Mitchell said to me once, “Bruce Davison is so good at making a scene happen. He is one of those actors who just knows what needs to take place in order for the scene itself to happen.”
The best acting is all about listening. The best actors know, above all else, how to listen. They also may know how to change their appearance, their walk, their accent … but if an actor doesn’t know how to listen, the rest of it won’t matter.
Humphrey Bogart made other actors seem more interesting because of how he listened to them. Cary Grant is always listening, even in the fastest most rat-a-tat scripts he did. He is not just listening politely as someone else speaks; he listens on a subterranean level, picking up on the slightest inflections and mood-changes of his scene partner. Watch him “listen” to Ingrid Bergman in the famous first scene of Notorious. It’s a good example because the character, Devlin, is not, in general, a sensitive guy. Or a humorous guy. He has an opinion about Alicia (she’s a tramp and an alcoholic), but it is his job to get her to go to work, so he is sniffing her out. Meanwhile, he plays up his drunkenness, so that she will feel more comfortable letting loose. However on that other level, that subterranean level, watch Cary Grant’s subtle shifts of expression during that scene, taking her in, taking in her behavior, her words, her mannerisms … he is reading her.
Obviously because he is Cary Grant he is already riveting, but there is nothing like watching another actor listen. The best actors are no dummies and know that it is not the lines that make the impression, it is what you don’t say. That’s why people like Grant, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, would sit down with a script before shooting and cut out as many lines as they possibly could. If you can say something with behavior and not words, that is best.
Much of “making a scene happen” has nothing to do with what you say, although what you say is part of it. You have to know your objective in the scene, you have to go after what you want. But the hardest thing to do, one of the hardest things of all, is to listen, especially if you have to sit and listen to someone else do a long monologue. It may feel like a soliloquy, as though it is the other person’s big moment, and that may be partly true, but if you, the actor, are not truly listening, then the monologue will fall flat. I wrote about that a bit in my piece about Dean Stockwell in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Edmund is a tough part. He’s underwritten. He’s important, of course, but most of the time, except for one or two big moments, he doesn’t have much to do. His main job is to be the recipient of everyone else’s five or six page monologues. I have seen many a fine actor sunk by trying to play Edmund. The other parts, even with their wrenching arcs, are actually easier, because they are active. They are written that way. Edmund (written to be O’Neill’s alter ego, of course) is passive. It is a great testament to Dean Stockwell’s gift that he sensed what he needed in that part, he sensed the very thing that would save him from the pitfalls: Listen, listen, listen.
There is a show-stopping scene in the middle of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, where Jack Lemmon, a ruin of a man who has not seen his son (played by Bruce Davison) in 30 years, shows up at the hospital, where Bruce Davison and his wife (played by Andie McDowall) stand vigil over their son who is in a coma. There has been no mention of a missing father up until this point. We really only get to know all of the characters in the film in fragments, showing up as they are on this particular day. Backstory is not explained, at least not overtly. We know that Davison is a successful news editor and television personality. We know he is married to a nervous woman who calls him all the time at work (a situation which he treats with a mix of mild exasperation and humor). You get the sense that she is not really well, his wife. She can’t make any decisions without him. She is a little bit lost. This is all subtle. Nothing is spoken outright. And we know he has a young son named Casey, who has a lot of allergies, and is completely pampered by his smothering mother. That’s what we know.
When his father shows up, randomly, at the hospital, there is no context whatsoever for Bruce Davison’s character to place him in. This man has not been in Davison’s life for the majority of it, and he shows up now? When he and his wife are panicked about their son? Now he wants to be involved? But Davison is too much of a good person, a polite restrained man, to let his ruined father get that piece of his mind. He holds back, with what looks like superhuman strength. Davison does have a terrific moment of panic, when his wife first informs him that his “father is here”. He freaks, kind of crumpling over, not in anguish, but panic: the wires fizzling out, this is too much for him to handle. “What is he doing here??’
It is tremendously touching, to see this mild-mannered capable man crumble into panic.
