The Actor’s Body

I was fixing dinner one night recently and the television was on. Even though I wasn’t watching it, I liked listening to the dialogue–I think that’s the only way I ever watch network TV; I am interested in speech, in the rhythms of speech, particularly scripted speech: writing as talking, talking as writing.  In any case, television serials are, for the most part, plot and dialogue driven, and one can often tell what’s happening by what is being said rather than what is being shown. A variation on radio stories, TV as “anti-cinema.” While washing some spinach, I could tell–I could hear–that the show’s protagonist and his wife were at a theatre–a “first night”–and, seconds later, I could tell they were watching Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “America Hurrah.” This I knew less by what the actors were saying, than how my body reacted to what they were saying. I had appeared in the “Interview,” section of the three act piece when I was a drama student at the School for the Performing Arts. And before I quite knew what was happening, I was saying the words–my part–and I wasn’t washing spinach, I was that character again, on that stage again, trying to put the writer’s ideas, and my character’s, over. Montgomery Clift, to my mind the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, once said that acting was hard because your body didn’t know you were acting. And that is, perhaps, the most precise definition I’ve ever heard of the actor’s machinery: to make a character or situation real, your body, and the emotions and thoughts it contains, has to infuse it all with their real blood, and tendons. That may explain the jitteriness one sometimes encounters with actors in what passes as real life: they are filled with words and situations their bodies can’t forget. That is, they are “themselves,” in the world, buying overpriced necessities or crap in supermarkets like the rest of us, but they’re past lives, as other people feeding on their real nerves and blood, trail after them like old tin cans. Or Marley’s chains. They take on a part, and it will not let them alone. (Nina Simone once wrote that part of her madness at a certain point was the direct result of not being able to forget song lyrics.)  That is where their training comes in; Sandy Meiser, Stanislavsky, Strasberg, not only helped the performer free themselves, but to build up their internalized shrink’s office, a place where they can gain some distance, perspective, on the fictional skin they inhabit for real. In a wonderful book called “Bergman By Bergman,” the great Swedish director talked about a particular shot featuring Liv Ullman–a close up. Bergman’s interlocutor asked if he used a special filter to capture a certain look on Ullman’s character’s face. And Bergman said, no, he told the actress to put all her character’s emotions in her lips. Ullman did. Bergman said, This was only something that a great actress could do. It couldn’t be unexplained. I had a similar feeling–about my old actor’s body, about Ullman’s lips–when I recall two film performances I have yet to recover from. The first was Rachel Weisz’s truly uncanny work in “The Deep Blue Sea.” Terence Davies directed this small, beautiful film, by wrapping it around Weisz’s character–a posh Englishwoman living in World War II London who catapults herself out of her class and into the arms of a working class man who cannot and will not meet her demands to be loved now and forever. She is in love with him because he has loved her once, can’t he love her again? Sharing a small flat situated in a sad little courtyard, the grime on the lovers windows is the grime of death: we meet Weisz’s character after a failed suicide attempt. Working backwards, Davies more or less narrates the story through Weisz’s eyes, which are often filled with desire and panic; we hear it in her voice, too. Why can’t her lover stay? Why can’t love kill you and bring you back to life? In one beautifully choreographed sequence, Weisz runs into the underground, and pauses on the platform. A train rushes by, she leans towards it. (A major influence on the piece is clearly David Lean’s “Brief Encounter.”) She has everything and nothing: her understanding of England’s class distinctions, the turn on that comes with flouting the rules, loving down, her body. But she has only grown to know her body because of her passion for a man who does not have her language or, more specifically, the language she acquired because of her background, her access to the life of the mind, a closed world where she could not call her soul her own. Last year, Glenn Close was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of “Albert Nobbs.” She should have won. As with Weisz, Close has an amazing command of her face, which is the film actor’s stock in trade: they must convey thought with relatively little language. But whereas Weisz’s ripe blooming lips and Vivien Leigh-like dark lushness only adds to her character’s tragedy–she luxuriates in small rooms and in a cold grey England  that cannot contain her beauty–Close’s Nobbs is trussed, like a mental patient who has committed himself not to his madness, but to society’s: the world will not allow him to be who he is, so he will pose as the very image of rationality even as his soul grows wilder, quietly wilder. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia, one of the best young directors out there–his cinema is a cinema of women without relying on obvious “drama”; his pacing is remarkable, and Isak Dinesen like in its love of the tale unfolding in its own time–Albert Nobbs fills Close’s face with that character’s genius for survival, in addition to the ambitious performer’s.