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). He can give banal words meaning. You believe he’s the Captain of a starship. His presence commands attention–and not just of the television audience, but also of his fellow crew, er, cast, members.
His stage training certainly helped prepare him for his work on the small screen.
It was on stage where I saw once again how future Patrick Stewarts (we hope) can transcend even a good script. Last week, I went with a friend to see his brother in a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible where three of the actors, two in particular, delivered breathtaking performances. If you get the chance, head over to the Crossley Theater before next Sunday, June 7 to see this play.
While these three actors were particularly good, a number of others also gave great performances, particularly in the Second Act. The three whose performances stood out were Daniel J. Roberts as Reverend Parris, Bruce Ladd as John Proctor and Gary Clemmer as Reverend John Hale. Yet, all of the three, particularly the two real standouts (Roberts and Ladd), overacted when expressing anger (indeed that seemed to be perhaps the biggest problem of this otherwise excellent production; they weren’t the only ones going “over-the-top” in certain emotional scenes).
It kind of reminds me of what a friend defined as the distinction between Denzel Washington‘s Oscar-winning performance in Training Day and Al Pacino‘s over-the-top performance in Heat. The former exercised control when expressing anger; the latter did not. It was almost as if the director of The Crucible counseled her cast to follow Pacino’s example.
Yet, beyond that, Roberts, Ladd and Clemmer were fully believable in their parts. You didn’t need to hear Proctor’s words to understand his skepticism about the suspicions of witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Salem. You just needed to watch his reaction to those certain that young women in the town had been possessed.
Similarly as Parris, in the Second Act, begins to have second thoughts about his zeal to prosecute when he faces the reality of the impending executions of the condemned, you don’t need to hear his words, you just need to look at his face. His longing for mercy is there as well as a certain sense of shame, as if he is aware that he might be responsible for the deaths of innocent men and women. It’s hard to show introspection on stage, but Roberts, Ladd and Clemmer all do so in the plays’ final scenes.
Watching these three on stage as well as Stewart and Douglas on screen made me wonder why, shortly after my move to LA, a fellow writer told me about the tension between actors and ourselves. But, I don’t see a tension at all. I see complementarity. Without them, our words would be just that. Words. Actors bring them to life and oftentimes find meaning beyond that we had (consciously) assigned them.
And sometimes, as with my hopes for Angela Bassett, they do the work that is beyond us. For sometimes, there are things that words just can’t express.
*Like Bassett whom I believed was robbed of an Oscar for What’s Love Got to Do with It, Mirren should have won for this performance.