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songbird2

A Question About Perception of Actors

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Sometimes you see an actor repeatedly and understand that he or she is a hardworking, earnest professional who seems--well, emotionally guarded and distant from the audience despite their obvious efforts.

 

Strangely, this often seems to occur when actors try hard to express often violent emotions that are unheroic but extremely human. For example, James Mason, who could play a Nazi sympathetically--The Desert Fox (1951), and an impresario with a cruel streak compellingly-- The Seventh Veil (1945). Susan Hayward consistently strove to create beautifully etched portraits of driven women in such films as I Want to Live (1958), Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and she left me completely unmoved.

 

I realize that this is simply a subjective reaction, but I wonder if it's the lack of humor in most of their roles or simply the fact that sometimes a viewer sees the technique in an actor rather than the person. What's your view? Are there any actors whose work you respect without warming to them emotionally on screen?

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You picked a perfect one for me with Susan Hayward. I think she's beautiful, and a good actress, but she always has that 'edge or reserve' that makes you feel like you can't get close to her. Even in 'Woman Obsessed' where she had to be grateful to Stephen Boyd, she seemed to be holding back some emotions. I think I've seen everything she's ever done, and try not to miss re-watching when her movies are shown. I think the closest she ever came to overcoming this 'distance' was when she played Jane Froman in "With a Song in My Heart'. That scene of the second time she sees Robert Wagner brings tears to my eyes every time, and the medley of Americana to the wounded hospital guys was heartwarming to me also.

 

Anne

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Wow, excellent question songbird2. In particular, Hayward was apparently a successful director...you go, girl...but I didn't warm to her as an actor in the least.

 

Likewise, and contrary to so many other popular opinions, I disliked Garbo and Dietrich and Cooper and Gable and Davis and countless others.

 

You bring up a wonderful point. SOOOOOOO many actors (like Cooper, I imagine) are competent professionals yet they do NOTHING for fans like myself. While I may be in the minority, there MAY be someone else out there who feels the same as I do and what IS IT about these actors that does NOT reach everyone?

 

I mean, Garbo seems to be unanimously loved on this board, as is Cooper, yet I can't stand either of them. And you don't want to know my opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio.

 

Good question, GOOD question, songbird2, one of the best I've seen lately.

 

It IS all about the freaking emotional reaction to the person up there on the silver screen, or on the smaller medium of television, isn't it, in the end? It must drive an actor crazy, knowing that his/her entire financial future depends on the reaction of fans like me. Then again, look at all those who like Tom Cruise.

 

dolores

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I am in total agreement with you, songbird2, about Hayward, and I'm glad to see I'm not alone here. I think she's beautiful, and I have no problem watching her, but I find her screen presence cold, cold, cold. I may watch one of her films with interest, but at the end I simply don't care much what happens to her character.

 

I feel the same about Olivier - people say he was much more magnetic on stage - he does nothing for me on screen. I find much more human emotion coming from Gielgud or Guiness. They were all three classic scene stealers, but I don't think Geilgud or Guiness had to work quite as hard to get and keep our attention as did Olivier.

 

I remember Alfred Hitchcock saying in an interview (maybe with Cavett?) that he liked to cast "nice" actors like Joel McCrea, Robert Cummings and even Cary Grant, because the audience felt empathy toward them and cared what happened to them in the story. The empathy factor makes a big difference, I think. There are many actors, today as well, who aren't the most talented that ever lived, but who have that quality that makes you want to watch them and root for their characters.

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What a great topic!

 

Some performers who project this guarded trait (to me) are:

 

Paul Newman

Marlon Brando

Robert Taylor

 

Joan Crawford

 

P.S. RE: Susan Hayward---she's good at showing firecracker explosiveness but sometimes it can be overwhelming, almost as if she really did not like men.

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Well, maybe Alfred Hitchcock thought that Robert Cummings had a "nice" quality for the audience as an actor, but this audience member was usually creeped out by the actor--except when he appeared in better material under good direction, i.e. Hitchcock's Sabotage and Sam Wood's Kings Row. Outside of those movies, he was only credible as a smarmy hypocrite trying to make time with some dimwitted dame on screen. Do you get the idea that I have a strong, visceral reaction to this guy? lol--at myself. Unlike several of the other actors mentioned in this thread, Cummings doesn't even seem to be terribly earnest or hardworking as an actor.

