The Make-Believe of the Moment

In the theatre, where things play out in real-time, a scene may begin with a happy wedding and end in tragic bloodshed. A calm morning breakfast is shattered by the arrival of a telegram. Part of the thrill of it is watching actors succumb to/create the reality of each moment, not anticipating whatever is coming next. The actors know of course that at the end of the scene Uncle Morty is going to put a gun to his head, but they can’t play that knowledge at the beginning of the scene. Anticipation is the death of believable acting. (Wincing before you get punched is the most obvious example, although emotional anticipation is also deadly.) You cannot know the end. Because in life we do not know the end. Or, you have to trick yourself into not knowing the end. This is what is known as Playing Make-Believe.

If you know the end, then you may PLAY the end. I am thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Treplev in the Mike Nichols’ production of The Seagull in Central Park, with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Christopher Walken, Natalie Portman. From the second Hoffman walked onstage in the first act, you knew that HE knew that the character killed himself at the end. He walked around with “I WILL COMMIT SUICIDE” emblazoned on his forehead. It was a terrible choice for the character because there was zero tension, then, in his struggle to break free of his mother, get her validation, create a work of art, etc. Why should I care, if he’s already got one foot in the grave? For whatever reason Hoffman, a fine actor, couldn’t get the end of the play out of his mind.

Michael Shurtleff, casting director, acting coach, and author of the indispensable book Audition (I can’t find my copy – so much for indispensable – ugh!) was talking about some of the problems with playing Chekhov, in particular. Actors gravitate towards the tragic, the melancholic, and in so doing slacken the tension and stakes, making Chekhov’s plays seem hopeless, meaningless, aimless, which is the opposite of the effect Chekhov was after. And Shurtleff writes something like, “The Three Sisters isn’t the tragic story of three sisters who never get to Moscow. It’s the story of three sisters who fight like hell to get there.” In his simple comment is the clue to “not playing the end” of the play at the beginning. If you already know how it all turns out, then why watch the play (even if it’s Hamlet, or The Three Sisters, or some well-known work)?

One of the most amazing moments of live acting I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a ton) was an Irish actress playing Nora in Doll’s House at the Abbey Theatre when I was a kid. I’ve written about it before (most extensively here), and I have tried to find out the actress’ name to no avail. No matter. Maybe it’s best not to know. Her performance is a high watermark for me, in terms of acting, and I will never forget her. It was the ultimate in not anticipating anything. I was young when I saw it, so I didn’t know the play. Unfortunately, my father (who stayed home with Siobhan, who was really young) had said, “Look out. She kills herself at the end.” The humorous thing about this is that he messed up Doll’s House with Hedda Gabler, so through the entire play I was on the edge of my seat, knowing that that woman up there was going to kill herself! Then, of course, she doesn’t. She walks out the door at the end, and the curtain fell. Although the ending is terrible enough (and a triumph, too, but a bitter one) I felt a wave of relief that she hadn’t killed herself! It gave a strange focus to the entire play, because even in her happy moments I was thinking to myself, “She’s going to kill herself? Someone should stop her!!” But what I remember most about this incredible actress’ performance was its blazing belief in each and every moment. She didn’t play Nora as a trapped housewife at the beginning (something I have seen other actresses do – they can’t help but try to play Ibsen’s “themes” and “comment” on Nora’s station in life, something that the character of Nora would never do). No, this actress played the happiest woman alive, a woman who loved her cage so much she didn’t even realize it was a cage. Her slow unraveling over the course of that brutal play, then, was as much a shock to my system as it was to hers. Her ruin became inevitable. And all along the way, this actress played it at the fever pitch of panic, exactly as you would feel if you slowly began to realize that you had been living a lie, and that the circumstances of your marriage were rotten to the core, and that it was no one’s fault – at least not your husband’s fault. It was society’s fault. No wonder Ibsen’s play went off like such a bomb when it first opened. Nora, through the play, realizes that her sneakiness – which was an essential part of her survival – was what was holding her back from being an adult, an equal in her marriage. She had to be sneaky in order to be married. Torvald must not know how sneaky she had been. The stakes could not have been higher. And up to almost the very last moment of the play, this actress made me feel, out there in the dark, that there still might be some hope. Because she had hope. It was a harrowing experience, and was an object lesson in how to play a story out in real time. What a journey she went on each and every night. She couldn’t “know the end” when she made her first entrance, breezing and singing about her parlor wielding Christmas cakes and presents for the tree. She had to actually go through that every night.

Film is shot out of sequence, obviously, so you may play the last scene on the first day of shooting. You have to know exactly which part of the river of the story you are stepping into on any given day

Film is also different because it’s broken down into miniscule chunks, sometimes only seconds long. Rarely does an entire event get to play out in one take. It can’t. It’s film, it’s a different medium. You need more people to make a moment come across.

