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Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Bette would wield her riding crop mightily in

James Cagney believed that any actor worth his salt knows how to pepper his performances with "goodies"-- little bits of physical business that add flavors and layers to his characterizations. Subtle movements, ticks, or off-beat choices can take a flat featured role and turn it into a scene stealer. In any case, the difference between an actor who uses 'goodies' and one who doesn't is the same as the difference between an actor who fills out a role and one who simply walks through it. Some of the greatest movie stars of all time possessed commanding presences and pretty faces, but the best of the best were the ones who added a little seasoning to their already palatable onscreen dispositions. Here are a few acting dishes served up hot, which in less adept hands could have left some of cinema's most classic scenes as bland as lima beans.

Bette Davis is recalled as a first rate character actress who, by the way, was one of the only women in history to maintain this station while becoming a movie star. Her attractive but generally imperfect features set her apart from her contemporaries from the get-go, but her talent was able to surpass industry expectations by making her a box-office queen. In other words, for once, substance won out over superficiality-- no easy feat in Hollywood. In addition to her natural command and hypnotic presence, Bette had dance experience working in her favor. While watching her films, one is particularly aware of the way she uses her hands. She often relied upon finicky, twitched movements in the fingers to communicate her characters' inner turmoil while maintaining an outward, stone-cold countenance. In time, her use of various techniques would become less focused, but particularly under the guise of William Wyler, she put her gift for physical communication to great effect. When working on Jezebel, for example, William wanted Bette to create a signature move to indicate who "Julie" was to the audience. This was a puzzle. How was Bette to impart Julie's willfulness, sensuality, and brazenness in one stroke? It turns out, in one stroke was just how she did it. So, the first time the viewer is introduced to Julie, she hops off a horse, grabs the train of her habit with her riding crop, and seamlessly lifts it up over her shoulder. Now we know that Julie is a force to be reckoned with: a lady with the grace of a southern belle and the cocky impudence more readily acceptable in men. After this swift move, Julie carries on with her obstinacy, walking right into a social gathering still in her riding breeches. Bette took an inconsequential moment and made it a monument. From her first appearance, her character is solidified, which makes her undoing throughout the remaining course of the film even more fascinating to witness. (Bette and William enjoy lunch between takes, left).

Another director Bette enjoyed working with was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who was known for getting supreme performances out of his leading ladies... and then some. In Bette's case, it was all business, and there was indeed one particular bit of business in their collaboration All About Eve that quickly and effectively cut through the armor of her theater diva "Margot Channing" and got to the woman beneath. This is where Joe's genius into the female psyche came into play: the only thing more important to a woman than love... is chocolate. He put this knowledge to good use. During the pre-party scene, Margot is already feeling threatened by sickening sycophant Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who seems to be wheedling her way into Margot's love life and stealing the attentions of her lover, Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill). When Margot descends the stairs, she interrupts the laughing Eve and Bill, and her insecurity as a woman is even further enhanced (see right). Eve departs, and Margot and Bill bicker. Bette was concerned about this-- her first real confrontational scene in the film-- and asked Joe: "What can we do so that it's not just a talky scene?" Solution: during the ensuing argument, Margot keeps pacing past a jar of chocolates, eying them, reaching for them, and denying herself every time. Finally, as the fight reaches a crescendo, and Margot is left unfulfilled and without reassurance from her distracted lover, she gives in and pops a chocolate into her mouth: ahhh, comfort. Since Margot is also an actress, Bette's contribution of the chocolate dance is doubly effective. An actress's body and appearance is particularly important. Since Margot's fading youth and good looks play a large part in Eve's usurpation of her theatrical throne, this moment of chocolatey bittersweetness is all the sweeter in that it indicates Margot's almost accepted decline. If everything is going to Hell anyway, she might as well take a cue from Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat cake!" Or in this case, cocoa.

