Reframing Screen Performance

Reframing Screen Performance

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"A significant contribution to the literature on screen performance studies, Reframing Screen Performance brings the study of film acting up to date. It should be of interest to those within cinema studies as well as general readers."
---Frank P. Tomasulo, Florida State University

Reframing Screen Performance is a groundbreaking study of film acting that challenges the long held belief that great cinematic performances are created in the editing room. Surveying the changing attitudes and practices of film acting---from the silent films of Charlie Chaplin to the rise of Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio in the 1950s to the eclecticism found in contemporary cinema---this volume argues that screen acting is a vital component of film and that it can be understood in the same way as theatrical performance. This richly illustrated volume shows how and why the evocative details of actors' voices, gestures, expressions, and actions are as significant as filmic narrative and audiovisual design. The book features in-depth studies of performances by Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, and Julianne Moore (among others) alongside subtle analyses of directors like Robert Altman and Akira Kurosawa, Sally Potter and Orson Welles. The book bridges the disparate fields of cinema studies and theater studies as it persuasively demonstrates the how theater theory can be illuminate the screen actor's craft.

Reframing Screen Performance brings the study of film acting into the twenty-first century and is an essential text for actors, directors, cinema studies scholars, and cinephiles eager to know more about the building blocks of memorable screen performance.

Cynthia Baron is Associate Professor of Film Studies at Bowling Green State University and co-editor of More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance. Sharon Carnicke is Professor of Theater and Slavic Studies and Associate Dean of Theater at the University of Southern California and author of Stanislavsky in Focus.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472025411
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 02/11/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 310
File size: 1 MB

Read an Excerpt


By Cynthia Baron Sharon Marie Carnicke


Copyright © 2008 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07025-1

Chapter One


In the 1970s, poststructural film theory debunked the notion that film practice necessarily involves a process of recording reality. Yet this now-established view has not resulted in a widespread "concomitant re-examination" of assumptions about acting in film. While a growing body of scholarship recognizes the craft involved in screen performance, the contrary belief that cameras and microphones merely capture natural behavior continues to dominate writing about cinema. This chapter provides an overview of the central biases that condition predominant views about acting in film and a brief survey of how those views have been circulated in the popular press. Thus, we lay a foundation for repositioning actors' work as part of the complex interactions between performance and nonperformance cinematic elements.


Differences between stage and screen acting have often been framed by the normative institution, theater, which has laid claim to the positive attributes. Live stage performance has been associated with legitimacy, complexity, and authenticity, while screen performance hasoften been viewed as something other than true acting. For example, Bert O. States compares a film actor to an "aerialist who works with a net." Believing that actors are protected by the net of cinema technology, he argues that film audiences are also protected from the "toil and fabrication" that goes into performances; according to States, film "leaves us with the record of an actuality into which we can safely sink." Summing up beliefs about the unique and intrinsic worth of stage acting, States proposes that audiences of live performances are "privileged" to have experiences not available to cinema audiences.

Writing about film acting in an essay first published in 1936, Walter Benjamin articulated his era's dominant view by identifying mechanical reproduction as the central component of acting in film. Summarizing the ideas of contemporaries Rudolf Arnheim and Luigi Pirandello, Benjamin argued that "the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses." Drawing on their observations, Benjamin proposed that the screen actor should be considered an inanimate stage prop, chosen for its characteristics and inserted in the proper place. Arguing that actors in film were as passive and insentient as the tables and chairs in a scene, Benjamin lamented that in contrast to actors in legitimate theater, the film performer does not portray "himself [as] the character of his role" but instead "represents himself to the public before the camera" in a way that allows natural behavior to be captured, reproduced, and exhibited.

Today, screen performance is sometimes thought to reveal physical grace, but not true acting skill. For example, States argues that film performance "is no less a thing of beauty than that of the stage actor," but that acting in film can never achieve the sublime beauty created by actors who face the "danger" of live performance. For States, screen performance will never be authentic acting because it does not require actors to endure the ultimate test of live performance. Instead, at its best, acting in film features the skillful virtuosity of "autonomous performance" (moments that emphasize spectacle, action, or display more than character and narrative) exemplified by Astaire-Rogers dance numbers or scenes with an Armani-suited Chow Yun-Fat gunning down waves of faceless opponents. But as the case studies in James Naremore's landmark Acting in the Cinema (1988) demonstrate, even Hollywood studio films contain evidence that counters the equation between screen acting and display of physical grace. Analyzing performances by a collection of actors-Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), James Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Katharine Hepburn in Holiday (1938), Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954), and others-Naremore deftly illuminates a remarkable range of expressive techniques and effectively makes the case that film acting can be far more complex than simple performing.