Often “moments” are created in the editing room, through cuts and closeups, splicing together the disparate elements of what could be mounds of footage. You can futz with different moods, different reactions, ie: Do we want her to be openly upset at the bad news, or sort of dumbstruck with grief? It could go either way.

But sometimes a director chooses to let a reaction play out in real time.

I love movies, but I love actors more. Directors sometimes take credit where they shouldn’t. They are masters of all they survey. Every decision goes through them, yes. It is their baby. But I love the directors who know that they are in charge of something that, at its heart, is quite miraculous and mysterious: an actor’s power of the imagination, and power of make-believe in the moment. You can futz with that all you like, and try to put your stamp on it – after all, the STORY is paramount – but at the end of the day, it’s the actor who has to do it. Elia Kazan never took credit for Brando. He didn’t “give” him his performance in On the Waterfront or Streetcar. He knew enough that all he had to do was get out of the way of what Brando wanted to do (the taxicab scene in On the Waterfront being a prime example), and to do what he could do, as a director, to highlight the genius of his actor in the best way possible. Many directors (especially now, when they all come out of film school as opposed to the theatre tradition) know more about movies than about acting. You don’t need to “know about” acting to direct well, but you should certainly have a little bit of respect for what actors can do if you get out of the damn way.

There’s an extraordinary moment that occurs in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds where an actress is allowed to create something in real-time, no cuts, a moment where she starts one way and then, in one shivering breath, transforms entirely … a moment that seems completely true-to-life due to its spontaneity, and would have lessened in impact if it had been put together with a couple of cuts. It might have been “easier” to cut away to a shot of the Colonel leaving (as opposed to him just exiting to the left of the frame), and then cut back to Shosanna as we see her entire demeanor change once out of his presence. But then you would lose the element of surprise, and the feeling you get, as an audience member, that something is actually happening to this woman we see before us.

And again, the trick of it for the actress is to not allow the end of the moment to bleed into the beginning. The moment can’t seem anticipated. The character has no idea what is about to happen to her, which is so often the case with delayed-stress reactions.

Mélanie Laurent, as Shosanna, sits at the table as the Nazi, Colonel Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz) gets up and leaves her, after a smiling cool conversation about using her cinema as the premiere of a Nazi film for the top Nazi brass. The scene plays out cordially, although the undercurrent of ominous terror is there always. This man was responsible for murdering her family. Shosanna has no idea if he knows who she is, if he is aware that she is “the one who got away”. Through their conversation, they eat Strudel, and she maintains her cool, agreeing with all that he says, never defensive, never fighting back. She plays along. Yes, the Negro will not be the projectionist that night, of course. No problem. Whatever you want, Colonel Landa.

They come to an agreement. Landa puts his cigarette out in the remains of his Strudel, a disturbing image, and he bids her farewell. She smiles up at him. She’s not shooting daggers at him with her eyes. The smile is, perhaps, not gushingly real or warm, but she’s not showing her cards at all.

The camera remains on her, and we hear/sense Landa exiting off to the left. The following is what happens next:

That is being in the moment.

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24 Responses to The Make-Believe of the Moment

  1. Larry says:

    Thank god, Sheila, you called out Philip in that production….everyone treats him like he’s such a genius and you are so right…that choice to play the melancholic/ suicide made it a huge predictable bore. Playing the opposite is everything for an actor….and if you don’t get that…well…You just don’t get it. As much as I love my fellow actors they constantly need to be reminded to serve the story and not themselves.

  2. sheila says:

    Larry – Yeah, he wore the end on his sleeve. He seemed really lost for some reason.

    Actors should play more poker. Don’t show what you’ve got!!!

  3. sheila says:

    And yes – opposites!!

  4. Desirae says:

    Mélanie Laurent was absolutely trancendent in this role. Christopher Waltz got most of the attention, it seemed to me (and he is of course very, very good), but Shosanna was the heart of the whole movie.

  5. DBW says:

    I didn’t see Inglourious Basterds, but that scene looks fantastic.

    Not to get too off the subject, but I have a funny story along the lines of your Dad “warning” you about the wrong play. I inadvertently read a small part of a review of The Sixth Sense the day I was going to see it. Apparently, the reviewer was making a joking reference to The Crying Game, and he wrote “Bruce Willis is really a woman.” I saw that line of the review, and went, “Damn.” Anyway, I go to the movie, and, as I’m watching it, I am thinking, “how in the heck is Bruce Willis a woman? I don’t get it.” Eventually, I realized that what I had read couldn’t be accurate, but it kept me quite confused the first half of the movie.

  6. sheila says:

    Desirae – Shosanna was a perfect heroine – steely and determined – passionate and human, and never showing all of her cards – she navigated enemy territory coolly and calmly. Loved her character!

