Perfect timing: I’ve been absolutely loving Scott Eyman’s biography of John Wayne: John Wayne: The Life and Legend. It’s so good, people. It’s the biography that this icon deserves. I’m not done with it yet, and I’ll post more on it when I finish it. But Eyman GETS acting. This is the thing so many biographers, so many critics, DON’T get. They don’t understand technique and craft enough to talk about acting intelligently. Camera moves, they’re on solid ground. But how an actor is effective, and why? Crickets. And John Wayne is an especially interesting case for various reasons: his stature as a star, for one thing. It’s an untouchable monolith of fame, fame that lasted uninterrupted for 40 years. Why? HOW? There were many factors that went into it, time-and-place things, a break given to him by John Ford, etc. But how many actors are given good breaks, and are really good in whatever role the big break represents, and DON’T become John Wayne? Like, all of them. So the mystery goes deeper than one big break. You don’t become a star for 40 years, a top box office draw for forty freakin’ years, without some serious Mojo going on. Eyman breaks it down, and he does so specifically. He’s an excellent critic, not just of the films (background, production, post-production), but of the performances John Wayne gave IN the films. What is John Wayne actually DOING that is so good, besides “being John Wayne”? This loops into my pet peeve about the comment “he just played himself,” especially in regards to John Wayne, which I ranted about here to such a degree that there’s no need to go over it again.
As a huge John Wayne fan, it’s sad to me that I still haven’t seen many of his movies on the big screen (the way he is meant to be seen). Larger than life applies to him, who in real life was already huge, 6’3″, with broad shoulders, a lean waist, and long ambling legs. He towered over everybody. And yet, and yet, he was always graceful. His athleticism is extraordinary, his physicality smooth and controlled (and yet always natural). He was huge, but he was at home in his huge-ness (a lot of tall men are not). There is nothing more pleasurable than watching John Wayne’s gestures. But to see him on the big screen? He’s quite literally overwhelming.
What a treat, then, that MoMA has been playing the 1953 film Hondo, in 3D! New Yorkers, you have one more chance to get your ass there: July 4th – fitting, considering the patriotism of the man.
Directed by John Farrow (with John Ford doing uncredited second unit footage), with a script by Jimmy Grant (who emerges as quite an unforgettable character in the Wayne biography), Hondo was produced by John Wayne’s own production company. It featured Wayne, of course, as “Hondo,” the outlaw-gunman, part Apache, trying to round up settlers in the way of the Apache threat who are pissed off, and rightly so, at the betrayal of the white man who broke his promises to leave their land alone. Hondo has ambivalence about the whole thing, due to his kinship with the Apaches (both emotional and actual, he speaks longingly of his squaw, who died). He is the quintessential Wayne part: an individualist. Against conformity. His own man. He is 45 years old. He himself said that this was his prime, that he felt he never looked better than he did at 45. Which, considering his drop-dead-gorgeousness in The Big Trail over 20 years before, is saying something.
But he was right. At 45, he was seasoned, filled-out, but lean and perfect. His first entrance in Hondo, from out of the wilderness, with “Sam” the dog trotting beside him is a spectacular example of the undeniable fact that all John Wayne had to do was appear – and you HAD to look. Star power. We can talk more about that. It has to do with relaxation, first of all, and an ability to let us in on who he is. He does not worry about acting. He is too busy being. And being is hard. Regular people can’t manage it, let alone with a camera on them at all times.
To those who don’t watch Supernatural, and may be baffled at why I have written about it so extensively, and about Jensen Ackles in particular, it is because Ackles, one of the stars, taps into an old-school Movie Star Persona brand of acting that is reminiscent of the great Persona stars of old.
