Angles and Archetypes: From Burt to Brando to Rourke to Jensen Ackles to Martha Graham to Hieroglyphs to Paul Le Mat

“Cock your hat – angles are attitudes.” — Frank Sinatra

When Burt Reynolds died I wrote this whole thing about how he “worked his angles.” Like Tyra Banks tells you to do. Like all the great personae of yore knew how to do.

I’m obsessed with actors – men especially – who work their angles in this way. Burt. Marlon Brando. The Wild One is a TREATISE on how to work your angles.

John Wayne at times works his angles, hands on hips, indomitable, head lowered then rising, head crooked back to look over his shoulder … all connoting power, alertness, he understood what his body meant, and how he used it consciously. Mickey Rourke, at his best, was so angle-y he was almost twisted up into a pretzel.

Even with the angles, though, he has an almost liquid-y quality, smooth, nothing tense – his angles are fluid … one of the reasons he became such an important star when he first arrived. Nobody else moved like that. He called up so many references to so many other actors, connecting him to a powerful past, while also suggesting a promising future. James Dean was all angles, his body was both 100% stressed-out and 100% relaxed, at the same time. Not an easy feat to pull off unless you MEAN that shit. Jensen Ackles completely understands how to use angles in his physical work on Supernatural. Every moment has that little something … extra. He understands the continuum of icons he – and the character he plays – is in. He utilizes that knowledge in the shapes his body makes.

I have a whole theory about actors who “work their angles” in this way, and do so without seeming like they’re overtly preening or posing. Their angles are FULL, not empty. This has to do with understanding archetypes. Not every actor does. It’s not strictly realistic what these actors are doing, it’s … extra, it’s … epic to some degree. They’re expressing the reality of the character’s moment to moment life, but they are also looping in their work to something larger, a tradition, a knowledge, a continuum. Consciously or unconsciously? Well, in acting that question hardly matters. What matters is that it happens.

Here’s another theory: because they are all beautiful – and knew it on some level – they understand what their beauty means and what it can convey. They are conscious and unconscious simultaneously. They are humble and arrogant, simultaneously. But most of all: they are self-aware. They know what they look like and they move their bodies through space with purpose, with awareness of their effect on us.

This has nothing to do with beautiful faces shot lovingly in closeup. This has to do with the body, and the boldness of these actors’ understanding of SHAPES.

And by shapes I mean ANGLES.

And by angles I mean ARCHETYPES.

Martha Graham understood this! In her innovative choreography, she removed the fluid circles of ballet and introduced sharp angles. I can’t remember who said this, but someone back in the day watched Graham dance and observed, “She looks like she’s about to give birth to a cube.”

He wasn’t wrong.

It is not a coincidence that Graham’s angle-filled choreography was all about ARCHETYPES. (Bette Davis studied with Graham. No surprise: now there’s a woman who knew how to “work her angles”.)

It’s also not a surprise that Madonna studied with Graham. Madonna uses angles in her work constantly … what’s Voguing but working your angles?

Voguing came out of the Harlem ballroom scene in New York, flourishing years before Madonna came along and popularized it. Voguing exaggerates: the angles shift so quickly they turn fluid. What was set in stone becomes up for grabs. It’s fascinating to consider this connection with Graham, as well as its clear connection with archetypes. The queer community understood “presentation” of self, “performance” of self and identity, and – to boil it down – that’s what Voguing celebrated. With voguing (the song, in particular), Madonna consciously looped herself into an iconic tradition, paying tribute to the divas of the past, who worked their angles like nobody’s business.

How contemporary does Gloria Swanson look there? It could have been taken yesterday. I am not sure how it WORKS but I just know it’s so: sharp angles don’t exactly exist naturally in nature. Nature is fluid, chaotic, a constant proliferation with no rhyme or reason. And so angles somehow communicate the eternal. Maybe BECAUSE angles don’t exist in nature, outside of tremendous mountain ranges (but even they wear down over time), by twisting your body into sharp angles, you are saying: “I am outside of time.” The figures in Egyptian hieroglyphics … all angles, angles, elbows, necks, headdresses jutting back on an angle, even the fact that they’re standing upright, defying gravity, becomes an angle, their body an angle against the ground they walk on. The angle suggesting immortality, energy against deterioration.

I am not an art historian, but this loops into archetypes, the eternal symbolic figures representative of something else, something huge, something CONCEPTUAL rather than actual.

And, not for nothin’, but Voguing sometimes looks like Egyptian hieroglyphs in motion.

Archetypes tap into a collective memory. They are familiar, even if we can’t put our finger on it. Actors who work on this level are, unsurprisingly, often our biggest stars, our indelible icons. They’re outside of their own time. They are universal. Their work is great, and often grounded in reality, but it’s not kitchen-sink-mumble-mumble reality. It’s connected to something much much larger than themselves. Angles are an essential part of a story-teller’s toolbox.