  7. Jake Cole says:

    Inglourious Basterds was the first movie I had to review twice because I couldn’t fit everything I wanted to say into one piece. I fixated more on its surprisingly political content (it’s as good an Iraq War movie as a WWII one) and its sort-of Viking funeral for traditional film cinema, but it’s also a film that works so well on a visceral level. This scene with Shosanna and the incredibly long yet rigidly taut tavern scene are just masterpieces of suspense because, like you say, you have no idea how they will end. It’s maybe even more critical that Fassbender, Kruger et al. don’t communicate the end of their own sequence since the tavern scene works on a sudden twist of the major being revealed. It’s all in tone and facial language; Shosanna, Hicox, von Hammersmark all have to do their best not to raise suspicion, and they’re too in the moment to telegraph what’s coming.

  8. Alessandra says:

    That scene is awesome. I love how you can see some tension on her, but just barely, the kind that could be explained by just being nervous to be sitting with all those important people in a fancy place. It´s there all the time, and at the same time it´s not giving itself away. I totally agree with Desirae, she was fantastic.

    I remember having a similar moment when watching a scene with Bryce Dallas Howard in Hereafter. Her character has pestered Matt Damon, out of curiosity, to help her communicate with the dead, thinking it’s all great fun, and then he tells her something that makes her fall apart. In this moment, the camera is on her face, and you see her flirty smile becoming something else, and in a few seconds, without barely moving a muscle, she has such a shocked look on her face it makes you scared for her. I was amazed.

  9. Charles J. Sperling says:

    I saw Janet McTeer in *A Doll’s House* on Broadway. She was taller than I expected Nora to be (dolls aren’t supposed to be that large, are they?), and it made her performance all the more effective.

    Ibsen wrote an alternate ending (for those productions which wouldn’t use his original ending — if someone has to mess with an artist’s vision, it might as well be the artist himself) in which Nora remained with Torvald (because of the children). It’s probably the closest she’ll ever come to killing herself. (Comments, Judge Brack? Living death, you say? Well, some people do those things…)

    June 15th is the birthday of Millicent Bloom. May tams and creams be as lovely on the 15th celebration of it as on the 122nd!

  10. sheila says:

    Jake – yes, that tavern scene is a total masterpiece, with all the cards on their heads – and you really think Fassbender is getting away with it. Love the structure of the scene and how so much of it is subtextual.

    Tarantino (obviously) is someone who idolizes/reveres actors. He cackles with glee at some of the things they do. He bombards them with love and enthusiasm – and obviously they show up, in spades, in his movies. Who doesn’t “show up” when you’re being loved like that? Also, he casts well. That’s most of the battle.

    • nightfly says:

      It’s something of a trademark of Tarantino’s to throw long takes into his films. Sometimes it seems a little gimmicky, but obviously, when it works, it REALLY works.

      It’s really analogous to the difference between physical in-shot effects and post-production CGI. It’s not that jumps or quick cuts or computer effects are per se EEEEEEvil; they have their uses, and certain things can’t be done well (or at all) otherwise; but they have to serve the story, same as anything else. And there are times when just staying on one shot, or having a physical thing and setting to work in, deepen the story far more than just splicing together the best bits of several takes and slathering a high-gloss post-production effect on it.

  11. sheila says:

    Alessandra – I have not seen Hereafter but I love your description of the moment – and it’s exactly the kind of moments I love in film: when a director allows something to occur in one take – a change, a revelation – The conceit seems to be to cut away, and then cut back – to the revelation already in progress. But it’s such a gift when you can watch someone actually go through something like that.

  12. sheila says:

    And the structure of the scene with Shosanna/Landa is perfect, too: Landa shows up 3/4 of the way through (love the music cue there). It’s a three-part scene, a huge amount of text. Shosanna introduced to Goebbels – they all chit-chat – she maintains her composure, is agreeable – but you can feel her walking on eggshells. Then Landa shows up, he sits – and the group all talks together for some time. The third section of the scene is the conversation between just the two of them. It’s unbearably long. When she finally breaks at the table (once she is alone) – it’s a relief for the audience, too. She was pulled tight as a violin wire. The tension is extraordinary. I love that Tarantino wrote that catharsis in – and that he chose to film it the way he did.

  13. sheila says:

    DBW – that Sixth Sense story is hilarious.

  14. sheila says:

    Nightfly – This take actually isn’t long at all – only a couple of seconds – it’s just that an entire change of demeanor occurs – and if you look at the first screengrab compared to the last you can see the emotional journey she goes on – but in all honesty it’s probably 3-4 seconds long.

    No tricks here. Just an actress totally alive to what is going on in the moment.

