With acting classes and workshops charging outlandish fees, aspiring actors are finding cheaper and more effective means of learning their craft. One prominent method is viewing and analyzing video performances by highly acclaimed and award-winning actors. Today these performances are cataloged online and readily available at rental sites such as Netflix and Blockbuster. At about $8 per month, these DVDs provide teaching moments that go far beyond the catch as catch can approach of scene study workshops. What’s more, they are economical alternative to paying the $350 to $600 per month charged by workshop instructors.
Why does this method work? First, you are totally focused on learning a specific technique. You have isolate a specific behavior and drawn to what needs to be assimilated. In a workshop setting students are overwhelmed by numerous acting choices and in trying to mastering many, they master none. In addition, the instructor can only comment on a limited number of elements. Overlooked flaws are thus left unattended and become part of the students skill set. Such scene workshops can often perpetrate more faults than fixes. In addition, instructors concentrate on limited aspects of acting and rarely address those outside their comfort zone. As a result, students have gaps in their training.
With DVD’s as your coach, when you see and hear it, you comprehend the technique and you know what to replicate. In addition, if you don’t get it the first time, you can replay the scene repeatedly until you fully understand the technique and can effectively duplicate it. Such repetition makes an isolated aspect sink in and stay with you for your entire career. Likewise, you are actively involved in making a dramatic choice as you observe, comprehend and duplicate the various techniques. The important lesson is that you emulate the technique the actor is using, not the actor’s performance.
Anyone who has watched movies or television is familiar with the great actors, especially those who have won nominations and awards. By observing these award-winning performances, one can learn many things. With the advent of videotape, digital cameras, and DVD players, more and more drama instructors are using this highly effective teaching tool. Great actors should be studied in the same manner as the great painters, composers, and dancers. Their work should be dissected, analyzed, emulated, and done so for the purpose of improving ones dramatic awareness and agility as well as expanding one’s range.
Such an approach is often frown upon by most acting schools in the United States where individuality and do your on thing mentality are promoted over craft. In the rest of the world, great actors are celebrated for the artisans they are. They are revered far more for their skills and techniques than for their celebrity status. Their performances are an economical and effective method to learning the art and science of acting.
Much of acting has to do with producing human behavior in an articulate manner. If you are inundated with such behavior as performed by accomplished actors, you will eventually use the same traits, methods, and techniques to develop equally articulate characters. When we are moved by a performance, it has to do with the choices the actor is making. Moreover, when we dissect that performance, we find aspects of human behavior that apply to almost every situation. What are these aspects, and how are they codified. That answer is found in exploring and discovering what the award-winning actors do.
Let us begin with the non-verbal aspects of acting. Over half of what we communicate has nothing to do with what we say or how we say it. It has to do with the accompanying non-verbal behavior. It would seem, therefore, one’s dramatic training should concentrate on those components, which convey the greatest amount of information.
Internalizations are one of the more difficult behaviors to portray. Yet it is the most important attribute in an accomplished actor. Internalizations have to do with the clarity of the character’s thoughts and feelings. Acclaimed actors use eye movements to delineate and switch to inner thoughts and feelings. However, young actors rarely connect, as they have dialogue and blocking to memorize along with a multitude of other dramatic choices. Internalizations are seldom addressed and yet they tell us more about the character than any other aspect.
I’m using Paul Newman’s film “Absence of Malice” to illustrate how eye behavior projects the character’s inner thoughts and feelings. When the character disconnects from the person to whom they are talking and looks away, it is a signal for the audience to speculate what’s going on inside. The character’s eye behavior and focal areas are also factored into this speculation along with the accompanying facial expressions/emotions. This behavior is almost a language on to itself, as the audience comprehends these internalizations. When two characters are conversing, we hear their dialogue, however, look-aways help reveal the inner dialogue. Tracking times indicated in parenthesis show the location of the various examples.
“Absence of Malice” has to do with a FBI Task Force pressuring Mike Gallagher (Paul Newman) to reveal information about a mob hit. A newspaper article labels him being under investigation. Yet, he has an ironclad alibi, however revealing it exposes his fragile friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon) to public ridicule. In this first example, Teresa waits for Mike at his house (22:03). She is reading the defaming newspaper article and wants to know what she should do. It’s a conflict, as she wants to help him yet wants to avoid the consequences of going public. Note how she uses focus zones (look-aways) to departmentalize the issues such as problems, recall, avoidance, and her connection to Mike.