The reason this all came to me – and I think about it a lot anyway, is in considering Paul Le Mat’s performance in American Graffiti.

Even when he’s behind the wheel he’s working his angles.

At certain points it’s almost exaggerated …

but he knows exactly what he’s doing. With all this, it’s still a naturalistic deeply felt performance. The character is already a throwback, on his way to being a dinosaur, and he’s the only one in the film who seems to know it. The awareness of this is in his face but it’s also in his ANGLES. Important to remember: In, say, Jonathan Demme’s Citizens Band, Le Mat is NOT all angles because it’s not that kind of part. This one is. He’s doing it ON PURPOSE.

With these sharp angles, with every corner of his body, Paul Le Mat moves the character out of the realm of the real and into the iconic. Recognizable to all. You don’t even need to know the storyline: you look at the shape his body makes against the sunrise and you get it ALL.

That shot – and him – taps into memories, dreams, reflections. His body there is a hieroglyph, it’s “graffiti,” in and of itself. It helps us perceive him, perceive his context. He helps us see beyond the moment into the eternal.

THAT’S how you “work your angles.”

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6 Responses to Angles and Archetypes: From Burt to Brando to Rourke to Jensen Ackles to Martha Graham to Hieroglyphs to Paul Le Mat

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    LOVE being surprised.

    Have read you on John Wayne and others, but never understood this quite so clearly.

    • sheila says:

      Thanks! I think there’s probably more to it – but this is what I can get to now. To be continued. This is an example of one of the things I WOULD have written in my column – which is no more. Missing that column.

  2. Marion says:

    Jensen Ackles brought me to your work previously and I really hope you can keep on posting these articles Sheila , they are amazing and so enlightening putting into words why we love what we love.
    The work these actors do seems so unconscious, yet takes a lot of hard work and conscious effort on their part to make their characters believable yet iconic. I love understanding the mechanics of their work through your extensive knowledge. Thank you.

  3. Johnny says:

    Oh Sheila, I’m not one for words but I’m a sucker for when you write about these things. I’m so glad you tap into these kinds of performances. You’re so right, that last shot, you know exactly what context he’s in and the TIME. It’s interesting, as an actor he must be aware of the time and place the character’s from. So in a way, it’s a throwback but at the same time it also, feels.. real? There’s something so iconic about that period, it isn’t just retrospect because it’s like they actually behaved that way, looked that way… I’m rambling at this point but I hope you understand!

    • sheila says:

      Johnny – thank you!!

      // that last shot, you know exactly what context he’s in and the TIME. //


      // So in a way, it’s a throwback but at the same time it also, feels.. real? //

      I know.

      // it’s like they actually behaved that way, looked that way //

      Right – and then you consider how people imitate the icons of their day – how Madonna influenced how people behaved, danced, looked – or whatever – How Joan Crawford established a style everyone wanted to copy – so for someone like John in American Graffiti – it’s 1962. He’s … 21? or something? So that means Brando and Dean and Elvis were the icons of his formative years – and how do those images infiltrate down into the culture? It’s DEEP. so – subconsciously – he’s “imbibed” the image of Brando in The Wild One – the character has but so has the ACTOR. The actor will have done research on the time – made choices based on that. So it’s like time happens simultaneously – John Milner is a throwback. By the time 1962 comes around, the silhouettes are different – the Kennedys are in the White House – There’s that great scene in Mad Men when Don Draper encounters a bunch of greasy gearheads in California – a different type of man – a seeming “throwback” to the 1950s – but they have something he wants, an ease, a comfort in their skin, whatever.

      So the models for different generations have such a huge impact on those who are watching. I spent my 20s in either flannel or baby-doll nighties. It was the 90s. Was I just imitating Sleater Kinney? No. It was just … the VIBE … something in the AIR … but you can completely “date” me when you see those photos. I still dress that way though. Throwback!

      anyway, these things all really interest me – and I do wonder Paul Le Mat’s consciousness of all of this. My instinct says he knew exactly what he was doing with all those poses. And they aren’t just poses – poses are a way of life, a way of being.

      It’s fascinating to me even though it’s not a fully formed thought yet – glad you find it interesting too!

  4. Jessie says:

    I wish I had time to really roll around in this because it’s such my jam and I love all these examples. Eva Green is another one who has angles galore and knows how to work them. The Reynolds/Ackles Angle Confluence made me think of the Sundance Kid which made me doubly happy. But anyway I really enjoy the way you talk about archetypes, how even with naturalistic performances, shots like these overlay the intimate and the ephemeral with the universal, ahistoric. One of the key pleasures of these sorts of acting moments is their alchemic mix of naturalist/constructed, that motion picture magic of meaning being made in relation to a camera. Like you say, They are conscious and unconscious simultaneously: a performer needs to have perfect awareness of their body in relation to the camera to deliver these angles. so stuff like this always presses a bunch of buttons in my brain: beauty! skill! mystery! the movies baby! haha. Thanks for posting it!

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