Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Damn, I hate to agree with David Mamet

Since reading Mamet's OLEANNA, I've pretty much felt that David Mamet was a reactionary, especially when it comes to evolving gender roles. And recently he came out, in an article in the Village Voice, as a bona fide conservative.

So I really hate to agree with him about anything.
But the article he wrote for The Guardian is right on as far as acting goes. Here is an excerpt:

How do great screen actors portray the truth? By withholding emotion

There is a wonderful old weeper called Penny Serenade. Here we have Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. Their little girl has died in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of nineteen-twenty-something, and they are, of course, bereft.

They are awarded provisional custody of a young orphan, and raise her for four years. Grant then loses his job - it is the Depression - and the orphanage informs him that he is therefore likely to lose custody of his daughter.

He goes to the judge and pleads. Now pleading is, in my experience, the hardest thing for any actor to do. It involves, onstage or off, complete self-abasement and (again whether in life or on stage) is very painful. Most actors, asked to plead, will counterfeit the act. This is called "indicating", and means creation of a recognisable rendition of the action required by the script. Grant, in a magnificent piece of acting, actually pleads. He bares his soul before the judge, who holds the fate of his daughter in his hands.

The performance, however, that I count as ethereal is that occurring behind him.

Beulah Bondi, playing the head of the orphanage, has, through the film, championed the cause of Grant and Dunne. She has told them that the chances of the judge awarding the little girl to a family with no income are nil. She accompanies Grant to the chambers, and sits far off in the background to watch the proceedings.

We know she is disposed toward the supplicant, we see that she has no wish to influence the judge. We understand that she feels that any emotion, utterance, any comment whatever would be detrimental to the case of the pleader; and, further, that she believes in the system as constituted - she has intervened to what she considers the limit of the acceptable, and, though it is painful, she will now withhold herself from the necessary operation of the court.

She accomplishes all this through sitting and watching.

More at The Guardian

He specifies screen actors, but I think it's true, if perhaps to a lesser extent, for stage actors as well.

One of the things that used to drive me crazy when I was producing my play TAM LIN was that it was always so tough to get the actor playing the lead role of Janet to follow the stage directions as written in order for her characterization to have the right impact.

In the play, Janet's father Lord Dunbar, a Scottish warlord, has decided it would be in his own best political interest to marry his youngest daughter Janet to his ally Lord Aberdeen. Janet doesn't know about his plan, and has previously indicated to her lady-in-waiting that she considers him an old man (although Margaret, the lady-in-waiting is in love with Aberdeen from afar, but that's another plot development.

So when Janet does get the news it goes like this:

(Janet is in shock, and just stands there, until Margaret leads her
to Aberdeen.)

The Lord and Lady of Carterhaugh.

(All except Aberdeen and Janet applaud.)

What does my Lady Aberdeen say? Do you like the sound of that? Lady Aberdeen?

(At the question, Janet, still in shock, silently exits.)

I had several different young women play the role and every single damn time I had to tell them, directly or through the director, that they had to JUST STAND THERE IN SHOCK. None of them would do it the first time around. They had to roll their eyes or pout or look in open-mouthed amazement at Margaret or any number of things except stand there in shock. The role allowed for plenty of animation both before and after this moment, which is why doing nothing was so effective. But they NEVER got that until I painstakingly explained it to them. Oy.

Mamet also has some interesting things to say about pleading. One of the biggest challenges for the actor who played Rochester in my recent JANE EYRE was the monologue where Rochester tries to convince Jane that his behavior (trying to marry Jane while he had a wife, albeit a barking mad wife, alive and living in the attic) was understandable, forgivable and that furthermore she should come away with him to France and live in sin (from Jane's perspective) because in spite of any technicalities, Jane and he were truly husband and wife.

I explained up front to him that Rochester was basically pleading his case, almost as if he was a defense lawyer and Jane was a judge. He seemed to find this offensive and we had an argument - although in retrospect I believe now that he was influenced by another actor in the cast who kept trying to direct the play for me. Does David Mamet ever have to deal with bullshit like that? In any case, eventually Rochester and I came to an agreement, and the scene was pretty effective on stage.

You can read the Rochester pleading scene here.