Spencer Tracy was the king of characterization. Another performer who maintained his stardom while giving his all as an actor, Spence gave his roles many touches that elevated them beyond robotic line-readings. So effective and underhanded were his character choices, that he often stole the scene right out from under his fellow co-stars, including Claudette Colbert, who recalled acting her heart out in Boom Town only to find herself overlapped by Spence's adept subtly. While her ego was certainly bruised, her respect for Spence only grew. Myrna Loy and Clark Gable would also recall another act of celluloid robbery on the set of Test Pilot (left). It should be said that Spence's acting intuitions were also working hand in hand with the welcomed spirit of hijinks and one-up-manship he and Clark enjoyed throughout their working relationship. Spence was well aware of the fact that he was playing second fiddle to Gable's obviously handsome leading man. BUT, that didn't mean that he had to let Clark steal his thunder. Thus, he devised a plot to draw more attention to himself. During a scene in which Clark and Myrna had a back and forth going, Spence ran an approved idea past director Victor Fleming. Instead of just sitting there like a bump on a log during the scene, he would crack nuts. So, Myrna would say a line-- "crack"-- and Clark would say a line-- "crack." This way, while Spence's BFF character would normally be overlooked, he managed to continually draw the camera's attention to himself. This act of acting genius was also star strategy... and it worked. There Spence was, doing nothing but cracking nuts-- and simultaneously busting Clark's balls-- and he managed to steal the scene. Thus, tawdry pages of dialogue became much more interesting and comical.  The only character anyone pays attention to in the scene is Spence. Nutty, huh?

Spence's lady love Katherine Hepburn would also enjoy a superb cinematic moment, though the thanks for this "goody" goes to her director, George Stevens. Kate wasn't known for being a sex-kitten. Her previous roles and her demeanor may have insinuated a certain amount of girlishness, but sensuality certainly wasn't listed as a top priority in her acting. This is all part of what established her unlikely "type" in the business, but when it came to Woman of the Year, it was sex in particular that Stevens needed to sell. In order to get the audience to believe the affection and attraction between Spence and Kate in their first film together, which had to sustain the entire plot of the film, Kate was going to need to loosen up a little. The chemistry of the soon-to-be real life lovers was already present, but just because Spence was falling in love with Kate, didn't mean the rest of America would. George got an idea! Because Kate's character, "Tess Harding," was supposed to be a brainy take-charge female-- like herself-- the casting was perfect. Yet, the crux of the plot is that underneath all of her smarts and her controlled exterior, there is still a warm-blooded woman. Thus, George decided that the first time Spence's "Sam Craig" sees Tess, he wants there to be a palpable turn-on moment to humanize the otherwise cold, scholarly lady. He asked Kate, therefore, to show a little leg (right). Kate was reticent, but when Spence opens the door to an eye-full of Kate's gam, the look on his face says enough to express what no screenwriter could put into words. From the get-go, Sam wants Tess, and now the audience knows why. With their relationship immediately sexualized, due to Tess's accidental burlesque, the audience can empathize and understand the couple's continuing erotic pull toward each other.

Humphrey Bogart was not known to be a "ham-bone." The closest he ever came to comedy was his turn as the curmudgeonly "Charlie Allnut" in The African Queen. However, cinema's favorite tough guy did allow his sense of humor to guide him in the right direction from time to time.  When shooting The Big Sleep, Bogie was set to do a scene in which his detective, "Philip Marlowe," goes to a used book store to hopefully loot information on his current case. Suspecting that the store is actually a front for less savory business practices, he decides to barge in and test the saleswoman's knowledge about literature. She, in turn, fails to impress, and Marlowe emerges just a little bit closer to solving the mystery. Yet, when rehearsing, director Howard Hawks wasn't satisfied. He wanted the scene to go differently, but he was finding it difficult to articulate just what was wrong with it. It was too "stale." Bogie suggested mixing it up a little. With that, he decided to do a little character acting. He flipped up his hat, put on some glasses, and trudged into the store, not as the hardened Marlowe, but as slightly nasal, totally prissy book snob. As he pulls his glasses down and interrogates the saleswoman on their stock-- of a third edition of Ben-Hur 1860 most particularly-- his mannerisms deliver just enough humor to lighten the heavy tone of the film for a moment and indirectly show us a softer, more affable side of the hard-boiled detective: "You do sell books, hmmm?" (see left). Two birds; one stone. The moment still stands out superbly and humorously from the rest of the film as a result-- you kinda want to see the pompous book-monger again.