Jack Lemmon and Bruce Davison go and sit in the hospital cafeteria, and here Lemmon has the long monologue where he describes what happened during one “unlucky day” during Davison’s childhood, and his wife told him to leave. It’s a sordid tale, and it’s so wrong that it is told at this particular point in time. The way Lemmon tells the tale makes it even worse. He “acts” it. With a relish. It’s ghoulish, it’s insensitive to the extreme. Lemmon (like he was so able to do in his later roles) plays a man rigidly and willfully unself-aware, behaving from a place of panic, self-preservation, and a highly decayed sense of the charm he once had. The time to divulge this story is long past due, and nothing will change the damage he did so many years ago. That’s true, yes, but added on top of that is the pressure-cooker situation that Davison is in, panicked about his son, trying to keep it together, trying to help his nervous incapable wife manage, trying to get the doctors to come clean … trying to keep hoping … and to have to sit there, and listen to a monologue from his long-absent father about what his father did on the crucial day of his own childhood when he was in the hospital, and to hear the actual events – and to have them not told with open contrition, or even acknowledging that “this is a bad bad time, but I have GOT to get this off my chest” … it’s almost more than anyone should have to bear.
It’s an intense scene. I remember watching it the first time and feeling the need to look away from Jack Lemmon as he went on and on and on.
Jack Lemmon got most of the press, in regards to that scene, which really does stand out in the entire collage of the picture. In a tragic way, he really is the ONLY character who truly comes to terms with how much he has wasted his life. Everyone else still thinks that there is something to fight for, they still defend their positions, they think there is something more, and if they fight hard enough they will get over there. Lemmon’s character is past that. His fight here is, yes, cruel (you should not bother the son you abandoned 30 years ago with your confession at this moment in time) and selfish, but it is actually a fight for redemption, however misguided, unlike everyone else in the room (with the exception of Lyle Lovett’s baker, who does, by the end, attempt to do the right thing. Not to make himself feel better, but he actually remembers that there is such a thing as a moral code, and he must live by it if he is to have any chance at all). Everyone else in the film, the washed-up jazz singer ignoring her daughter’s suicidal tendencies, the cackling disappointed-before-their-time awful sisters (played by Julianne Moore and Madeleine Stowe), the three guys fishing who decide to keep fishing even after they find a dead body in the water, everyone, is basically missing the entire point of why we are here on this planet. Jack Lemmon’s character has already paid that price.
And here he is, awfully, a spectre from the past at the worst possible time, looking for absolution.
It is that terrible mixture of horror and pity, defined by the Greeks as catharsis, that Jack Lemmon’s monologue brings up.
I have heard it criticized. That it was “over-the-top”. I’m not sure, sometimes, what people mean when they say something like “over-the-top” and I often wonder if it just means that it brought up something in them, the audience, that they found unbearably uncomfortable. It was “too much”. I would not call his behavior here “over-the-top” although it is theatrical, as it is meant to be. This guy is so out of it, so clueless as to what is appropriate, that he thinks it will somehow HELP his devastated adult son to act out the sordid tale from his past. He thinks that maybe, just maybe, they will be able to commiserate as men, over what it is like to see a woman’s body naked for the first time. He is so without ANY clue whatsoever that it is excruciating to watch, but some people in life are like that.
In many ways, Lemmon’s monologue stands out because it is a tour de force, and this is not a movie of tour de forces. It is a movie of small awful moments adding up to a terrible bleak whole. The monologue tips the balance of the film, as I believe it is meant to. For a moment, everything stops. There is actual talking and actual listening going on, and the irony is it is so terrible that you wish it would stop immediately.
There’s a reason everyone talks about that scene. Only Lemmon would have played it that way. Imagine Gene Hackman in that part or Jack Nicholson or Robert Duvall, and they all would have been stunning as well, but they wouldn’t have played it that way. That was all Jack Lemmon. The toe-curling embarrassment of watching an old broken man relive a moment of sexual passion from 30 years before. A moment that made a wreck of his entire life. He acts it out, he relives it, he lets himself go google-eyed with lust again, he defends his position, he pleads, he loses himself in the moment all over again … Classic Lemmon.
There is no other scene like it in the film.
But I want to talk about Bruce Davison and his role in this show-stopper of a scene, because I haven’t seen much said about it, and it is, again, as I have written so often about other actors, the support player who really makes such a scene possible. It is hard to describe this dynamic to those who don’t understand, and it is also rather disingenuous to just say, “Take my word for it.” That’s not good enough. All I can say is: nobody acts in a vacuum, even if the entire scene the actor plays is done mostly in closeup. It is how one is listened TO that makes the difference, that can turn a moment of superb acting into something that is actually transcendent. Roger Ebert said, in regards to Ingrid Bergman’s acting in Casablanca, that she “paints” Humphrey Bogart with her eyes, running her eyes up and down and sideways, all over his face, in a way that makes us believe he is the sexiest man on earth. Bogart cannot create that on his own. Yes, he shows up as Bogart, and for us, with our memories of him and our expectations of him, we believe that she would love him, because he’s Humphrey Bogart. But what she is doing in her moments with him helped create him as a Leading Man, which he hadn’t been before. Bergman is a huge part of why that happened: we see him as she sees him.
