5/6/11 - theater acting vs movie acting

In today's excerpt - Michael Caine, the Oscar-winning veteran of over one hundred feature films, has a reputation for professionalism and exhaustive preparation -- all, he claims, so that he can overcome his natural fear and tension and come across as natural in his work. In fact, he goes so far as to describe relaxation as key for great acting. Here he contrasts theater acting with movie acting:

"If you catch somebody 'acting' in a movie, that actor is doing it wrong. ... In the early talkies, actors came to the movies from a theatre tradition and, not surprisingly, they performed in a way that was designed for the theatre. ... If an actor had to cry in a scene, he'd launch into a big emotional number to show the audience his grief. He would probably base his performance on what he'd seen other actors doing in acclaimed performances. Whether that method was effective or not, it was the tradition of the times. ...

"The modern film actor knows that real people in real life struggle not to show their feelings. It is more truthful, and more potent, to fight against the tears, only yielding after all those defense mechanisms are exhausted. If today's actor emulates film, he'd be better off watching a documentary. The same is true of drunkenness. In real life, a drunk makes a huge effort to appear sober. ...

"Marlon Brando's work in On the Waterfront was so relaxed and underplayed, it became a milestone in the development of film acting. Over the years, the modern cinema audience has been educated to watch for and catch the minute signals that an actor conveys. By wielding the subtlest bit of body language, the actor can produce an enormously powerful gesture on the screen. ...

"The close-up is the shot on which film relies most when it comes to transmitting the subtleties of emotion and thought. It can give an actor tremendous power, but that potential energy requires enormous concentration to be realized. The close-up camera won't mysteriously transform a drab moment into something spectacular unless the actor has found something spectacular in the moment. In fact it will do just the opposite: the close-up camera will seek out the tiniest uncertainty and magnify it. 'Drying' (forgetting your lines) can be covered up on stage, where the actor is perhaps twenty feet from the front row of the audience; but the camera will betray the smallest unscheduled hesitation. If a member of the crew walks across my eye-line, off camera, when I'm doing a close-up, I immediately ask for a retake. I may not have thought my concentration lapsed -- the director may assure me everything is fine -- but the camera will have caught that minute flicker at the back of my eyes. ...

"The scale of a film performance may be smaller than that of a performance in the theatre, but the intensity is just as great. Perhaps greater. On stage you have the dramatic thrust of the whole play to help you along. In film you shoot isolated moments, probably in the wrong sequence, and you have to constantly crank yourself up to an intense pitch of concentration on every shot. There isn't any coasting along in films; your brain is basically working double time or you don't exist on the screen. And you would be surprised how large a 'small' performance can be on film, provided it is rooted in naturalism.

"I sometimes encounter actors who think they're going to steal a scene by being big and bombastic. Those actors are using their bodies and voices instead of their brains. They don't realize that in terms of voice and action, less is more....

"On stage, you have to project your voice or the words will sink without a trace into the third row of seats. On stage, the basic premise is action; you have to sell your attitudes to the audience. In movies, the microphone can always hear you, no matter how softly you speak, no matter where the scene is taking place. In movies, it is reaction that gives every moment its potency. That's why listening in films is so important, as well as the use of the eyes in the close-up. You don't have to shout and scream. You don't ever have to do it big."


Michael Caine


Acting in Film: An Actor's Take on Movie Making


Applause Theater Book Publishers


Copyright 1990, 1997 by Applause Theater Book Publishers


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