Howard Hawks was always looking for creative contributions like these to add more life to his films. One of his favorite actors to work with was Cary Grant. Cary was an adaptable actor, always eager to try pretty much any suggestion in order to improve a scene. During the filming of His Girl Friday, Howard and Cary were looking for a way to relay the exasperation that Cary's character, "Walter Burns," is feeling in reaction to his stressful work at the newspaper in addition to the absolution of his marriage to Rosalind Russell's "Hildy Johnson" (right). Cary would go through the scene and repeatedly deliver his lines and bits of comedy without a mistake, but Howard wasn't satisfied. It was, in his words, "pretty dull." Again, there was something missing. He and Cary conferred, and Howard suggested a vocal goody. Howard had a friend who used to "winnie" like a horse in moments of perturbation. He wondered if Cary would find the same exclamation palatable for his character? He did. And so, when in the world of fast-talking newspapermen (and women) words were not enough, Cary would burst out with a high-pitched "neigh" of irritation. It became one of his trademarks, and he used it on other films when he needed to convey the same overwhelmed demeanor.

If any actor new how to round off a character, it was Lon Chaney. Most recalled today for his macabre and horrifying performances, earlier in his career he had a great deal of success portraying the underhanded "heavy." Due to his textured performances, his con-artists, bruisers, and deviants, were totally believable on the screen, making him an intimidating cinematic presence. As he was always committed to telling a story honestly, he had no qualms about portraying a villain through and through. In doing so, he lived out the dark sides of his audiences, which made them respond to him all the more heartily-- ironic considering how sinister he could be. One example comes in Outside the Law. At the beginning, Lon's "Black Mike Sylva" (left) is plotting with his accomplices, including Wheeler Oakman's "Dapper Bill Ballard," about his latest caper. At a local dive bar, they smoke, sip drinks, and plan away. When the game is set, the trio of thugs rise from the table, throwing down some dough for the swill. As they depart, Black Mike exits last and very stealthily swipes the tip from the tabletop and pockets it! In one swift movement, Lon has told the audience just how dishonest, selfish, and underhanded Mike is going to be. He spends the rest of the film living up to the reputation.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a strange movie in cinematic history. A B-movie potboiler, it is more remembered today for being Kirk Douglas's first film as well as one of Lizabeth Scott's first performances. However, the majority of the plot revolves around Barbara Stanwyck's conniving "Martha" and her prodigal childhood sweetheart "Sam Masterson," played by Van Heflin (both right). Van must have realized from the beginning that this film was not of stellar caliber. A quickly made noir, the film was built to sell tickets not alter the shape of the universe. As such, the only way to amp up the quality was in the acting. Van layered his character with his usual dose of charm and masculinity, but to denote Sam's playful and restless side, he also contributed another gag. He would, throughout the picture, roll a coin between his fingers. It became his character's nervous, boyish habit, and at the very least added a little visual stimuli to a movie that turned out to be a bit of a snooze-fest. Van would recall that Barbara was delighted the first time she saw the trick. A seasoned pro herself, she appreciated Van's extra effort. However, after complimenting his digital dexterity, Babs looked him in the eye and said, "Any time you start twirling that coin, I'll be fixing my garter. So be sure you don't do that when I have important lines to speak." No, Babs wasn't going to fall for that gag-- no one was stealing the scene from her! Thus, Van kept his coin out of Babs's scenes, and she kept the audience's attention!

And so, these Hollywood hotshots took the acting road less traveled by... and that has made all the difference.


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