Where do good characters come from? One could say that the genius lies in the writing, but that's only half the battle. A good idea is just a ghost of intention if there is never an actor to grab a hold of it and flesh it out. Every performer has his own way of getting to a character, whether it be through Method, Meisner, or raw instinct, but some of the pieces of life experience that inspire a characterization and bring it more fully to life are just as fascinating as the movies themselves. Actors are perpetual creatures of human study. Al Pacino made a brilliant documentary recording his own quest to find and create one of the most complicated characters in literary history, Richard III, in Looking for Richard. One of my own acting teachers, we'll call him JHR, entertained the class with an episode that he experienced with Marlon Brando. At a restaurant, he happened to see (a much older and fatter) Marlon eating at a table across the way. He then saw Marlon observe another diner, who was struggling with his meal due to a neck brace, which clearly handicapped his movements. Marlon stopped, pulled back, assumed the same posture, and tried to eat in the same crippled fashion. I guess an actor acts, always. The following is a series of more descriptive circumstances that stellar performers used to shape their roles into realities. Here are a few answers to the question: How did he come up with that?!
Nonetheless, the mighty arm of studio mandates never broke Monty's artistic sensibilities. Throughout his career, he looked for motivations for his characters in unusual places, sometimes keeping observations in his pocket for years before he was able to put them to use. One example of this occurred in 1949, after Monty had just started to strike a chord with American audiences. Since he was hanging around friend and mentor Thornton Wilder a great deal, he steeped himself in brainy literature. Always an avid reader, he went on a rampage, consuming the entire works of Franz Kafka (right), with whom he had become absolutely fascinated. (His absorption in The Metamorphosis seems particularly uncanny, considering the parallel that he would later have with character "Gregor Samsa's" repulsive transformation). While on this literary journey, Monty became transfixed by a photograph of the author, which was taken in Prague the very year of his death. Something in the gaunt, bat-like face with haunted eyes seemed to move and disturb him, and the image certainly effected him enough that he felt compelled to rip it out of the book and carry it with him over the next nearly 10 years. He reportedly looked at it every day.
Fast forward to his casting in The Young Lions after his own post-crash "metamorphosis." He was to bring to life the character of "Noah Ackerman," a Jewish soldier. In uncovering the nature of this man, he knew immediately how he wanted to flesh him out. In addition to losing 20 pounds and wearing purposely baggy clothing, he too made adjustments to his face to make himself look like Kafka in the infamous photo (left). Something about the author's tragedy and Noah's defiance against his own victimization made sense to him. He recalled his performance as his favorite role and the one of which he was the most proud.
Carroll Baker was one of many members of the Method crew that seemed to follow in the wake of Monty's naturally intuitive brand of acting. (Though he had never been a Method man himself, many of Strasberg's students would find themselves trying to create what Monty seemed to have invented). Carroll proved from the minute she arrived in New York that she was ready to go the distance in her acting. This soon got her noticed by Hollywood, who was interested in both her talent and beauty. Fortunately, she also had a brain. The wheels were definitely already spinning with regard to character "Baby Doll Meighan" by they time she began filming Baby Doll, yet there were certain behavioral elements she needed to round off. She found the perfect subject to study when she landed on location in Benoit, MS. No sooner had she set foot on Southern soil than she came into contact with a local woman named Ellie May. The typical Southern Belle, Ellie May was feminine, colorfully dressed, and also possessed a remarkable speech pattern that reflected both her Mississippi heritage and a blend of baby talk. Jackpot! For the remainder of her visit, Carroll kept Ellie May in close company and under even closer scrutiny. The way she was both delicate and assertive, coy yet calculating, gave Carroll all that she needed to use for her character (see right). The mimicry worked, and the role changed her life.
Carroll had another moment of divine inspiration when director Elia Kazan, known as "Gadge," was looking for a little extra oomph for one particular scene. Early in the film, Baby Doll sits and waits for her sexually frustrated older husband, "Archie," in their car. When he finishes his business and comes to meet her, the watching locals were supposed to start heckling him. Elia didn't believe that the scene worked without some sort of context, so he asked both Carroll and co-star Karl Malden for ideas. A light bulb when off: Carroll told Elia that her father had been a traveling salesman and that whenever she had to wait for him in the car somewhere, if she had been a good girl, he would bring her an ice cream cone. Elia loved it! The extra action of having Archie approach his young, ambivalent, untouched bride with a dripping vanilla cone provided a sexual undertone, an embodiment of the characters' power struggle, and also the blatant age difference. It totally worked. Thus, Archie stands in the hot sun sweating, while the object of his desire sits quietly lapping it up (left). Perfection.
