An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski (January 17, 1863 – August 7, 1938)

stanislavski lower depthsStanislavski didn’t just talk the talk – or write it in the series of books (beginning with An Actor Prepares) that serve as the foundation for acting training – he trod the boards himself as an accomplished and gifted stage actor. So much for those who can’t, teach. Stanislavski could and did.

At age 14, he began appearing in plays put on by his rich artsy family. He got his first training at home and his family was one of the wealthiest in Russia. So much, too, for having to “struggle” for your art. A little money can provide an artist with a good start and comes in handy later on … when the rent is past due, for instance, and you’re still in rehearsal.

And young Constantin does not appear to have suffered much, although he did need to conceal his true ambitions from his aristocratic relatives. They enjoyed their amateur theatricals, but would have been appalled by the idea of Stanislavski becoming a professional actor. He hid this fact from them until 1896, the year before when – at age 34 – he cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

MAT_original_company_1899_width_630pxLife became more difficult after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when most of Stanislavski’s money and assets were seized by the new Soviet Union and he was exhorted to put on “socialist realist” dramas. Stanislavski declined, continuing to produce and direct plays only to his liking until very near the end of his life  (when he finally succumbed to Stalinist pressure). And he wrote the books. Which are still read.

But acting was Stanislavski’s first love. And it is acting – his – that I celebrate today.

P.S. You might have seen this post before … on January 5th to be exact … which is Stanislavski’s birthday on the old Julian calendar, the dating system that Russia used when Constantin was born. I pulled it to repost it on his birth date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we use and which Russia switched to eventually after it became the Soviet Union. Do you think Stanislavski was pissed when he lost those 12 days? I mean, how do you “prepare” for that?

Twilight Cowboy

Jon Voight (born December 29, 1938) – American Actor

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Jon Voight is 77 years old today. If you’ve caught him as the loathsome ex-con Mickey Donovan on TV’s Ray Donovan, you may find that more than a bit surprising. Voight – in his twilight years – is scary in the part and manages to convey threat merely by his physical presence. What is surprising, too, is the fact that it’s only in later years that Voight has been able not only to play villainous roles but to excel at them.

The first time I remember him as a bad guy was in 1985’s Runaway Train. Voight was pushing fifty then, but those cherubic blond good looks – both his blessing and his curse – had yet to give way to a vague seediness, and director Andrei Konchalovsky had to ugly him up for the role of a violent prisoner with makeup scars and pretend metal teeth.

It was more than his looks, though, that made it difficult for Jon Voight to  convey menace. There just seemed to be something weak about him: some fundamental lack of self-esteem, perhaps, or an underlying sadness. And it appeared to be coming from the actor not the part.

When those qualities complemented the role – most notably in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) – the results were unforgettable. Voight was also wonderful in Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974), the story of a young white teacher on an impoverished black South Carolina island that was adapted from an autobiographical work by another wounded man-boy, Pat Conroy.

And then there was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), which costars Jane Fonda and contains Voight’s finest performance as Luke Wilson, a paraplegic Vietnam vet. In that film, weakness has been inflicted on Luke Wilson from the outside – by combat – and Voight inhabits the character body and soul. His speech to a high school (which should be required viewing in every Army recruiting office in America) is largely improvised. It’s a brilliant and deeply moving moment, which brings the tragedy of that war (and all wars) home to us in a way that few films have. Coming Home, oddly enough, is also Jon Voight’s most credible work as a romantic lead. Fonda’s great, too.

A Family Christmas Play

Sam Shepard’s True West opens in NYC – December 23, 1980

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“I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.”

The perfect play for the holidays … especially if you’re reuniting with family  … Sam Shepard’s savage comic drama about sibling warfare (and a few other things) opened at The Public Theater with Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones as estranged brothers Lee and Austin. Earlier in the year, True West had had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Shepard was writer-in-residence.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

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It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

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Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.

“I make movies for grownups.”

Lee Remick (December 14, 1935 – July 2, 1991)

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“I make movies for grownups. When Hollywood starts making them again, I’ll start acting in them again.” – Lee Remick

I’m not sure when the above statement was made. Probably in the early 1980s, when Hollywood stopped making movies for grownups. Prior to that time, and starting with her memorable introduction in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), Lee Remick had starred in a number of the better grownup movies.

