Blog 8: The Truth Behind Physical Actions

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.          A facet of screen performance that is particularly effective is an actor’s physical action. The final chapters of “A Practical Handbook for the Actor” highlight that physical action “calls upon the will and can be used at any time and in any situation regardless of how you are feeling” whereas “emotion is utterly undependable; because you cannot control what you feel” Not all actors are able to embody the emotion of their character by pulling on their own experiences as Stanislavsky suggests for method actors. Alternatively, utilizing appropriate physical actions to bring characters to life is a technique that is easier to understand. Once an actor masters applying truthful and appropriate physical actions, the psychological/emotional aspects of the character come naturally. Bruder et al. explain “your emotions are the natural and inescapable by-product of your commitment to your action.” With having this said, mastering the appropriate physical actions of a character is no simple task. The actor must choose physical actions that are truthful to the moment and the entire essence of the character.

          Meryl Streep effectively applies physical action that is truthful to the moment and character in the famous choice scene of Sophie’s Choice. When Sophie watches her little girl being carried away she stands in shock, unable to cry out, her mouth is wide open in horror, tears are in her eyes but she is unable to make a sound. In this scene, Meryl could have chose to over emote and cry and scream, she could have ran after the guard, or even fell to her knees. After all, what could be more gut wrenching than a mother having to choose which one of her children live or die? As Bruder suggests “Nothing is more interesting or dramatic than an actor working off the truth of the moment, so don’t take responsibility for the scene by charging it up emotionally” Streep understood her character, and decided that shock was more truthful than over emoting and her acting was exceptionally believable.

          Bruder also recommends that actors do not “fall in the trap of substituting externals for actions” One film in particular where this stands out is Monster. To play Aileen Wuornos Charlize went through a total physical transformation, from gaining weight to wearing prosthetics, and her performance was stellar but lacked consistency. When she recorded her voiceovers without the aid of externals, her accent dropped and she sounded more like Charlize. It was evident Charlize relied on externals for her performance. On the other hand Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump’s voice over’s were more believable, he maintained his Alabama accent, his slow paced voice and overall innocent demeanor. This is because Hanks relied less on his externals and more on truthful physical actions; this enabled consistency throughout his performance. He always stood tall, maintained a dopey/innocent expression and moved slowly (except when he was running!) Although he played a character who had a low IQ and was slow witted, Hanks did not overact. His character faced some tough situations (the deaths of his mother, Jenny and Bubba) but he did not scream and cry, Hanks was mindful to his naive and innocent character who never had an ounce of self pity.

          From Hilary Swanks performance in Boys Don’t Cry (well thought out use of subtle male mannerisms, i.e., slightly deepened voice, walking hunched over with legs slightly apart) to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs (standing erect and confident, stark eye contact, mimicking cat movements) we saw some amazing physical performances throughout the year.

Other people’s words: Bodily Adjustment

          Image            Bodily adjustments are a type of external, that is “a physical adjustment made by the actor that either aids in the telling of the story or illustrates an imaginary circumstance of the play.” (Bruder, p. 48) Examples of bodily adjustments include posture and voice. In this blog I will be reviewing three blogs which identify bodily adjustments as a technique to aid an acting performance.

            Jaspreet Johal gave clear examples of Hopkins’s bodily adjustments, for example “… Lecter’s body posture for the character is strictly confident; shoulders back, head up high, which evidently expresses an affluent upbringing.” She also mentions “…his movement of his hands that are always moved with a purpose of some sort, which is odd as it is very much controlled. This evidently reflects his overall personality, controlling and dominating.” I found Jaspreet`s interpretations to be unique (especially the one about the hands) and I liked that she did not merely list the bodily adjustments but took time to explain how they enhanced his character. Jaspreet mentioned his physical performance being inspired by cats, this was brought up in discussion after the film and I appreciated that she incorporated this. She also quoted Bruder’s chapter on externals and listed the three types, in addition she mentioned Michael Chekhov and physical gestures which shows she has done the readings.