When Mike coaches her how to answer the FBI’s questions, he uses look-aways to summons up strategies and possible replies. He likewise uses look-aways to portray his concerns about where the investigation will lead.
The next example takes place in a park where Teresa meets newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) and attempts to clear Mike’s name (49:35). Teresa does not reveal the facts behind her shameful secret until Megan starts to leave. She then confesses that Mike took her to Atlanta to have an abortion. Her reluctance is evident in her behavior as she again envisions the shame she might endure. Her internalizations focus on helping Mike while wanting to avoid public disclosure of her abortion. Her eye behavior coupled with her facial expressions/emotions clarifies these objectives.
The next morning, curled up on her front stoop (56:22), she waits for the newspaper delivery. She feels the shame as she reads the story, one that everybody will soon know. Her eye behavior foresees the unbearable humiliation to come. She rushes house-to-house picking up newspapers lying on the front yards.
The comeuppance scene near the end of the film (1:35:00) illustrates how internalizations add intrigue and energy to a scene. The Attorney General (Wilford Brimley) holds an inquiry regarding leaks about ongoing investigations. Note how the guilty participants handle being chastised and how they react to revelations convicting them. Mike sits quietly triumphant in setting up those who wronged him. Much is said in this non-verbal way and the scene demonstrates the power eye behavior has as an acting tool.
“Absence of Malice” won Oscar Nominations for Paul Newman and Melinda Dillon plus a Golden Globe Nomination for Sally Field.
Facial Expressions. The face is our identity, and the means by which we recognize one another. Each pattern of our facial features and changes is truly individual. Yet despite this uniqueness, there is an universality to emotional expressions uniting us all in a fundamental, non-verbal way. We might think of the face as the brain’s theatre, for it is on this stage that our inner thoughts and emotions are displayed for the entire world to see, or disguised or withheld, as the situation dictates. By analyzing this aspect of acting, one will become aware of its potential and create expressions that resonate with the audience.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Viola, in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) utilizes a wide range of expressions as she disguises herself as a young man in order to be cast in Shakespeare’s play. Additional subterfuge is necessary as forbidden love kindles between her and young Shakespeare. Inhibited by cultural and nobility, she must wear many deceptive masks pursuing happiness. There is one crucial scene (29:34), a reversal, where she is first elated at being wooed by Shakespeare; then she finds out she has been betrothed by her father to the middle-aged dour Lord Wessex. It’s a devastating moment and her restrained expressions tell a tragic story as her passions are smothered, smothered by the customs of the day.
Note also how she varies the dimensions of facial expressions, the speed, dynamics, duration, and integrity to satisfy the demands of the character. Her expressions have a forward motion. They are going somewhere, moving toward something, toward realizations, reflections, and expectations. Also, note the wide range of emotions and facial expressions she uses in this movie, from joy to grief, from desire to resentment, from intimidation to determination.
In the same movie, look at the award-winning performance by Judi Dench as the Queen. In Viola’s audience with Queen (01:01:00), she is questioned about her involvement with theatre and its ability to express love. It’s a battle of subtleties as each must be respectful of station, yet not loose face. Later in the same scene, the Queen informs Lord Wessex that his bride-to-be has been plucked and not by him, it’s done with wicked relish that he’s a fool tempted by greed, not love. Judi Dench subtle expressions portray the position that she has on this impending marriage and the problems it faces. Both Dench and Paltrow won Oscars for their performances.
The wartime film, “The Pianist,” (2002) brings a different set of expressions to the forefront. Staring Adrien Brody as the young Jewish pianist, he struggles to survive the onslaught of Nazi tyranny during World War II. The expressions in this film are much more restrained, for to show one’s true feelings could mean punishment, even death. In the Warsaw ghetto, suppression dulls and numbs ones persona. Thus, the performances are subtle and appear flat, but the desperation and helplessness of these holocaust-bound victims and their precarious situations give them powerful impact. We know where they are headed. They do not. When his friend on the Jewish police force, formed to enforce Nazi regulations, takes him out of line for a death camp bound train (50:20), we see his conflicted expressions as he is torn between leaving his family and saving his own life. With the help from the Polish resistance, he hides out in Warsaw. His face and expressions evoke his ordeal as well as that of his compatriots, many of whom die. Fear, horror, terror and guilt are the mainstay of his performance. Even in the lighter moments, there is always that apprehension about being caught.