Some observers who acknowledge this complexity still categorize screen performance as "received acting," that is, as performance in which the representation of characters does not arise from the agency, talent, or labor of actors, but instead through the costuming, makeup, lighting, framing, editing, and sound design choices made by other members of the production team. As Michael Kirby points out, from the 1960s forward, performance art has highlighted instances when people are prompted to say that someone is acting "even though he is doing nothing that we could define as acting," and that there are occasions when the matrices of costume, set, and action are "strong, persistent and reinforce each other [so that] we see an actor, no matter how ordinary the behavior."

Looking at screen performance from this perspective, some have found that while film actors seem to be acting, they are actually just people in costume on film sets. However, Naremore has clearly shown that acting in film tends to feature "a degree of ostensiveness that marks it off from quotidian behavior" and that different levels of ostensiveness indicate distinctions between extras, supporting players, and leads. His detailed analysis of Kid's Auto Race (1914), for example, offers a lucid illustration of the various degrees or levels of performative display created by the soapbox derby audience and participants, the fictional director of the newsreel that is supposedly being filmed, and what was Charlie Chaplin's first filmic portrayal of the Tramp. Naremore's studies of the ensemble performances in Rear Window (1954) and The King of Comedy (1983) show how the specific rhetorical strategies used by the actors are keyed to narrative demands, larger stylistic choices, and established associations with the actors who were cast.

In brief, screen acting is not simply "received acting," even when films use individuals in ways akin to photographic models. Take, for example, the films of the modernist director Robert Bresson, who introduces the "use of 'models': non-professional actors trained in neutral line readings, automatic gestures, and emotional inexpressiveness." T. Jefferson Kline observes that "the model was to become a kind of blank that, like the other images in Bresson's creation, would draw its meaning from juxtaposition ... with other images." The casting of nonprofessional actors was also designed to maintain the integrity of the interaction between cinematic elements and insulate audience interpretations from the persona established by a professional actor's appearance in a series of roles. These types of films do not feature scores of moments when actors project their characters' subjective experiences. Instead, they minimize actors' presentation of character. Physical and vocal expressivity is noticeably delimited by framing, editing, and sound design used to convey and comment on the characters' inner experiences. As Doug Tomlinson explains, while "in traditional cinema, most editing structures serve and privilege the communication of character through performance, in Bresson's cinema, the converse is true: editing serves to de-emphasize both the importance and function of performance."

Even so, the minimal physical gestures performed by Bresson's "models" can register as expressive acting work. James Quandt describes Bresson's films as "a cinema of paradox, in which the denial of emotion creates emotionally overwhelming works, minimalism becomes plentitude, [and] the withholding of information makes for narrative density." Consider the way performances are presented in Pickpocket (1959), for example. Early in the film, Michael (Martin Lassalle) is shown lifting some cash from a woman's purse. Lassalle has been expressionless up to that point and, as Kline notes, "the click of the clasp [on the woman's alligator purse] is immediately followed by the only facial expression Lassalle is to provide in the entire film: a wincing of his eyes, which has an almost orgiastic effect in the bleak facial desert of his expression." In the minimalist aesthetic, such a small performative gesture resonates largely.

By comparison, films by the poetic realist Jean Renoir are filled with moments when the actors' bodies and voices convey their characters' subjective experiences. Here, lighting, framing, editing, and sound elements are organized to enhance access to the details of the actors' gestures, expressions, intonations, and inflections. Tomlinson proposes that "Renoir's interest in the art of performance-that desire to observe performers and their characters in space" was actually the foundation for "the director's extraordinary visual style-notably his use of mobile camera strategies and deep-focus photography." Describing the humanistic and democratic perspective that infuses Renoir's films, Tomlinson notes that "Renoir's preference was not for the spectator to form an easy bond of identification with any one individual, but to recognize-through numerous characters-aspects of themselves and their society." The Rules of the Game (1939) exemplifies that approach, for audiences are consistently given the "opportunity to choose their visual focus from among a multiplicity of simultaneous actions."

