Some thoughts about film acting

Kristen Stewart reacts to the César Award she has won.

Kristen Stewart reacts to the César Award she has won.

Currently engaged in thinking about film acting in relation to Kristen Stewart’s César Award, it occurs to me that film studies has remarkably little to say about acting. Like any film teacher I’m struggling to find ways into analysis of ‘performance’ and I’m not sure exactly what I can ask students to look for.

Part of the problem is that a great deal is said about acting in general public discourse but mostly this is completely untheorised. In recent years, acting awards have often gone to actors who have worked hard to ‘become’ specific characters, involving attention to every aspect of speech, mannerism and physical movement. When this involves representing a ‘real’ person there are questions about mimicry but critics and audiences alike can easily ‘see/hear’ the performance. Daniel Day-Lewis has won three Oscars, two for portraying Christy Brown and Abraham Lincoln. Colin Firth and Eddie Redmayne have similarly won for their portrayals of King George VI and Stephen Hawking. An older Hollywood tradition has seen acting awards going to star actors who seemingly do very little in terms of visibly using craft skills and effectively play ‘themselves’, somehow moulding their established ‘star image’ into a new role. Jeff Bridges in 2010 was perhaps the most recent winner of this type but the giants of this kind of acting approach include stars such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. These actors rarely received awards. Wayne finally got an Oscar, more perhaps for longevity than for a specific role. Eastwood won Oscars for direction of two films in which he was also nominated (but did not win) for Best Actor. This nudges us to think about how much it is the director who creates the ‘performance’ of the actor? The main point here though is that these Hollywood stars were the most consistently popular with the public. Their performances communicated something to large numbers of people.

On this blog it’s clear that we are interested in acting performances in different film industries and in the context of different film cultures. Many of the films we discuss feature ‘non-professional actors’. The ‘best’ film for me in 2014 was Ida, a Polish film that featured two astonishing central performances – one by the experienced Agata Kulesza and the other by the first time actor Agata Trzebuchowska. How do we evaluate these two performances? Or is one a ‘performance’ whereas the other is an achievement in discipline and attention to the director’s instructions? Does it matter? According to some, Alfred Hitchcock never said “actors are cattle” but instead “actors should be treated like cattle” – in other words, they are available to be positioned, choreographed and prompted to ‘act’ as the director requires. But why privilege the director? An acting performance is equally dependent on lighting, camera operation, sound, costume and make-up, set design/dressing and, perhaps most importantly, editing. And what about the script? The script is famously one of those aspects of the production that some actors are keen to engage with, pleading to alter lines and arguing that they ‘know’ what sounds ‘right’. This in turn points towards producers and casting. Any quick scan through IMDB reveals actors in some film industries who have appeared in 100 or even 200 films over long careers. Perhaps they are lonely people who have to be working all the time? Are they indiscriminate in selecting roles? Or are they simply ‘good professionals’ who turn up on set on time and get on with the crew, doing their job efficiently and helping the production to come in on budget? As such they would be among the first to be considered for any role.

I’ve suggested that film studies has had little to say about acting. There are some studies of course and I’m going to draw on two collections of papers. I’m also interested in the related study of stardom and, reluctantly, celebrity – since these are areas of work which have contributed greatly to our understanding of audience and industry/institution issues. In 2015 it seems to me that in Hollywood ‘stars’ are less important in selling mainstream films but that the profile of certain celebrities and personalities in social media discourse is much higher. I’m wondering how this alters our understanding of earlier work on stardom such as that of Richard Dyer in the 1980s. I’m also interested in whether the impact of stars in East and South Asian film industries is following Hollywood or moving in a different direction.

My initial ideas about Kristen Stewart as actor/star/celebrity will appear here and I will be grateful for any comments and suggestions for further work.

One comment

  1. Rona

    Following on from my comments on ‘The Runaways’, I think Stewart is someone who might be very interested in ‘reinventing’ herself as a European actress. Scarlett Johannson, another American actor who has moved through child to adult roles, is managing to straddle independent and blockbuster roles very successfully at the moment and her marriage to a French businessman has altered the centre of gravity for her celebrity. Winning the Cesar could be an enormous moment for Stewart. The same ceremony shows the awards embracing Sean Penn, who may have made an impression with his body of work as actor and director but, as French friends tell me, won their fervent approval at Cannes with the award to ‘Entre Les Murs’ when he was Jury president in 2008. Here he is post Cesar in 2015. Am I wrong in thinking there’s something of Sean Penn’s diffidence and lack of Hollywood polish in Stewart
    Re acting methods after ‘The Method’! Gary Bettinson recently interviewed Ethan Hawke regarding acting and New Hollywood in ‘Cineaste’ Spring 2015 – preview available here: Fascinating discussion.


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