Monday, August 15, 2005

Roger Manvell’s Film, and thoughts on screen acting

Jai here, dear Reader (as Chandrahas would say), and this is my first post on this site:

Following the comments exchange on this post I’d written on my blog a few days ago, I was trying to recollect where I’d read a certain sentence about Henry Fonda’s walk, which had nested in my subconscious; and from the cobwebbed depths of one of my oldest bookshelves I pulled out Roger Manvell’s Film, a book purloined from a local magazine library in 1991, the year I became seriously interested in international cinema.

Manvell’s book, a series of essays on various aspects of cinema, was published in 1944, when film criticism was still at a confused, underdeveloped stage. (The very simplicity of its title points to the fact that serious books on cinema were rare at the time!) Film is not widely read or widely available today (even has just one blank page on it), which is a pity, for some of Manvell’s observations are remarkably ahead of their time – he was among the few critics of that era who seemed able to look at cinema as an independent medium with its own set of strengths and limitations, rather than judge it with reference to theatre or literature.

There’s much I can say here about this book, but I’d like to focus on one aspect of it – the excellent four-page essay on screen acting (which is where the Henry Fonda reference came from). Here, Manvell says:

“The real artists of cinema acting observe and reproduce the small things…to understand this one must watch for the details of acting technique. You will see them in the eyes and hips of Bette Davis, the face of Jouvet (whose body is nearly always stiff and still) and apparent expressionlessness of Raimu (whose body is part of his eloquence), in the walk of Fonda and the poetic realism of his hesitant voice, the smile of Spencer Tracy, the differing sensuous qualities of face in Garbo and Dietrich (watch the lighting which accentuates this), the commonplace ease of Gabin. You will see these details in the signs of neurotic passion which are the strength of Agnes Moorehead’s performance in The Magnificent Ambersons. You will see them in the curious eccentricities of facial expression and bodily movement with which Michel Simon presents his characters…it is difficult to tell where acting stops and the plastic properties of face and body begin.”
Remember, this was before the advent of the Method actors (led by Montgomery Clift, John Garfield and Marlon Brando) and the new definition of “realism” they brought to screen acting; this was before the notion of an actor allowing his own personality to be subsumed by that of his character became popular. The great actors of that time (and it must be stressed, they were great actors) - people like Tracy, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and of course Fonda (to stick with Hollywood) - weren’t versatile in the way we understand that word today: they didn’t play a wide array of roles, never experimented with accents or even different looks; they could be (and often are) accused of playing the same roles over and over again. But they were versatile in ways we tend to overlook; within the framework of the characters they played, they were adept at a vast range of emotions and could do extraordinary things with their eyes, hands and physical movements. And they were almost always completely believable within their roles.

Here’s another bit from Manvell’s essay, where he talks about Charles Laughton and Leslie Howard, two of Britain’s biggest stars in the 1930s:

“Men of the great acting quality of Laughton and Howard are often accused of being themselves at the expense of their parts...a man is often chosen for his first lead because he has the right face and physique for the part: Laughton passed through a series of parts for all of which his physique and remarkable face were of great plastic value. He has great versatility within his own range – Henry VIII, Rembrandt, Bligh, Ginger Ted, Ruggles, all different and yet the same photogenic Laughton mannerisms in all. Leslie Howard varied still less but audiences loved his quiet, superior, confident, kindly charm.”

It’s interesting how Manvell focuses on individual mannerisms as markers of high-quality acting – since these days an actor’s trademark mannerisms are used more often than not to run him down. In the current Hindi film context, for instance, Shah Rukh Khan is often accused of being Shah Rukh Khan at the expense of his characters in practically every film. Now I’m not going to go out on a limb to defend SRK since I don’t have much of a personal stake where he’s concerned (I happen to think he’s a good actor based on the three-and-a-half movies of his I’ve seen, but that’s about it). But I do baulk when old-timers go on about how Amitabh was a star, not an actor; and how Sanjeev Kumar (vastly overrated in my opinion) was a Serious Actor because he consciously chose to play a variety of roles (a classic case of awarding points for intention over actual execution); and of the many other clichés that perpetuate in the name of acting versatility. It’s annoying the amount of importance many people place on the most superficial definition of “versatility” and on an actor’s ability to completely submerge himself in his part.

There’s another reason why it can be misguided to stress too much on whether an actor is believable in any role – especially when we’re talking about a big star whose popularity was built on the basis of a certain screen image. The reason is us, the audience, and the preconceived notions in our minds. The fact is, some very good actors become stars on the basis of a definite screen persona – and, yes, mannerisms - which an audience connects to immediately; and it’s pointless to blame those actors when they subsequently fail to step out of the constraints we’ve created for them in our own minds. My personal reference point for this is the 1990 film Main Azaad Hoon, a remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe, which was Bachchan’s belated attempt to move out of the mainstream. There was much talk at the time about how admirable this move was, about how he was at last appearing in a “non-starry” role. But the reason the film didn’t work was Bachchan himself: you saw that face up there on the screen, heard that voice and connected it to the Vijays and the Sikandars who had gone before, and (for no lack of effort on his part) it was impossible to see him as anything but The Superstar. John Doe? No way!

Anyway, what started as a revisitation of Roger Manvell’s book has turned into a ramble on acting theories, so I’ll stop here; but expect another long post on this topic soon. And since comments on The Middle Stage are disabled, if (as Sanjeev Kumar-lovers or Shah Rukh-haters) you want to write hate-posts, feel free to do so on my blog.

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