“My dear boy, “ replied Alfred Hitchcock after being pestered by Gregory Peck as to his character’s motivation in Spellbound, “I couldn’t care less what you're thinking. Just let you face drain of all expression.” Some 60 years later, are we any clearer on what, exactly, constitutes great screen acting? The Academy awards will be presented on March 2nd, to a set of Blanche du bois impressions, drunkalogues and drag acts nominees with gummed-on toupees, bloated bellies and false teeth. Screen acting has never been showier than it is right now. “‘Stunt’ performances which were once relatively rare are becoming a necessary audience hook,” wrote Raging Bull’s screenwriter Paul Schrader in a Facebook posting recently, “emaciated McConaughey, comb-over Bale, silent Redford…”He should know. It was De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull, for which the actor ate his way around Northern Italy to get his weight up from 145lbs to 215llbs, turning his body into a form of cinematic ‘event’ that had to be seen to be believed, that first showed the way for actors to hold their own in the age of special-effects spectacle. They would make quite literal spectacles of themselves—not so much acting as morphing. More than ever before, screen acting has become a series of spectacular coups de theatre— come see Nicole Kidman’s nose! Meryl Streep’s dementia! Tom Hanks’ weight loss! Christina Bale’s weigh gain!—even as some of us wonder what has happened to the magnificent ease that used to mark their progress across the screen.
In a famous experiment in the 1920s, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov cut between the blank expression of a Tsarist matinee idol and a series of shots showing plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan, then showed it to an audience, all of whom praised the actor for his display of hunger, grief, sexual attraction, etc. Hitchcock had a version of this in Rear Window, when he cut from the same shot of James Stewart looking out his window at variously, a dog going pee-pee, a pianist, and a nubile girl exercising in her bedroom, his character turning into a peeping tom with one cut. The best screen actors have always known this — the enormous limbic power of a look, or gesture, as well as the filmmakers power to recontextualize it — and taken appropriate action. Ceding control of the scene to filmmaker, they seek gravitational influence within the frame. They become gestural minimalists, concentrating on the two areas eye-tracking experiments have revealed as the audience’s first ports of call: eyes and hands. Gary Cooper’s eyes were beautiful, but so were his hands, and he liked to keep them occupied—in one scene in Morocco (1930), he played with, variously, a burnt match, a child’s doll, a fan, a whiskey tumbler, and an apple, as if finding replacements for the one thing he would like to get his hands on, Marlene Dietrich, who stood framed in a doorway. From Cooper flow all the tricks in the modern scene-stealers handbook, including: chewing toothpicks (Ryan Gosling), constant snacking (Brad Pitt), speaking sotte voce (Kevin Spacey), refusing to look your co-stares in the eye (Al Pacino, who was doing this even before he played blind in Scent of a Woman, and after which he simply doubled down on the technique. He hasn't looked at anyone in decades). You may smile, but such tricks points to the importance, more than mere acting, of existing on screen—capturing the camera, holding the space, compelling and keeping the audience’s gaze.