            Dajana Zeqo did a great job of listing specific examples of bodily adjustments made by Lemmon. She stated “…his exaggerated bodily adjustments that include a more straight posture, pursed lips, head straighter, feminine smile, bigger eyes, hands held in a more feminine manner.” She indicated how exaggerating feminine characteristics enhanced his comedic performance. She explains “These adjustments are amusing to the audience; we all know he is exaggerating feminine characteristics for humour. This is what makes him amusing to watch because he is amazing at being a terrible woman!” Dajana also referenced Bruder, and quoted part of the definition of externals that I did in the beginning of this blog. This shows she has done her readings, and her examples show she has a clear grasp of the concept.

            Alessia Antonucci explains that “externals within the film are used by Swank to portray masculinity in Brandon.” She gives clear examples of Swank’s bodily adjustments, she lists “adjustments like altering posture, deepening her voice … or sitting with his legs open and his torso upright and stiff created masculine body language for Brandon.” Alessia uses excellent examples however I believe she could have made her blog stronger by expanding on some of these points. For example, although Swank deepened her voice, I felt that she made sure not to lower it too much because she was mindful to the fact that Brandon was still physically a female. However she did a great job considering this blog had other requirements to be fulfilled. I thought her use of terminology from the book (i.e., externals, bodily adjustment, ornaments) made it evident that she read the book and her clear examples show she had a good grasp of the concept.

Charlize Theron: Total Transformation in Monster

ImageUntil the movie Monster, Charlize Theron was known for her striking beauty and work as a model. Her role as Aileen Wuornos catapulted her acting career, and enabled audiences to take her seriously as an actress. As can be seen from the photo above, Charlize went through a major physical transformation to make herself look as identical as possible to the real Aileen Wuornos, and the resemblance between the true is truly remarkable. Charlize shaved off her eyebrows, colored her hair, wore contacts and prosthetic dentures, and through the use of make up, her skin was made to look aged and blotchy. One of the most impressive transformations include her weight gain of 30 pounds. In an interview with Stumped Magazine, Charlize explains that she refused to simply wear a “fat suit” because she wanted to transform her own body so she could feel that she was physically in Aileen’s skin. She explains that this weight gain enabled her to move “the way she moved in her body” and truly feel like she was Aileen. In “A Practical Handbook for the Actor” it is stated that ornaments – external costumes and make up, can help an actor get into a role and embody the character they are playing. I believe this was certainly the case with Charlize in her role as Aileen Wuornos.

Furthermore, I believe that the physical transformation Charlize Theron undertook for this role was the single most important step that was driving her performance. Evidence for this stems from an important note that Melanie mentioned in discussion after the film, Melanie mentioned that the voice overs throughout the film were not as convincing as the actual performance in the film itself. When listening to Charlize’s voice overs, her accent drops, the deepness in her voice falters, and we do not hear Aileen, we hear Charlize. But why is this so? Melanie reminded us that during voice overs, actors do not typically get into costume, they simply walk into a recording studio and read lines in their regular attire. Thus it could be proposed that Charlize needed all of the make up and prosthetics to truly feel like Aileen and do this role justice.

Nevertheless, Charlize Theron’s depiction of Aileen Wuornos was brilliant, and she truly deserved the Academy Award and Golden Globe Award she received for this performance.

When Life Gives You Lemmons… You Make A Comedy! – Jack Lemmon’s Comedic Performance In “Some Like It Hot”

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Despite starring alongside the mesmerizing Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon stole the screen! But how? Let’s take a moment to analyze this unforgettable comedic performance.