When a German officer discovers his hiding place (2:01:37), his hopes for freedom appear crushed. However, he sways the officer with his pianist talents and avoids capture. He survives mainly through his will to live plus enormous good luck and the kindness of non-Jews. Note how he uses subtle variations to extend the expression and allow time to increase the tension. Adrien Brody won an Academy Award for his performance.
Dialogue Delivery. The spoken word is the initial focus for beginning actors who concentrate on the obvious, things such as projection, articulation, and phrasing. While these are essential vocal skills, there is much more to explore in this area. For instance, where does one pause? How does pace reflect on the character emotional state? How do considerations things such as emphases, dynamics, and contrast reflects on situations, relationships, character development and narrative direction. When we look at the dialogue delivery of acclaimed actors, we see an organic human quality that pulls us into their world. They pause to consider, they stumble with indecision, they shout out in anger and they whisper the secrets of their souls.
Gregory Peck award-winning performance in “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962) is an excellent example of solid dialogue delivery. He plays a courageous small-town lawyer facing racism as he defends a black man accused of raping a young white woman. His measured and thoughtful delivery speaks to a kinder, gentler 1932 America, a time long before freedom and equality became realities. The courtroom scenes are the most celebrated in the movie. Peck’s summation to the jury (1:31:40) is a great study faithfully demonstrating numerous delivery techniques. He carefully lays out his arguments, the supporting evidence and appeals to the jury to do the right thing and return this man to his family. He directs his words to applicable targets plying them with guilt, shame, and duty. He leaves space to ponder, to consider and to judge. Dialogue emphases, contrast and dynamics along with well-placed pauses make for a moving speech, one that enlightens our conscience and awakens our humanity.
Anne Hathaway performance in “Rachel Getting Married” (2008) is a brilliant example of a dysfunctional character living on the edge. A drug-addicted former model on a weekend pass from rehab, she attends her sister’s wedding and wreaks psychological havoc on her loved ones. Her narcissism and sociopathic inability to consider anything beyond her own needs creates exhilarating tension. She angrily demands the spotlight on the biggest night of her sister’s life. At the rehearsal dinner, her toast (34:24) is about her life, her wanting to make amends. Her delivery has a rambling unprepared quality as if winging it. She creates an uncomfortable almost embarrassing aura to the proceedings. She changes speeds, pauses awkwardly, and directs her speech to no one in particular. This last aspect reveals she’s talking more to herself than connecting with others at the dinner, a sign of narcissistic behavior. Her drama queen rage and paranoia continues in later scenes where the dialogue delivery is uncontrolled and chaotic with rapid outbursts and ill-timed emotional explosions. Yet dialogue elements such as emphases, dynamics, pauses and contrast remain. Except now, there’s a huge degree of uncertainty about what she will say next, and how she will say it. This unpredictable quality pulls the audience into her life and as her tragic back-story unravels, we feel her pain and root for her recovery. Hathaway won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar Nomination for her performance.
Gestures. Gestures are the movements of any part of the body that assists in expressing an idea or conveying a feeling. As such, they have purpose. They can intensify an emotion or an action as well as reveal a specific state of mind. Because the audience judges characters more on what they see than on what they hear, gestures become a key part of the behavior. There are numerous considerations in portraying a gesture, such as relative placement to accompanying dialogue, its purpose, and the type of body movements. Half or incomplete gestures have impact also and express another side of the character.
In the 1995 film “The Bridges of Madison County,” Meryl Streep uses gestures effectively to enhance her emotions and intentions. She plays Francesca Johnson, a lonely discontented housewife whose eyes and heart are opened to true love when Robert (Clint Eastwood) arrives to take photographs of Madison County’s covered bridges. They begin as friends with an endless capacity for conversation, talking of their ideals and passions. However, 24 hours later they are in love. Her gestures reflect a growing relationship. Early on they are hesitant or restrained while later they become more assured and open. When Streep attempts to give Eastwood directions (18:15) to the covered bridge, she uses a variety of directional gestures that express her uncertainty, her Italian heritage, as well as her frustrations. The frustrations surface due to her attraction for him. Note the non-sync element with her dialogue and gestures.
