My archives suck – and it is my goal in 2008 to find a way to make my archives more easily searchable (for myself as well). I came across this old post I wrote a bazillion years ago, in the midst of my Cary Grant mania (which persists to this day) … and although the post has nothing to do with Cary, it calls to mind those fever-struck months when he took over my whole damn life.
I like to dig things out of the archives for those who may be new to me, and those who, yeah, have LIVES and don’t want to spend 2.7 months going through my messy archives for stuff that might interest them. I really do want to have a major reorganization of my site – since I have an audience of many different stripes … so that the actor-freaks can find what they want, and the George Washington freaks are not left high and dry, and the James Joyce fanatics feel tended to, etc.
But anyhoo. Here’s an old post I wrote, with 3 stories that still (and probably always will) please me.
One story stars Clark Gable. One stars Robert Duvall. And one stars Gary Cooper. Three different actors, three different acting styles and “methods” – but it’s basically the same story.
I find these stories, put together, very illuminating. And we could probably add to this list indefinitely. But here are three to start off with:
1. Clark Gable
I was looking through Arthur Miller’s autobiography Timebends this morning. Long stretches of that book are so deadly dull you want to commit Harry Carey immediately … but then there are brief excerpts of such insight that it wipes out the rest of the sanctimonious ya-ya-yawn. It’s his descriptions of actors I find most interesting (duh) – and also his insights into Marilyn Monroe. Anyway – he devotes many many pages to the famously difficult shoot of The Misfits – which he wrote, for Marilyn (he had a serious savior complex with her … I suppose every man wanted to save her). Marilyn was a wreck, their marriage was falling apart, she suffered from chronic insomnia, there were many many issues with this shoot. Shooting was shut down for a month, while Marilyn was hospitalized. Etc. Clark Gable, John Huston, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach – an all-star cast – just sat around in the Nevada desert, on FULL SALARY, waiting for Marilyn to return.
There’s the background.
Arthur Miller had written the part of the aging cowboy who falls in love with the girl for Clark Gable – he never could imagine anyone else in the part. It took some convincing to get Gable to agree to sign on. Gable didn’t understand the script. He didn’t get it. (If you see the movie, you’ll see that Gable had a point!!) So Gable invited Miller to come over, and explain the script to him. Miller acknowledges that he was always really bad at that – he never could “pitch” his stuff to anyone. But he decided to give it a shot.
The first thing Gable said to him was, “This is a Western … right? It’s supposed to be a Western? But … it’s not like any Western I’ve ever heard of.”
Miller thought about this and then replied, “It’s kind of an Eastern Western.”
Gable took this in, and then howled with laughter. That was all he needed to hear. He signed on immediately.
I could talk about The Misfits all day. But I won’t. The REAL story I wanted to tell is about the last shot of the film – which was also the last shot they actually did during the film-shoot.
It speaks volumes about the genius of certain actors (all the greats – hands down – they’ve all got this) … It also, to me, says that actors, experienced film actors I mean, know their shit. They know that camera as well as the camera-man, as well as the guy who BUILT the camera. They know the lighting equipment as well as the lighting designer. They KNOW how to do their job.
I’ll let Arthur Miller tell the story. He admitted that he was very naive about film-making – He knew how to write PLAYS, but the literal-ness of movies, and the craft of movie actors as opposed to stage actors was new to him.
The final shot was also the closing scene of the picture. Langland [Gable] stops his truck so Roslyn [Monroe] can untie his dog, which was left behind while the mustangs were being rounded up. It was a studio process shot done in Los Angeles; a filmed track in the desert rolled away through the truck’s back window, coming to a stop when Marilyn jumped out to go to the dog. Gable was supposed to watch her with a mounting look of love in his eyes, but I noticed only a very slight change in his expression from where I stood beside the camera, hardly ten feet away.
“Cut! Fine! Thanks, Clark; thanks, Marilyn.” [John] Huston was brisk and businesslike now, in effect refusing any sentimental backward look; hardly lingering, he said he had to be off to work with the film editor.
I asked Gable if he thought he had shown sufficient expression in the final shot. He was surprised. “You have to watch the eyes. Movie acting is all up here” — he drew a rectangle around his eyes with his finger. “You can’t overdo because it’s being magnified hundreds of times on the theatre screen.”
