What makes a great actor?

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John F
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What makes a great actor?

Post by John F » Thu Oct 25, 2018 6:11 am

That's the subject of a long and fascinating article on the web site of the English theatre magazine "The Stage." Too long to quote here, but well worth reading. I was lucky enough to see all the actors in the U.K.'s great generation acting plays onstage in the '60s - Olivier, Gielgud, Guinness, Richardson, you name them I saw them - and for me they set the standard for what great acting is. Not so much today, as the article says.

https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/201 ... n-gardner/
John Francis

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Thu Oct 25, 2018 2:22 pm

Interesting. Olivier 'a ham' on film; absolutely. Same with Richard Burton, who was just embarrassing sometimes. Wooden and one-dimensional.

You were very fortunate, John, to see those British greats on the stage. Their acting skills seldom transferred well to the cinema, although I thought Olivier was fabulous in "Wuthering Heights" with the somewhat bland Merle Oberon. And I don't know what Vivien Leigh was like on the stage (she performed lots, especially with Olivier) but she was phenomenal on film. Incandescent, charismatic. Also Audrey Hepburn.

I've seen far more cinema then stage productions, but of these latter one is memorable; Australian (deceased) actor Bille Brown played in "The Judas Kiss" - a long play in which he is the only person on the stage. Staggering amounts of dialogue, and a range of emotion, vocal qualities like a well-tuned musical instrument (which I've mentioned in another thread about Robbie Coltrane) and the ability to totally inhabit a character so that I absolutely believe. This combined with a physical agility, confidence and grace - all of which is choreographed as well as any ballet. Our Cate Blanchett has that skill, as does Geoffrey Rush. But few people have it, either on stage or before the camera.

Having never been fond of the "Oh Titus" school of British acting (as described so accurately by Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society"), I think that these days we see much more naturalistic performances of the classics in the theatre.

And, as has been discussed in the past, film acting has different challenges to those of the theatre and one of these is consistency of performance. You could detect the accent changes in Vivien Leigh during the film "Gone With the Wind" - she often seemed to forget that she was a southern belle and reverted to king's English!! A director like George Cukor, who was first in the theatre, could bring performances out of his actors in long takes - he just let them go. Who can forget Rosalind Russell or Joan Crawford in "The Women" in 1939 and, just a little later, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart in "The Philadelphia Story".... "there's a magnificence in you, Tracy; you're lit from within; holocausts .. and fires...".

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Sun Oct 28, 2018 12:02 pm

On this side of things, George C. Scott in Salesman, Anthony Perkins in Equus and Carol Channing in Dolly!

One of my favorite British actors is James Mason. Plus Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole, Angela Lansbury, Emma Thompson and Michael Caine.

John F
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by John F » Sun Oct 28, 2018 12:18 pm

I saw that "Salesman" with George C. Scott too. Never has Willy Loman seemed so angry, but it's a legitimate interpretation. For Equus I saw Richard Burton, on Broadway (also in the movie but that wasn't as impressive). I don't do musicals, but when I was 15 my family including me saw quite a few, including "My Fair Lady" with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison. Can't remember much about the experience, it's the recording that's in my memory.

I do remember some theatrical experiences from that far back, but not Broadway musicals. In 1956, the Mozart year, the family had tickets for Mozart operas at the Glyndebourne and Salzburg festivals, and I remember some moments of "Figaro" in Salzburg vividly. (I was already familiar with the opera from a recording but had never seen it.) The cast was Erich Kunz, Irmgard Seefried, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Christa Ludwig, Karl Böhm conducting.

In Act 4, there's a moment when Susanna, disguised as the countess, complains to Figaro about how she's being treated by the count, and Seefried, who had been doing something of a Schwarzkopf imitation up to then, reverted to her own voice. Figaro realizes who he's talking to and shows it by singing "Susanna!" as an aside. Kunz, a great comedian, turned his head to the audience, grinning from ear to ear, as he sang "Susanna!" I don't remember whether the audience laughed or not, but I grin myself remembering it.