This is often an ignored part of acting and what I would call star-power. Stars do not act in a vacuum. I mentioned James D’Arcy’s small thrilling moment in the beginning of Master and Commander. Russell Crowe was doing a marvelous job on his side of the fence, but without the rest of the cast giving him, Aubrey, that power, and that reverence, the film wouldn’t have worked. In that one moment of James D’Arcy’s, his response to “Put us in that fog, Tom”, half of Russell Crowe’s job was done for him.
And THAT is what I am talking about.
Bruce Davison is not “just” listening to Jack Lemmon. Go back and watch that scene again. He has only a couple of lines of interruption: “It was a long time ago”, “You can’t smoke in here, Pop”, “I don’t remember much from that day …” His comments aren’t substantive. He doesn’t argue. He never says what he is feeling: “You come to me with this TODAY? You decide to reappear after 30 years TODAY?” His lines are casual and they stay on the surface
But, watching the scene closer, he has almost as much screen time as Jack Lemmon does.
Altman did not decide to place the camera on Jack Lemmon and let him just go, with the understanding that Davison was on the other side, listening. No, Altman – with his uncanny sense for things – knew that that would not work. It would have been gratuitous, a “star turn” in a movie that was expressly not about that. We need the reaction shots.
Here, in this moment with his father, Davison doesn’t need anything from him anymore. He has buried his past a long time ago. If he feels anything towards his dad, it is annoyance and embarrassment. He doesn’t yearn to pay him back, or tell him what he thought of him. Because of his own circumstances (his young son in a coma), he doesn’t care. This most crucial moment of Jack Lemmon’s character’s life – the moment of long-deferred absolution – is, ultimately, meaningless.
Davison does not, however, play apathy, which would have been an easy (and lazy) choice. He starts off the scene with a sort of tight-lipped endurance. Because of the situation with his son, he doesn’t have the emotional energy to say to his father, “Look, you’re not welcome here. Go away.”
So they sit at a cafeteria table. Lemmon jabbers a mile a minute. He keeps forgetting Davison’s son’s name. Davison, with a subtle closing of his eyes, showing his exhaustion, corrects his father, “Casey. My son’s name is Casey.”
Davison has a bowl of cereal in front of him, and as the scene commences, he starts to cut up a banana into the bowl, occasionally (but only occasionally) looking up at his father, who keeps yammering on. Notice how often Davison doesn’t look at Lemmon, how he waits until the last second before actually dragging his eyes up to look at his father. He tries to cut up the banana, he tries to focus on the task at hand, but, as though it’s a horrible magnet across the table, he ends up having to look at his dad.
Davison is meticulous in his listening. It never seems studied or practiced, don’t get me wrong, but he is meticulous in understanding the exact and precise vibe that Altman needs in this scene (harking back to Mitchell’s comment that opens this post), and so he brings it to life, with no fanfare, expecting (most probably) that his work would be mostly ignored. Or, kinder term, taken for granted. Because it’s Jack Lemmon’s scene, right? Because Lemmon has all the lines, right?
But like the great actors I mentioned earlier in the post, Davison knows that it is not what you say that necessarily is important. It is how you respond, react, listen.
Yes, Jack Lemmon’s monologue is a tour de force.
Would not be possible without Davison’s equal tour de force of listening.
Davison’s veneer slowly begins to crack, as he starts to realize where his father’s story is going. It’s almost unbelievable to him. You can feel his growing incomprehension as the story unfolds. But it’s a multi-leveled incomprehension and that is why it is such a masterful piece of acting. A lesser actor would have just played the incomprehension of how his father could have betrayed the family way back then. He would have decided to play, “I cannot believe that on a day when I was in the hospital as a kid, you decided to screw around with my aunt – your wife’s sister – I can’t believe you would do that!”
But Davison is too damn good for such an on-the-nose uninteresting approach. Yes, there is that going on at times, but that is the least of the incomprehensible things Davison hears in his father’s monologue. What is even more incomprehensible to this sensitive man is that his father would be choosing to bombard him with this sordid sorry-ass story NOW. This is much tougher to play, much more difficult to nail, especially with zero lines, and Davison does so in spades.
Davison is 50% of the reason why that scene is so excruciating to watch. Watch Davison’s growing horror and bafflement, watch how he is truly speechless as the scene goes on. Lemmon brings us halfway there, Davison leads us over the finish line.
