Just over ten years ago, as I was outlining my first screenplay, I dreaded having to write a scene near the story’s climax. A middle-aged man would come face to face with the woman he had always loved, but whose affection he rejected for the sake of social propriety, his defining flaw. Given how much needed to be “said” in that scene, I feared my skills as a writer were inadequate to convey the characters’ conflicting emotions as they faced each other, aware of their passion, but accepting that they would never share it.
Once I started writing the scene, I realized how easy was my task. I just needed to write the words. It was up to the actors to convey the emotion and the internal conflict. It’s one reason I want Angela Bassett cast as the woman; she’d give Martha a depth which no script could convey.
A film buff now for nearly twelve years, I’m still amazed how actors can do just that, give the dialogue meaning that you don’t see when you just read the words on the page, sometimes give it greater meaning than even the writer intended and a meaning, entirely consistent with the character he crafted. To cite just one example, take a gander at Helen Mirren‘s Oscar-nominated* performance as Mrs. Wilson in Gosford Park. When you know the film’s twist and watch it a second time, you realize that you might have figured it all out had you just paid close attention to her face.
The ability of actors to transcend the script has been much on my mind in recent weeks, particularly in watching one movie (on DVD), episodes of a television series (also on DVD) and seeing a play (live on stage). In each production, the actors made the script seem almost meaningless (there might be a bit of hyperbole in that statement).
If it weren’t for the last two-thirds of Spartacus, Kirk Douglas might have won an Oscar for his performance as the eponymous leader of a Roman slave rebellion. For the first hour, he barely speaks, yet dominates every scene he’s in. He doesn’t need to. You know what kind of man his character is just by watching. Only when he opens his mouth does his performance seem to suffer. It’s as if speaking detracted from his acting.
For Patrick Stewart, however, words become the medium for him to transcend their meaning. Watching him in the various episodes in Star Trek The Next Generation – Jean-Luc Picard Collection, you quickly forget how clunky much of the dialogue is (Star Trek writers do better with the stories they created and the issues they explore than with the dialogue they write). [Read more…]