Character Acting usually involves playing unusual or eccentric characters. Lemmon embodies this in his role as Jerry/Daphne. One of the most important steps an actor takes during character acting is knowing who the character is. Lemmon described his character as “a nut from the moon who never stopped to think once in his life” Lemmon felt this explained the crazy actions of his character and he ran with it! Lemmon was extremely dedicated to his role, he arrived about four hours early on set to get ready in full drag. This included him shaving his legs three times before wardrobe, and putting on tight undergarments, dresses, heels, wigs, and makeup! His co-star Tony Curtis had a hard time adjusting to being in full drag, however Lemmon enjoyed it and strutted around set! It’s apparent the use of ornaments helped Lemmon get into character. lemmonmar1

Method Acting entails that actors create within themselves the thoughts and feelings of their

characters. Lemmon is known to be a non-method actor however, one could propose that elements of method acting were present in this performance. Curtis’s voice as Josephine was dubbed, however Lemmon decided to use his own voice. In addition he refused lessons on how to act as a lady. Lemmon wanted the performance to be authentic, and felt that since his character was having trouble adjusting to being feminine, his own shortcomings would add genuineness to his performance. Lemmon looked to his own experience and his characters and used the similarities to enhance his performance, which I believe exemplifies method acting.

jack-lemmonLemmons comedic delivery was enhanced by his physical truth. Lemmon over exaggerated his female mannerisms as Daphne to make it more comical. This included him pursing his lips, widening his eyes and holding his hand in the air wrist up, he also swayed his hips around while walking. His physicality was especially comedic during the beach scene where he is skipping around with Sugar. His smile was over exaggerated and during his laugh he added a snort which was very comical. His voice is another tool of the craft that was used to provide physical truth to the performance. It was not overly feminine, he stayed true to the fact that his character is a male struggling to act as female.

Lemmon shared energy on screen with his co-star Tony Curtis which really enhanced his comedic performance. Their characters were opposites that complemented each other quite well. Joe is confident and dominating while Jerry follows and submits to Joe. When they dress as females, Josephine is composed, whereas Daphne can barely keep balance and even loses one of her high heels! Jerry has a much harder time adjusting to being a girl and has to keep reminding himself he is a girl. Timing is extremely important when delivering a comedic performance and to ensure good timing, active listening is of utmost importance. Lemmon and Curtis practiced this effortlessly and worked well off each other.

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Boys Don’t Cry: Gender Construction

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In the film Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank plays the role of Brandon Teena who is a transgendered man, that is an individual who is assigned a female at birth yet identifies as a male. The film naturally raises the question: what is masculinity? Masculinity is defined as “a set of qualities, characteristics, or roles generally considered  typical of, or appropriate to, a man.” Therefore masculinity is a social construct that an individual can display regardless of their biological sex.

When playing gender on screen, actors look towards what they see in everyday life to build authenticity to their performance. This means actors not only stay true to their roles and scripts, but also often incorporate stereotypes such as portraying males as macho and strong.

In order to play Brandon effectively, Swank underwent many physical changes. One of the most obvious transformations include her hair cut. She also reduced her body fat to 7% so her facial structure was more defined. Swank also carried herself in a more masculine way, she hunched over slightly, with her legs farther apart and with her hands in her pocket. Swank also used ‘tools of the craft’ to portray Brandon authentically, including her voice. She lowered her voice for the role, however was careful not to lower it too much, she was mindful to the fact that Brandon is physically a female. Thus her analysis of the role led to this well thought out action. Swank stated she had her father in mind as she carried out actions such as slicking her hair back in the mirror. Therefore one could propose that Swank was able to choose an action after modelling ‘as-if’ examples after her father.

Brandon displays stereotypical male mannerisms. This includes having a tough exterior and risk taking such as speeding in cars, bar fights and dangerous stunts like bumper skiing. Brandon also smokes, drinks, curses and chases after women. Swank holds the cigarettes and beer bottles in a characteristically male way, she uses her index finger and thumb to hold the cigarette and even places the cigarette over her ear.

