Orson Welles on Acting: “Hamming Has No Target, Its Only Aim Is To Please.”

Excerpt from This is Orson Welles, a book-long interview between Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich:

PB: How about radio acting, Orson – would you say that it’s similar to the acting required for movies? I mean, in the sense that —
OW: That you don’t have to make yourself heard in the gallery? The famous difference between stage acting and acting for the camera? It’s all nonsense, you know. There’s just good acting and bad.
PB: You don’t believe in playing down for the camera?
OW: You can play
up for the camera. With enough energy behind it, you can’t ever go too high. When it looks like you’re pushing – well, then it’s because you are pushing. It’s because you can’t get up there without pushing.
PB: But surely there’s a limit, Orson. The camera isn’t a theatre.
OW: The camera is an eye. And an ear. It takes you where it’s
put. The theatre is where you get put.
PB: OK, but are you saying it’s impossible for acting to be too broad in front of the camera? That there’s no such thing as hamming?
OW: Hamming is faking. It’s opening a bag of tricks instead of turning on the juice. The right actor – the true
movie actor – can never be too strong. What he must not be is too broad. What you’re after isn’t spread. You don’t want to smear it all over the screen like pancake batter. Big acting isn’t wide. It’s sharp, pointed, vertical. Power, real explosive power, but never the explosion. The real stuff doesn’t diffuse, it stays right on target. Hamming has no target, its only aim is to please. You can tell an actor from a whore only if he’s totally in the service of his material. The public’s pleasure and approval are incidental rewards.
“Playing down to the camera”? Never play down.
Up is your direction. You shouldn’t play to the camera at all. A camera isn’t a girl. It isn’t a mirror to pose in front of. Ham actors are not all of them strutters and fretters, theatrical vocalizers – a lot of them are understaters, flashing winsome little smiles over the teacups, or scratching their T-shirts. Cagney was one of the biggest actors in the whole history of the screen. Force, style, truth, and control – he had everything. He pulled no punches; God, how he projected! And yet nobody could call Cagney a ham. He didn’t bother about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera; he was much too busy doing his job. Toshiro Mifune: his movie performances would register in the back row of the Kabuki.
PB: But, Orson, don’t you think there’s still something called movie acting?
OW: There are movie
actors. [Gary] Cooper was a movie actor – the classic case. You’d see him working on the set and you’d think, “My God, they’re going to have to retake that one!” He almost didn’t seem to be there. And then you’d see the rushes, and he’d fill the screen.
PV: How do you explain that?
OW: Personality. I wouldn’t presume to explain that mystery. It always matters more than technique.

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8 Responses to Orson Welles on Acting: “Hamming Has No Target, Its Only Aim Is To Please.”

  1. Ken says:

    That’s brilliant. Welles explains it so that even a complete outsider to acting (as I am) can get it (which this blog in general does very well, come to think of it).

  2. DBW says:

    His comments about Gary Cooper remind me of similar things I read someone say about Robert Duvall, that he didn’t seem to be doing ANYTHING until you watched the takes. Then, you saw.

  3. sheila says:

    Ken – isn’t it so brilliant?? I am so glad to hear someone not “versed” in acting technique also gets the distinctions he’s making here- it’s so right on the money. Subtle, difficult to grasp – and impossible to grasp if the actor has no talent. I love what he says about avoiding “spread” like “pancake batter” – the explosive quality must be pointed and vertical – I love that imagery – VERTICAL!!

    I also love his love of Cagney. // He didn’t bother about reducing himself to fit the scale of the camera; he was much too busy doing his job. //

  4. sheila says:

    DBW – Yes! Dennis Hopper told a great story once (he did a workshop at my school, I know I’m like a broken record, but I met everyone at that damn school) about directing Duvall in Colors, and Duvall had to be thumbing through a wad of cash and was supposed to be pissed. Duvall did the scene, and Hopper – standing next to the camera, watching Duvall from 4 feet away, wasn’t seeing it. He wasn’t seeing anything and it confused him because Duvall is one of the greatest actors on the planet. (It’s amazing that Hopper, an actor himself, would forget that lesson of acting for the camera – but it just goes to show you this is ephemeral stuff – we’re talking about life here – and sometimes it’s not apparent until you see it from the other side). Hopper asked him to do it again, and he was a little bit irritated again – like: why the fuck isn’t he DOING anythign? Then he saw the dailies and the moment EXPLODED before his eyes. Hopper said to us, “It was a little thing he did, a little thing with his lips, and the way he thumbed that money and you knew he was about to explode.” But from 4 feet away it wasn’t visible at all.

  5. Ken says:

    Not quite on topic, but I was watching the second episode of “No Ordinary Family” last week (I was hoping for “Heroes” meets “The Incredibles,” and was let down…waaaay down).

    Scene: the school carnival, where the Powell family’s (title family, played by Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz) neighbors/nemeses were getting in the needle. Husband Nemesis was in the dunk tank, and after some really leaden, ham-fisted verbal jabs from the nabes, Julie Benz’s character decided to let Michael Chiklis’s character throw the ball with his super-strength. Guy goes in the tank, but instead of coming up spluttering, he had a rueful, “Okay, you got me” smile.

    Not that it was a great performance — it was kind of telegraphed, and because everything in the episode was telegraphed I think the director gets some of the blame — but I give the actor (can’t find the credit in IMDB) a spot of credit for trying to give his character depth the writers sure as heck didn’t give it.

    I wouldn’t have noticed it except for the time I’ve spent here.

  6. sheila says:

    Ken – now that makes me really happy.

    It is these subtle moments that make acting a worthwhile profession and also a worthwhile obsession. Recognizing them for what they are – small miracles (it’s amazing that ANYTHING is good, considering the obstacles) – is really really fun. I love those moments that suddenly seem real, and spontaneous – in the middle of phoniness and cliche.

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  8. Peter Byrne says:

    I’ve a quote from Welles in Italian of a dozen lines concluding with the statement that Eduardo De Filippo was the best actor in the world. Can anyone tell me where on line I can find the original English?

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