views updated May 29 2018




The performances seen in films reflect the diversity of cinema practice over time and across the globe. Actors' performances, like the contributions made by other members of a production team, are designed to be consistent with the style of a film as a whole. Most often, they are crafted to convey a director's interpretation of the narrative. Because performances are integral components of specific films—and films themselves differ widely—it is not possible to evaluate individual performances in relation to a fixed standard, such as the expectation that acting in the cinema should be realistic.

Instead, film performances are best understood and assessed by studying work from different time periods, genres, aesthetic movements, production regimes, and national cinemas. This approach prompts one to see that there are several styles of acting in film. Studying various kinds of filmmaking also allows one to see that performance elements are combined with other cinematic elements in many different ways. The range of acting styles and approaches to presenting performance reveal that film acting does not have a single, defining attribute and point to the fact that performance elements are not inert matter given meaning by directors, cinematographers, and editors.


The central place of narrative means that in most films, actors adjust the quality and energy of their gestures, voices, and actions to communicate their characters' shifting desires and dynamic relationships with other characters. At each moment of the film, actors' performances are keyed to the narrative, which provides the (musical) score for the film's rising and falling action. The scale and quality of actors' physical and vocal expressions are also keyed to the film's style or genre. For example, there is a discernable difference in the energy underlying the performances in a 1930s screwball comedy and a 1990s action-adventure film. The material details of actors' performances are also keyed to the function of their characters. Performances by the extras are typically less expressive than performances by the actors portraying the central characters.

The quality and energy of actors' movements and vocal expressions are equally important in experimental cinema, for actors' performances contribute to the mood or feeling conveyed by the piece as a whole. The actors' impassive performances in the surrealist classic Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) by Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) are integral to the film's dreamlike quality. Similarly, in Dead Man (1995), directed by American independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (b. 1953), the energy of the actors' disquieting performances, which jumps from stillness to sudden movement and shifts unexpectedly from animated to collapsed, plays a crucial role in creating the disturbing tone of the film's absurd world.

In mainstream and experimental cinema, performance details will serve to create and sustain a director's overall vision. Based on discussions with the director, an actor might use bound or tightly controlled movements to portray a character that is continually on guard, while another works in counterpoint, using light and free-floating movements to portray a character that is open to experience. Through rehearsal and individual script analysis, actors find the quality and the energy their intonations and inflections must have to convey their characters' changing experiences. Sharp, sudden, staccato bursts of words might be used to show that a character is alarmed, while a smooth, sustained, legato vocal rhythm will be used to show that the character is at ease.

In mainstream and experimental cinema, dramatic and comedic narratives, a film's presentation of performance will also reflect the director's stylistic vision. Films present performances in different ways because directors make different uses of actors' expressivity, that is, the degree to which actors do or do not project characters' subjective experiences. Presentation of performance also differs from film to film because directors make different uses of cinematic expressivity, or the degree to which other cinematic elements enhance, truncate, or somehow mediate and modify access to actors' performances. Working in different periods, aesthetic movements, and production regimes, directors have presented performances in markedly different ways.

At one end of the spectrum, directors use performance elements as pieces of the film's audiovisual design. In these films, actors often suppress expression of emotion, and the film's nonperformance elements become especially important. This approach to presenting performances is found in many modernist films, which frequently use framing, editing, and sound design to obstruct identification with characters. Films by the French director Robert Bresson (1901–1999) and the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912) exemplify presentation of performance at this end of the spectrum, for actors' use of their physical and vocal expressivity is so delimited by the directors that glimpses of their characters' inner experiences often are more clearly conveyed by the directors' framing, editing, sound, and production design choices.

At the other end of the spectrum, actors' movements and interactions are the basis for a film's visual and aural design. Here, nonperformance elements are orchestrated to amplify the thoughts and emotions that actors convey to the audience through the details of their physical and vocal expressions. Films at this end of the spectrum use lighting, setting, costuming, camera movement, framing, editing, music, and sound effects to give audiences privileged views of the characters' inner experiences. This approach to the presentation of performance focuses audience attention on the connotative qualities of actors' movements and vocal expressions. The first structural analysis of acting, a study of Charlie Chaplin's performance in City Lights (1931) by Jan Mukarovský of the Prague Linguistic Circle (1926–1948), examines this type of film, wherein performance elements have priority over other cinematic elements.