He turned out to be right, as I was relieved to see in the rushes of the scene; he had simply intensified an affectionate look that was undetectable a few feet away in the studio.
2. Robert Duvall
Dennis Hopper came and did a seminar at my school. He was hilarious, irreverent, funny, WACKO, and very very articulate. He talked about directing Robert Duvall in Colors – the LA gang movie with Sean Penn. Hopper thinks that Duvall is the best American actor working today, and I can’t say I disagree, although Jeff Bridges certainly gives him a run for his money.
So Hopper said he was surprised to see how different it was to DIRECT him, as opposed to sitting in a movie theatre, watching him magnified up on the screen. Robert Duvall’s acting is so alive, so powerful, so DEEP – Hopper was expecting THAT guy to show up. But there was Duvall, soft-spoken, quiet, humble … and Hopper couldn’t SEE that anything was happening. He didn’t trust that Duvall knew that camera better than HE did … he wanted to SEE the acting.
Hopper said that he was directing one important scene – where Duvall had to be flipping through a wad of money. Apparently, Duvall was supposed to be pissed as he did this (was it pay-off money? Dirty cop money? Something like that). In the next scene, Duvall’s character had to storm into the cop’s locker room and shove Sean Penn up against the locker – and give him HELL. So you needed to see the set-up of Duvall’s anger in the flipping-through-money scene.
But Hopper, standing by the camera, watching Duvall – from three feet away – couldn’t see it. Duvall didn’t seem to be DOING anything. He was just flipping through the money. There was no sense of growing anger, of violence, of rage … Why the hell wasn’t Duvall acting? Hopper shot the scene a couple of times – he was almost intimidated by Duvall, didn’t want to go up to the guy and give him acting notes, but he still didn’t understand why Duvall’s anger wasn’t showing.
But then – later that night – when Hopper watched the rushes from the day’s shoot – Duvall’s skill and brilliance became clear. Hopper felt like an idiot. (After all, he’s an actor too). He watched Duvall flipping through the money – and whatever it was he saw in Duvall’s face it was a small thing, a tightening of the lips, the way Duvall held his hands around the money … a tiny look in his eyes – which would have been completely invisible from 2 feet away …
When Hopper looked at the rushes, what had seemed dull and uninteresting suddenly pulsed with violence and potential. The next scene (Duvall shoving Penn up against the lockers) made TOTAL sense. Hopper could see that Duvall was ready to bust.
Now an actor on stage obviously could not get away with that. You have to SHOW that stuff – you can’t just tighten your lips, and change the expression in your eyes – Nobody will SEE it.
But these guys – Gable, Duvall – understood the medium better than their own directors.
3. Gary Cooper
There isn’t just one story illustrating this point for Gary Cooper. Director after director after director told the same story:
“His performances seemed dull – when you were standing in the same room with him. He seemed passive. Very very boring. And then you would watch the rushes later that night, and it was the most powerful acting you’d ever seen.”
Howard Hawks has said that he watched the crucial monologue in Sergeant York, watched Cooper do it, as he stood on the sidelines, and wondered what he was missing. When he saw the rushes later, he realized that he wasn’t missing anything. It was all there.
By the end of his career, directors were no longer shocked or worried on the first days of shooting. They no longer thought: “Jesus, this guy is dead in the water, a drippy noodle … where the hell is the ACTING?” The directors understood by then that Gary Cooper knew his job better than they did – and all they needed to do was wait for the daily rushes. They knew that Gary Cooper was turning in a great performance, even though they couldn’t see it yet.
CODA: another great story about Cooper – my favorite. And with many of these stories they may be apocryphal, but I love them anyway
Gary Cooper (I think his name was actually Frank) had grown up in Montana, on a ranch … but had also spent 10 years as a child in England … his formative years. Somehow, as a young man, he ended up in California. Perhaps looking for work? Not sure. If he had ambitions to be a great actor, he wasn’t behaving in that way. He met up with two good friends who were strolling down the street in full Western garb. They told him that you could make good money as an extra in cowboy movies. If you could ride a horse, looked good in chaps … you might make some cash, and you might get a shot at the big time!
This was in the early 1920s.
