Acting, in Hollywood
ACTING and directing are closely interwoven
and neither can exist without the other. This is a natural union
and, unlike the producer-writer relationship, not imposed by the
power situation. Many of the actors' and directors' problems spring
from the same causes. The actors came into a medium which concentrated
on movement and cared relatively little for meaning, and one which
was becoming increasingly skilled in using props for emotional
effects. The new medium which had started as a small entertainment
business was becoming a big industry with mass production, and,
at the same time developing as an art, taking over many elements
from theater and literature. The directors, who formerly had considerable
power and control, were losing much of it to producers and executives,
many of whom had very little understanding of acting. The technical
aspects of camera and cutting provided limits and assets to the
structure in which actors performed.
It is obvious that acting in Hollywood cannot be quite the same as acting on the Broadway stage. The essence of all acting, whether on stage or in films, is to give reality to make-believe. This does not make acting into a unique art, and the need to make believe is not confined to artists: children, insane people and normal ones all have the same need in varying degrees of intensity, but they lack the artist's talent and training, which give an illusion of reality to an audience. While creativity in all the arts has something in common, the actor's talent differs from others because it is so intimately tied to his body. A writer and composer project their fantasies onto a piece of paper; a painter uses a canvas; a musician has his instrument; the actor has his body. His art is projected through his voice;
through his movements and gestures, as
well as through his intelligence and imagination.
This gives to acting an openly exhibitionistic
quality which takes different forms. Pure exhibitionism has behind
it the wish, "Look at me!" "Look at my body!"
But the gifted actor thinks also, "Look what I can do!"
"Look at me playing the hero, and now, look at me playing
the villain!" He does not actually reveal himself in the
way of the ordinary exhibitionist, because he plays a role, a
character created by a writer. In one sense he conceals himself,
although not entirely so. All of us have the capacity for experiencing
many emotions and therefore actor, playwright and audience can
identify with many different kinds of roles.1 Shakespeare's greatness
is due, in part, to his capacity to identify with such widely
different parts as tragedian or jester.
The popular idea that an actor is "living
his part" when he is exceptionally realistic in portraying
a role is false. Only insane people "live" their roles.
Actors only seem to live their roles. Actually, they are in intellectual
control of their performance. Through imagination, past experiences
and objective planning, the actor creates an emotion. He first
tries to get a clear idea of the kind of person a playwright is
presenting, and then to know how he would behave in the situation.
If he has experienced the emotion of the character he portrays,
this increases his understanding. But his final portrayal will
depend on a learned technique and thought-out plan, in which the
intellect is in firm control of intuition and imagination.2 Of
course, within this general pattern, there is considerable variation,
some actors working more on an intuitive level and others on a
more intellectual one. Again, it is a matter of emphasis rather
An actor whose only motivation is sheer exhibitionism will always be asking himself, "How am I doing?" while the actor for whom there is the strong desire to make believe will also think to
himself, "What am I doing?"
Of course, the two categories are not exclusive ones. Even the
most pronounced "Look at me" type has a desire to exhibit
what he can do. It is not uncommon for a young actress, who has
become a star on the basis of her photogenic qualities and whose
ability is limited to a song and dance act, to have an illusion
that she could be a great tragedian. Neither is the gifted actor
in the "Look what I can do" class completely lacking
in the narcissistic characteristic.
Hollywood stresses and gives importance to the "Look at me," "Look at my body" type. All the camera tricks, the close-ups, give intimate details of the actor's physical being. This exhibitionism is carried still further by emphasizing certain parts of the actor's body. An actress becomes known for her comely legs, and these are accented in every picture. Another one is known for her bust; still another for her husky, sensuous voice. So obvious is the use of actors as sexual symbols that in a major studio a handsome star is colloquially referred to as "the penis." Advertising strengthens the exhibitionism. Billboards are plastered with sexually enticing pictures and slogans. Publicity, whether it is through the gossip columns in trade and daily papers, or in interviews and articles in fan and other magazines, concentrates on the person of the actor. Their life at home, their parties, with whom they go to a night club or preview, their favorite hobbies, and even the details of their sleeping habits, pajamas or no pajamas, accent "Look at me." Type casting, in which the actors repeatedly play similar roles, strengthens this tendency. The audience tends to identify the actor with the role and thinks it is seeing the man and not the actor. When the average movie-goer describes a picture he has seen, he gives the plot in terms of what happened to John Garfield, Bing Crosby or Ingrid Bergman. The emphasis on type casting and accent on certain parts of an actor's body fits well into the Hollywood system which had stressed so much the use of props and formulas in the making of movies.