 

One actor whose polished work always seemed to be calculated but who never reached me emotionally was Paul Muni. He was obviously hardworking, competent and conscientious, but kind of mechanical. I'm always aware that he's building a character through line readings, gestures and expression. If you could think your way into being a good actor intellectually, Muni probably would have done it. Unfortunately, as Karl Malden makes clear in his autobiography, When Do I Start, Muni was a charmer in real life, and a meticulous craftsman. Just not someone who reaches across the years, I guess. But hey, that's all just subjective.

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To me, Robert Stack was the same in every movie. He had a certain stare and monotone voice that seemed to never change no matter what the scene was about. I liken him to the present day actor, David Caruso, who plays Horatio Caine in CSI Miami....a monotone voice and he seems to ALWAYS face the camera from a side view :)

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Re Paul Muni

 

Moira, my impression of Muni is that he was an actor in the old-fashioned style, and was a bit stiff in many films. Remember that he got his training in the Yiddish theater, and the style there was of the old, declaratory, and more often than not, histrionic method of acting. I do like him in most of his films, but I also find his style of work very different from that of any British, and especially American actors he appeared with. I can see him fitting in very well in silents. Compare him with another European born actor, Edward G. Robinson. Robinson got his training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and the difference in the acting styles of those two men is striking. There's also the point that Muni was given only certain kinds of roles, sometimes rather "stylized" and constrained by makeup and accents, where Robinson was allowed more range of character.

 

I always found Garbo's acting style pretty Old School, but of the best kind of Old School, and certainly with a force of personality behind it to make you not care very much where she learned it.

 

I agree with you about Cummings - most of his roles were of the boyish, secondary lead type, and while I don't dislike him all that much, I never really cared for him. Apparently someone did, since he played the same character so many times. I think that's what Hitchcock was talking about - the public perceived someone like Cummings as "harmless" and "normal," and those were the kinds of characters Hitchcock liked to put into dangerous situations. I like Sabotage, but I think Norman Lloyd, as the villain, steals it by a country mile from Cummings.

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Eleanor Parker is another I thought of, and sometimes Anne Baxter.

 

I want to also point out that while I have observed this "reserved" quality in their perfromances, it doesn't mean I don't like the actors and actresses I've named. In fact, some of 'em I love, like Joan Crawford---who could really go to town emotionally, even if to me it seemed over-the-top. Like Judith said of Garbo, it is so but in the very best sense.

 

I mean what I say of these performers in the most affectionate spirit. :)

 

 

Miss G

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"There's also the point that Muni was given only certain kinds of roles, sometimes rather 'stylized' and constrained by makeup and accents, where Robinson was allowed more range of character."

 

Jdb1,

I really appreciate your evaluation of the difference between Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni. Both actors were experienced in Yiddish theater, but I'm glad that you reminded me that Robinson had a deeper rooting in American idioms of speech and manner and for a variety of reasons, his acting style seems to be more readily accessible to modern audiences as well as his contemporaries.

 

Muni, however may not have been as "limited to certain kinds of roles" as thought since he had a contract that enabled him to turn down any script that he didn't care for. Warners throughout the '30s and early '40s sought to find material to make Muni happy and marketable. From what I've read, it seems that Muni was, in many ways, the master of his own movie fate, and turned down many parts. He, like many actors, actually preferred the theatre, though that field wasn't as lucrative as film. In Rudy Behlmer's book, Inside Warner Brothers (1935-1951), and in the aforementioned Karl Malden book, the ability of Muni, and his wife, Bella, to turn down script after script due to their desire to make uplifting films about interesting characters and situations, rather than simply commercial products, led to strained relations with the studio and, as the public taste changed, Mr. Muni's standards did not. I think that Muni was an intelligent actor, but looked on movies as a bit beneath him at times, though I realize that many people find his movies from Scarface to The Last Angry Man to be entertaining and moving. I'm just not one of them, unfortunately.

 

Funny, I'd never thought of Greta Garbo as Old School before, but I see what you mean, though she seems to belong in a school all by herself, (natch!). Since TCM started to show alot of her silents when they did that star of the month for her awhile back, I found that I enjoyed those silents more than I did the talkies. She's distant, mysterious, and never really boring--something that I found her to be in several of her talkies. I guess I could project more onto her when watching her in a silent. Warmth was not her thing though, was it?

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I find that trait in Joan Fontaine. I find her "wooden" in most of her roles,stiff and seems to be just reading her lines. Now her sister Olivia de Havilland,I find warm and caring.Almost like you know her personally.

 

vallo

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