Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Stop Treating Actors With Contempt"

I was doing a Google search on Greta Gerwig, and came across this interesting essay:
What a pleasure! Suddenly there are a couple of first-rate books about acting. How often can that be said? ... But Simon Callow's collected arts journalism and the succinct, beautifully illustrated new biography of Sarah Bernhardt by Robert Gottlieb raise questions about what it is actors do, and why they are the subject of such public distrust.

...For Callow, Scofield is the supreme actor because his essential gift, even in his harshest roles, was for intimating something secret, something almost beyond the spectator's reach. Pre-eminently as King Lear, Scofield seemed not just to comprehend the world's injury better than the audience, but also to carry its bruises deeper inside him. (It was certainly the greatest tragic performance I ever saw, Anthony Hopkins in Pravda the greatest comic performance.) That sense of emotional wisdom put him firmly in the company of a whole range of British stage actors – Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott and, perhaps above all, Irene Worth – who could suggest an internal life they could make us long to understand.

...Bernhardt was not above doing things to attract attention. If you habitually go to bed in a coffin, and you also maintain a private menagerie of three dogs, a parrot, a monkey, a cheetah, an alligator, a boa constrictor and seven chameleons, then the chances are that people will talk. ... Working from exactly the same motives that now attract such scorn towards Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, she chose, during the Franco-Prussian war, to turn the Odéon Theatre into a military hospital, ministering with great effectiveness and dedication to the injured, the maimed and the dying whom she laid out "in the lobbies, in the auditorium, in the wings, in the dressing rooms".

...For 200 years every generation of actors has claimed to be more "real" and therefore less artificial than the previous one. It can hardly be true of all of them or we would long have passed way beyond even the behaviourist point represented by Greta Gerwig's brilliant mumbling. Hailed as fresh and revolutionary when she set out, Bernhardt lived and worked long enough to be condemned as old-fashioned in Eleonora Duse's shadow. But anyone with my own prejudices is going to take note of what one observer called "her talent for endowing immobility with excitement" – as good a definition of a certain kind of great stage acting as I've heard.

...Meanwhile, in a world away from pretending to be someone else, actors are still, after all this time, assumed to be not quite legitimate when they express opinions on anything except how to find the stage door after dark. However easy it is to think of approved establishment names (I could pluck a dozen at random out of the air and still not reach the letter C) who spend their lives proclaiming things more shamingly stupid and downright wrong than anything even Mel Gibson ever said, somehow it is assumed that their membership of the reserve professions – politics and journalism – entitles them to immunity. They remain somehow exempt from the contempt freely doled out, say, to Vanessa Redgrave, to Kylie Minogue or, in her day, to Sarah Bernhardt. The relationship of public opinion to professional pretence remains as flatteringly complicated as it was in 19th-century France. People fear actors because they tell them something about themselves.

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