Whether acting is of the "Look at me" or the "Look at what I can do" type, or a combination of the two, it meets a deep personality need for the actor. It is a way of living, and not just a means of earning a living. An actor is only half alive when he is not per-
forming, and, unlike the painter or writer, he cannot work alone but must have a job in order to function. He will suffer privations for years in order to have this opportunity. The great strength of the actor's compulsion to act seems to breed an intense faith in his ability. Almost every actor, regardless of the realities of the situation, firmly believes that he could be a Barrymore or Dusè, if only given an opportunity. The stronger his personality need, the more important it is for him to believe in his ability, because if the latter is denied then his personality outlet is cut off. On the reality level, ability depends on many factors in addition to personality needs.
It is this intimate relationship between
acting and personality needs which makes all actors take their
acting so seriously. Even if the role is a small one, or the picture
in the B class, he must do his best, not just for the sake of
the studio, for the movie, or even for his reputation, but for
himself. He cannot toss off poor acting as unimportant because
he would be tossing off part of himself. Acting is and has to
be, because of its nature, deeply egocentric. Since the movie
script is rarely the work of any one person and is dominated by
the producer, it is difficult for any writer to think of it as
his. But, regardless of how small the part, or how much help is
given by a director, it is the actor who performs. Three people
may have written the dialogue, but the actor alone is talking
it. One actor, now a star, says that in a long period of acting
in B pictures, at $75 a week, he knew he must never sink to the
level of the picture, but constantly maintain his integrity as
an actor. Another star makes the same point in another context.
She says that it would be very easy, after having reached the
top, to grow "soft" and self-satisfied, but that instead
there is a constant drive to become better, to improve one's self.
To be happy most actors need to perform all the time, on and off
the job. The "Look at me" type calls attention to himself
through his clothes, behavior, and publicity stunts. The "Look
what I can do" type is always seeking for an audience for
his make-believe. The latter may be through a game of charades
at a partly, Or acting in one of the "little theaters"
when unemployed. (There are of course, many college professors
whose lecturing is not confined to a classroom and who hold forth
at the slightest encouragement.)
There are wide variations in ability, status and income among the 4000 actors in Hollywood.3 At the top, in status and income, are the stars. Beneath them are the second leads, usually character actors, who have star or featured billing. They are followed by smaller and bit players, among whom are also some character actors. The Screen Actors' Guild in 1948 divided their membership in the following categories according to annual income:4
No. Per Cent Earning
202 9 over $50,000
265 6.4 $15,000 $50,000
1130 27.5 $ 7,500 $15,000
2516 61.2 less than $ 7,500
It was not possible to get from the Guild
how many of their approximate upper 5 per cent were in the top
bracket of between $100,000 and $400,000 a year. The Treasury
Department, however, gives statements for individuals in this
group. It shows that in 1946, Humphrey Bogart received $432,000;
Bette Davis $328,000; Bing Crosby $325,000; Deanna Durbin $325,477;
Betty Grable $299,333; Ann Sheridan $269,345; Robert Montgomery
$250,000; Errol Flynn $199,999; Rosalind Russell $190,104; Ronald
Reagan $169,750; Rita Hayworth $94,916. 5 Other top stars were
on the same income levels.
Talent is not necessarily correlated with either income or status. Stars may or may not be gifted. Some are truly distinguished; others are good; and still others may owe their success primarily to photogenic and personality qualities. It is generally agreed by most actors and directors that character actors are the most talented of all the players. These supporting players are chosen primarily for their ability and there is keen competition for the jobs. Moreover, they must make good on their own, for everything on the set is not geared to their success. Cameramen, electrician and director use most of their energy and time to getting the best results for the
stars and have little left for the others. Often the character actor playing a second lead is, literally, a supporting player. If the star is not gifted, he carries the real burden of the acting and, through the skillful manipulation of the camera, the star's lack of ability is at least partly concealed. The character actor could be described as a brassiere for the star, literally holding him or her up. Of course all stars do not have to depend on supporting players in this way, but a considerable number do.
In Hollywood, among the characteristics
of the system in which all actors work and live, are: a well-defined
hierarchy in which the individuals position is determined primarily
by income; the power of the front office to assign roles; a legal
contract which binds actor to studio for seven years; the star
system, a disproportionate ratio of workers to jobs; the very
high salaries for the successful; the tendency to emphasize the
"Look at me" type of actor; the attitudes of Hollywood
people toward actors as contrasted with attitudes of the public.
The medium itself also sets certain conditions, such as the absence
of an audience, the acting of sequences out of their natural order,
and rehearsal of only isolated sequences rather than of the whole.
Some of these conditions, even those formerly considered an inherent
part of the movie medium, are undergoing change, and, as usual,
this is first brought about by the actions of a few individuals
who struggle against the conventional order.