While there are exceptions, films produced in different eras and production regimes tend to incorporate performance elements in dissimilar ways. In the Hollywood studio era, for example, the collaboration between director William Wyler (1902–1981) and cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948) on The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) features deep-focus cinematography and a long-take aesthetic. In this approach, camera movements, frame compositions, editing patterns, and sound design are organized around actors' performances. By comparison, in the postmodern, televisual era, Baz Luhrmann's (b. 1962) collaboration with production designer Catherine Martin (b. 1965) on Romeo + Juliet (1996) resulted in a film in which actors' physical signs of heightened emotion are shown in tight framings as pieces of a larger collage that is cluttered with striking costumes, frenetic camera movements, and dizzying editing patterns.

As is the case with other postmodern films from around the world, the performances in Romeo + Juliet, which make extensive use of sampling and intertextual quotation, are sometimes extremely truncated and minimalist, and at other times highly exaggerated and excessively dramatic. In addition, like a number of films designed for consumption in today's media marketplace, Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet seems to model its presentation of performance on viewing experiences in our media-saturated environment. As if echoing current televisual and new media experiences, the film's framing, editing, and sound design sometimes obstruct access to characters' experiences; at other times the film's nonperformance elements enhance identification with characters by amplifying the intensity of their subjective experiences.


Studies of acting in film have had to face challenges presented by certain views of cinema that for some time determined how film performance was understood. While scholars and critics have offered various perspectives on cinema, early commentaries by writers such as Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) led many observers to believe that film was primarily a medium that captured sounds and images. This view of film prompted many critics to see film acting as something that was captured and then joined together by framing and editing, the ostensibly unique qualities of film.

Studies of film acting also have been stymied by certain ideas about cinematic character. Hollywood's dominant place in the global market seems to have led many observers to believe that film cannot accommodate more than character types. The preponderance of genre films and high-concept blockbusters appears to have prompted critics to see all cinematic characters as intrinsically different from dramatic or novelistic characters, which seem to be considerably more complex. Hollywood's emphasis on spectacular action and other scenes that display performers' physical expertise has caused some observers to see film acting as primarily "performing," as instances in which individuals behave as themselves in performances that do not involve the representation of characters. Imagining that Hollywood movies are representative of filmmaking in general, other observers have categorized acting in film as "received acting," as cases in which the representation of character is attributed to individuals due to costuming or context. For still others, the high visibility of formulaic Hollywood productions has made film acting seem like "simple acting," instances when someone simulates or amplifies actions, ideas, or emotions for the sake of an audience but represents only one dimension of a character or situation.

Even for those who recognize that cinema is more than a recording medium and that there are numerous conceptions of character in film, acting in the cinema has proved to be a challenging field of study because actors' performances belong to a film's narrative and audiovisual design. Screen performances reflect the aesthetic and cultural traditions that underlie a film's narrative design, conception of character, and orchestration of performance and nonperformance elements.

In film, actors' performances are integral to the flow of narrative information. Audiences construct interpretations about characters' desires, choices, and confrontations largely by watching actors' performances. To create performances that give audiences clear and nuanced information about what is happening, why, and what is at stake, competent actors and directors working in film do extensive script analysis and character study. In the cinema, actors' performances are also part of a film's overall formal design. Audience impressions are shaped by the dominant patterns and specific features of a film's sound, lighting, set, costume, makeup, color, photographic, editing, framing, and performance design. Competent directors develop a clear and imaginative design that serves as the blueprint for selections made by all members of the production. Skilled actors create performances that contribute to the style embodied by a film's other cinematic elements by adjusting their voices, gestures, postures, and actions to conform with the director's stylistic vision.