An actor who also displays many stereotypical male characteristics is Robert De Niro. In many roles, Robert is a confident, alpha male and often takes the role of the caretaker. He’s aggressive, cocky and often a womanizer. De Niro embodies these roles through his demanding physical presence and ruggedness.

Swank’s Brandon Teena may have similarities to Robert De Niro’ roles however there are many differences. Swank was careful to not forget that Brandon was once a female, thus he is not always a stereotypically emotionless male. Brandon is more friendly and well-mannered than the other guys and is even great with kids. Brandon is shown as weaker than the other guys, this is evident as Swank gulps in fear when Tom shows his self inflicted wounds. Contrary to De Niro, who acts very naturally as a male, Swank purposely over acts her male actions, to show that Brandon was trying really hard to convey that she is a male to society to gain acceptance.

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

ImageThis week in Screen Acting we watched the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring the talented Jack Nicholson. Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a rebellious criminal who believes he is above the law. Randle is brought into a mental institution but he is seemingly sane in the beginning of the film, as the film progresses however, we see the arc of his character go from sane to insane. The film provides a critique of mental institutions and challenges that instead of these institutes actually ‘treating’ individuals with mental illness, they instead contribute to the patients psychopathology. Randle provides a glimmer of hope for these individuals who are stuck under the rigid routines of Nurse Ratched. Randle shakes up the routine by inviting over girls, partying, bringing in alcohol and even acting out the commentary to a fake baseball game after Ratched denies to put it on. Randle enables all of the patients to liven up, he gets the Chief to finally talk and for a brief moment BIlly’s stutter disappears. However his efforts are stopped in their tracks when he is punished for his misconduct and faces shock therapy and even lobotomies which eventually strip him of his sanity.

Nicholson brings Randle to life through his physicality, particularly through his high energy and inability to remain still. His signature facial expressions which include him raising his eyebrows up and down and moving his head around as he talks also add life to his character. He is constantly in motion, which is a stark contrast to Nurse Randle who is still, stern, cold and quite passive. She rarely changes her straight faced expressions. In contrast to Randle, whose character arc completely flips by the end of the film, Nurse Randle stays the same throughout the film. Even after being almost strangled to death by Randle, she is back to business as usual. The contrast between these two characters plays out beautifully in the film, it seems that the more energetic Randle gets, the more stern Ratched gets and vice versa. It is evident these two actors worked off each other in the film. With that said, Melanie pointed out an interesting fact about Nicholson in discussion, that other actors don’t particularly view Nicholson as a ‘generous actor’. I felt that this was evident while watching the film, and with the exception of Nurse Ratched, Nicholson steals the scene quite often when he is with the other actors, and he seems to be more interested in delivering an enticing performance than playing off others.

Overall I thought it was a great film and even though Nicholson may appear to act very similarly in his films, I enjoy his acting choices and believe he brings a unique quality to his roles that no other actor could.

First Impressions are everything, especially when you’re meeting Dr. Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter!

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It is said that first impressions are lasting impressions. For me this was definitely the case with Clarice Starling’s bone chilling first meeting with Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a scene I will never forget. Michael Chekhov defined the psychological gesture as “a movement that would embody the psychology and objective of a character, executed inwardly during performance.” (Solomon, p.17) Since Anthony Hopkins has acknowledged the power of Chekov’s Psychological Gesture, it is not surprising that we can see Chekov’s influence through Hopkins work. Throughout this blog I will unpack the actions chosen by Hopkins, during Hannibal’s first meeting with Clarice, which portray his psychological truth.

When Clarice first meets Hannibal, she’s nervous as she anticipates her encounter with a cannibalistic serial killer. When she finally views him, he’s standing erect, confident, composed, with his hands on his sides, he’s relaxed with a partial smile on his face. This action was a choice made by Hopkins that reveals the true essence of his character. The other inmates Clarice walks past seem deranged and disturbed. Some are apathetic, others are confrontational, uttering unspeakable words to Clarice. Hannibal on the other hand is a complete contrast to these individuals, he’s polite, composed, charming, and even offended by the others offensive remarks. He seems as if he doesn’t belong. We know as soon as we lay our eyes on him, that Hannibal is not your typical serial killer.