The most formalized part of the structure is the contractual legal arrangement between studio and actor. The term or option contracts already described are more important for understanding the system in which actors work than the freelance arrangement in which they contract to make just one picture for a studios.6 The usual contract runs for seven years, with the studio having the right to take up an option on the actor's services at the end of six months or a year, with a mandatory increase in pay. If the studio does not
take up the option, or wishes to fire
with or without cause, the contract is terminated. But as noted
before, the actor cannot, under any conditions, break the contract
for its duration.
The studio's control is strengthened
by a clause in the contract which specifies that the actor must
accept the role offered him. If be refuses a role, he is suspended
without pay. In the past the suspension time was added to his
contract but this practice has not been legally permissible since
1944 when Miss Olivia de Havilland won an eighteen months' battle
against the right of a studio to add to her contract the twenty-five
weeks in which she had been suspended at various times for refusing
roles.7 Some stars have, because of their prestige, won the right
to refuse two roles in succession but must accept the third, and
an occasional star has no limitations on the refusal of roles.
But these are the exceptions. The large majority must take the
role the studio offers.
For all actors with any ability, getting
a suitable role is one of their most important problems. A good
actor can be made by a strong role which offers potentialities
for him to develop, or he can be embarrassed by a meaningless
one. This role problem is exaggerated by the Hollywood emphasis
on type casting. An actor may get typed as the hero or villain,
the "good" girl, the "bad" one, the "wholesome"
or the "neurotic" type, through being successful the
first time he plays any one of them. It is then assumed that he
can do nothing else. This is, of course, particularly frustrating
for the talented actor who wants to demonstrate the wide variety
of roles he can play.
Gifted actors strongly object to doing the same role over and over again, to weak or phony parts and to those for which they are not fitted. But the Hollywood system is not sympathetic to this point of view and the actors have constantly to struggle against the studio's absolute power. The manner in which objections are handled depends on the studio, the status of the actor, and the particular producer. One studio has a reputation for immediate suspension for refusal to play a role. Another uses persuasion and coaxing, saying that the role is really not as bad as the actor thinks it is, that he, a great star, can make it into a wonderful part, or they
212 HOLLYWOOD, THE DREAM FACTORY
may tell the actor to be a "Good
boy" or "girl" now, and next time they will get
what they want. At one studio with a number of executives, the
actor may be tossed from one to another, each trying to convince
him that the studio knows what is best.
The actor's struggle against this aspect
of the studio's power goes on continuously and takes different
forms. Occasionally, a Star goes to court. Bette Davis sued Warner
Brothers for the right to select her own story and won her case.
Now a few have this right as part of their contracts. Other stars
accept suspensions and still others try to get their way through
manipulation. For the majority of actors, it is acceptance of
a role or suspension. One star, with an excellent reputation on
Broadway and in Hollywood, was suspended nine or ten times during
the seven years of his contract for refusing roles that were either
repetitions or very weak. Miss Lauren Bacall refused to play the
feminine lead in The Girl from Jones Beach because she thought
the script was bad and the role unfitted to her. She, too, was
suspended without pay.8 Another star managed a bit better because
he had a flexible contract which allowed him to make pictures
for two studios. He had been playing the role of neurotic villain
for a long time when he spoke to the head of the studio about
changing it to an unneurotic pirate in a story he was interested
in doing. The executive's answer was, "We spent all this
money to build you up as a neurotic villain, and that's what the
people expect from you. You cannot suddenly switch to a normal,
lusty pirate." Then the star and his agent went over to another
studio and gave the pirate story to its executive, who gave his
O.K. to the picture. It was a success.
Character actors who play second leads have, of course, more difficulty in refusing roles than stars. They can accept suspension and take the loss of salary. But this is not the end of the story. The producer takes it very personally and as a threat to his power. He, a great producer, has gone to so much trouble to get a story, star, director, together, et cetera-and a character actor playing the second or third lead tells him he does not like the role, and will not play it. This, from the producer's point of view, is impertinence. A character actor has set his judgment above that of the producer.
Sometimes it is difficult for him or
the studio to realize such a phenomenon. One serious-minded character
actor playing second leads, who has very definite ideas about
the kind of roles best for him, wrote to the producer and casting
director refusing a role. There was no acknowledgment of his letters
and, instead, they proceeded on the assumption that he would do
the part, announcing it in the trade paper. The wardrobe person
phoned him to come in to be measured for his clothes. He refused
and then the fuss began. However, the studio, which happens to
be a large one with the policy of keeping its actors "happy,"
was very polite. Also the actor is exceptionally gifted and in
great demand by other studios. Just before his refusal he had
been loaned out for eight weeks, his studio receiving four fifths
of his annual salary for that time. He is a valuable property,
to be handled carefully, and his suspension lasted only a short
Most of the time, actors, for whom the choice of a role is important, try to manipulate the situation. If a weak part is offered, the agent may say, "Let me handle it; I'll be the villain of the piece. You must keep in good with the producer!" The agent may or may not win. At other times, the agent may have so many irons in the fire in his complex dealings with the producer that he only pretends to negotiate about the role, and actually double-crosses his client. The actor may, of course, go directly to the producer. A character actor who was asked to do the second lead told the producer directly that he did not want the part because he neither liked nor respected it. The producer rather agreed with his opinion of the role, but pointed out that he could not very well go with such a reason to the front-office executive, who would be affronted and insulted. A character actor is not supposed to think about a part in terms of good or bad, but gladly take what is offered. However, the sympathetic producer in this situation said, "Make a test for the picture. I'll have to have something to tell the front office, and I'll say that your test is no good."