In studies that consider performances in light of a film's narrative, one challenge is to find ways to discuss distinctions between characters and actors. Characters in narrative films are defined by their given circumstances. They have short- and long-range goals, tacit and explicit desires, stated and unstated objectives. They take actions to achieve those objectives. They change their actions when they encounter obstacles to achieving their goals. Like the characters one encounters in a novel, characters in a film narrative exist within the world of the story. By comparison, actors who portray filmic characters exist in everyday life. Like all of us, actors are defined by their circumstances; they have goals, take actions to achieve those goals, and shift actions when they encounter obstacles.

Sometimes, a nonprofessional is cast in a certain part because there are correspondences between the individual's physical appearance and the director's view of what a particular type of character should look like. In the silent era, Russian filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) relied on this casting approach, known as typage. In the mid-twentieth century, Italian neorealist filmmakers such as Vittorio de Sica (1902–1974) sometimes cast a nonprofessional because his or her appearance, carriage, and lived experienced so closely matched the character's. In most narrative films, however, there is little connection between the fictional character and the actor's physical qualities.

The key difference between all characters and actors is that audiences construct interpretations about characters' fictional lives by observing actors' performances. Audiences make inferences about what fictional characters want based on actions that actors perform; they make inferences about characters' temperaments and emotional states by observing the quality of actors' physical and vocal expressions, which can be direct or flexible, sudden or sustained, light or strong, bound or free. A character might want to punch his boss, but we only know that because we see the actor clench his fists. In an early scene in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington) is laid off from his job. The changing qualities of Washington's gestures and expressions communicate the various tactics Easy uses to keep his job. As the scene nears its end, the way Washington grips the hat in his hand shows that this is Easy's last attempt to plead for his job. When his pleading fails, Easy quickly realizes he need not beg like a second-class citizen and Washington conveys the depth and suddenness of Easy's resolve by stepping abruptly to stand opposite the boss. Then, holding his body upright and using a quiet, even tone as he carefully enunciates each word, Washington explains that his name is Ezekiel Rawlins, not "fella."

In studies that analyze performances in light of a film's narrative, another challenge is to find ways to discuss relationships between character and performance elements in cases when the actor is a media celebrity or a star closely linked to a certain genre or type of character. While viewers' ideas about a character are shaped by the details of a particular performance, in mainstream cinema those ideas are also strongly influenced by an actor's public image. Sometimes, audience conceptions about an actor are derived primarily from his or her appearance in other films. Other times, those ideas depend more on information about the actor that is circulated in the popular press. For example, the public image of an actor such as Jean-Claude Van Damme has been shaped by his appearance in a series of action films, while viewers' ideas about an actress such as Jessica Simpson have a great deal to do with the tabloid coverage of her personal life.

Interestingly, audiences' views about actors lead them to see performances by media celebrities and genre stars as revealing the unique qualities of the actors rather than the characters. In the silent era, film performances by matinee idol Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) were prized by fans because they offered an opportunity to commune with the star. With their views of the celebrity or genre star defined well in advance, fans enjoy a particular performance insofar as it reveals the personality that the fans expected to encounter. Other observers take a different tack. With their ideas about the celebrity or genre star defined in advance, critics sometimes dismiss performances by celebrities and genre stars as being instances of personification, that is, cases when actors are simply playing themselves. John Wayne's (1907–1979) performances in films produced over a fifty-year period are often seen as instances of simple personification.

Widely held beliefs about other actors prompt audiences to see their performances as revealing the unique qualities of the characters rather than the actors. As with celebrities and genre stars, audience perceptions about "serious" actors are shaped by information in the popular press and by the actor's appearance in a series of films. However, in contrast to media celebrities and genre stars, the actors in this select category are legitimized by their close associations with auteur directors or with their leading roles in films that are considered high quality. The Academy Award® winners Kevin Spacey (b. 1959) and Jodie Foster (b. 1962) belong to this category. Audiences approach legitimized performances differently than performances by celebrities and genre stars, enjoying performances by actors such as Robert De Niro (b. 1943) and Meryl Streep (b. 1949) insofar as they satisfy audience expectations that the performances will create memorable characters. Performances by actors whose legitimate credentials are defined well in advance are seen as cases of impersonation, that is, as instances when actors craft portrayals of characters that are separate from themselves.

