically present. When she is there, all of her is there.

two actors wearing a costume, 1870s

copyright Wikimedia Commons/Fratelli D'Alessandri

*Alas, the world has lost Bates since I first wrote this article.

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