Another time, when the producer was not sympathetic and an actor thought a role, that of a foreigner, was not good for him, he asked the makeup man to report that he could not possibly be made up to look the part. Sometimes an appeal is made to the cast-
ing director not to be recommended for
a contemplated role. Or, the actor may resort to telling the producer
how "unhappy" he will be playing this role, the theory
being that an unhappy actor does not do a good job.
In spite of all this manipulation and the many suspensions, the majority of gifted actors have to do a large number of roles they consider phony. Most of them do not expect more than a few good ones during the life of their contracts. There are two alternatives. One is to try to believe that the synthetic or phony role is a true one. The other is to accept the part realistically for what it is, but play it as well as possible. The second reaction seems the healthier.
This business of role is of serious concern
only to those actors who are gifted. While these are a minority,
their importance far outweighs their number, as is the case for
the small percentage of talented writers and directors. The majority
of actors do not know enough to judge what role is good for them.
For these actors with little or no ability, who photograph well,
and who play themselves, type casting is a protection. An attractive-looking
young actress with very little talent or experience was cast in
a naive and innocent role in which she was quite successful, because
she was playing herself. It would not have been possible for her
to play the role of a girl desperately and passionately in love.
The role situation is one more way in which the Hollywood system
is geared to mediocrity rather than talent.
The role is part of the larger problem of script and all the able actors emphasize the importance of the latter. They know that the quality of their acting depends to a large degree on what they are given to interpret, and they bemoan the fact that so few of the scripts are any good. For this, many blame the writers, condemning them as lazy people who do not earn the money they are paid. A few, who know the system under which writers work, regard them as frustrated and glorified hacks, for whom they have no respect.
Another significant part of the contract is the right it gives the studio to loan an actor to other studios. The transfer is always at a higher salary and the studio pockets the difference. Some actors
are under contract to individual producers who make fortunes selling them to their own, or to other, studios. It is always to the advantage of an actor's reputation to be in demand by different studios, but it is his producer or studio, to whom he is under contract, that makes the actual profit.
The option and loan-out rights given
to studio executives seem to be accepted by the actors as an inevitability
which they resent but do not actively fight. The Screen Actors'
Guild has, however tried to reduce the number of years in the
contract, and a few individual stars in advantageous bargaining
positions win concessions such as a straight contract without
options, and with restrictions on being loaned out. But for the
majority of actors, including stars and featured players, these
are the conditions under which they work and part of the price
they pay for their enormous salaries. Among other compensations
are a guaranteed forty weeks of work a year, or pay for that time
whether working or not. The basic minimum rates of pay are much
higher than for comparable work elsewhere, and stars are the highest
paid group of people in the country.
The fact that the movie industry is completely unionized and that the artist's unions or guilds have accepted conditions of work which most American workers would find debasing is one of the many contradictions of the community. Indentured servants during the American colonial period were bound to their masters for a number of years, but even they had a security during that period which the actors lack. College professors, most of whom are in no union or in a relatively weak one, generally have been able to secure tenure on their jobs after a probationary period, but are free to leave them at any time. The situation in Hollywood is unique in trade-union history and in economic practices since the Middle Ages.
Even with the best contract, most movie actors who have been on the stage say that there is an inherently frustrating quality in film acting. The custom of acting disconnected bits of script at different times, instead of going through a whole play in its natural order
is thwarting. In movie acting there can
be no gradual working up to an emotional climax, sustaining it,
and then tapering off. Instead, the actor may begin with a small
scene in the middle or end of the script, concentrate on it and
then proceed to another sequence which has the same physical setting,
but is completely separated emotionally from it. Between them
are tedious periods of waiting, while lighting is tested and other
details are attended to. Then there are the endless repetitions
of takes of the same sequence. The day is spent in constant alternation
of feeling tone, the climax and then nothing, followed by another
climax and again nothing, or the tiresome repetition of the same
small bit time after time. The stars have portable dressing rooms
to which they retire during the long waiting periods, while others
idle on the set. For all, with or without a dressing room, the
idling is emotionally tiring and physically fatiguing. An actress
with Broadway experience says that on the stage, when she is playing
both a matinee and evening performance, she has a feeling of exhilaration
at the end of the evening even though she is tired. But at the
end of a day on the set, although she has acted only a couple
of scenes, she is completely exhausted and let down emotionally.