Challenges to discussing performance in relationship to character and narrative are compounded by complications that confront analysis of acting and audiovisual design. In studies that consider performances in light of a film's formal design, one challenge is to find ways to discuss distinctions between performance elements and other cinematic elements. A moment that joins the closeup of a child's startled expression with a sharp rise in the musical score's volume and intensity can be considered under the rubrics of sound design, frame composition, and/or film performance. The image of a woman glaring, wide-eyed, her face half in light, half in shadow, can be discussed in relationship to lighting design and film performance. In a scene midway through The Letter (1940), Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) delicately but deliberately persuades her very proper attorney and family friend, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson), to purchase the letter that would, if revealed to the jury, lead them to see she had murdered her lover. As the scene closes, Leslie glares defiantly at Howard, no longer trying to hide that she is an adulteress and a murderer, while Howard gazes openly at Leslie, no longer hiding that he is bewitched by the depth and power of her sexual desire. The performances and the lighting express the characters' strange intimacy and tense excitement that both of them are trapped and exposed: the tightly controlled quality of the actors' performances serves to heighten the energy and expressivity of their very direct gestures; the lines of shadow that fall across Davis's body and face do not conceal but instead call attention to the passionate intensity of her glare.

Another complication that has confounded the study of acting and other film elements is that performance details do not have fixed relationships with any other cinematic techniques, even within an individual film. Sometimes, performance elements exist in counterpoint to other cinematic elements. In a carefully choreographed sequence that features singing, dancing, or dynamic interactions between actors, the editing and framing might be relatively static, doing little to direct audience attention and having little impact on audience interpretation. Other times, performance elements are consonant with other cinematic elements. Here, the formal design and the connotations carried by the details of the performance are the same as the design and connotations of the other aspects of cinematic technique. In The Player (1992), director Robert Altman (b. 1925) parodies conventional narrative elements and the conventional, often redundant use of cinematic elements in the sequence that features studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) at the desert resort with June (Greta Scacchi), a self-absorbed artist who does not realize Griffin has killed her estranged boyfriend. Following a conventionally romantic dinner, and with Griffin having just explained to June that Hollywood films must have the right narrative elements, "suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings," Altman cuts directly to Griffin and June having sex in a cinematically conventional scene that combines extreme close-ups, strong and direct movements, and a full dose of heavy breathing.

A third complication for analyses of performance and other cinematic elements is that it is difficult to determine which, if any, element has priority at any given moment. The combination of pastel colors, diffuse beams of light, and an actor's languid gestures might give audiences a sense of the character's inner calm. Changing any one of these elements changes the meaning of the scene. For example, combining the actor's languid gestures with a monochromatic color scheme and high-contrast lighting might convey the idea that the character is weak and fatigued; alternatively, combining pastel colors and diffuse beams of light with images of an actor's rigid gestures could create the impression that the character is strangely uncomfortable in a peaceful environment.

As these considerations about performance's relationship to narrative and audiovisual design suggest, film acting does not have a fixed or defining attribute that makes it fundamentally different from other aspects of film (or from acting in other media). Recognizing that acting in film does not have an essence, and that it cannot be defined by isolating a single, distinguishing attribute, is a first step toward understanding and appreciating acting in the cinema.


To assess performances in individual films, one also needs to understand that a viewer's own experience in daily life plays a key role in his or her interpretation of and response to film performances. To a large extent, audiences interpret actors' performances through and in terms of expressions, intonations, inflections, gestures, poses, and actions found in daily life. Because performance signs are drawn from everyday life, audiences' impressions and interpretations depend on the disparate and complicated interpretive frameworks that emerge from their own experiences.