Belle could mention this during the session on February 28.
John Francis

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Sun Oct 28, 2018 1:37 pm

John F wrote:
Sun Oct 28, 2018 12:18 pm
I saw that "Salesman" with George C. Scott too. Never has Willy Loman seemed so angry, but it's a legitimate interpretation. For Equus I saw Richard Burton, on Broadway (also in the movie but that wasn't as impressive).
I recall a purposively out-of-character George C. Scott during his bows laughing at the blubberers in the audience—there were so many he was having a great time gently mocking us for being taken in by mere shadow boxing—all in good fun though. Scott's Willy Loman was heroic, but has anyone erased Lee J. Cobb's?

I know Richard Burton was the first Broadway Martin Dysart in Equus, but Anthony Perkins's performance was soul-on-dry-ice, a blend of Bergman and Hitchcock. Plus he looked the part. The movie version with Burton was a dud. The play appeals to adolescents so I've taught it many times without ever being tempted to show any part of the film.

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Sun Oct 28, 2018 3:58 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Oct 28, 2018 1:37 pm
John F wrote:
Sun Oct 28, 2018 12:18 pm
I saw that "Salesman" with George C. Scott too. Never has Willy Loman seemed so angry, but it's a legitimate interpretation. For Equus I saw Richard Burton, on Broadway (also in the movie but that wasn't as impressive).
I recall a purposively out-of-character George C. Scott during his bows laughing at the blubberers in the audience—there were so many he was having a great time gently mocking us for being taken in by mere shadow boxing—all in good fun though. Scott's Willy Loman was heroic, but has anyone erased Lee J. Cobb's?

I know Richard Burton was the first Broadway Martin Dysart in Equus, but Anthony Perkins's performance was soul-on-dry-ice, a blend of Bergman and Hitchcock. Plus he looked the part. The movie version with Burton was a dud. The play appeals to adolescents so I've taught it many times without ever being tempted to show any part of the film.
Perkins (whose father was a silent film actor) was a stand-out in the cinema and his performance in "Psycho" was one of the greatest in cinema, IMO. I didn't know Perkins had acted in the theatre, but that makes perfect sense. Lee J. Cobb hasn't worn well with me; he seems to shout too much and he played a similar role in 'Twelve Angry Men' - only, for me, it was just the one!!!

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Sun Oct 28, 2018 6:35 pm

My bad: the first Martin Dysart on Broadway was Anthony Hopkins, not Richard Burton. But IMO Anthony Perkins was great, maybe even unsurpassed, in this role.

Perkins appeared on and off Broadway across three decades, 50s thru 70's, starting with the notable Tea and Sympathy in 1954, a play that made a big impact on me as an impressionable kid. He even directed an off-Broadway play.

And as "Tony Perkins" he was also a singer, with records on RCA and Epic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4b9Smr4jo0

lennygoran
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by lennygoran » Sun Oct 28, 2018 7:51 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Oct 28, 2018 6:35 pm
not Richard Burton.
We saw Burton-he was imo wonderful. Regards, Len

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Sun Oct 28, 2018 10:43 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Oct 28, 2018 6:35 pm
My bad: the first Martin Dysart on Broadway was Anthony Hopkins, not Richard Burton. But IMO Anthony Perkins was great, maybe even unsurpassed, in this role.

Perkins appeared on and off Broadway across three decades, 50s thru 70's, starting with the notable Tea and Sympathy in 1954, a play that made a big impact on me as an impressionable kid. He even directed an off-Broadway play.

And as "Tony Perkins" he was also a singer, with records on RCA and Epic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4b9Smr4jo0
I've seen the Minnelli film "Tea and Sympathy" with John Kerr and Deborah Kerr (bizarre co-incidence but very freudian!!). I thought it a bit cheesy and over-wrought, to be honest.

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Mon Oct 29, 2018 12:18 am

Sure, I haven't seen the flick but the play, dated as it now must seem, openly discusses the topics of bullying and sexual orientation. Strong stuff for the 1950s. The movie, just like Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire film, suppresses all mention of that taboo subject. I spent a summer reading nothing but American plays as a teen and T & S was one of them. Haven't read it since but still think of it kindly. My faves were Rose Tattoo and View from the Bridge. Tennessee Williams was my idol back then, August Wilson is now.