The reason for this seeming irrational way of acting is that by
concentrating all the scenes in which the same people appear and
in the same background, regardless of their order in the script,
an economy is effected. Actors are employed only for the time
they are doing their parts rather than for the whole of the shooting.
Another difference between movie and stage acting is that in Hollywood the actor often works with strangers. He arrives on the set and is immediately supposed to do an intimate scene with someone he does not know at all. On the stage the cast has a chance to know each other during the long weeks of rehearsals and the try-outs on the road. A repertory company, accustomed to acting with each other in play after play, carries this advantage to the utmost. The extreme of strangeness occurs when a movie actor is loaned to a studio, meets the cast for the first time, and has to play a role portraying intimate relationships with some of them. The assumption seems to be that the movie actor is a robot and that this practice, therefore, has no effect on him.
For every stage actor, rehearsals are an important part of his preparation for playing a role. A number of directors, more particularly those from Broadway, would like to have rehearsals before they begin to shoot the movie. But the expense and difficulties in arranging them have been considered forbidding. The leading actors may not be free from other studio obligations until the date of the shooting, and rehearsal time would add to the budget. However, an occasional director has experimented with a week or two of rehearsals and found that he got a better picture and saved time later in the shooting. The rehearsals then caused no additional expense. It is possible for the date of beginning a picture to be the time for starting rehearsals rather than shooting, and contracts made accordingly. But the system of production has not been geared to rehearsals and only rarely has a daring director questioned the accepted belief of the front office that rehearsals would add to the budget. The exceptions are now becoming a bit more common, because it has finally been discovered they save money. According to a report in the New York Times, October 30, 1949:
From its earliest days, Hollywood has followed the practice from which it only occasionally has departed, of shooting pictures with little or no rehearsal by the players except such as they may engage in briefly, scene by scene, just before the director calls for action on the set. Lately, however, in their efforts to find ways and means of bringing down costs, some producers and directors have discovered that time and money can often be saved-and the artistic quality of their screen plays improved -- if casts are well rehearsed in advance of shooting.
Because the front office usually tends
to think and work according to old formulas and is afraid of new
ideas, rehearsals had to wait until Hollywood fell on hard times
and then in desperation tried something different. Hard times
have their advantages.
Rehearsals also provide training for young actors with small parts. A player on the stage with only a line or two goes through all the rehearsals with the cast for weeks in advance of the plays. He knows what the play is about. He sees all the actors doing their parts and watches the leading actors improve themselves in re-
hearsals. In contrast, the small-bit
player in movies is called in to do his part for one day only,
when the particular scene in which he says his line is shot. He
knows nothing about the script; he may not even know what the
name of the movie is; certainly, he knows nothing about the relation
of his small part to the whole. When he comes on the set the director
tells him what to do and how to say his few lines, and then he
goes home. It has therefore been impossible for any actor to receive
training by doing small parts in movies.
Training is conspicuously lacking in
the studios. The large ones do have something called "training"
for starlets, but it is primarily in such details as posture,
speech, and the elimination of an accent. There is nothing at
the studio comparable to the experience gained at a good dramatic
school or by having even small parts in Broadway shows. Hollywood
generally depends on the stage for seasoned actors.
The absence of an audience while acting
is one of the conditions inherent in the movie medium. This problem
of actor and audience is not an easy one to explain. On the stage
the actor cannot see the members of the audience, but he says
he feels them and knows how they are reacting through their silence,
laughter and slight moments. It is difficult for any exhibitionist,
actor or not, to be at his best if there is no one, seen or unseen,
to admire him. Of course, the movie actor has a pleasure later
in looking at himself acting, and also, the foreknowledge of an
eventual enormous audience. These, however, do not seem to completely
compensate for the lack of audience when he is before the camera.
But actors vary considerably in their reaction to this problem.