Altman knew that which is why Davison gets so much screen time in the scene. He cast that part perfectly. While Mitchell did not say to Altman directly, “You want to have a scene HAPPEN? Call Bruce Davison” – it is obvious that this is a truth well-known to those who know about such things.
John Ford knew that John Wayne was one of the best “reactors” in the business, and so when he used Wayne, yes, he involved him in all of the things Wayne is typically known for: action, gruff humor, horse-riding, fighting the bad guys, etc. But without Ford’s understanding that it was Wayne’s reactions to things that elevated him into greatness, John Wayne would not be the icon that he is. One of the greatest moments ever played by an American actor in the history of American film is the famous close-up in The Searchers, when Wayne looks at the weeping women in the police station. (As Wayne said to Peter Bogdanovich once, with a typical mixture of humilty and pride, “That was a helluva shot.”) Not a word is said. No lines are given to explain that character’s response to what he is looking at. I have had deep conversations with friends about what exactly John Wayne was thinking and feeling in that moment. Interpretations differ. That is the power of acting without words. Language makes things literal, but the cinema is not a literal medium.
Davison’s silent reaction shots to Lemmon’s monologue are as powerful, as wrenching, as the disgusting tale we get with Lemmon’s language.
Davison’s sensation of feeling trapped begins to escalate. Early on, he stops cutting up the banana. He’s lost his appetite.
The camera, with each reaction shot, moves in closer. We start with a series of two-shots. Lemmon in the foreground, Davison looking at him, and the reverse. Then, slowly, Altman starts to move in, on both sides. It is filmed in a highly symmetrical manner. It’s not all closeups on Lemmon, with medium shots on Davison, which would be a clue as to how Altman wants us to think about it. It’s equal. The camera moves closer to Lemmon, it moves closer to Davison. By the end, we are in deep alternating closeups with the two actors, and the sense of claustrophobia has become unbearable. For us watching, but for the characters even more so. For Lemmon, who just wants to be forgiven, dammit, he just wants his son to see how it was for him, and to let him off the hook please! And for Davison, who feels like he should be back by his son’s side, who is already in a state of bewildered annoyance and confusion at his father’s mere presence at this late date … not to mention the fact that his father has chosen NOW to come clean about cheating on his mother while he lay in a hospital bed.
Neither character can escape: Altman’s camera makes sure of that.
Davison works this meticulously.
He doesn’t give too much away too soon. He plays the scene like a violin. He knows exactly what to do. I do not know his process, it’s not for me to know. I don’t know if he’s like Holly Hunter – who says that she has created emotional graphs for scenes she plays – charting it out beforehand, the peaks and valleys. Or if he decides nothing. Just sits down across from another actor and, like James Cagney said, “tells the truth”. I don’t know. All I know is is that it appears completely natural, a natural progression from tightly-coiled politeness to a jittery bottled-up agony of repression. He saves it, saves it for the closeup. When it comes, you want to hide your eyes.
Up until the closeups, in the medium shots, we get a series of fantastic reaction shots from Davison, never histrionic or obvious. You never catch Davison acting. He’s seamless. It is all he can do to keep it together here. He starts to lose control of his impulses. He takes his glasses off, rubs his eyes. He looks off around the room at one point, quickly, almost as though he is looking for someone to save him. All interspersed with terrible slow moments when, the magnet drags him forward, and he cannot help but drag his eyes up, slowly, avoiding it, avoiding it … to look directly at his father.
This is a master at work.
I first became aware of Bruce Davison when I saw Long-Time Companion with Mitchell. With all of the good performances in that movie, he is the keystone, the calm quiet center. You just wish you could have a friend like him. There’s a scene near the end where he changes the diaper of the man who has been his long-time companion, a man who has been his partner in life for decades, now ravaged by AIDS. Davison has already won our good-will by this point in the film, his work is done. He doesn’t need to do anything in that scene except do exactly what that character would do. He plays it with no fanfare, he does not want to be congratulated, he is not self-conscious in any way. Because when you find yourself in that situation, you do what needs to be done. Even a year before, you would have found it unimaginable that you could have ever have done it, that it would be too awful to be borne. But human beings are amazing creatures when they love. We are capable of great miracles. That’s what that scene is about. Love made manifest in a context of death and tragedy. His behavior here, quiet and still and gentle and completely unselfimportant, burns with transcendent fire.
How does he do it.
Jack Lemmon, a great actor himself, was lucky – lucky – that Bruce Davison was the actor sitting across the table from him in the scene in Short Cuts. He couldn’t have created that alone. He needed an equal partner in order to “make the scene happen”.