3 Similar Actor Stories

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.

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12 Responses to 3 Similar Actor Stories

  1. amelie says:

    i *love* the gary cooper coda. that’s phenomenal!

    on a cary grant note, i figure you’re the definitive source to ask: one of my flatmates doesn’t like cary grant very much — and only because as far as she knows, he always gets the girl. i’m sure there must be some movies where he doesn’t. know of any?

  2. red says:

    Glad you liked the coda, dear amelie – isn’t that great??

    Now about Cary Grant: Yes. He always gets the girl. I mean, he’s Cary Grant!!!! A movie where he doesn’t get the girl is Sylvia Scarlett – his “big break”. It’s early Grant, though … before he was a mega-star. Once he became a star, he pretty much always got the girl. Until he was well into his 60s, which is pretty amazing!!

  3. red says:

    A movie where he doesn’t even seem to WANT the girl is “Only Angels have wings” – one of my favorite movies of all time. He gets her … but you have to wonder what will happen the next morning … But still: Only Angels Have Wings is a wonderful movie – sexy, romantic, adventurous, funny … If you haven’t seen it, amelie, and your flatmate – check it out!!

  4. amelie says:

    i love goldwyn’s comments in that coda — so incredible, and the whole thing is funny, in a way. ‘tired, tired, tired.’

    early Grant will work, though — just so long as i can show her that such a movie exists! [[besides, how could Grant *NOT* get the girl? American women would have gone wild.]] i’m looking forward to reading through your Cary Grant archives on his birthday — which is a day before my 21st; i can almost toast his memory!

  5. amelie says:

    i haven’t seen that one! i had to wonder at ‘Every Girl Should Be Married’ when we were watching it the other week, whether or not he really wanted the scheming Anabel!

  6. red says:

    Another VERY weird Grant movie is People Will Talk – he plays a controversial gynecologist (uhm, what?) – and you have to wonder in that situation if he really wants the girl, or not.

    I love Every Girl Sholud Be married – you know that was his real-life wife, right?? Or, one of his wives, shall we say.

    Notorious is another film where he gets the girl but you seriously wonder: will he keep her?? Have you seen it, amelie??

    His birthday is the 18th of January – is that right? Remind me when it comes … I try to keep all my celeb crushes birthdays straight but it’s hard sometimes!

  7. amelie says:

    This is the portion of our comment conversation where i hang my head in shame — because over a year ago, i told myself i had to see notorious, and it still hasn’t happened yet!

    as for Drake, they got married after that film was made, right?

    i hadn’t heard of People Will Talk before this; that does sound odd.

    yes, 18 January, and rest assured, i’ll remind you. given all the celeb crushes, i can understand!

  8. red says:

    Notorious and Only Angels Have Wings are my favorite Grant performances. I’ll see if I can write something up for his birthday, amelie – just to honor him. And yes, People Will Talk has got to be one of the weirdest movies ever made – I own it … Grant pretty much disowned it – never counted it in his own tally of films he had done … but I think there’s a lot that’s great there. He’s a doctor – and he is confronted by a young woman who comes to him, pregnant … who, well – it’s not said … but you can tell she wants an abortion. She;s a college student. He ends up saving her from herself … and marrying her, to raise her illegitimate baby together. i really love him in this … not sure why he disowned it.

    And YES – SEE NOTORIOUS!!!!!!!!! No pressure or anything. hahahahahaha

  9. Sal says:

    I kind of hate myself, but I love “Every Girl”.
    Drake is very appealing, the Grant/Tone rivalry is fun- and her little model house! I want a ‘crunchy chair’!

    Did you ever see the PBS program on Grant? She was in it- she’s quite elderly now and had had a stroke, I think, so her speech was slightly faltering. But she managed to remark that she never understood how anyone could think he was gay. “All I know,” she said “is that we were ******* all the time.” Hilarious! This dignified white-haired old lady.

    What’s the one where he’s a working-class English guy? With a mom? Is there a girl in that?

  10. red says:

    Betsy Drake did seem like a sweet individual, and I know they got along great. I love that story about the comment she made about him being gay. Ha!!

    The other movie you’re referring to is None But the Lonely Heart – the 2nd time Grant was nominated for an Oscar. It was Clifford Odets’ debut as a filmmaker. It’s a sad bleak tale – a real departure for Grant (he felt like he was getting back to his Cockney roots in the movie) … and yes, there’s a girl in it – the girl on the street who he has been seeing for years (if I’m remembering it right.) The whole thing has a sad ending – I don’t believe he does “get the girl” in that film, or at least not the girl he really wants.

    I don’t think the movie is really successful, though – it doesn’t quite work. Although it LOOKS fantastic – kudos to Odets!

  11. dorkafork says:

    I don’t remember any love interest in Gunga Din. And The Bishop’s Wife, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t get the girl because he’s an angel. (Though it’s obvious he could’ve gotten the girl, because he’s Cary Grant.)

  12. red says:

    dorkafork – How could I have forgotten Bishop’s Wife?? And Gunga Din!! Yup. He does not get the girl in either. In Gunga Din you’re right, there IS no girl – well, Joan Fontaine is in it – but she’s not Cary Grant’s love … I guess it seems like in either of those movies he COULD get the girl if he WANTED her … hahahaha Grant just never played a “loser” in love. Wasn’t really his thing.

    I always loved his Dudley the angel in Bishop’s Wife.

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