Some have great difficulty in adjusting to it, others are able
to use substitutes and still others seem relatively unaffected
One actress with a long Broadway experience says she first felt like a "fish out of water" on the set, and that "an actress without an audience is like a fire horse without a fire." She thinks that actors who have never performed before a real audience are at a disadvantage, because then they cannot even imagine one. Another actor who had been a Broadway star before he came to Hollywood says that he uses the people on the set-the cast, the carpenters, the
electricians, the extras, the various
assistants-for his audience, and that he can tell from their reactions
how he is doing. Other actors say that the prop men and electricians
are playing gin rummy or betting on horses while they wait around
on the set, and cannot be compared to an audience which pays money
to see a play. Actually, many of the crew with long experience
on the sets are blasé, self-taught critics, and the occasional
spontaneous burst of applause from them, as a sequence is finished,
is considered very rewarding. Many actors try to use the director
as an audience. They play to him and wait for his reaction. But
to make this method effective the actors say they must have a
director who has a knowledge of acting-and they add that there
are very few of these
All actors, no matter what their type,
experienced or inexperienced, need a good director. It is paradoxical
that although acting is the most deeply egocentric of all the
arts, the actor is at the same time completely dependent on other
people. Gifted or mediocre, he cannot perform without a director's
help. No actor can see himself while he is acting, and it is imperative
that a director tell him whether his characterization is too strong
or too weak in relation to other roles, and to the whole. This
is the minimum function of a director. Often an actor, particularly
an immature one, needs to have explained the meaning of the script
and his role and its relationship to the others. This is the director's
job and it is he who must skillfully integrate all the parts into
a well-balanced whole. The description given by many actors of
a good director is one who knows not only the technicalities of
camera and cutting, but who also understands people and drama.
He plans everything in advance and, since he knows the place of
close-ups, medium and master shots, he does not have to waste
time and money making every possible shot. At the same time, he
is flexible and can incorporate good ideas from actors or anyone
else, without losing the main theme. On the other hand, he must
not take every suggestion, but have sufficient judgment to know
what to reject and what to use. The director is the key figure
in drawing out the best tom both actors and script.
According to the actors the majority of directors are too mediocre to even begin fulfilling this function. Most of them, they say,
are traffic cops, who simply keep actors
from bumping into each other as they move from one chalk line
to another. The experience of stars, featured players, character
actors, bit players, starlets, is remarkably uniform. All complain
about the infrequency of helpful directing. One man, a star both
on the stage and screen, who goes back and forth between Broadway
and Hollywood, says that of his twelve Hollywood directors, three
were really good. The others were mediocre or bad. As a star in
A pictures he naturally has a better chance at a good director
than most actors. But he says that some of his directors did not
even understand what the picture was about. One was completely
dictatorial and resented any suggestion an actor made. Another
took every suggestion, good or bad, made by anyone. Only three
were able to give him the necessary cues to indicate if he was
going too far, or not far enough.
Another star, who had come to Hollywood
after playing leading roles on Broadway, says that his first picture
was very successful, and because of this and his Broadway reputation,
he was regarded as "terrific," and most of his directors
were afraid to direct him, leaving him almost completely alone.
This, he says, was bad for his acting. Of his twenty-five Hollywood
directors, all in A pictures, he rates five as good and three
of these as excellent. Many of the others, he says, did not know
the meaning of the script or have any real knowledge of acting.
They concentrated almost entirely on technical details. In one
picture the director gave all his attention in an important scene
to getting unusual light effects from a broken glass. But in achieving
this he forgot the meaning.
A leading star, in movies for a long time, says that he has had about sixty directors, only three of whom were creative and able to help him. The creative director, he says, treats each actor as an individual and stirs his imagination, and has a capacity of synthesizing all the actor's contributions. He and many other actors test out a new director on about the fourth day of production to find out if the latter knows what it is all about. The test consists of the actor purposely doing something badly to see if the director notices it. If the latter is oblivious, then the actor sadly knows that he is or his own.
An actress who began with small roles and has worked up to feature parts says that of her thirty directors no one was in the superior group. None were able to help her and she has been grateful when they did not, at least, interfere. Her chief complaint is that the directors do not know what they want. She tells about one scene in which she and several other actors were sitting casually around a table and supposed to convey a certain meaning by the manner in which they exchanged glances. The actors in this scene were all experienced and knew the meaning of what they were portraying. They exchanged the meaningful glances indicated in the script, but the director did not appear to understand what they were trying to convey. He told them to repeat this scene eight or nine times. They kept on looking at each other in many different ways, but it never seemed to suit the director. Finally, the weary actors "hammed" the scene, looking at each other in a most exaggerated fashion. The director did not like this either. Then they went back and played the scene as they had done it the first time. The director then said this was O.K. The same director made another actress, who happened to be a star and talented, do the same scene twenty-five times; he was completely unable to tell her what was the matter with it-just simply telling her to repeat it. When she finally flounced off the set, very angry, the director retorted that he had been in the movies for thirty years, that there was nothing he did not know, and never had he worked with such temperamental actors. He was unsympathetic and ungracious with everyone, from bit player to star, never giving the encouraging "well done" to any of them.
