I guess most people don't realize something really funny having to do with actors. Please follow me: if someone under, say, thirty-five or thereabouts, watches a film with the young Katharine Kepburn, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, the young Laurence Olivier, Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Margaret Sullavan, the young James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Walter Huston, Luise Rainer, or the extraordinary British actor Robert Donat (who beat Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind and got away with the 1939 best actor Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips), in most cases their overall reaction, never mind how clever they may be, will probably be the same: "Gosh, what bad actors! Wasn't there anyone around, like the director guy, or the producer, or somebody else to tell these people that they were overacting so terribly? How could they expect audiences to believe in the characters they were playing if what you see on the screen is so far from reality?"
It took me some time to come up with the fifteen names I included in the previous paragraph. I did my best to make it a list of what I think were the most gifted actors in American films from the first decade of talking pictures. Which means one hell of a long time ago. If you watch the incredibly young Kate Hepburn interacting with John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement, you will be watching two actors doing their work seventy-eight years ago! Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth will be two of the most brilliant comedians of all time doing their stuff seventy-three years ago!. And so on and so forth, meaning that an awful lot of water has gone under the bridge, the funny thing being that lots of people would probably say that acting has come a long way. It used to be so bad and now it's good. Now you watch actors on the screen and they look and sound like people you know and can meet anytime. As for those old-timers, holy smoke, they looked and sounded phony as hell.
It just wouldn't occur to them that at the time those old-timers did their work that was the way people looked and sounded. If John Barrymore and the young Kate Hepburn had played their scenes together in A Bill of Divorcement in the absolutely marvelous style of Colin Firth and Keira Knightley (the two actors were chosen as examples on the strength of being now exactly the same age as Barrymore and Hepburn when A Bill of Divorcement was made), audiences would be stupefied for the first five minutes, until they started grumbling and getting more and more restless. Then they would start making very loud noises, perhaps even booing, and finally they would go out to tell the manager in a somewhat threatening way that they wanted their money back, just like what happened in the mid-1930s when Samuel Goldwyn brought to Hollywood the stunningly beautiful/talented Russian actress Anna Sten, whom he had seen in a German film version of The Brothers Karamazov.
Being Jewish, she would have to get the hell out of Germany anyway, and with her talent and beauty, Goldwyn predicted she would be as big a star as Garbo. But she didn't speak English. In her first American film, she learned her lines phonetically. Then she sort of learned English, sort of, but her language skills proved to be very meagre, in direct contrast to her acting skills. In a film she made with Gary Cooper, people came out of the theater saying that they had to try and make sense of their scenes together based on what Cooper said to her and on his reaction to what she said to him in that strange lingo of hers. Theater managers all over the country started to withdraw the film after a couple of days, and to send it back to Goldwyn with a warning that they would show no further films with this actress.
That's what I think would happen if films with Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Al Pacino, Julianne Moore, Tom Hanks, Julie Christie, Jessica Lange, Colin Firth, Woopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, or Denzel Wahington were put in the time machine, dispatched to the mid-1930s, and exhibited like regular films, to regular audiences, at regular theaters. People would get really angry, look for the manager and say, "Is that some kind of a joke? First that Sten woman speaking like a record being played backwards. Now these people looking and sounding like catatonic inmates from some goddamn madhouse. What's the big idea? Do you want me to stop coming to the movies?"
The really odd thing is that in a general sense everybody accepts the plain fact that artists reflect human behavior as it is at the time they're doing their work. Nobody questions the extremely convoluted manner of speaking of Jane Austen's characters. Or Shakespeare's. Just you try, even if you are the most beautiful girl in town, to look into your boyfriend's eyes, and say, "My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee, the more I have, for both are infinite". You would generate a multiple choice problem if you said a thing like that. Your boyfriend would:
a) Laugh his head off.
b) Say, "Cool-- Hmmmmm-- Daaaaaa-- Yep-- Ahhhh-- Well-- 'twas nice talking to you-- Yep-- But-- Hmmmmm-- Ahhhh-- Well-- I have to see these guys now-- at-- hmmmmm-- this place at the-- ahhhh-- Anyway-- we're going to see about this-- hmmmmm-- yep-- so-- hmmmmm-- yep-- That's it-- Talk to you some other time--"
c) Call 911.
d) Say, "Holy shit! You never told me you were into ufology!
e) Say, "Holy shit! You never told me you were into pot. Cool! Let's have a joint!"
But anyone running into that kind of language in stuff they're reading knowing that the action takes place at a time when people did speak like that will think it's perfectly normal. It will even be taken as information about the past, to be stored in the mind for future reference. Same with the other performing arts. People listen to the recordings left by Bessie Smith, Al Jolson, or Les Allen, and even though they couldn't be farther away from the style of today's singers, nobody thinks they sound odd, or ridiculous, or unacceptable in any way. They are recognized for what they are: recordings of great artists from a time when this was the way songs were played by bands and sung by singers. That's all there is to it.