That same principle applies to performance in theater, television, video installations, performance-art pieces, and new-media projects. Yet, while it is possible to locate a central principle in composite forms such as theater and film, dramatic art forms are not entirely distinct from other art and media forms. Composite forms such as film are related to other art and media forms because they use iconic signs (such as portraits), which represent things by means of resemblance. Like other art and media forms, films also use indexical signs (such as weathervanes), which have a causal link with what they are representing. Like other art and media forms, films also use symbolic signs (for example, essentially all aspects of spoken and written language), which depend on convention.

What distinguishes film and other dramatic art and media forms is their use of ostensive signs. In contrast to painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, music, poetry, and literature, dramatic arts use objects and people to represent themselves or things just like themselves: tables and chairs are used to represent tables and chairs; gestures and expressions are used to represent gestures and expressions. Importantly, the way people interpret those ostensive signs is shaped in large measure by their personal history and cultural background. To some audiences, a Bauhaus-style Barcelona chair might seem antiquated, while others would see it as futuristic. To some American audiences, the Italian hand gesture meaning "come here" seems to indicate "go away."

Viewers' acquaintance with performance in everyday life creates a dense interpretive framework. That framework is one of several filters through which audiences encounter film performances. Another filter is created by a more specific type of experience, namely, viewers' knowledge of media and popular culture. As in the case of celebrities, genre stars, and legitimate actors, viewers encounter many film performances through and in terms of an actor's picture personality (a composite figure that emerges from an actor's portrayal in a series of films) or star image (a multidimensional image created by stories about an actor's off-screen life). An additional framework or filter that colors audience responses and interpretations emerges from another specific type of experience, in this case, viewers' knowledge of film history and traditions in the performing arts.

While most performance signs are drawn from everyday life, even in Anglo-European cinema the degree to which that is true depends on the performing art tradition that most influences the film. For example, Orson Welles's (1915–1985) performance in Citizen Kane (1941), which includes scenes that are emblematic of expressionistic performance, often uses performance signs that do not have a direct relationship with everyday life. In moments of extreme emotion, as when Kane smashes the furniture in his wife's bedroom just after she has left him, Welles uses highly stylized expressions, gestures, and actions to convey the character's anguished inner experience. His gestures and actions are larger and more extreme than gestures and actions used in daily life, and his facial expressions are far more truncated than facial expressions in everyday interactions. By comparison, Meryl Streep's Academy Award-winning performance in Sophie's Choice (1982), which exemplifies the naturalistic tradition in film performance, depends on performance signs found in everyday life. In moments of extreme emotion—for example, when she recalls the experience of giving up her daughter to Nazi officers—Streep uses familiar physical signs to convey the character's anguished inner experience. She creates the image of a woman in anguish through her tears and runny nose, the rising color in her cheeks, the tightness of her voice, her shortness of breath, and her glances that avoid eye contact.

In world cinema, it is clear that performance signs reflect the cultural and aesthetic traditions underlying a film's production context, and that theatrical traditions are an especially important factor. Western audiences need to recognize that, for example, Peking Opera is a major influence in Chinese cinema, and that Sanskrit drama is a central influence in Indian cinema. In order to appreciate the rapid shifts in the tone and energy of the actors' performances in a film such as Die xue shuang xiong (The Killer, 1989) by Hong Kong director John Woo (b. 1946), one needs to be acquainted with performance traditions in Peking Opera. Similarly, to see how performances contribute to the modulations of mood and feeling in a film such as Monsoon Wedding (2001) by Indian director Mira Nair (b. 1957), it is useful to understand the influence of Sanskrit drama even on internationally produced Bollywood films.

Even when there is a shared theatrical tradition, films and audiences are often separated by distances in time, location, and social situation. For audiences acquainted with Anglo-European theatrical traditions, a look at films from different eras and different national cinemas helps to clarify the fact that performances reflect the cultural and cinematic conventions that inform a production context. For example, performances in a Shirley Temple (b. 1928) film such as The Little Colonel (1935) are entirely different from the performances in a film such as the dark, retro fantasy The City of Lost Children (1995). The contrast between the performances does not reflect an evolutionary process in acting but instead the fact that films draw on historically specific conventions in their representations of gender, age, class, ethnicity, and locality.