James Cagney had a lot of personal material to draw on when he needed to add gravity to his performances. An easy touchstone for him was always his father. James Frances Cagney had been a lovable, tender man with an unfortunate penchant for alcohol. Occasionally, he would go into "fits," wherein he would endure severe headaches that left him moaning and howling uncontrollably. The only one who could calm him down was his wife, Jim's mother, Carrie. Meanwhile, the children in the family hid their eyes and covered their ears, unintentionally showing their fear of the man they loved so much. Jim never forgot the sound... After several years in Hollywood as a leading man, he would tap into this particularly painful vein in order to deliver one of the most gut-wrenching moments of his career. In White Heat, his hard as nails gangster has but one soft spot-- for his mother, who ironically, is the only person who can calm him when he gets one of his "headaches." When later imprisoned, he is eating in the mess hall when he hears the news that his beloved mama is dead. His character, "Cody Jarrett," completely loses control of his senses, lets out an ear-splitting series of animal noises, and flails around madly about his fellow inmates (right). The extras in the scene had not been told what to expect, so when their star started braying desperately, many of them thought James Cagney had actually lost his mind! The stunned look of shock on their faces says it all. The noise Jim created was the same awful sound that he had heard growing up. He only watched the scene once, then refused to ever watch it again. It was far too painful. Yet, to him, it was worth it to cut himself open for the role.
Jim used his pops for a much more light-hearted gag in an earlier film he made, Taxi (left, with Loretta Young). When he used to horse around with his father as a kid, the senior fellow would sometimes wrap his arm around his son's neck in mock anger and lightly pepper his chin with fake punches, saying all the while, "Why I oughta..." Thus, in a scene in Taxi when Jim is jealously teasing a paramour, he wraps his arm around her neck, taps her chin and spouts: "If I thought that..." The action was a way of paying homage to his old man. When his mother, Carrie, saw this moment in on the big screen, she started weeping right in the middle of the theater. It meant a lot to her that Jim would honor one of his warmest memories of his father.
Luise Rainer was one of a kind. A delicate, feminine creature who often portrayed women of great romance and modesty, she was also a thinker who refused to ever get caught up in the Hollywood game. She was never in it for the stardom, she was in it for the story, and was honored that she was one of the few people in the world who had the great privilege of bringing interesting women to life. Nonetheless, there was great controversy surrounding her casting as "O-Lan" in The Good Earth (right), if only because she had been chosen over Anna May Wong in the role of the Chinese heroine. Luise understood the resentment, but studio politics being what they were, she graciously accepted the role and vowed to make good in it. She refused elaborate make-up, which she believed would caricature the race, and determined to work from "the inside out" in building O-Lan authentically. Through the subtle, quiet movement she observed in the female Chinese community, she was able to establish the modest touch she was looking for. Yet, she wasn't quite satisfied. She had the structure of O-Lan, but in her mind, she hadn't "found her" yet. Ah, serendipity: one day on the set, Luise was dressed in character and surrounded by genuine Chinese extras. She accidentally dropped her pocket book, and when she bent to pick it up, she knocked heads with another women, who kindly handed her wallet back to her. Their eyes locked. Suddenly, the extra realized that she was standing next to the star of the film! Her eyes went wide and she blushed. She seemed to pull back inside herself a bit in humility. "There she is," Luise thought. "That's O-Lan!" She used this woman and her honest, demure reaction as a model for her characterization... and won an Academy Award for her performance, (for the second year in a row, btw)!
Lon Chaney was, of course, the consummate character researcher as the consummate character man. As he occasionally found himself in Chinese roles, he-- like Luise-- would go to Chinatown to observe the people and study their mannerisms. His ultimate test if he had mastered his movements and make-up, was to ride the electric car to Chinatown and back, as authentic Chinamen got on and off around him. During the ride, if no one noticed that he was some actor in make-up, he knew that he had it (see him in Mr. Wu, left). He also liked to visit the courts and watch the different criminals, convicts, and cretins come in for their verdicts. He always found a lot of material there for his own villains. His attention to detail can be seen in all of his films, and his work has gone on to inspire many other actors. In fact, he was directly used by one actor in particular during the filming of Full Metal Jacket. Vincent D'Onofrio is an accredited character actor of his own generation, as is evident in his lengthy, varied filmography. His role as "Private Leonard Lawrence" in Full Metal Jacket was at once annoying, child-like, and demented. An important scene comes when he reacts to the abuse that the fellow soldiers are inflicting upon him, and (spoiler alert) he subsequently loses his mind and shoots off his own head. The day before they were to shoot, Stanley Kubrick was conferring with the young actor about this heavy scene. "Make it big," he said. "Lon Chaney big!" Vincent did. His maniacal control and sinister presence sends chills down the spine. He totally delivers in this shocking moment by going over-the-top mad! It works. Lon Chaney clearly isn't the only creeper, but because he was the first, his followers are much better prepared.
in Full Metal Jacket).
*My apologies to those of you who may have caught a glimpse of an early draft of this article. I accidentally pressed "publish" instead of "save." :-/ Hey, I'm allowed one blonde moment a day!