    • nightfly says:

      Thanks for clarifying. I was clumsy in my phrasing… my brain drew an analogy and I jumped into it without taking a moment to think first. (Which is just like…)

      Should have gone with Joyhn Wayne’s observation about “acting is reaction,” it probably applies better here.

      • sheila says:

        Yeah, it’s not about the length of the take, although long takes are inherently interesting (did you see my post about Hunger with a 17 minute take?? It was recent) – it’s about the spontaneity that is allowed within a moment. Many directors fear spontaneity and I get why – it’s hard to repeat. I have a feeling Tarantino engineered this moment in a very specific way, knowing he wanted it to come out the way it came out. He knew the actress could do it, and he knew it would have greater impact if he didn’t cut away, however briefly. But moments like the one Melanie Laurent has here is rare in the movies.

  15. Rachel says:

    This was a beautiful, insightful post, Sheila. It’s not a subject I’ve thought about much before, but I instantly knew what you meant. Your mention of Hamlet reminded me that I’m usually disappointed in the Ophelias I’ve seen, for that same exact reason. The actress is thinking only of the eventual mad scene, and not of the romantic hope or rebellion that Ophelia does feel in the beginning. Even when you know the character is doomed, the character shouldn’t know it.

    Also, I have to thank you for your defense of actors. I have my favorite directors and I certainly admire and love all that they do, but there are few things that drive me battier than, “Well X didn’t really act, it was all the director.” No. It. Was. Not. Unless Alfred Hitchcock was the one slapping on the blond wig and smooching Jimmy Stewart or Michael Powell was the one pulling on the ballet shoes. The actors aren’t marionettes; something has to come from them. I believe that directors can be responsible for disguising an actor’s weakness or for encouraging performances from them that they didn’t think they had. But they aren’t responsible for everything.

  16. sheila says:

    Rachel – Ophelia is a great example! If the actress is tipping her hand in her first scene then we clearly do not have the tragedy of Ophelia. It’s hARD to create an arc as an actor – that’s why there are so few great Ophelias (and Hamlets, and everything else). You really need to be willing to take the journey that Shakespeare (or Chekhov or whoever) set out for you. That’s the job. That’s it. Now do it.

    My acting mentor in grad school always used to say, when an actor was over-thinking something, or was stuck in a way of doing something, “Just do what the character does.”

    Sounds too simple to be true, but it’s really helpful. Ignore everything you’ve learned about Hamlet, and Ophelia, and those who did it before you: Just do what the character does. Hard, though!! Of course if you don’t have talent, or a natural gift, none of these tips will make a bit of difference.

    And totally agree with your second paragraph. One of my missions as a film blogger is to focus as much on the acting as I can – it gets short shrift in reviews, sometimes only a paragraph, with a couple of descriptors for each performance. That always bores me a bit, since, to me, the actors are THE thing to talk about. This just has to do with what interests ME, not that I’m right about it – just that acting turns me on more than any other element of the collaboration. Many film writers are purely director-philes. And boy do those people know their stuff. Sometimes I do find it easier to talk about/describe what a director DOES – because it’s visual, you can SEE IT – but an actor? What, exactly, are they doing? Well, I feel I know a little bit about that … that’s what interests me about movies. There are plenty of awesome articles about cinematography and directorial choices. Plenty of material about there about that. But writing about acting is still rare.

  17. Erik says:

    Beautiful post, Sheila. I love how clear that moment is just from looking at a series of STILL images! Melanie Laurent is a terrific, open actress. Have you seen the new movie Beginners? It’s her and Ewan Macgregor and Christopher Plummer. Great, quiet movie and it reinforced for me that ML is the real deal.

  18. sheila says:

    Erik – I haven’t seen it yet, but I am very excited to! I love everyone involved in it. Yes, she’s just wonderful! This moment in Inglourious Basterds is the epitome, to me, of what good acting is all about – and what cinema, better than any other medium, can capture.

  19. Jake Cole says:

    Sheila: //Jake – yes, that tavern scene is a total masterpiece, with all the cards on their heads – and you really think Fassbender is getting away with it.//

    Exactly. We’re so used to everything being in English generally that the audience is bound to be impressed that Fassbender can even speak German. It makes you think he’s in the clear. And when the voice of suspicion is raised, it gets seemingly quashed. Then the major comes in, and you can’t read him. (It’s as essential that the other actors don’t give away what happens to someone as it is for that actor not to play his or her own future). I knew he’d messed up with the fingers, though, even without the clear focus of Diehl’s eyes on the gesture. I remember that being brought up in French classes in school, and the second he didn’t hold up his thumb I almost groaned. You were doing so well, Hicox! God, the AGONY of that scene kills me. It took three more viewings before I stopped hoping in vain for a different outcome; even know, part of me still thinks Fassbender just might pull it off.

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