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Oh! What is American?

IS THERE such a thing as a recognisable, quintessential American acting style? And if so, which actor embodies it best? Brando would seem the obvious choice but as much as he changed the face of not just American acting, but modern acting itself, he can only represent the Method style and its practitioners such as Dean, Pacino, Dafoe, De Niro, Streep, Keitel, Penn, Walken and so on. Brando and Method cannot account for all the wonderful actors who came before him: Bogart, Grant, Stewart, Cagney, Garbo, William Holden, Poitier and Hepburn to name just a handful. And where are we to place the styles of a whole range of contemporary actors who have little use for Method such as Nicholson, Kevin Kline, Duvall, Morgan Freeman, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster? And though Dustin Hoffman was trained in the Method schools, his style seems to be his own. So, it seems that there is more than one style of American acting.

Nothing illustrates the difference in approach between British and American acting more tellingly than this hilarious anecdote from the sets of the thriller, "Marathon Man", recounted by novelist-screenwriter William Goldman about Lawrence Olivier's reaction to Dustin Hoffman's Method acting preparations.

One day on the sets Olivier noticed Hoffman looking beaten, haggard, weak. Worried, he turned to director Schlesinger and asked what had happened. And the director replied that there was nothing wrong, Hoffman had deliberately not slept for a couple of days and not eaten because it was Hoffman's way to prepare for a scene that called for him to look that way. Amused and astonished, Olivier snapped back: ``Hasn't the dear boy heard of acting?" In other words, Olivier was asking why Hoffman wasn't creating an illusion of a beaten, haggard character, rather than trying to physically look like one.

British acting turns on verbal skills — strong voice, superb diction — impersonation and make up to create the illusion of a character. British theatre acting is emphatically physical, not psychological. Olivier often used body posture, voice and make up to figure out how a character should be played. (All those accents he put on to play Nazis and Jewish Nazi hunters!)

Anthony Hopkins has confessed that playing Hannibal Lecter was easy once he had found the right voice and look for the part. The criticism Method had levelled at old Hollywood was that its stars did not play a character — they played themselves. What these stars brought to the screen was a tinsel personality, not a character who was a recognisable, breathing, living entity.

The Method actors on the other hand had revolutionised acting by eschewing their own personality and becoming the character they were playing.

But what should be evident to anyone following American movies today is that all of the Method actors — Brando, Willem Dafoe, Pacino, De Niro — have their own distinctive style that you can spot at once. So what personality had they left behind really?

Ironically, it's the Method actors who today come across as over the top and strained. I'm not knocking De Niro but his recent performances are way over the top, with that smirk permanently in place. The early performances of the Method actors, when they immersed themselves in a role, internalising a character till they became that person, had an authenticity to it: Pacino in "Serpico" and "Godfather -II" and De Niro in "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver". They knew how to play small, wounded, low-life characters, but seem to be at a loss to play the larger than life roles demanded of them now.

With Dustin Hoffman you never forget he is acting. Jack Nicholson is great fun but hams away gloriously. Robert Duvall alternates between being ruthlessly restrained and going over the top. Gene Hackman is still a powerful actor but every new performance of his seems to mimic his earlier one. Brando, having become quickly bored with his gifts, performs lazily. Nicolas Cage is passionate but affected.

It seems to me that of all the American actors working today only Morgan Freeman, Paul Newman, Johnny Depp and Kevin Kline get the balance right: they don't drop their individual personalities the way Method actors attempt to do, nor do they impose their own on the characters they play the way stars do — instead, they find out what part of them is like the character they are playing and use it to go deeper into the role.

"Acting is not a genteel profession," points out playwright and filmmaker David Mamet in ``True and False - Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor," his controversial, scintillating book on acting. "In ancient times, actors used to be buried at a cross-roads with a stake through the heart. Those people's performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment. Those players moved the audience such that the audience feared for their soul."


( Visuals by Netra Shyam

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