My favorites include Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (1958), Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), an underrated Kazan film Wild River (1960), Blake Edwards’s Experiment in Terror (1962), Robert Mulligan’s Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Paul Newman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, Sometimes a Great Notion (1970), and Joe Sargent’s Hustling (1975), which costarred Jill Clayburgh and is one of the best and most hard-hitting TV movies ever made.

Lee Remick’s male costars in these and other movies included Newman, Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, James Garner, Montgomery Clift, Glenn Ford, and Steve McQueen. Her favorite costar, however, was Jack Lemmon – in  Days of Wine and Roses (1962) – and her role as Kirsten Clay, the alcoholic wife of the alcoholic Lemmon character, was her finest work. The performance Remick gives is every bit as good as that of Lemmon, which received all the praise at the time, and remains one of the finest and truest portrayals of an alcoholic woman in an American film.

Lee Remick was born in Quincy, Massachusetts. She died – far too young, of cancer – at the age of 55.

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I believe in Ellen Burstyn

Actress Ellen Burstyn … born December 7, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan

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I have difficulty suspending my disbelief in horror movies. That difficulty tends to increase with the size of the monster and with the amount of money spent on special effects. And that difficulty increases exponentially if the viewer’s horror is dependent upon religious beliefs that enjoyed their salad days during The Inquisition.

Here comes the Devil or one of his best buds? He’s inside a little girl? The girl’s head swivels all the way around, she vomits pea soup, and  speaks in the voice of a chain-smoking, Oscar-winning actress by the name of Mercedes McCambridge? You want me to suspend my disbelief for that?

No problem. Hire Ellen Burstyn. Her bright, fierce, bitchy, loving, utterly real performance as Chris MacNeil, mother of the pea-soup spewer, is the only reason The Exorcist (1973) held me, that I was able to go with its silly curdled Catholicism for even one minute. If Chris believed, so did I.

Ellen Burstyn turns 83 today and is still going strong.

Agnes and Orson (and Darren)

Agnes Moorehead (December 6, 1900 – April 30, 1974) – Mercury Player

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I have no idea if Agnes Moorehead dreaded “Bewitched” being the first credit in her obituary to the same degree that Alec Guinness dreaded “Star Wars,” but I certainly wouldn’t blame her. Although it was sort of hip that Endora – Moorehead’s TV character on “Bewitched” – smoked a lot and did as she pleased, the show was junk and miles below her talent.

What I remember first about Agnes Moorehead is that – off and on from 1937 to 1946 – she was an important part of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre and was the female lead or a major supporting player in nearly all its stage, radio, and film productions. Welles was in awe of the depth and range of Moorehead’s talent and never typecast her – he left that to Hollywood, for later – entrusting her with every possible kind of role.

What I remember most about Agnes Moorehead is her work as the lonely, neurotic Fanny in Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). She blew right past the artificiality and shallowness of so much film acting of the time to deliver a deep and profoundly moving performance. It is the equivalent of the great performances of the later “Method generation” of movie actors. And Agnes Moorehead got there first.

Endora who?

Here from Vienna, Fritz & Otto!

Born on This Date – December 5 – Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger

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No, these birthday twins (Lang in 1890 and Preminger in 1905) were not a Viennese comedy duo, but they were Austria’s best exports since schnitzel. And two of the greatest film directors of all time.

They must have met in Hollywood – or even back in Vienna – at some point, but I have no idea when or how and it’s a good bet they weren’t the best of friends and didn’t celebrate their birthdays together. For one thing, that would be too much ego for one room.

Each of these guys deserves a book … and both have inspired several … so I’ll just post a still from my favorite films by each: Fritz Lang’s M (1931, starring the phenomenal Peter Lorre in the first serial killer movie and still the best) and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959, possibly the best courtroom drama ever and the first to realistically depict the motives of all the people involved in a trial).

I wish I could see both tonight – in a double bill at a great revival house – and sing “Alles Gute zum Geburtstag” while the final credits roll.

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