Ackles has been playing the role of Dean Winchester for 10 years, going on 11, and that one role has given him opportunities to show a diversity of emotions/character traits/flaws/weaknesses/humor/pathos, all poured through the filter of one Persona. This is difficult to do. Other actors would get bored. They want to show their range in more obvious ways, playing a variety of roles. But Ackles is no dummy and understands that his character is in a larger tradition, of Outlaws and Good/Bad Guys from Westerns (Spaghetti and otherwise), and 70s cop shows, and Tough Guy noirs. With some 1930s screwball thrown into the mix. That’s what he’s doing. His work, like Wayne’s, is the kind that is so solid and reliable that it is often under-appreciated. People don’t understand how good it is, how difficult it is, because guys like this make it look so easy. As easy as breathing.
And so in Hondo, Wayne appears, and everything stops. He is breathtaking.
Geraldine Page, already a New York stage star, made her feature film debut in Hondo, playing Angie Lowe, a sweet woman, alone on an isolated farm with her young son, waiting for her husband to return from herding cattle. Hondo shows up in the first frames of the film, dusty and exhausted, walking over the rocky field, no horse in sight. Who is he? Is he up to no good? Is he an outlaw? Will he rape and pillage? She’s on guard.
Meanwhile, the Apaches start circling. Angie has always had a good relationship with them. They water their horses at her creek, they shoot the breeze with her, they ride off. It is inconceivable to her that the Apaches could “turn” on her, not when she’s been so kind, not when they’ve always been so pleasant to her. Well, times are a-changing, ma’am, and the Apaches are fed UP.
Hondo’s equivalent on the Apache side is the Chief, known as Vittorio, played by Michael Pate, in a wonderful performance. He is tough, fierce, but – similar to Hondo – looks at this white woman living on the edge of the wilderness and thinks she needs protection. He has befriended her son, so much so that he puts the kid through a blood-brothers ceremony, and the two go off together, on what amount to “play dates.” Vittorio shows up at the door, on horseback, the kid comes running out, and Vittorio swoops him off for a day with his people. Angie totally trusts her child will come to no harm. But the other Apaches, behind Vittorio … will they play by his honorable rules? And etc. and etc. Hondo knew Vittorio, or knew of him, and knew he was a man to be trusted, but also a man to be feared. There’s a wary respect between the two men, especially since Hondo speaks their language and doesn’t treat them in a contemptuous racist manner. He’s still a white man, and therefore an enemy, but he’s an outlaw – like they are. They “get” each other. The situation could “turn” at any moment, and of course it does turn, but it takes a while to get there.
Hondo “moves in” on Angie pretty quick. John Wayne had confidence as a lover and romantic figure. He wasn’t a brute, like Clark Gable (I’m talking acting persona now, not who they were in real life – although Wayne apparently loved sex with great gusto). He wasn’t shy and sweet like Gary Cooper or tormented and cynical like Humphrey Bogart. Wayne pursued a woman with the same confidence and know-how that he used when he leapt on a horse or cocked his rifle. He wanted it, he went for it. But there was always a kindness there, a lack of contempt. Think of him and Angie Dickinson, bantering it out Hawks-style in Rio Bravo. Or the gorgeous scene in Sands of Iwo Jima when he goes home with a random woman, thinking of course that it’ll be a hook-up, and she wants to hook up too, the rules are clear, but when they get to her place, he discovers a baby boy in a crib. Instantly, he changes tactics, and starts making formula for the kid, helping her out. She, a lonely single woman, is so embarrassed, afraid he will turn on her, or judge her, or find her unattractive because she’s a mum, but none of that comes. His view is (and it comes instantly, because he has a moral compass): She’s a lady in a tough spot, she wants company, no judgment there – so do I, sex is part of life – she wanted it, so did I – no biggie – but she needs help, well, all right then, I’ll help. God, I love that scene. There are others. The love story of Angel and the Badman, its complexity, his kindness, but also his inability to compromise who he is. He’s his own man. He is not befuddled by love, and he does not run from it. He is a realist. He knows that loving a guy like him will never be easy for any woman. He’s tough, he’s independent. But he is not afraid of love. When it appears – either the possibility for something long-lasting, or a one-night thing, he goes for it.
