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.
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.