Three Similar Stories About Film Acting

One story stars Clark Gable. One stars Robert Duvall. And one stars Gary Cooper (the latest celeb-crush … I will never abandon Cary … how could I? We had a good time together, he and I. We really did. But I felt it was time to move on, and Gary Cooper was available. Such is life.)

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 hari-kari (Harry Carey? Whatever, you know what I mean) … 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, I think it was called – 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.

So Hopper 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.”

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.

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5 Responses to Three Similar Stories About Film Acting

  1. Mjf says:

    Reminds me of the story of Meryl Streep and Shirley Maclaine on the first day of filming Postcards From the Edge…the scene in the car after Shirley picks up Meryl from the set of an awful movie…Maclaine was freaked because she couyldnt tell if Meryl Streep was even bothering to act until she saw the rushes and realized Streep was acting her off the screen. Love it.

  2. red says:

    hahaha! I love that story, too. One lift of the eyebrow, one sigh – and Meryl Streep stole the scene.

    “Instant gratification takes too long…”

  3. frank says:

    Meryl Streep has been praised enough already, probably, but in this context I wanna praise her again, because the reason I love to watch her act is her mastery of all those tiny gestures. Especially her face: her eyes, her mouth can tell volumes of emotions, of things she doesn’t say – and watching her you don’t want to miss one of these ‘stories’. Great lady, one of my favorites. (I realize this post was all about males, but I just had think of her, while reading it.)

  4. frank says:

    MMMMMMM… guess I should have read the previous comments first…

  5. Bernard says:

    Sheila, I’ve always suspected what you’ve confirmed here, that there is something of a magnifying quality to the movie camera’s (and, for that matter, the projector’s) lens. Often, what you see on the screen – even the scenery – seems so much ‘bigger’ and ‘more real’ than everyday experience, and that is not totally the result of the script or acting or even the directing, but has something (a rather large something) to do with the medium. Of course, it takes a special kind of genius, whether it be of the acting, writing, or directing kind, to let the medium work to full advantage, and not overwhelm it with extraneous ‘acting’, ‘directing’, ‘screenwritng’, whatever. Reading your post opens a whole new avenue of appreciation for that supreme subtle touch.

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