Techniques and foibles of great actors

Wolf DeVoon

New member

I think an actor like Brando can give you certain moments that have nothing to do with any director, have nothing to do with any script, have nothing to do with anything aside from his own talent. When you work with Marlon, you have only one job: release him, get him moving, get him unafraid -- get him functioning. Now that doesn't mean you simply let him go. You must stay within the confines, heading toward an objective. Marlon is a fascinating man. Like many great actors, he is also a very suspicious man. He likes to test his directors. In the first 2 days of shooting, he will do 2 takes that may seem identical, but one is full and one is only technical. Then he will watch which one you decide to print, and on that decision lies your whole subsequent relationship with him, because if you don't know your job as well as he knows his, you've had it. In those performances where you've seen him just walk through a film, he made the test and the director flunked it. (Sidney Lumet)

I don't like Mr. Brando. I'll never forget, or forgive, what he did to me on ON THE WATERFRONT. We were doing that now-famous taxi scene. I did the take with him, when the camera was on him, but when it came time for the camera to be on me -- he went home! I had to speak my lines to an assistant director. It must have burned him up that we came out even in that scene -- despite what he did. (Rod Steiger)


What impressed me most about [Clark Gable] was his sturdy "pro" mentality. Every morning at the stroke of 9:00 he entered the set, knew his lines to perfection, nodded to the director's suggestions, never disputed them, and carried them out. His contract stipulated that he could go home at 5:00. At 5 minutes to 5 he would glance at his watch and call out a calm, firm, "Five more minutes, boys!" into the air, not caring if anyone heard him or not. On the dot of 5:00 he would get up and leave. Sometimes we were in the middle of a take, and I pleaded with him to let us finish, but he shook his head. "If I stayed on for a couple of minutes just one single time, that would be the thin end of the wedge. I work eight hours a day, like everybody else. No more." (Lilli Palmer)


All actors are different, of course. For instance, I don't agree with the notion that the best acting comes from the first few takes. But Spencer Tracy is violent on that. He said that the first 2 takes are always the best, and I think that they were with him. But I think I can still go pretty well on that 23rd take. And you know, it's interesting that all the times Spencer and I worked together, we never rehearsed together before shooting. Never. (Katherine Hepburn)

The suprising aspect of their joint success was that they were so different. Kate's working method and approach was opposite to Spencer's. She is a careful, thorough, analytical, concentrated artist. She reads and studies and thinks. By the time she was ready to begin shooting THE LION IN WINTER [1968], for example, she knew enough about Eleanor of Aquitaine to write a master's thesis on the subject. She loves to rehearse and practice and try things and make just one more take. Spencer, conversely, was an instinctive player, who trusted the moment of creation, believed it was possible to go stale by over-rehearsing, and usually did his best work on the first take. He was a firmly rooted subjective artist. [When pressed on his opinion on acting] "It's taken me forty years of doing it for a living to learn the secret. I don't know that I want to give it away." Urged, he relented. "Okay, I'll tell you. The art of acting is -- learn your lines!" (Garson Kanin)

I'll tell you when it all started. I was making that goddamned PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE [1952] and the ulcer was kicking up. I look lousy and I felt worse and one day I found myself out there in front of a great big process screen. I felt particularly fat that morning, and about 94. I'd seen myself in the mirror and thought I was like an old beat-up barn door. My face looked like it could hold three days of rain. Anyway, there we stood playing the scene and this lovely kid, Gene Tierney, had to look up and say to me, "I love you, John. I love you." And all of a sudden, I was embarrassed. I don't mean for myself. I was embarrassed for her. Here was this beautiful young actress trying to make her way, playing the parts she could get to play, and now they'd got her standing up against me making no sense at all. Later on I began to think, "What the hell will the audience make of this idiocy? This sensational young beauty looking up at this cranky old man and saying all this bullshit." It just didn't make any sense. The only reason she was saying it to me was because I was a big Metro star playing the lead in the picture. That was the moment I decided I ought to begin to think of packing it in as an actor. (Spencer Tracy)


Jerry [Lewis] never rehearses. Just one take and that's it. You rehearse with Jerry and you'll die. So you can't really do anything interesting with the camera -- his habits dictate your style. Sometimes when I have to repeat a scene, he'll change it around and do something completely different. And that's his charm, you see -- you never know what he's going to do next. He doesn't look at his dialogue until he walks on the set, and then he never sticks to the lines anyway -- usually he makes them better. I just tell him roughly what the scene is and he does it, kind of hit-and-run, and it's very successful. But you get no credit for doing a Lewis picture. (Frank Tashlin)


Orson has one peculiarity that is really amusing. Dean Stockwell and I got a big kick out of it when we were making COMPULSION. When an actor has to perform on camera and speak to someone not being photographed with him, the other actor usually stands next to the camera so that they can look at each other act and get the cues back and forth as they say the dialogue. Orson is violently against this. "Who'd ever expect anyone to do that?" He wants nothing there, nobody. He doesn't want anyone in his sight line and no one can read the lines to him that he has to cue to. He'll go through the whole scene and say his lines, giving exactly the right pause for the other person to speak his lines, and come in again right on cue. I think an actor behind the camera would disturb Orson's concentration. He would rather imagine it and concentrate on his own performance than be thrown by another actor who is not really acting. When an actor's behind the camera he's never as good as when he's in front of the camera, and in my experience the actor behind the camera invariably stumbles on his lines. (Richard Fleischer)