“Be open to change. Allow yourself to be revised.” — Maggie Smith

A re-post, for Maggie Smith’s birthday

Inspired by Dan Callahan’s The Art of American Screen Acting 1960 to Today, volume 2 (I interviewed him about volume 1 here), I watched “Bed Among the Lentils,” the 49-minute Alan Bennett monologue, done direct to camera by Maggie Smith. It’s an astonishing piece of work. As I watched, time stood still. I sat motionless, not blinking, totally sucked into this character’s misery and bitterness. Crucially, there is a total lack of catharsis, in the script and in her performance. She holds back. Maggie Smith is TOUGH. No leakage for her own/the audience’s comfort. But then, near the very end, there’s a tiny glimmer of the character’s sense of loss. It’s just a glimpse, though.

Maggie Smith, with her impeccable technique, gives you just a tiny glimpse of the character’s misery, and you, the audience member, are wrecked. She shows a little bit of what’s there, and you feel ALL of it. This is what total control looks like. Amateurs are not capable of what Smith does here, with text, subtext, gesture (the moment above with the water glass), backstory (even if not expressed), vocal technique – everything. And yet you don’t feel the control. Control/technique is invisible. You don’t “see the work”. Smith is like De Niro in that way. These are tough people. They go deep deep in. If Smith had lost control of her technique and broken down into stormy sobs, allowing herself to express what she was feeling, it’d be a very different experience. Strangely, catharsese like that sometimes alienate audiences. The actor is feeling so much there’s little room for the audience to feel.

Civilians (and this includes many critics) are way too impressed by the presence of tears, mistaking visible tears for true feeling/excellent acting. This reminds me of a story my friend Shelagh told me years ago. Shelagh was in an acting class and a girl was up there doing a monologue, and my GOD she was feeling things. You could see her emotions from the space station. This takes ability (including an ability to release). But … there was nothing left for ME to feel since SHE was feeling and showing ALL of it.) Credulous critics are bowled over by tears because it seems like a magical ability to produce actually cry in a make-believe situation. But those who work in the field know it’s not magic. The sobbing student finished the scene and after a long pause the teacher said calmly, “You were feeling everything and I am …. curiously unmoved.”

In “Bed Among the Lentils,” Maggie Smith IS feeling everything but the context of the character – who is a very unreliable narrator – means the only emotion visible to the naked eye is a kind of coiled contempt swimming in a sea of existential boredom. It’s the only thing she allows others to see … and then … over the course of the monologue, her rigid facade starts to (very subtly) disintegrate. But only once does she let you see what her public persona is hiding. We may PERCEIVE it all along, we can FEEL it emanating off her in waves, but the character will be damned if she lets you see any of it.

When the feeling rises in her like a volcano, surprising her as well as us, it’s shattering.

The whole thing’s on Youtube.

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15 Responses to “Be open to change. Allow yourself to be revised.” — Maggie Smith

  1. I usually dislike comparisons between acting and lawyering, but this principle is true for both: you need to bring the jury to the place where you want them, and you can’t do it for them.

  2. Jessie says:

    oh man, she doesn’t change her cadence or volume an iota over 49 minutes. That’s one of the most locked-down performances I’ve ever seen. Her control over the shapes her lips make is extraordinary. And that costume/hair change at the end is devastating! Thanks for posting this, I’m obsessed with repression in performance and writing.

    • sheila says:

      Jessie – I’m obsessed with repression too. It’s SO dramatic.

      Isn’t this just amazing? “Locked-down” is the perfect way to describe it.

      When she DOES “lose control” of her face – and let more slip out than she intends – it’s like a lightning bolt. You’re like, “wow, what was THAT” – even though it was just a tiny slip-up.

      She’s so damn good.

      In re: repression – I posted a link to this on FB and a friend of mine – a British playwright – who lives in America – said a similar thing in re: repression. She said “I grew up in England in the 1970s and you just did not talk about anything. When my plays are put on in America, I’m always getting comments from directors about how I need to make things clearer, have the characters explain themselves – but I’m British. We didn’t do that in the 70s.” I thought that was so interesting – I’m sure it sucked to grow up that way, but it certainly created some great art.

      • Rinaldo says:

        In regard to that last paragraph: It applies in comedy as well. I’ve seen Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking done in the US (a farce operating on mistaken identity: a young woman’s boyfriend visits her boss/lover under the impression that he’s visiting her father… and the mistake never gets corrected, even though the girlfriend and the man’s wife are there too, and the visit lasts most of a Sunday afternoon) and I’ve thought “Well, this is funny but it’s totally implausible even for farce; why does nobody ever just ask ‘Who the hell are you?’?” But seeing it done in Scarborough with British actors under Ayckbourn’s directions, it made perfect sense (and was far funnier), because it was clear how these people, at that time and place, would NEVER be so rude as to ask a direct question of that sort. Instead, it’s all vaguely welcoming smiles and tentative statements that trail off.

        • sheila says:

          // because it was clear how these people, at that time and place, would NEVER be so rude as to ask a direct question of that sort. Instead, it’s all vaguely welcoming smiles and tentative statements that trail off. //

          Fantastic observation!

  3. Madeleine says:

    Bingo – yes to all of this!

