An Actor's Densest MysteryWednesday, February 16, 2011
Two of life’s densest mysteries for me are how a virtuoso violinist is able to play the instrument and how an actor is able to act. An ancillary mystery of the latter is when do you know an actor is acting?
If one could only know then one could say, “I know so and so, the actress because I have met her socially, and she is much different from the films and plays she is in. Few of us are lucky enough to know actors socially. I can consider myself to be part of that elite.
Most of us confuse the actor with the man, the actress with the woman. We are unable to discern the legend from the reality. And this is so with my favourite actors. I would categorize an actor as either being internal (method perhaps?) or external. Of the external kind I would cite Lawrence Olivier who with the help of his voice would convince me that he was indeed Henry V or Lord Nelson. I am not sure if my favourite of all the internal actors, Gregory Peck could have ever played either Henry V or Lord Nelson. His talk-less-doubt-more with that quiet stutter or the twist of his mouth was more suited for C.S. Forrester’s Captain Horatio Hornblower. Both actors could sink ships as admirals or captains. And indeed Peck did in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.
That other favourite internal actor of mine was Spencer Tracy. In the early 90s I had the opportunity to photograph actor Wilford Brimley who sang praises of Tracy saying he was the best American actor that ever was. He also considered Robert Duval to be a post-Tracy Tracy.
And Brimley (a concise example himself of the internal and seemingly effortless school of acting) may be right. One of my favourite films of all time is the not-so-well known Christopher Cain (1984) The Stone Boy, starring Wilfred Brimley, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and Frederic Forrest.
Vincent Canby of the NY Times introduces his review of the film with:
One idyllic summer morning Arnold Hillerman, a 12-year-old Montana farm boy, and his brother, Eugene, 17, get up before dawn to pick peas. Against his brother's advice, Arnold insists on taking along his shotgun, hoping to bag a wild duck, even though it's out of season. As Arnold is climbing through a barbed wire fence, the gun becomes snarled. During Arnold's efforts to free it, the gun goes off, instantly killing Eugene.
How Arnold’s family deals with him is the crux of this film. The only sympathetic ally to the boy is his grandfather played beautifully by Brimley. Most of the action happens in a kitchen and the acting is so well done that it all seems effortless and for real. Duvall and Close are perfect.
It would be difficult for actresses Gabrielle Rose and Meg Roe to give performances of the internal kind in the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which Rosemary and I are seeing tonight at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Granville Island Stage. After having seen the Mike Nichols 1964 film on Sunday we are expecting fireworks in the form of shouts, screams and more.
When both actresses faced my camera last Thursday they were not wearing makeup. They were quiet and polite. I wondered what they were like as people. I had photographed Rose pregnant 9 years ago. I enquired about her child. Does her child know the difference between the mother and the actor?
An actor facing a camera without makeup and not posing in any part, be it Hamlet or Ophelia. I wonder who they are? Are they any different from any of the other persons who I have photographed? Or are they different?
An actor in role is protected from the intrusion of a photographer or anybody else by the barrier of their role. Both Roe and Rose did not have that. I almost felt a discomfort on their part. It is as if they might not want me to discern who they are, out of role.
There was a fragility which I celebrate here in these two portraits of Roe and Rose. The portrait of Rose might seem brutal to some. And perhaps Rose might hate it. Yet I see in it something of the person ready to act yet for a few seconds (1/30 second, in fact) I saw something beautiful. Is this the real Gabrielle Rose? Is the woman with the beautiful profile indeed Meg Roe? Or where they acting this?
I will never know.