In the Hollywood studio era, characters in films such as The Little Colonel are embodiments of social types that are combined in ways that illustrate moral truths. In a modernist film such as Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped, 1956) by Bresson, the human figures are minimalist traces stripped down to their essential qualities. In a naturalistic film such as A Woman Under the Influence (1974), directed by the American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes (1929–1989), characters exist in social environments and their actions emerge from personal histories and environmental circumstances. In a postmodern film such as The City of Lost Children, characters are traits cobbled together, vacuous shells of identities that circulate in a narrative-saturated society.

A film's conception of character will often reveal the dominant views of its culture. For example, in Broken Blossoms (D. W. Griffith, 1919), the young Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess), more complicated than the stereotypes of the era, is still the inscrutable Oriental, while the young waif (Lillian Gish) who is killed by her drunken father is given enough screen time to transform the emblematic case of domestic violence into the story of an individual young woman. The various conceptions of character in a film can also create layers of social commentary. In Memorias del subdesarrollo (Memories of Underdevelopment, 1968) by Cuban director Toma Gutiéśrrez Alea (1928–1996), the women that Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) mentally undresses as he passes them on the streets of Havana are presented as social types, namely, women in the tropics who are living in conditions of economic and cultural underdevelopment. Interestingly, the film's use of voice-over and subjective flashbacks prompts us to see Sergio as a unique individual and as

b. New York, New York, 9 December 1929, d. 3 February 1989

John Cassavetes's independent films challenge distinctions between documentary and fiction films. Described sometimes as home movies, they seem to capture authentic moments of individuals' experiences. The films' intimate quality reflects Cassavetes's career-long collaboration with cinematographer Al Ruban and actors such as Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Seymour Cassel.

Cassavetes's films direct audience attention to the work of actors—rather than the work of cinematographers, editors, production designers, or directors—in part because framing and editing choices are so directly keyed to actors' movements and dramatic interactions. The films are also uniquely actor-centered because they consistently include brief passages in which the actors' performances illuminate their characters, further the plot, and, at the same time, divert attention to the specific filmmaking moment that captured the actors' performances and the actors at work. In contrast to mainstream films that invite audiences to shift attention from the character to the star, largely because star images help to flesh out formulaic characters, in Cassavetes's films there are moments when one or more of the actors seem almost to drop out of character. These passing moments prompt audiences to think about the actors on the set as well as the characters in the story. While fleeting, these moments deepen the emotional impact of scenes that follow, for the viewer has been reminded that real people have been laughing, crying, feeling awkward—even if only to create the impression that their characters are having those experiences. Considered retrospectively, these ostensibly unscripted and unplanned moments also suggest a glimpse of the actors' personal experience in that filmmaking moment.

Cassavetes's respect for actors' contributions issued from his training and career as an actor. He is known for his leading role in the television series Johnny Staccato (1959–1960) and for his performances in films such as Crime in the Streets (1956), Edge of the City (1957), The Killers (1964), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Cassavetes's own films are enriched and complicated by his presence as an actor in Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), and Opening Night (1977). As an actor-director committed to exploring acting methods that facilitate actors' connections with each other and with the audience, in the late 1950s Cassavetes cofounded the Variety Arts Studio, a workshop that explored improvisation methods.

Like Italian neorealist films of the 1940s and 1950s, Cassavetes's films rely on location shooting, have an episodic rather than classical linear structure, and feature actors who are not encountered through and in terms of their star images. They issue from the period when television dramas crafted by writers such as Paddy Chayefsky and directors such as Delbert Mann changed American cinema by presenting audiences with performances that captured the telling and intimate details of working- and middle-class characters.