For example, when the guests first arrive at La Colinière, the country estate of Marquis Robert de la Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor), we explore the contrasting and quickly shifting subjective experiences conveyed by the details of several actors' performances in the scene. One frame composition features Nora Gregor in a medium long shot (head to knees) with Roland Toutain, as the young pilot. Days earlier he had publicly intimated that his record-setting flight had been inspired by Christine. As Gregor begins to address the guests gathering in the foyer of the mansion, Marcel Dalio and Jean Renoir (who plays the couple's amusing but penniless friend) casually move into the frame behind Gregor and Toutain. The blocking and frame composition allow us to study the postures and facial expressions of all four actors as Christine acknowledges her relationship with the young pilot and announces that it was friendship, not love, that inspired his heroic flight. Frozen in his spot, Toutain takes on a more dour expression as the speech progresses, while Dalio's nervous twitches dissolve into a calm and assured smile. Quietly attentive in the background, Renoir offers a counterpoint to Gregor, whose tense voice and small, jerking gestures convey Christine's anxious confusion as she is surrounded by her husband, potential lover, and newly arrived guests.

Despite the subtlety of acting in films by directors such as Renoir, all screen performance is still sometimes seen as "simple acting," which Kirby describes as instances when individuals do something for the sake of an audience but without complexity. He contrasts "simple acting" with complex or true acting that requires actors to perform an activity, such as putting on a jacket, in a way that conveys the character's emotional and physical feelings at the moment. Obscuring the varied ways actors contribute to film, Kirby proposes that screen performances often "ask very little of the actor" in terms of creative expressivity because characters' inner experiences are conveyed by "the camera and the physical/informational context" rather than the actor.

However, comparative studies, such as Paul McDonald's analysis of the very different meanings created by similar moments in Janet Leigh's performance in Psycho (1960) and Anne Heche's performance in the 1998 remake, demonstrate that the key details of film performances can carry dense and significant meaning. Analyzing the scene when Marion unpacks her bags after checking in at the Bates Motel, McDonald notes that when Janet Leigh takes the envelope of money from the bag, she holds it in her left hand, "while her right appears to hover away from the money." By comparison, once Anne Heche has the envelope in her hand, "she opens out her arms, swinging from side to side to look around for a place to stash the money." McDonald persuasively argues that Leigh's "gestures suggest a moral struggle" while Heche's "loose swinging body indicates a sense of liberty." In short, the different ways they handle the envelope express the character's feeling at the moment; these are not instances of "simple acting" because the characters' inner experiences are not communicated by the framing, lighting, editing, or set design, but instead by the specific observable details of performance.

Similarly, our comparative studies of films from different time periods, national cinemas, and production regimes in later chapters illuminate actors' contributions to films by demonstrating that framing, editing, and production design do not do all the acting in screen performance. Of course, film actors contribute to a complex, composite medium. Hence, impressions about characters' feelings and their environments are also influenced by nonperformance elements. Film audiences do encounter performances that have been mediated and modified by the work of directors, cinematographers, editors, and others. What has been obscured by traditional views about the stage-screen opposition, however, is how film mediates and modifies some thing, namely, discernible performance details with specific qualitative features that carry a delimited range of meanings and connotations. Films create meaning not by the combination of inert physical and vocal elements but instead through the selection and combination of recognizable human gestures and expressions that carry dense and often highly charged connotations that can be variously interpreted.


The mediated status of performance elements has led observers to elide the training, experience, and creativity that actors bring to filmmaking. Often overlooked is the bank of knowledge and experience that actors draw on to produce the gestures, expressions, and intonations that collaborate and combine with other cinematic elements to create meaning in film. The entrenched equation between authentic acting and live performance has caused both academics and journalists to identify film performance with almost anything other than actors' labor and agency. Focusing on the Hollywood entertainment industry, writing about screen performance often considers things more accessible than acting technique and more in tune with leisure interests, with the popular press consistently emphasizing film actors' beautiful bodies and winning personalities.

As early as 1910 "picture personalities" had started to coalesce around certain individuals and by 1914 the star had emerged, whose "existence outside his or her work became the focus of discourse." From the 1920s forward, Hollywood studios directed audience attention to actors' picture personalities and private lives. Following the transition to sound in the late 1920s, alleged inside reports showed film actresses passively acceding to Hollywood's star factory and film actors drawing on their pluck and determination to get ahead. In the studio era, from roughly 1930 to 1950, articles in the popular press reflected and reified the established view that film performance consists primarily of instinctive behavior captured and projected on screen.

Two main rhetorical strategies can be detected in mainstream writings about film performance. As the following pages will show, in the 1930s and 1940s, inside reports about Hollywood highlighted how performers enhance their beauty and develop their bodies. In the 1950s, stories about Method acting emphasized a slightly different angle, the cultivation of players' instincts for expressive, natural behavior. These two rhetorical strategies are linked by a common view that gestures and expressions on screen arise naturally from the performers; neither fully exposes the artistic and technical training that was widely available to film actors during these decades.


Excerpted from REFRAMING SCREEN PERFORMANCE by Cynthia Baron Sharon Marie Carnicke Copyright © 2008 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

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