Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The double awareness

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Laurence Olivier

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

—William Blake

Earlier this week, I picked up a copy of Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, a collection of transcribed lessons from the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who is best known to viewers today for his role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. (I was watching it again recently, and I was newly amazed at how great Strasberg is—you can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen.) The book is loaded with insights from one of method acting’s foremost theorists and practitioners, but the part that caught my eye was what Strasberg says about Laurence Olivier:

When we see certain performances of Olivier we sometimes tend to say, “Well, it’s a little superficial.” Why are they superficial? There is great imagination in them, more imagination than in a lot of performances which are more organic because Olivier is giving of himself more completely at each moment. Is it that his idea of the part and the play is not clear? On the contrary, it is marvelously clear. You know exactly why he is doing each little detail. In his performance you watch an actor’s mind, fantastic in its scope and greatness, working and understanding the needs of the scene. He understands the character better than I ever will. I don’t even want to understand the character as much as he does, because I think it is his understanding that almost stops him from the completeness of the response.

Strasberg goes on to conclude: “If we criticize Larry Olivier’s performance, it is only because it seems to us the outline of a performance. It is not a performance. Olivier has a fine talent, but you get from him all of the actor’s thought and a lot of his skill and none of the actual talent that he has.” And while I don’t intend to wade into a comparison of the method and classical approaches to acting, which I don’t have the technical background to properly discuss, Strasberg’s comments strike me as intuitively correct. We’ve all had the experience of watching an artist and becoming more preoccupied by his or her thought process than in the organic meaning of the work itself. I’ve said that David Mamet’s movies play like fantastic first drafts in which we’re a little too aware of the logic behind each decision, and it’s almost impossible for me to watch Kevin Spacey, for instance, without being aware of the cleverness of his choices, rather than losing myself in the story he’s telling. Sometimes that sheer meretriciousness can be delightful in itself, and it’s just about the only thing that kept me watching the third season of House of Cards. As David Thomson said: “[Spacey] can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But there’s a deeper truth here, which is that under ideal conditions, our consciousness of an artist’s choices can lead to a kind of double awareness: it activates our experience of both the technique and the story, and it culminates in something more compelling than either could be on its own. And Olivier himself might agree. He once said of his own approach to acting:

I’ve frequently observed things, and thank God, if I haven’t got a very good memory for anything else, I’ve got a memory for little details. I’ve had things in the back of my mind for as long as eighteen years before I’ve used them. And it works sometimes that, out of one little thing that you’ve seen somebody do, something causes you to store it up. In the years that follow you wonder what it was that made them do it, and, ultimately, you find in that the illuminating key to a whole bit of characterization…And so, with one or two extraneous externals, I [begin] to build up a character, a characterization. I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.

When we watch the resulting performance, we’re both caught up in the moment and aware of the massive reserves of intelligence and craft that the actor has brought to bear on it over an extended period of time—which, paradoxically, can heighten the emotional truth of the scene, as we view it with some of the same intensity of thought that Olivier himself did.

And one of the most profound things that any actor can do is to move us while simultaneously making us aware of the tools he’s using. There’s no greater example than Marlon Brando, who, at his best, was both the ultimate master of the method technique and a genius at this kind of trickery who transcended even Olivier. When he puts on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront or cradles the cat in his arms in The Godfather, we’re both struck by the irrational rightness of the image and conscious of the train of thought behind it. (Olivier himself was once up for the role of Don Corleone, which feels like a hinge moment in the history of movies, even if I suspect that both he and Brando would have fallen back on many of the same tactics.) And Brando’s work in Last Tango in Paris is both agonizingly intimate and exposed—it ruined him for serious work for the rest of his career—and an anthology of good tricks derived from a lifetime of acting. I think it’s the greatest male performance in the history of movies, and it works precisely because of the double awareness that it creates, in which we’re watching both Brando himself and the character of Paul, who is a kind of failed Brando. This superimposition of actor over character couldn’t exist if some of those choices weren’t obvious or transparent, and it changes the way it lives in our imagination. As Pauline Kael said in the most famous movie review ever written: “We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies…If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”

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