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Acting Is the category of cinematic form that most of us know the most about . What is acting? Impersonation - pretense Embodiment (including voice) “the aspect of filmmaking over which directors have the least control” (196)

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Is the category of cinematic form that most of us

know the most about.

what is acting
What is acting?
  • Impersonation - pretense
  • Embodiment (including voice)
  • “the aspect of filmmaking over which directors have the least control” (196)
  • Seemingly intuitive or natural, but actually calculated and contrived
four key types of actors
Four key types of actors:
  • Actors who maintain a single persona from role to role (personality or type actors)
  • Actors who deliberately thwart expectations (actors cast against type)
  • Actors who are different in every role (chameleon actors)
  • Cameo actors – those from other professions who add verisimilitude
The more famous or ‘exposed’ an actor is, the harder the actor must work to be seen as anything but a personality actor.
In Courage Under Fire, casting helped shape the audience’s expectations. How would you categorize these actors in the film?
  • Denzel Washington
  • Meg Ryan
  • Lou Diamond Phillips
  • Matt Damon
a personality actor
A personality actor. . .

Harrison Ford

  • “Everyman”
  • Embattled hero
  • Tough loner
  • Action hero manqué
personality actors are often box office favorites but not well regarded for their acting ability
Personality actors are often box-office favorites, but not well-regarded for their acting ability.
  • Clint Eastwood
  • Tom Cruise
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Jennifer Aniston
  • KeiraKnightley
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Seth Rogen
an actor cast against type
An actor cast against type


  • Usually cast as a glamorous blonde beauty
  • In Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2003) she was cast as an unattractive, street-walking prostitute and serial murderer
Chameleons are considered the most accomplished actors because their work requires craft. They are often ordinary-looking.
  • Robert de Niro
  • Gene Hackman
  • Philip Michael Hoffman
  • Laura Linney
  • Edward Norton
  • Nicole Kidman
  • William H. Macy
a chameleon actor
A chameleon actor. . .

Johnny Depp

  • Pirate
  • Historical figure
  • Fantasy figure
  • Action hero
  • Mentally unbalanced brother
  • Drug kingpin
a cameo actor
A cameo actor. . .

This shot from Forrest Gump includes John F. Kennedy, who died three decades before the movie was made.

  • Sometimes a living person
  • Sometimes appears as self – or as someone else
  • May or may not be credited
  • Sometimes a historical figure (with special effects)
sometimes chameleon actors are so effective that they become full time successful actors
Sometimes chameleon actors are so effective that they becomefull-time – successful - actors.
  • Mark Wahlberg started as pop star, boy-toy, and underwear model “Marky Mark.”
  • Has now made a serious career as actor “Mark Wahlberg.”
later with jennifer aniston in the film rock star
Later, with Jennifer Aniston in the film “Rock Star.”

Dr. Jadwin’s Film Rule #36: Taking off your clothes generally does not get you nominated for an Oscar™, but putting more clothes on might.

screen acting has changed over time
Screen acting has changed over time.
  • The first film actors used stage techniques, which were often broader and more exaggerated than we accept today (“canned theatre”; Sarah Bernhardt at right).
  • Watch a short video of “The Great Sarah” as Queen Elizabeth I
acting gradually became more naturalistic as films evolved
Acting gradually became more naturalistic as films evolved.
  • Acting became more naturalistic during the silent-film period (Lillian Gish at right; video from Broken Blossoms)
the development of sound had a profound effect on film acting
The development of sound had a profound effect on film acting.
  • Early cameras were noisy and had to be encased in bulky soundproof “blimps” (see box around camera at right)
  • This restricted the area within which actors were able to move
singin in the rain dramatizes the transition from silent films to talkies and the casualties
Singin’ in the Rain dramatizes the transition from silent films to talkies – and the casualties.

It celebrates a median point in film – between b/w silent films, the technicolor revolution/studio system, and present-day naturalistic films.


To get a sense of what silent movies are like, you can watch an early silent movie that is now in the public domain.