With actors, however, the whole attitude is different. Whenever old films are shown, the tendency is to laugh some of the greatest actors of all time off the screen, dismissing them as impossible hams. I've heard quite a few times people say that such and such an actor didn't deserve his/her big reputation. They had just seen the actor in question in something he/she made some seventy years ago and thought it awful. What a shame for Cary Grant and Irene Dunne to be such bad actors! Gosh, Grant would have so much to learn with Tom Hanks, and Dunne with Diane Keaton! And what about the great Garbo? Awful! Just imagine how much better Ninotchka would have been if Cate Blanchett had traveled in time to play the lead instead of her? And what can you tell me about the great Laurence Olivier's unbelievably pompous stiffness in Wuthering Heights? Can you imagine that film with Daniel Day-Lewis in his place?
Some of the people who make such stupid remarks are not at all stupid. They just don't realize what a disaster it would have been for actors in 1937 to be seen on the screen acting, speaking, moving around, and reacting to one another in the style of Tom Hanks and Diane Keaton. Or for Ninotchka to be played in 1939 in the style of Cate Blanchett. There might be a riot. People might start tearing down the theater. The story would make the front page of newspapers all over and it would be revealed that something really weird was going on, like in a sci-fi novel, for at the same time as the weird-looking woman playing Ninotchka made the audience so incensed at one theater, at another a gaunt, ugly-ish, totally wooden actor, with a most unpleasant manner of speaking, and looking like a sick man who should be in hospital caused a similar reaction in the audience who had paid to see Wuthering Heights.
Actors do their work for their contemporaries. Not for whoever will be watching it seventy to eighty years from now. To say that old time actors didn't deserve their big reputation means getting it all wrong. I have recently seen a documentary about Marian Anderson, one of the most gifted singers who ever lived. At one point, you can see the audience of one of her recitals, in 1935. At another you can see people arriving for her historical open air concert in Washington, in 1939. You can see very well the expression in their faces, their reaction to what is being said to them by whoever is beside them, the way they move around, even the way they applaud. And it's all light years away from the way we look like today. They might as well be from another planet. And yet, what you see in those clips is reality! People were like that in the 1930s. The only way actors of that time could expect to make their characters believable was to make them look like that. Not like the way people look in 2010.
The whole thing seems to me to be amazingly simple and easy to understand. But it doesn't seem to be easily understood in the least. Sometimes I wonder if in the distant future, say, in the year 2090, people will still behave so foolishly. Is it possible that, on account of their way of speaking, interacting with the other actors, moving around, and playing their most emotionally demanding scenes being so different from the way people will behave in seventy years from now, the greatest actors of our times will be dismissed with comments like these? ...
"Know what? I've finally seen the great Al Pacino in one of his most famous films. Pathetic. He just can't act. I don't know how he got his big reputation."
"I know what you mean. I also saw one of these old legends in one of her most famous roles, and what a disappointment! I mean, the woman was once called 'The greatest actress of our times' and she didn't know the first thing about acting. She looks all the time like an extra they picked up out of despair after the actress who was going to play the part had a fight with the producer and left. After sticking an electronic prompter in her ear, they must have given her a couple of stage directions and said to her, 'Don't look at the camera. Never. Look at the actor with you in the scene and repeat everything you hear, exactly as you hear it. Just that. Now go. Action.' It's so embarrassing! I mean, if this was the greatest actress of her time, who was the worst?"
"Was it that bad? What's her name?"
"Hmmmm. Now you got me. Ah, yes, I remember. Vanessa Redgrave."
"Oh, but I've seen her. Man, she's so phony! I saw her in a really odd film I picked up because it would be an opportunity to see two big legends of that time playing together. She plays a woman who's dying from cancer. The other one plays a life-long friend who comes to visit. The friend lies in bed with her and they talk about the past. The two of them seem to be competing for whose acting is more bizarre."
"Who's the other one?"
"Her name was Meryl Streep. They used to have this award, the 'Oscar,' they thought was so important, and she was famous for being the actress with the greatest number of nominations for the darn thing."
People who make this kind of comment should be reminded that the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who died in 1923 at age seventy-nine, was generally considered the greatest actress of her time, to the point of being dubbed "The Divine Sarah." Stories about her genius abound. At sixty-six, she played Joan of Arc. In her first scene, a trial, the judge asked her, "What is your name?"
She said, "Jeanne, my lord."
"Where do you come from?"
"From Avignon, my lord."
"How old are you?"
She raised her head very high so as to make her face plainly visible to the entire audience, and said, "I'm sixteen, my lord."
The audience burst into the wildest possible applause and, in a moment, it became a thunderous standing ovation that didn't seem to end.
You have to be one hell of an actor to do a thing like that. But then again, that alone is not enough. I might as well rephrase it: you have to be one hell of an actor to your contemporaries to do a thing like that. What people will think of your work in the future is beside the point. You can see for yourself what I'm trying to say. Or maybe not quite, since she was a stage actress and there's no sound, but anyway, at least you can have an idea.