So I guess Cooper started being an extra on Westerns. A faceless nobody. Just the same as the tons of other young hopeful cowboy-types in Hollywood at the time. However, what made him different (in a way ) was that women fell over for him like ninepins. And very early on – a couple of different actresses noticed this tall lean very very shy cowboy-extra – and tried to help him out, tried to push his career along. They became patronesses, almost. All women. The dude had major sex appeal, and yet was often so shy he could barely get the words out, and he blushed like a schoolboy. (Of course, this made the women go even more nuts over him … and a couple of them became DETERMINED that even if they couldn’t get this guy into bed, they would try to advance his career.) One woman, in particular – who was an actress, very successful, had a huge crush on him – and basically forced directors to look at him, forced the publicity department of the studios to consider him … etc.
But still – he wasn’t an actor. He was a fill-in, a guy who looked good in chaps and a cowboy hat and could ride a horse.
In 1926, he was on location (as an extra) with The Winning of Barbara Worth – directed by Henry King. Again, he was an extra. He had no lines. He was one of the faceless ranch hands.
Meanwhile: some OTHER actor, a “real” actor, had been cast in a very small but very important part. He only had one scene. However, this actor (whoever he was) didn’t show up for the shoot – maybe it was scheduling problems, not sure, but he was negotiating with the studio …
Henry King (the director), on location, finally decided he couldn’t wait any longer for the other actor to show up, and offered the role to the untried Gary Cooper.
All Gary Cooper had to do was knock on the door of the cabin. The woman inside would open the door, and he would collapse inside, from exhaustion. That was the part.
Long afterwards, when he was asked about Cooper, Henry King would describe the first day of shooting with this unknown kid who had never acted before. It also just so happens that Sam Goldwyn himself had come out on location that day, to check up on how things were going.
Henry King said that, while the crew was setting up the lights, etc., he pulled Gary Cooper aside and kept saying to him: “Look, just remember that your character is tired … you are so tired … You have been riding for days … Tired, tired, tired … When that door opens, I need to see a man who is licked … who can barely stand … tired, tired, tired…”
King said that he OVER explained it to Gary Cooper (I mean, obviously, Gary Cooper knows what the word “tired” means), but King didn’t think Gary Cooper was an actor. Maybe Gary Cooper didn’t yet think that Gary Cooper was an actor. Who knows.
King said that whenever he had a 5 minute break, a 10 minute break, he’d come back over to Gary Cooper’s side, and whisper “Tired, tired, tired …”
Sam Goldwyn saw how much attention the director was giving this glorified EXTRA, and grumbled about it – “Am I paying you so that you can give an extra acting lessons?”
King protested, “The kid isn’t an actor … I’ve got to explain to him what he has to do …”
Anyway – finally the time came to shoot the scene. It was an interior shot – You would hear Gary Cooper’s knock on the door … the woman would open the door… and he would fall inside. A simple scene.
The scene began – a bit of dialogue – blah blah blah -
Then came, at the door, the TIREDEST most weary knock anyone had ever heard. King said that you could barely hear the knock. It was as though the person knocking did not even have the strength to lift his hand up high enough to knock properly. (Obviously … this “extra” knew how to act – he went for it, he went for tiredness 110%.)
Anyway. After this weary timid knock, the door was opened … and there was this kid – who right up to the moment before shooting the scene was a tall young lean handsome cowboy. But the door opened on an absolute wreck of a man. King said, “He had become, in the 30 seconds hidden behind that door, a completely different man. A sad sack.” Gary Cooper took one step forward, and then collapsed onto the floor … completely gracefully, completely naturally … It looked as though his legs just could not hold him up anymore. The cameraman, realizing that some DAMN FINE ACTING was going on, had the presence of mind to follow Cooper as best as he could.
King said that 2 seconds after he called “Cut”, Sam Goldwyn called him over. Sam Goldwyn could be quite terrifying. Especially when he was really really calm. Which he was in this moment.
Goldwyn murmured, “You say that kid’s not an actor?”
King said, “He was an extra until this morning.”
Goldwyn replied, “Henry, that kid is the greatest goddamn actor I have ever seen in my life.”
Coda to the Coda:
The scene was cut from the film because it was felt Cooper unwittingly upstaged Ronald Colman, the star of the film. Even with one tiny moment, Cooper blew them all out of the water. Born to be a star.