It evident through Hannibal’s actions, that power and respect are important to him. Hannibal politely tells Clarice to take a seat, however he stands himself the entire time. This shows Hannibal’s desire to hold authority over Clarice. Hannibal’s gaze is a bodily adjustment that reveals the essence of his character. He always has a sharp gaze on Clarice and rarely blinks as he makes eye contact. When he’s being particularly evil his gaze widens and pierces through Clarice. Hannibal’s sharp gaze reveals that he is confident and unapologetic of his words. It also indicates his need to look deep within others and analyze them. He also displays charm through his eyes, particularly when he winks as he turns the page.

As the meeting progresses Hannibal becomes increasingly impatient with Clarice. This is evident when he states that the last time someone tested him he “ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti” while making an unnerving hiss, almost snake like noise. This is no coincidence as Hopkins adopted the gestures of cats and snakes to achieve Hannibal’s physical state. Similarly to cats, Hopkins makes smooth, light movements and we particularly see this influence when he sniffs Clarice. The hiss was improvised and is a testament to Hopkins being true in the moment and acting on whatever his impulses were. Hopkins physical state was so authentic that one would assume his actions were second nature to him. A Practical Handbook for the Actor states “The best sign that an action is working and that an actor is really living in the moment is when his impulses begin to express themselves through the body uncensored by intellect”. (p.54) Hopkins truly embodies this description as is evident through his improvisations.

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Peter Sellers as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake: Dr. Strangelove

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The actions carried out by Captain Mandrake are physically capable of being done.  During the first arc of the film, his physical actions surround him initiating Plan R after instructions from Jack Ripper. The second arc includes him gently convincing Ripper to give the recall code. During the third arc, Mandrake’s physical actions ensure the code gets to the president. Mandrake’s physical actions are true to the immediate situation. His goals aren’t outlandish and don’t require complicated steps. He’s able to undertake these actions in a moment’s notice.

The physical actions carried out by Captain Mandrake appear to be fun to do. Particularly when he strives to make the phone call to the president near the end. He scolds the officer who is obstructing his goals and demands him to shoot the coca cola machine “Shoot with the gun! That’s what the bullet’s are for you twit!” This is a departure from the patience and respect he displayed with Ripper. One would imagine Sellers having fun with this scene versus previous ones.

The physical actions Sellers used as Mandrake are specific to his character and bring him to life. Mandrake is consistently respectful towards Ripper, he’s always uttering sir, and even saluting him. Mandrake expresses fear and nerves, despite trying to mask it. When Jack is telling him about his theories of Russians contaminating water through fluoridation, we see the specific action of Mandrake fiddling with a piece of gum. He’s extremely nervous, glancing occasionally at Ripper’s face and hand grasping his shoulder. We sense how uncomfortable Mandrake is, yet we see that he’s trying hard to not get on Ripper’s bad side.

Mandrake’s actions have their test in the other characters, specifically Ripper and the officer. When Mandrake is with Jack, he’s kind and respectful, perhaps because he is armed and Mandrake is hoping to get the code out of him. The opposite is true with the officer who obstructs his goal, as Mandrake is stern and demanding. His actions are not an errand, and he’s constantly working off the other characters. When Mandrake sees Jack is about to start shooting, he pulls him back and asks questions about his theories on fluoridation. Trying to persuade Ripper to give him the code was an action that was a push and pull from both characters and one that ended up failing.

Mandrake’s actions do not presuppose any physical or emotional state. When dealing with Ripper, Mandrake wasn’t quick to address the absurdity of his theories, he made no statements regarding what Ripper was physically doing or how he appeared emotionally. Mandrake instead focused on kindly persuading him to give the code, and simply listened to what Ripper was saying without rebuttals. Although he tried persuading him to give the code, he was not manipulative. He didn’t force it out of him, he did it gently – perhaps the reason he wasn’t successful.