Sometimes a conscientious director makes a mistake simply out of his ignorance about acting. In a big A picture the leading role was played by a popular star. Before she had been chosen, the studio had tested another more gifted actress for the part, and, although the latter had done extraordinarily well, the studio decided she was not sufficiently box-office and therefore gave the role to a better known star, who, while competent, was decidedly less gifted. Before they began the big climax scene, for which the first actress had tested, the director spent several hours looking at this test.
He then came on the set and tried to teach the star to do it exactly as the other actress had done it. The scene turned out a mess. The star was competent enough to have given a creditable performance if she had been given moderately skilled direction. But when the director tried to turn her into another actress, he ruined her chances. He was unaware that acting is not imitation, and he did not know that the different personalities of the two actresses prohibited mechanically transferring the acting of one to the other.
How much an actor can argue with a director
depends on the relative status of each. One elderly star, respected
by everyone for his long history in the theater as well as movies,
and for his known ability, usually does discuss the script and
role with the director, but with varying success. One gave him
the script to read in advance and asked him what he thought of
it, and after reading it carefully, he said that the major character
lacked consistent motivation. The director agreed with him and
together they discussed the problem with the writer, who then
rewrote the script along the indicated lines. However, with another
director, this actor had quite a different experience, when he
tried to tell him that more meaning should be given to the script.
The director refused even to discuss the matter. The actor's explanation
is that this director was insecure and had a strong feeling of
inferiority, which he tried to conceal by asserting his own will.
At another time the actor tried to get a director to pay more
attention to the meaning, but the latter was not interested because
he was concentrating on getting the reflection of a fire in a
fireplace, rather than the meaning of the scene. Of his thirty
directors this actor, who has played only in A pictures, says
that ten were good; and of these, two or three were "tops."
Another actor, younger and playing featured roles, not as well established, says that he chooses very carefully the occasions on which he argues with a director. He does not argue every time he feels like it, but only on those situations which he considers very important, and on which he thinks he has a good chance of winning his point. If he did this too often, he would gain a reputation of being "difficult." Also, arguing upsets him, and he then cannot
give the best to his role. But when things get too bad he "pitches in." He adds that sometimes he comes out with increased respect from the producer and director. Of his eleven directors, two were good and one was excellent. The latter knew and understood the Script and its characters, made the actors feel at ease and encouraged them to give their ideas. Although this director had everything planned in advance he was able to incorporate new ideas. Everyone in the set felt that the making of this film was truly collaborative.
Young actors without stage experience
or training, playing relatively small parts, need help even more
than the older and gifted ones-but rarely get it. One, who has
been playing small roles for the last four years, says, "Most
directors give you no help at all." She continues, "The
studio employs you for your physical type and perhaps for your
ability, too, and then it leaves you alone." In only one
picture, her last one, did she get real help by the director.
It was a unique experience for her to have the director talking
over the role with her, telling her what it meant, and helping
her to understand it. She says, "An actress needs psychological
understanding and must get it from someone." This director
not only made her understand what she was doing, but for the first
time she was put at ease. She thinks that her acting improved
greatly under his direction. It was also a new experience for
her to be on a set where everything was well planned in advance.
She was accustomed to directors who worked in a haphazard, unplanned
fashion. She is grateful for this last experience and hopes she
will be able to work with the same director again.
She tells about another director who
tried to establish a good relationship with the actors through
a constant stream of jokes. But, she says, the funny story just
before she began a sequence, distracted and threw her off.
Another starlet, who has been at a studio for three years doing bit parts, and who recently secured a featured role, describes her idea of a good director as: "One who is friendly, puts you at your ease, and is interested in bringing the best out of you. He tells you the meaning of the roles. He works with you all the time,
telling you when you are too strong or
not relaxed enough He doesn't order you about but his suggestions
set the tone for your acting. Many of the directors are friendly
and pleasant, and you might like them personally, but they tell
you nothing and give you no help. And there are others who tell
you the wrong thing to do. At the moment you don't know it is
wrong, but you realize it later when you see the picture."
A youthful actor, who has worked up from
bit parts to feature roles, says that of his eight directors two
were good. These two gave him the emotional meaning of his role
and he was then able to make something out of it. The others gave
him no understanding at all, but would merely say, "Make
it come alive," or "Play it as you feel it," which
was no help. They were primarily concerned with telling the actors
to walk to this or that chalk mark on the floor, or make this
or that kind of gesture, but never with the meaning. These men
also never seemed to prepare in advance of the shooting date and
gave the effect of not knowing where they were going.
