Acting and Reality

Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday is one of the great screwball comedies, full of smart one-liners, snappy put-downs and mistaken identities. But one moment that particularly stands out is when Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is briefing the police to look out for his ex-wife’s fiancee Bruce Baldwin. “He looks like the actor Ralph Bellamy,” he says. This is, of course, hardly surprising — because Baldwin is played by the actor Ralph Bellamy. 

While they certainly play with the unspoken rules of film-viewing, such in-jokes are generally in comedies, where we’re less required to believe what we’re watching. There’s not a lot of post-modern cheekiness in There Will Be Blood. But they do raise the issue of reality in performance; and of whether too much reality can actually break the spell. David Mamet, in Bambi vs Godzilla, discusses the role of musicians in the movies. In the old days, he points out, when a character in a film played the piano, you showed him sitting at the piano; then his face, looking soulful as he played; then perhaps some hands at the keyboard. What you very rarely saw was any concrete proof that the actor was actually playing the piano, because he very rarely could. Today, on the other hand, a great deal is made of showing the actor actually playing the instrument, or singing his own songs. But does this really add to the credibility of the character? Mamet argues that it doesn’t; that it more often breaks the movie’s spell by making us think “oh, look, XYZ can play the piano”. It is, in other words, an act of vanity on behalf of the actor that actually undermines the story that it’s trying to tell. 

Another example of this in contemporary Hollywood is the insistence that an actor “did all his own stunts”. Now: is this to the benefit of the movie, or the benefit of the actor? If the former, all well and good, but it’s hard not to think that it’s more often the latter. Think of the opening shot of Mission: Impossible 2, which goes to enormous lengths to prove that “Ethan Hunt” is really hanging off a cliff face in the Outback, but in doing so serves only as an advertisement for Tom Cruise. More complicated, because so artistically well intentioned, are the ordeals that Christian Bale endured for Werner Herzog in making Rescue Dawn. In this film, which feels like an almost-sequel to his breakthrough picture Empire of the Sun, Bale plays a German-American pilot shot down over Laos and then tortured and imprisoned in terrible surroundings. In classic Herzog style, as much of the story as possible was filmed for real, with the actors scarily underweight and Bale tucking into writhing maggots with apparent hunger. But does this add to the credibility of the story, or have the oppposite effect? In an Indiana Jones movie, we can laugh and squirm when actors eat chilled monkey brains, knowing that they’re a Hollywood prop, and it doesn’t break the story. But Herzog’s determination to prove the reality of what Bale is doing has the opposite effect: “Wow!” we think, “Christian Bale is eating maggots!”. Movies, to misquote T.S.Eliot, cannot bear very much reality.


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