    There’s a wonderful exercise in Peter Barkworth’s book “About Acting” called, “Cover ups”, which amounts to “I’m [X] , but I’m damned if I’ll show it”, and it is such a powerful tool in any performers’ kit; I always love seeing actors make this choice (although when it’s skillfully done I don’t even recognize it until I think about it afterwards… because it has been so effective!)

    BTW, I highly recommend the book if you don’t know it – Barkworth taught at RADA and was also a very funny raconteur, so the book is filled with marvelous anecdotes about himself and his contemporaries (as well as acting techniques and exercises!). It’s a great read!

    • sheila says:

      // I always love seeing actors make this choice (although when it’s skillfully done I don’t even recognize it until I think about it afterwards… because it has been so effective!) //

      Yes!! so interesting!

      It reminds me of De Niro’s comment that people, in general, don’t WANT to show their feelings, they want to hide them. Only actors want to show their vulnerability, lol.

      I will definitely check out that book – thank you!!

      • Madeleine says:

        Omg only just seeing your reply – I need to figure out how to get alerts!

        Let me know what you think. It’s out of print now (both editions) but you can usually find a copy around. I have taken it on every gig I’ve ever done – when I get stuck during the rehearsal period (and you just know it’s always “when” not “if”!) a quick browse put me right back on track. I love specific acting ideas/direction that push the start button (rather than try to tell me *what* to do) :)

        • sheila says:

          getting alerts … lol … I rock it here like it’s 2006!! I do try to respond to every comment – and in as timely a manner as possible – so it does require you to remember to come back – lol – and you can look at the little “recent comments” list on the right hand nav – to click into the correct post. I know this site needs an upgrade, I just keep putting it off.

          Are you aware of Patsy Rodenburg? I know people who have studied with her – and thankfully one of her lectures – on the concept of “second circle” – is on YouTube. It’s a doozy. I included a link to the clip in this post:

          http://www.sheilaomalley.com/?p=107659

  4. Madeleine says:

    haha yes I just found the recent comments links, and I’m now checking regularly. :) I usually read on my phone my aging eyes had missed that – oops!

    I am a huge huge huge Patsy Rodenburg fan! My performance training was in the UK, although not at the Guildhall so I was not lucky enough to work with her personally. Even though I am a singer, I recommend that all my students read her book The Actor Speaks , as much for the philosophy as anything. She’s amazing!

    • sheila says:

      Of course you know Patsy Rodenburg!! My training was all Method all the time – although I started as a teenager with Meisner, and honestly – that was my jam all along. Plus basic stage experience, which I also got early. I knew how to work. I had a good imagination. etc. I was never an acolyte – or a devotee of just one system – I knew people like that, and it never made sense to me. You can’t do this thing by formula.

      and what I love about Patsy R is – as you say – her philosophy. The “why do we do this” aspect of it. And it’s not too hifalutin or abstract – I do not do well with abstract thinking, lol. All I know is it sure makes me want to stand up and work on a scene immediately, keeping everything she says in mind!

    • sheila says:

      I love talking about this with people who are also immersed in it and have experience with it. It’s rare in the film critic world. It’s not at all the same language. an editor asked me once what I meant by “technique” – as in acting technique. This is a very smart man – learned even – but the whole acting part of it is a mystery to him. It was one of my goals early on to sort of try to merge these two things – the writing about film and my experience with acting – and it seems to have worked pretty well. It’s a niche, that’s for sure. There’s only a handful of us who are doing it.

  5. Madeleine says:

    Soooo many people think that acting – and singing – are just “talent”, and you either can or you can’t. The fact of the matter is – and I know you know this – while the “it factor” can’t necessarily be taught as such, actual technique – whether Method or stagecraft, realism or theatrical or whatever – is what makes it sustainable. I wish more critics (whether film, stage, musical, dance, whatever!) really understood this; some do at a very basic level, but many haven’t done the thing they’re writing about, and I’m not sure they truly understand the *skill* going on to make those “easy” performances happen. When it’s done well, it’s transparent, so I get it, but it is so great when people really DO understand, and realize how much is actually involved in making that “realism” happen.

    My background isn’t method – it doesn’t entirely work when singing (other than the “powerful emotions recollected in tranquility” part, which is a good starting point for “what did my body do and how can I use that?”) – but I can’t stand singing for its own sake. It has to have MEANING or why bother?! I love how even though Rodenburg is HIGHLY technical (and has many parallels with singing technique), she never forgets that the goal is to use it to *express*, and that it’s not for its own sake.

    (Also, have you read her chapter about dealing with problems on stage? OH MY – it’s priceless!).

    OK, this is a complete and total ramble – sorry!! I love this stuff too :)

    • sheila says:

      Madeleine –

      // but many haven’t done the thing they’re writing about, and I’m not sure they truly understand the *skill* going on to make those “easy” performances happen. //

      100%. and this is why critics tend to applaud performances that DON’T look easy. so they over-value physical transformation, accents, tears on the face – and sometimes they miss the fact that some of these performances are empty, or merely skillful. Acting is like magic to them – and they don’t trust magic.

      It’s a crime, making it look easy. and God forbid if an actor is charming – naturally charming – critics REALLY don’t know what to make of that. It sometimes takes them 50 years to appreciate the skill of charm and ease. see: Cary Grant. so many others though.

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