A young actress, after eight years in the movies and with previous training and experience limited to singing and dancing in night clubs, recently became a star. Her last picture was the first one in which she had a director who explained what her role meant and the feelings underlying it, and who then worked with her on how she could best express them. She describes him as a "genius." He happens to be a very good director from the Broadway stage, but not in the genius class. But he is the first director who made her feel like an actress. In all her other pictures, she says, the directors were concerned primarily with the camera technique and different kinds of shots. She felt like an automaton, making this or that kind of motion, which the camera caught in long, medium or close-up shot. Actually this actress appears to fall rather definite in the "Look at me" category. In the living room of her home the only pictures are three oil paintings of herself, two of them full length. In this movie, which she considers her best, she shows little acting talent. Yet she resents being regarded as a package of goods which photographs well and a good director was able to call forth some emotional response from her; for the first time she felt hu-
man and that she was actually portraying
a character, and not simply moving from one chalk mark to another.
The attitude of the director to the actors may be pleasant and friendly, or cruel and sadistic, and is not correlated with his ability. There are unkind directors who know nothing about acting or directing and others who are able. One, whose ability lay mainly in ridicule, could make an actor so self-conscious that his performance was spoiled. This director once said, "There are only supposed to be two people in this scene; we do not need an elephant. Although the actor tried not to show that the remark had got under his skin, he became acutely self-conscious and muffed his part. Another director known for his cruelty is, however, gifted and some actors prefer to work for him because he does know what is good for them and the film. One says if he has to make a choice he prefers a cruel director whose work he respects to a kindly one without ability.
Whatever the director's personality,
the actor needs his help. The able director can give an inexperienced
actor a training which he carries with him when he leaves the
picture and the studio. If the actor is trained, he still needs
a director to provide the perspective on his work in relationship
to the whole. Any actor can be enriched through working with a
gifted director. All actors emphasize that they need a director
who can go beyond the mechanics of the camera, who knows how people
behave in certain life situations, and who can suggest the small
touches which make a character come alive-such as, for instance,
the way a drunkard crossing a street would come up on the curb.
They want a director who has grown up sufficiently in the use
of his medium to emphasize meaning as well as movement, which
while still very important, not the only essential as it was in
the early silent films. They need a director who sees them as
something more than just other "props" as human beings
with feelings, emotions, imagination and intellect.
Ironically, the studio places great emphasis on the realness of its non-human props. Furniture and clothes must authentically represent the period; location shooting is desired because the back-
ground is real. But people can be robots
or automatons. A gifted actor is often frustrated because at the
height of climax the camera concentrates on a prop such as a broken
chair, rather than on him as the director endeavors to get a synthetic
emotional effect through the juxtaposition of non-human objects.
Actors frequently are portrayed as passive
creatures, spiritless zombies, rarely registering an emotion.
This seems to be an inversion of the primitive man's animism,
whereby he attributes human qualities to material objects such
as stone or a wood carving. In Hollywood it is the human beings
who are treated as if they were inanimate objects which paradoxically
are given meaning by the director. The custom began in the silent
films, and long after the need has ceased to exist continues and
even grows stronger. Many of the young female stars today lack
all individuality. They seem to both look and act alike, and it
is not easy for those who are not regular movie-goers to tell
them apart. Their goal appears to be the cultivation of a completely
expressionless face and voice. The older women stars, now in their
forties, have more individuality than the younger ones and at
least can be told apart.
What began as a necessity, getting emotional
and human effects from props and material objects rather than
from individuals, has remained and increased, long after the need
has ceased to exist.
More and more talented actors are brought to Hollywood from Broadway. But the factory system is slow to change. Gifted actors, like talented directors and writers, have to constantly struggle to use their special skills for their own good, as well as for that of the movies.
The difficulties in getting suitable
roles and helpful directors could be met by a more flexible system
of production, responding to new conditions, and one in which
those with power understood the nature of acting. For the front
office, many of the conditions under which movies were first made
still tend to be binding.
Gradually, because of the need for economy, changes are occurring. Even rehearsals, long considered impossible, are, as we have noted, slowly becoming a new trend. Intelligent planning and
imagination could eliminate part of the time lag. This situation is not unique. Many a primitive society in the South Seas also keeps its antiquated system of agriculture limited to yams, tare, coconuts and bananas, long after diversified farming has been introduced.
1 Otto Fenichel, "On Acting," Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1946, Vol. XV. No. 2, p.150.
2 This point of view was expressed by many actors in interviews, and also in Motion Picture Acting by Lillian Albertson. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co.
3 This is the approximate membership of the Screen Actors' Guild. There are also between 4000 and 4500 extras in the Screen Extras' Guild.
4 Guild dues are based on percentage of income.
5 Variety, February 9, 1949.
6 (In 1948 there were 342 actors under the longterm contracts to studios. This is considered subnormal. During the years from 1937 to 1946, the number varied between 600 and 800. Those under contract include most of the top bracket people, as well as starlets.) (Information from the Screen Actors Guild.)
7 New York Times, March 20, 1947.
8 Variety, April 25, 1948.
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