And here, in Hondo, despite the fact that Angie Lowe is married and her husband is out there somewhere, he moves in on her. She puts him off. “I am a married woman.” But Hondo knows women, knows something is off about her situation. She needs help. Her husband has abandoned ship, in a time of great peril. He understands the Apaches, and understands that they are preparing for a war. He is caught in the middle a bit, due to his affiliation with them, but he’s also doing his best to warn the homesteaders in the way. Angie Lowe is slow to realize the danger.
Watching a 3D movie at MoMA was somewhat hilarious. Because the vibe is so hushed and sacral, so to see all those people with their 3D glasses on, maintaining a sacred silence before the film cracked me up. It was great. As the lights went down, he said, “Okay, see you later!” his 3D lenses gleaming in rainbow through the darkness. Hysterical. After the movie, we wandered around looking for a bar to get a drink. We were like, “Look for a shamrock. That’s the kind of place we want to be.” Shamrock located, across the avenue, we waited to cross the street, and then I saw the neon sign in the window, blaring out the name of the bar: THE STAGECOACH. “Holy shit, look at the name of the bar.” “We are so going there.”
Now about the 3D. Except for a couple of scenes in the Lowe’s cabin, the entire thing takes place outside. The images are crisp and gorgeous, shimmering with clarity and depth. Wayne is usually filmed slightly from below, so he towers above the horizon, his head backed by blue sky and clouds. The fight scenes, one in particular, are superb (with Wayne clearly doing many of his own stunts). Wayne, at his best, made fight scenes seem real, and in this one – a contest between him and an Apache on top of a cliff – is actually gripping because (unlike in many other Wayne movies) – it’s an equal match. You’re not sure who’s going to win. There are a couple of incredible long shots of a circling wagon-train surrounded by Apaches on horseback. Stunning panorama. The 3D shows up with punches flying into the screen, arrows coming right at you, horses barreling towards you, but besides those “gimmicks,” the 3D is there to provide depth. It’s an extremely simple and effective use of the technology: it doesn’t take over or drive the story. It is part of making that long-lost world come to life (because that is one of the themes of Hondo: what we are witnessing is the death of a “way,” the Apache way, and there’s a mournfulness about that death felt by both Hondo and Angie).
There’s humor. Wayne was very funny, in general, and he’s relaxed about it, no pushing, it comes naturally. When he picked up Angie’s kid and threw him in the river to teach him how to swim, the audience erupted into laughter. Wayne does it in one continuous movement, swinging the kid back like a baseball bat and then letting him fly into the air. One shot – so the kid really needed to do that “stunt” and Wayne had to do it without hurting him. It’s all so fluid, and the position of both of their bodies, the kid horizontal – his limbs all starfish-ed out, and Wayne gigantic, imposing, and gentle (his gentleness the trick up his sleeve, the surprising thing about him), tossing him into the water like he’s a rag-doll.
The growing bond between Hondo and Angie is beautifully done. It goes through many phases. She’s a woman torn. He has secrets. He lies to her at one point and you can tell: he haaaaaates doing it. It feels wrong. He tries to come clean a couple of times, because he can’t bear it. Finally, there is a great confrontation scene between Page and Wayne, where she reads him the riot act about what he is about to do to her kid. She is the one who finally comes clean, about her life, about what has really been going on. She has a line about how a married woman has no truth of her own, her truth is that of her husband’s, and unfortunately the MoMA audience snickered, my least favorite kind of audience laughter, the oh-we-are-so-superior-and-enlightened snicker. But what she was saying was TRUE for women. Her statement wasn’t an endorsement of the attitude, so much as an expression of reality as WELL as a feminist critique of the same, for God’s sake. Women were helpless if their husbands were brutes, or malingerers, or abusive. They had no legal recourse. So it was essential that you pick a good man, a hard worker, and kind, someone whose “truth” was honorable. Her husband has left her helpless and alone. She is strong, but two is better than one, as any pioneer family would probably tell you (if they weren’t, you know, dead for centuries.) Her farm is falling to pieces because she can’t do it all, and she is left alone with her child, in a hostile wilderness with enemies circling around the homestead. Unforgivable, in the eyes of Hondo. Eff that loser, in other words. This is a simple woman, who has grown up in that wasteland, who knows no other life, who has lived a life of isolation, first with her parents, and then with her husband. Whatever man she lets into her world had BETTER be a good man, because there was no other social structure set up to support her, and women didn’t run around getting divorces in 1862 or whatever. You were stuck with the brute you got. So it’s crucial that her man be good, be fair. Why is that funny? Oh well, people like to feel superior.