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Mon Oct 29, 2018 12:48 am

Points taken! And that's exactly what I did in my teens; read all the plays I could get my hands on including a couple of those you mention. Not a novel reader until university, but I was in amateur theatre and loved plays. Soon finding out I was a lump of Christmas ham on the stage, I ended up in television production on the other side of the camera - until my first child was born. Now my interests are a world away from that kind of life.

The themes of what it is to be a man and sexual repression were a major part of a favourite film of mine, 'Splendor in the Grass" directed by Kazan. I love that film.

Though nothing can take away the hour
Of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower;
We will weep not; rather find strength in what remains.

Natalie Wood; just wonderful. Very much missed.

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Mon Oct 29, 2018 4:47 am

Belle wrote:
Mon Oct 29, 2018 12:48 am
that's exactly what I did in my teens; read all the plays I could get my hands on
In my view, all things being equal, plays require more of a reader than novels and often are more rewarding.

Plays were a very big deal for me in school where TV, radio and movies were conspicuously absent. I student-directed one, The Andersonville Trial, and learned a lot from an experienced teacher I admired. He stated this was the only time he had ever seen me get involved in anything.

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Mon Oct 29, 2018 5:50 am

Absolutely the same!! I remember when 16 and 'the nun' was directing a class performance of "The Importance of Being Earnest". I piped up and said, "sister; in real life people don't stand around a room listening to two people's conversation. This group needs to be getting on with business in the scene to at least showing a semblance of reality". She told me to go up the back and be quiet!! I'm afraid I laughed heartily during the, er, rehearsal.

Or the day I sang to the nun who was attempting to teach me Science, Sister Julie; substituting her name for that of Henry Higgins in "Just you wait, Henry Higgins", which included, but was not limited to,....'when ya yell you're gonna drown I'll get dressed and go to town". I am embarrassed when I recall how insolent I was!! No, bored actually.

John F
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by John F » Mon Oct 29, 2018 6:06 am

When I was in the Army in Germany, I got roped into the post theatre group by the special services officer whose ambition was to become a theatre director. The two shows I was in were "Spoon River Anthology," adapted by Charles Aidman from the poems of Edgar Lee Masters, and "The Fantasticks" (I was the boy's father). Memorizing my part was very difficult and I was always focused on not forgetting it, so what I did probably doesn't count as real acting. That was enough; I ran tech (lights and sound) for "A Streetcar Named Desire," which was remarkably well cast, and that was the end of my "career" in theatre.

But for all that anxiety, I got something out of it. While I was doing it and ever since, I've attended to plays in the theatre in a different way, much more aware of technique in the actors' performances and the production. Since this coincided with the period when, on passes and leave from the Army, I was often in London and saw all those knights and dames at their peak, I responded more fully than I might have and remember better what they did.

A vivid memory is Strindberg's "Dance of Death" at the National Theatre with Olivier as the captain and Geraldine McEwen in an ice-cold performance as his wife. Olivier once said that in every role, he looked for a place where he could actually frighten the audience. In "Dance of Death" it was the Captain's heart attack. When Norton published a new translation of the play, I found a production photo of that moment and put it on the cover of the book.

Image

There's a film of the production which I've seen on TV - unfortunately it's not on YouTube.
John Francis

jserraglio
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by jserraglio » Mon Oct 29, 2018 6:07 am

Belle wrote:
Mon Oct 29, 2018 5:50 am
I am embarrassed when I recall how insolent I was!!
As an adult, I did challenge one professor, a Cleveland State Univ, Ed Psych prof, self-proclaimed Harvard PhD who dressed for every lecture in a white suit, for mocking working-class folks and Catholics repeatedly. Challenged him during a public lecture when he asked for questions and then declined to identify the author of a book which he said I would find too abstruse to understand. When I would not back off, he had to call a break. In private later, I told him that my father, in his eyes an insignificant factory worker, paid his f---ing salary.

Belle
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Re: What makes a great actor?

Post by Belle » Mon Oct 29, 2018 1:24 pm

I'm afraid that kind of snobbery is still very much alive and well; worse, in fact. I'll go into bat for the ordinary folks all the time. They may not know about Shakespeare, Bach or Ibsen but they're the first people there when you need a hand and very often generous to a fault.

I've got to put myself in the medical zone now. Will return to John's comments later.

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