Charlie Chaplin in

“The Gold Rush”


Barsam argues that in the film Applause, (1929, dir. Rouben Mamoulian), “we can almost feel the limited-range microphone boom hovering over the actors, one step beyond the use of flowerpots” (205).Check out this 29-sec. video.Do you agree?

in the classical studio era movie stars became prominent
In the classical studio era, movie stars became prominent
  • The movie star embodied
    • A studio-created image, because the actor was “owned” by the studio who had them under contract
    • The social and cultural assumptions of the period
    • A paradoxical combination of ordinariness and god-like fame and power
the studio star system 1930s 1960s
The studio/star system (1930s-1960s)
  • Gave studios complete control over actors, the power to rename, to define “type,” to determine roles, and to refuse parts.
  • Dominated the movie industry until it collapsed in the 1960s, when movie stars became “free agents” with more independence, but less job security
studio acting was succeeded by method acting in the 1960s
Studio acting was succeeded by method acting in the 1960s.
  • Developed by Konstantin Stanislavsky (director of Moscow Art Theatre, 1890s onwards)
  • Influenced the silent directors of the 1920s in Russia and US
  • Pudovkin’s book Film Acting (1935) codified Stanislavsky’s ideas.
  • Method acting was later taught by Stella Adler, a famous acting teacher at NYC’s Actor’s Studio.
method acting emphasizes
Method acting emphasizes
  • Natural-seeming – lifelike - acting
    • Method actors learn to identify with their characters and to develop “back story” and “motivation” ideas
    • Method actors often study real-life people to get a better sense of how to portray characters
  • Collaboration between actors and directors (rather than directors calling all the shots)
  • Improvisation to enrich the film – deviating from the script when appropriate
  • The use of expressive objects to indicate character and convey emotion
method acting is still practiced but is often combined with other styles of acting
Method acting is still practiced, but is often combined with other styles of acting.
  • Some directors counsel actors to “think, don’t feel”
  • Other directors encourage actors to feel and encourage spontaneity
  • Some actors are encouraged to invite the audience’s participation by restraining their emotions.
issues in casting
Issues in casting

Casting decisions traditionally reflect culturally widespread prejudices about subordinate groups – everybody but able-bodied white men.

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Ability
An expressive object we’ll see later in the course is the sled “Rosebud” in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
how casting works
How casting works
  • Casting professionals or agencies are hired to find appropriate actors
  • Actors are usually represented by agents and belong to a union that ensures they are paid fairly (SAG, the Screen Actors’ Guild.)
  • Well-known actors read scripts and negotiate with directors and producers to determine whether they are interested in a film.
  • Less-well-known actors take screen tests. Here is an early, hilarious screen test of actors James Dean and Paul Newman.
types of roles include
Types of roles include
  • Major roles – hero, heroine, villain
  • Minor roles (in descending importance)
    • Character actor
    • Walk-on or bit player
    • Cameos
    • Animal and infant players
    • Extras
  • Stand-ins and stunt-workers, wranglers and handlers, and body-doubles
styles of acting
Naturalistic (method). Think of Johnny Depp as J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, in the historical film Neverland.

Non-naturalistic (expressionist) – involving the alienation effect. Think of Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands.

Styles of acting
improvisatory acting
Improvisatory acting
  • Can occur spontaneously, or be decided on as a strategy by director and actors. Or both!
  • Barsam cites the “You talkin’ to me?” segment from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1973) as an example. There was no scripted dialogue/monologue for this scene; De Niro – who is a famous proponent of method acting - improvised.
Framing, composition, lighting, and the long take all affect the audience’s perception of an actor’s performance.
closeups can be very important
Closeups can be very important.

Note how, in this video clip, the filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer intercalates closeups of Joan of Arc and her interrogators (Barsamdicusses this sequence on 227).

lighting actors in particular ways helps create meaning
Lighting actors in particular wayshelps create meaning.

What are the

kinds of lighting

used in this shot

of Marlene

Dietrich in the film Morocco?

What mood is created by the actor/lighting combination?

the long take an exceptionally long single shot encourages us to focus deeply
The long take (an exceptionally long single shot) encourages us to focus deeply.

In this video, actors and director from Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) discuss why the movie enlists long takes.

(The clip is from the “Making of” featurette on the DVD release of the film.)

barsam suggests we use the following criteria to evaluate an actor s performance
Barsam suggests we use the following criteria to evaluate an actor’s performance:
  • Appropriateness; naturalness
  • Inherent thoughtfulness, emotionality
  • Expressive coherence
  • Wholeness, unity
screening checklist acting
Screening checklist: ACTING
  • Why was this actor chosen and not another?
  • Does the performance create a coherent, unified character?
  • Does the actor look appropriate for the part?
  • Does the actor’s performance convey actions, thoughts, and complexities in a way that is appropriate to the film?
  • What elements are most distinctive about the actor’s performance?
  • What special qualities has the actor brought to the performance?
  • How is the actor’s performance interwoven with the filmmaker’s overall vision?
  • Is the actor’s performance logical?
  • To what extent do we get tricked into thinking we’re watching real life?

(Barsam 235)