One scene in particular stood out to me, and it comes early on.
Ready for an acting lesson? Here we go.
John Wayne and the “Reality of the Doing”
Hondo shows up, unannounced, out of the blue. He warns her that she needs to haul ass out of there. She’s like, “The Apaches are my friends. I’m waiting for my husband. I don’t know you. No. But still, you can stay here and get some warm food and have a bed – on the floor – to sleep in – until you can get yourself back together.” Hondo immediately starts making himself useful. Teaching the little boy how to shoot. Doing chores, chores that the man is supposed to do, because the woman is too damn busy hauling water, cooking meals and washing clothes. Everybody worked hard. You can’t do it alone. This is when Hondo guesses that her husband isn’t just herding cattle, gone for a couple of days. The horses are neglected, their horseshoes have fallen off. The man has clearly been gone for weeks, maybe months. He calls her on it, but she is defensive, sticking up for her husband against this bossy-pants interloper with the mean dog. Hondo shrugs it off, suit yourself, ma’am, and gets to work doing the things that need to be done.
In one lengthy scene, filmed in one almost unbroken take (there are only a couple of cuts, I think – I’d have to see it again), Wayne makes horseshoes in the little outdoor smith in the yard. She hovers nearby. He talks to her about the Apaches, and what they are up to, he talks to her about everything. She argues back, resisting him, resisting the danger, standing up for herself. John Wayne is actually making horseshoes, though – that’s the thing that really struck me. This is about continuous physical action, what my acting teacher in college called “the reality of the doing.”
When Dennis Hopper first started out, James Dean was an idol. Hopper had come up in a theatrical tradition, more classical and declamatory, that was his training, but when he had a small part in Rebel Without a Cause, he watched Dean’s work with amazement and awe. He started copying Dean’s attitude and mannerisms. Dean noticed, and clocked Hopper on the falsity of it, pulling him aside and saying, “If you’re going to smoke a cigarette onscreen, don’t act like you’re smoking a cigarette. Just smoke the cigarette.” It was like a light bulb went off in Hopper’s mind. Dean’s comment set him free as an actor. It helped him know what to DO. It relaxed him, totally.
A quote along these lines from Sam Schacht, my acting mentor in grad school: “Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.”
This goes along with Wayne’s famous comment about how he did not see himself as an “actor” but as a “RE-actor.” He partly said that because he was invested in the narrative that he had somehow “fallen into” acting, that he started out as a prop guy, that he had no ambition to be an actor. Uh-huh, Duke. Whatever you say. But the fact remains that he was right: As much as Wayne DOES onscreen, he never forgets the RE-actor part of it (which is the “listening and talking” element of acting. I’ve said it before: ALL good actors are world-class listeners. There are no exceptions.)
What does “the reality of the doing” mean? It has to do with James Dean’s advice to Dennis Hopper. Sanford Meisner, an original member of The Group Theatre, who became one of the most famous acting teachers in America through the Neighborhood Playhouse, was obsessed with “the reality of the doing.”
He thought the Method, at least as taught by Lee Strasberg, was too focused on feelings. Meisner’s definition of good acting was thus:
… behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
Notice that word “behaving.” Not “feeling” or “being.” Behaving. Doing. And “truthfully” is just as crucial to the full thought and concept. None of it matters if what you are doing is lazy, unmotivated, or phony.