Most of Mandrake’s actions had a cap. For example, making the phone call to initiate Plan R, figuring out the code, getting it to the President. Once the specified goals were reached, the action was finished.

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On the Waterfront: Cab Scene

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Terry has been subpoenaed to court and wants to confess against the mob, however he’s concerned about his brother Charley who is in the mob. When Terry gets into the cab he wants to talk to Charley about testifying. Charley on the other hand is masking his nerves and following his boss Johnny’s instructions to convince Terry to not testify before they reach River street, or kill him.

When Terry questions why they’re going to River street, Charley lies without hesitation, a fixed clue that he’s hiding his emotions and complying with Johnny. Charley refers to Terry as ‘slugger’ and ‘kid’ and babies Terry, revealing his desire to look after him. Terry is resistant to Charley’s work offer and repeats ‘I don’t know’ which highlights his ambivalence. After Charley snaps on Terry, a beat shift occurs in the dialogue. Charley retreats, and Terry reveals that Charley crushed his boxing dreams. A critical action in the script is when Charley hands the gun to Terry, trying to seeking redemption.

The actors used open clues in the script to aid their physical performance. In the beginning, Charley is calm, even laughing, his tone changes when Terry isn’t acquiescing, and he pulls out his gun, an action not in the script. Terry shakes his head with disappointment, Charley swings his head back and closes his eyes and barely looks Terry in the eye. Aspects of the script are open for interpretation, Charley tells Terry to think about ‘ambition’, and that he should be on the ‘inside’. This could be interpreted as him joining the mob.

Throughout the film we are introduced to Terry as the ‘bum’ and Charley as the successful, supportive brother, providing Terry work at the waterfront. However this scene is historical because it’s revealed that Charley is actually the one who made Terry throw a career ending fight to make money on a bet. We realize Charley isn’t as caring as he was portrayed, however after acknowledging this, he seeks redemption.

The main action of the scene begins with Charley trying to persuade Terry to not go against the mob and take the job, however when the beat of the scene changes, the main action of the scene turns into a confession from Terry to both Charley and the audience of the role Charley played in the loss of his boxing dreams.

The scene is reactive, with Charley accepting that his brother is going to testify, and also coming to grips with how he’s responsible for his brothers lost ambitions. This propels Terry to take down Johnny.

The activity the scene revolves around is the cab ride. The cab is a closed space without distractions. It’s an intimate setting which complements the personal revelations that unfold. The cab allows the focus of the scene to be less on the body of the characters, but more on facial expressions and tone of voice.

The point of resolution in the scene is Charley finally accepting that Terry wont comply with the mob and him going against the mob himself by ensuring Terry’s safety.

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Yankee Doodle Dandy!

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James Cagney’s performance as George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy is stellar. He was able to embody the role effortlessly, this is particularly remarkable during the song and dance numbers. His dancing and singing doesn’t look forced, his movement is fluid and non rehearsed. His singing is upbeat, rhythmic and catchy. When professor Greyeyes mentioned in class that he was known as Hollywood’s quintessential tough guy, this made me appreciate his work in this film even more. He was not a dancer, nor a singer, however that flew over my head while watching the film. I felt that he himself could truly be in Broadway shows and sell out theaters, just like George Cohan did in real life. But how was he able to achieve this?  

ImageThis is the mark of a great actor, dancing and singing are technique based art forms and Cagney was able to sell to us, the audience a genuinely believable performance. He definitely was able to dance and sing quite well, but he used his personality, confidence, quirks and even comedic gestures to fill in the times he was lacking. Melanie mentioned in class that he didn’t want the director to tell him how to come down the stairs, he wanted to freestyle and do whatever comes organically. It is evident Cagney was really looking to give an authentic performance, and he couldn’t have done a better job!