Three different actors, three different acting styles and “methods” – but it’s basically the same story.
1. Clark Gable
Arthur Miller had written the part of the aging cowboy who falls in love with the girl in The Misfits 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. 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 howled with laughter. That was all he needed to hear. He signed on immediately.
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: 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.
Miller 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. 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.
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, and 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 stood behind the camera watching, and he literally could not see any acting going on. The performance seemed to be a dud.
Hopper was directing one important scene where Duvall had to be flipping through a wad of money. Duvall was supposed to be pissed as he did this, and 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. 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. 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 3 feet away …
When Hopper looked at the rushes, what had seemed dull and uninteresting while he looked at it in the same room, suddenly pulsed with violence and potential.
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 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 to see the performance.