Elia Kazan, another Group Theatre alum, described his job as a director as “turning psychology into behavior.”
Again with the “behavior.” I don’t mean to beat the drum so repeatedly, but the focus on emotions has a way of taking over, at least in acting classes, when actors are susceptible and eager to learn. Gena Rowlands has said that she “can’t cry.” “Crying” is not her thing as an actress. Who cares. She’s one of the greatest actresses who ever lived.
Meisner created all of these great exercises, now known as “The Meisner Technique” (which was my training) to help actors click into “the reality of the doing.” Actors get swept up in the emotions: they worry about whether or not they will be able to cry, they are concerned with what kind of anger to bring to a scene, they obsess on emotional backstory. These are all necessary things for an actor to know how to do, I don’t mean to dismiss them, and neither did Meisner. But what about the DOING? Remember: the name of the job is ACT-or. Not FEEL-er.
If all an actor does up there is feel, the audience will be left cold. It is the DOING that makes scenes come alive, “pop.” The doing can be physical, backed up by objective: “I am going to wash these damn dishes like MAD because I am so pissed off at my husband right now and don’t want to deal with it.” (Joan Crawford was a master at this. Her waitressing behavior in Mildred Pierce. Her meticulous preparation for escape in Sudden Fear, or the scene with the dictaphone. Wow. Her glasses-behavior in Humoresque, her coffee-pot/artist’s-smock behavior in Daisy Kenyon. Business, business, business. All motivated, all figured out by her, all flowing with her lines and her emotions.) The doing can be purely emotional, what people mean when they talk about “objective”: “What I am DOING in this scene is trying to get THROUGH to you/trying to fuck you/trying to comfort you.” Everything you say, every gesture you make, comes from that objective. (John Wayne knew this on a truly remarkable level. He was a natural at playing an objective.)
Sam Schacht again: When actors were “stuck” in a scene in his class, unsure of how to make it happen, he would throw out the reminder: “Every scene is either Fight or Fuck. Pick one. See where it gets you.” “Fight” or “fuck” were objectives, things to do. Or at least ATTEMPT to do, because your scene partner, with his or her own objectives, may not want to fight you, may not want to fuck you. If you both play your different objectives 100%, then Voila. You are doing what Tennessee Williams wrote, or Shakespeare, or whoever. It’s amazing to watch when it clicks. I still think of that “fight or fuck” thing when I’m trying to break down a scene and analyze what the actors are doing, how they are going about achieving their objectives.
If you want to witness a group master-class in that kind of “doing”, watch episodes of Thirtysomething.
The entire show was built on emotions, shown through everyday behavior like making dinner or getting the kids ready for school. That was the rhythm of the show, and those actors were brilliant at accomplishing it, inhabiting it. That’s why the group scenes in that show were so incredible and the sheer amount of DOING going on was often overwhelming. It always felt like dinner was REALLY being made, the kids’ backpacks were REALLY being packed.
Dean’s advice to Hopper again: Don’t act like you’re making dinner. Make dinner. Thirtysomething devoted itself to physical behavior in a way that is unique – definitely something for actors and directors to learn from (especially those master shots, with people coming in and out of the frame, going to the fridge, searching through cupboards, exiting out the back door for a second, re-entering holding a bike helmet, or whatever – so there was clearly a REASON to go outside, all as everyone is talking, and acting, and living. It’s unbelievable ensemble work: very difficult to accomplish and choreograph.)
Everything we do has a reason behind it, either large and urgent (“I must board up the windows of my house before the typhoon hits/before the aliens arrive/before the serial killer comes up the driveway”) or small and non-urgent (“I am a neat-nik, therefore I must place coasters on all of the tables before the guests arrive.”) If you do physical business without a reason behind it, then you got nothing.