In a later scene, she answers the phone (1:10:52) and as she moves behind him, she adjusts his collar, brushes his neck with her finger, and then leaves her hand resting on his shoulder. He, in turn, places his hand over hers. It’s a sensitive quiet moment that evolves into a romantic dance and says they are now one. Later, in the kitchen argument scene (1:31:15), she asks, “What happens to us?” In this confrontation scene, her gestures become more assertive and forceful. In anger, she pushes a chair away, yet in reconciliation, her gestures become empathetic.
Through out the film, she repeats gestures indicative of her character, such as covering her face with both hands or touching the side of her head. These traits help portray her thoughts and feelings. The film’s most memorable gesture comes in the rain-soaked scene (1:50:57) when Francesca, riding with her husband, finds herself behind Robert’s pickup at a red light and almost jumps out to join him. The door handle figures prominently as she puts her hand on the handle. Her fingers tighten and start to pull back as if about to unlatch the door. It’s an excruciating moment where she must decide and her hand on the latch strongly depicts this turmoil. Should she get out or stay with her husband.
The performance won Streep an Oscar Nomination in a leading role.
Selecting the Objective and Emotion. The ability to choose and convey strong intentions and emotions is a valuable tool for the actor. These forces move the characters through the story. They create the love/hate, for or against polarity as the audience observe, evaluate, judges, and even take sides. They intensify the conflict within or between characters and establish sympathetic or antagonistic roles that make the audience root for the hero and boo the villain. These choices are derived from the character’s viewpoint, what the character knows and feels up to that point in the story. While usually supportive, they can be in conflict, the emotion contradicting the intention within the character. In relationships and confrontations, the intention/emotion coupling is normally in conflict with that of the opposing character.
In the 1997 film, “As Good as It Gets” Jack Nicholson plays an obsessive-compulsive curmudgeon who hurls insults of every shape and form at anyone in his path. When he lets stressed-out single mom and waitress (Helen Hunt), and gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear) and his dog into his life, profound changes await them all. The film illustrates how situations, relationships, and events change the characters’ intentions and emotions. It also demonstrates how these strong wants and desires intensify our involvement in the story.
Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) rigidly follows his daily routine of having breakfast at a restaurant where Carol Connelly (Helen Hunt) works. She is the only waitress who will put up with his abusive antics. When talking (13:30) about her asthmatic son he says off-handedly, “Sounds like your son is going to die,” Carol scowls him for saying such a thing and that she’ll never wait on him again if he doesn’t apologize. Something has come that changes his smug grouchy attitude and if he wants to retain his breakfast ritual, he must say he is sorry. By doing so, he is drawn reluctantly into her life. In a later scene (22:25), he asks her, “What’s wrong with your son?” He becomes compassionate, in part because she’s the only one who will wait on him. Yet, it’s his growing attraction for her as a woman that becomes the arc of his character, carrying him into a world he previously avoided.
Near of end of act one, his gay neighbor is attacked by burglars and is hospitalized. Melvin is forced to take care of his dog (26:30) and this event opens up his heart to feel more deeply about something other than himself. He becomes attached to the dog, so much; he takes him to the restaurant. Carol senses this change and she finds him more appealing. Inciting events such as these change the characters’ choices and thus the direction of the story.
In this film, there are numerous intention and emotion changes, most motivated by some event. These changes make the film perfect for analyzing. Moreover, the guideline that you stick with one dominant choice until something comes to change it is reflected throughout. Applying this simple dramatic rule gives clarity and purpose to a performance. I didn’t identify the actors’ choices because of the wide interpretations as to what they might be. The lesson to take away is that choices were made, properly implemented, and when moved by some later event, they changed. They were also choices, which supported the dramatic equations, propel the story to its optimum potential, and create the desired illusion within the mind of the audience.
Selection of these choices is not arbitrary; it comes about through studying the script, collaboration, and trial and error. On this film, it sometimes took numerous takes to obtain the desire affect. The film, nominated for seven Academy Awards, won Oscars for Nicholson and Hunt’s heartfelt performances.
Blocking and Movement. Most actors believe blocking and movement are the sole responsibilities of the director. However, the actor knows the character best and good directors seek out this input. What is blocking? Blocking is the positioning and movement of the characters to tell the story in visual terms. The visual story reflects the moment-to-moment failure or success of each character’s struggle toward their objective, as well as the intensity (commitment) and focus (direction) of their emotions. Blocking is thus the accumulation of several components: the dramatic relationship, what the character wants, what he feels, what stands in the way, and how the conflict is presently resolving.