As with the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Cassavetes's films have been seen as a type of direct cinema, one that acknowledges the filmmaker's impact on the material presented and that attempts to reflect or reveal the material itself. For both filmmakers, actors function as graphic or narrative components effectively controlled by the director and as documentary evidence of social and emotional realities that simply cannot be represented in a fictional film narrative. Cassavetes has also been seen as an influence on directors such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, who share with Cassavetes an abiding concern with the uneasy fit between self-expression and social scripts.


Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977), Gloria (1980), Love Streams (1984)


Carney, Ray. Cassavetes on Cassavetes. New York: Faber and Faber, 2001.

——. The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Charity, Tom. John Cassavetes: Lifeworks. London: Omnibus, 2001.

Kouvaros, George. Where Does It Happen? John Cassavetes and Cinema at the Breaking Point. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Margulies, Ivone. "John Cassavetes: Amateur Director." In New American Cinema, edited by Jon Lewis, 275–306. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Cynthia Baron

a social type—this time, a Cuban male who is under-developed by virtue of his sexist perspectives.

Even a glance at film history and performing-art traditions indicates that performances are grounded in specific conceptions of character, person, and identity. Yet describing those conceptions remains difficult largely because characters in film and other dramatic and narrative forms do not exist in distinct categories, but on a continuum that is defined by degrees of typicality and individuality. As the above examples suggest, conception of character exists on a continuum even within a single film, if only because characters have plot functions that range from extra to messenger boy to confidant to antagonist to heroine.


Acting styles also exist on a continuum, with extreme presentational styles at one end and extreme representational styles at the other. The distinction between the two is not clear-cut. Viewers' knowledge, experience, and expectations help to determine whether or not a particular performance will be seen as presentational or representational. Moreover, the two styles appear in different films made during the same period, and are often found in the same film. Gradations of presentational and representational styles exist even in the earliest years of film performance. While a presentational style marks performances in single-scene novelty pieces such as The May Irwin Kiss (1896) and Fatima's Coochee-Coochee Dance (1901) and single-scene trick films such as The Lady Vanishes (1896) and How It Feels to Be Run Over (1901), other types of single-scene films seem to capture the "natural" behavior of individual human beings. For example, many slice-of-life actualités produced by thère Company are staged to suggest scenes of individuals engaged in familiar activities and are crafted so that the actions of selected individuals disclose discernible personality traits. In actualités such as La Sortie des usines Lumière (Leaving the Lumière Factory, 1895) and Bataille de boules de neige (Snowball Fight, 1896), the men singled out riding a bicycle through the crowd in each film seem to enjoy the opportunity to clown around. In Enfants pêchant des crevettes (Children Digging for Clams, 1896) a young woman in the foreground seems to be a bit anxious about being photographed. While these individuals reveal their awareness of the camera, in contrast to the novelty pieces or trick films, the individuals are not presented as if they are onstage but instead as if they are reenacting scenes from daily life and inadvertently revealing aspects of their individual personalities.

The acting style or styles featured in a film reflect the conception of character and the conception of cinema at the heart of that specific film. Put in the simplest terms, presentational acting styles are used to present character types or social types, while representational acting styles are used to represent characters with ostensibly unique personality traits. For example, the presentational acting style found in Making of an American Citizen (Alice Guy Blaché, 1912) illuminates identifiable social types, while the representational style of Lillian Gish's (1893–1993) performance in The Mothering Heart (1913) suggests a character with certain individual qualities. Presentational acting styles can also be found in modernist films that are designed according to pictorial or graphic principles. In a film such as Oktyabr (Ten Days that Shook the World and October, 1927), Eisenstein uses the evocative power of the stage picture and the polemical power of the social tableau to make his directorial statement. By comparison, representational acting styles are often found in mainstream films that are designed according to novelistic principles. In Wuthering Heights (1939), William Wyler uses the cinematic frame to create a window on a verisimilar world that invites audiences to locate occasions for emotional resonance.