Watch Gena Rowlands walk into her huge penthouse suite in Opening Night with Cassavetes or Gazzara or whoever trailing behind her (the scene repeats).
What she wants, what she is DOING, in that purposeful walk, is going to get a drink. She doesn’t take her coat off. She makes a beeline for the bar. She cannot wait to get there, why is the room so HUGE, why are the drinks so far away? Get me over there NOW. In every single scene, every. single, scene, her desire for alcohol is so imperative that it drives everything she does. You can FEEL her need for a drink. THAT’S “doing.”
If an actor only focuses on emotions and forgets the DOING part of it, not to mention the whys of the doing, you don’t have a scene. Much of acting class, in general, is helping actors click into “the reality of the doing.” (The bad acting teachers only focus on emotions. You can clock those actors from miles away. They can cry, but they cannot walk and talk at the same time. When they are asked to do “physical business” at the same time as they are having a catharsis, they are unable to do it and will always prioritize the catharsis.)
The great actors understand all of this intuitively. They’d think all this talk about it was silly. Either you DO it, or you don’t. Don’t sit around TALKING about it.
John Wayne did not become a star right away. He made many many B-Westerns before The Big Trail and then many many many after, until Stagecoach came along and made him a star. He was not a natural “actor”, but he was a natural personality. Once he figured out he didn’t need to “act” at all, and he could just “be” onscreen, everything clicked into place and there was no more awkwardness. His personality was so strong that everybody felt it, in real-life and onscreen. But to OWN that? To understand it, and be able to utilize it? To be able to channel it into roles as diverse as the ones he played? Ethan Edwards, Ringo, Hondo, Thomas Dunson? These are not the same guys. Wayne used himself and his personality consciously and with humility. But he always knew what he had. Only the great ones can pull that off.
Gary Cooper once said that he enjoyed doing Westerns so much because it was real. You have to really ride the horse. You can’t fake it. You have to really get on the horse. You have to really tie up the horse. While all that “doing” is going on, there’s no time to worry about acting. It’s funny: if an amateur actor (a talented and coachable amateur actor, that is) is flailing a bit in a scene, unsure of what to do with his emotions, give him a physical action to perform and then have him play the scene. A talented albeit green actor will suddenly understand, get the Dennis Hopper light-bulb. Ohhhh, okay, so if I play the scene AS I am sewing a button on the sweater, and if I focus just as much on sewing the button as I do on my lines, and my scene partner, suddenly we’ve got a SCENE. I’ve seen such moments in countless acting classes, and have had such moments myself. It’s great. Because in real-life, the whole world does not stop because you are arguing with your wife, the entire world does not take a pause so that you can burst into tears at your leisure. You are still driving your car, or boiling water, or herding sheep. You have to do BOTH. Simultaneously.
Sounds elementary, right? Well, actors will understand how much of a challenge all of this is (and Wayne had to figure it out too, he didn’t stride out of the gate as his confident glorious self, although he brought to the table many natural attributes like grace and beauty and fearlessness – those things help.) Actors have to understand this concept and master it QUICK, or they will find themselves being acted off the stage by their scene partner who already gets it.
My point, ultimately, finally(?), is this:
In one mostly unbroken take, John Wayne makes horseshoes, all as he banters and scolds and flirts with Geraldine Page. It’s a very talk-y scene. If they had been just standing in the corral, doing nothing else but talking, the audience would not only fall asleep, but it would feel phony. In general, people do not stand in the middle of an open space and talk at one another about their lives for 20 minutes. They’re doing other things. Making horseshoes is a complicated multi-step process. Wayne’s doing it all: hammering out the shoe, heating it up, pumping the bellows, plunging the shoe into the cold water – a hiss of steam accompanying it – hanging the shoe up for later, starting in on another one. It’s an archaic piece of business too: it’s a 19th century kind of thing, although horses still need to be shod today. Wayne does it with the grace and ease of a man who has been around horses all his life, and knows how to take care of them, knows what he is doing. His actions are as automatic as a practiced and experienced cook making Thanksgiving dinner for a huge crowd all by herself. She’s got the turkey going, she’s mashing potatoes, she’s boiling water for green beans, she’s got the biscuit batter all mixed … and as she’s doing all of this, she’s chatting with her kids, giving them chores, talking with her guests, whatever. I myself could never pull off such a feat, and my cooking-for-guests usually end up being more like Warren Beatty trying to cook dinner for Diane Keaton in Reds. In other words, a disaster.