To illustrate blocking techniques I pick an old classic, the 1942 WWII film “Casablanca” starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid. This film uses traditional blocking schemes to spin a tightly crafted tale about intrigue, love and heroism. In film, coverage (angles shot) and editing (angles and duration selected) determine the visual story and by analyzing them, we can understand the basic parameters of blocking. In particular, how blocking choices relate to the telling of the story.
In this Oscar-winning classic, American expatriate, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) plays host to gamblers, thieves and refugees at his Moroccan nightclub during World War II. Exit visas are the prize in a plot-driven story where Nazis and Vichy Police face off against those trying to escape German occupation. We find out two German couriers were found murdered in the desert and that black marketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is somehow involved. He brings the exit visas they were carrying to Rick for safekeeping.
The blocking in this scene is mostly a two-shot, (two people) sometimes standing, other times sitting. In fact, the two-shot is used extensively throughout the film as the relationships, confrontations, and resolutions are mainly one on one. This choice focuses attention on the central characters and their relationships. It also helps isolate the intimate secrets they hold and share. The blocking is subtle, yet effective, as each character has space to express, observe, and comment on exchanges.
In this scene between Rick and Ugarte (09:57), Ugarte reveals his expectations about selling exit visas for a lot of money. His animated expressions, gestures and movements make him the more interesting element in the scene and thus the composition favors his character. In confidence, he leans in handing Rick the stolen papers. To make him appear larger, the camera angle is below his eye level. This angle likewise diminishes the impact of background players. Rick is seen mainly in profile as he listens. When the dialogue becomes more profound and revealing, the angles change to singles (close-ups). This isolates the focus on one single character and makes his contributions more meaningful. Sight lines also stay consistent when cutting from one angle to another. Continuity is a prime factor in blocking and it’s important to repeat actions the exact same way in subsequent angles and takes. Watch how Ugarte handles his cigarette from cut to cut and maintains the continuity.
At 1:19:30 in, the turning point of the third act takes place. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) waits in Rick’s apartment hoping to persuade him that her husband should be given the exit visa. It is a scene where Rick is forced to make a decision about Ilsa, the exit visas, and the fate of Ilsa’s husband, Victor Laszlo. The scene sets up how the movie is finally resolved.
Let’s examine the movement and blocking. Rick enters his apartment above the club and finds Ilsa standing off to the side. He moves to the center of the room and Ilsa moves to confront him. In his reluctance to trust her, he retreats to the balcony door and she moves to confront him again. Again he moves away looking for something on his desk. She follows and pleads to him. He turns away, she moves off, and when he turns back, he sees she has a gun pointed at him. He moves closer daring her to shoot. She crumples and moves away. He follows taken in by her desperation and takes her into his arms as she starts her confession about what really happened in Paris.
A cut-away to the rotating airport beacon indicates a passage of time.
Rick stands by the balcony doorway looking out. He turns back and asks her to continue. She is now seated on the couch. He listens as she looks up at him seeking understanding and forgiveness. He moves closer. She looks up to him and in an extended close up confessing more of the story. He now comprehends her dilemma and moves around the couch sitting beside her. She continues in close up to the end of her story. In the end, she leans on his shoulder saying that the final decision is up to him. That he must think for both of us, for all of us.
When you look at this scene, you will see that the character’s wants and feelings motivate the movements and blocking. For instance, Rick’s mistrust moves him away from her and it’s her desperation that forces her to move closer, confront Rick and obtain the exit visas. As he hears her explanation of what happened in Paris, he begins to hear her out, trust her, and in the end move closer to console her. Also, note the sight lines between Rick and Ilsa, which indicates he has the power to decide. His look at the end says he has not yet made up his mind and sets up the audience for a satisfying ending justifying his actions in this turning point scene.
Casablanca won Oscar Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay. It also won nominations for Best Actor (Bogart) and Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains).
There are many learning opportunities available by analyzing acclaimed and award-winning performances on DVD. Pursuing these benefits can lower your training costs while increasing the scope and quality of your acting. This article touches on the most rudimentary elements of acting and one should research and study these elements as part of your training program.