John Wayne is doing multiple things at the same time in this wonderful scene. He is taking over Angie Lowe’s life, in a peremptory manner, even when she says, “I don’t need you” because he doesn’t care, she DOES need it, and her husband is a loser/loafer who has left her in peril, whatever great things she may say about him. He is also drawn to her, physically and emotionally, and he’s been alone a long time, probably his only sex life is fucking the whores in town whenever he makes it that way. So … he likes her. You can tell he likes her. Right away. The scene ends with him coming up behind her and grabbing her. Because dammit, she’s a good woman and he wants her. She deserves to be taken care of and man-handled. With care, of course. She’s flustered, saying, “I know that I am a homely woman.” The way he looks at her though … she’s the most gorgeous thing in the world. Through all of this emotional stuff, though, grounding the scene, and giving it its structure, is the horseshoe-making Grand Pantomime. Only it’s not a pantomime. It’s the real thing.
Wayne never stops. He walks and talks at the same time. He plays multiple levels of emotional reality with every line. He throws lines over his shoulder. He has a comeback for everything she says. When he pauses, you hold your breath. Because this man does everything deliberately. And Wayne makes those damn horseshoes right before our eyes.
This is the sort of acting moment that rarely gets pointed out and praised. (I think this is partly because many folks writing about movies care most about direction, to generalize. And so they don’t understand how important/rare/difficult/beautiful such a scene is for an actor to pull off – and also how crucial it is that these details are set, and present, and it is up to the ACTOR, not the director, to accomplish that.)
Watch him make the horseshoes. And carry on a conversation. And have multiple objectives. And be attracted to her. All at the same time. And as you watch, understand that what he is doing looks easy, because it is easy for him, but it is not easy for others. Also: it’s not just that it’s easy. It looks easy because Wayne prepared. He was meticulous in his preparation. If he had to do something onscreen, he learned how to do it, he practiced it, so when the cameras were rolling, he was confident, he had done it 100 times before. The rifle-twirl that he does in his famous first entrance in Stagecoach is a perfect example.
He had to practice that, he had to have a stuntman show him how to do it, the rifle had to be slightly sawed off so it wouldn’t catch under his arm, and he did it over and over and over again, until it was automatic. Business like that has to be worked out. An actor has to devote himself to the smallest details. The camera is tuned into truth, and phoniness and fakery come across as though blasted through a megaphone.
Similar to the bad acting classes where the folks who cry loudly and lustily in every scene get the most attention/praise, the more histrionic “showy” acting gets the most attention. Wow, she was really crying. Wow, his anger was so loud. Wow, she was super-drunk in that scene. ACTING with a capital A! I wonder if this is because acting and the use of the imagination in such a powerful childlike way is still such a mystery to many folks, who couldn’t even begin to do something like that. It’s the “how do you memorize all those lines” school of audience-member (and there’s no judgment in that. That comment never bothered me because it seemed like an acknowledgement that acting was a weird and challenging and cool thing to do.)
But none of that emotional stuff has any “oomph” whatsoever if the actor is not clicked into some “reality of the doing” that pours into the overall Story as a whole. The “reality of the doing” occurs in the big moments of catharsis and crisis, helping us understand the stakes, helping us invest. But, even more importantly, the “reality of the doing” has to be present in the small moments as well. Moments like diligently making horseshoes as you talk to a woman you desperately want to kiss.