Studies of acting in early cinema often discuss the presentational performance styles in American and European films produced before 1913. Scholars agree

b. Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht, Augsburg, Germany,
10 February 1898, d. 14 August 1956

Bertolt Brecht is a central figure in twentieth-century theater. A playwright who moved into directing to have an influence in the production of his own work, Brecht's first plays reflected the influence of dadaism and expressionism. He began directing in 1924 and had his first success in 1928 with The Threepenny Opera. Active in German theater until Hitler's rise to power in 1933, Brecht spent the next fifteen years in exile. During this period Brecht wrote the plays for which he is best remembered, but his work was rarely produced until he returned to (East) Germany. In the 1950s touring productions of Brecht's plays had a salient influence on Roland Barthes, Jean-Luc Godard, and others interested in modernist aesthetics and left-leaning politics.

Brecht's writing on theater practice also had a profound influence on theater and film. By the 1970s, Brecht's critique of conventional theater provided a model for politically engaged cinema that featured aesthetic experimentation. Sustained interest in Brecht's call for experimental stage practice still prompts filmmakers and stage practitioners to explore alternative relationships between performer, director, and audience.

Brecht is best known for defining distinctions between epic theater and mainstream dramatic theater. According to Brecht, the two types of theater have different objectives—epic theater is designed to illuminate the operations of social and political power, while dramatic theater accommodates people to existing social realities. Epic theater does not have a fixed style or set of techniques, and the logic for selecting and combining aesthetic elements is different from that used in dramatic theater. In epic theater, dramatic, visual, and aural/musical elements are placed in counterpoint to emphasize the constructed nature of representation itself. By comparison, dramatic theater orchestrates dramatic, visual, and aural/musical elements to create a coherent and emotionally engaging reflection of the world as it is defined by the traditions and myths that serve the interests of those in power.

In Brecht's productions, actors' gestures and vocal expressions were presented in spatial and/or temporal counterpoint to other performance and staging elements. At any moment, disparities between lighting, scenic, musical, and performance elements called attention to the concrete reality of the elements themselves. Rather than coming together to create a seamless stage picture, the disparate performance and staging elements kept meaning in play and made the entire theater event strange. Building on Russian formalists' concept of "making strange" and the Prague School's theories on the social function of art's "foregrounding effect," Brecht used the term "verfremdungseffekt" (alienation) to describe the effect of visual, aural, and comedic/dramatic collage techniques that keep audiences attentive to connections between social realities and the situations presented onstage.

Throughout his career, collaboration was integral to Brecht's work as a playwright and director. He worked closely with individuals such as director Erwin Piscator, composer Kurt Weill, actress Lotte Lenya, and actress Helene Weigl, with whom he founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949. The Threepenny Opera (1928), Life of Galileo (1937), Mother Courage and Her Children (1941), The Good Person of Setzuan (1943), and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948) are among his best-known plays. After fleeing from German-occupied countries in Europe, Brecht lived in southern California from 1941 to 1947. During that time, he collaborated occasionally with actors, directors, and screenwriters working in Hollywood. He chose to leave the United States in 1947 after turning in a remarkable performance before the House Un-American Activities Committee as the eleventh unfriendly witness in a group that later became known as the Hollywood Ten.


Kuhle Wampe (1932), You and Me (1938), Hangmen Also Die (1943)


Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Film and Radio, edited and translated by Marc Silberman. London: Methuen, 2000.

——. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, edited and translated by John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964.

Esslin, Martin. Brecht: The Man and His Work. New York: Norton, 1974.

Lellis, George. Bertolt Brecht: Cahiers du Cinéma and Contemporary Film Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Research Press, 1982.

Walsh, Martin. The Brechtian Aspect of Radical Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Cynthia Baron

that presentational styles were dominant in films produced before 1908, and they have used various terms, including "histrionic," "melodramatic," and "romantic," to describe acting in early cinema. The salient point in their studies is that the early years of Anglo-European cinema often featured performances with emphatic and highly expressive postures and gestures. Linked to theatrical traditions in which tableaux were important, early film performances were marked by poses that forcefully embodied the emotional or narrative situation.

Many scholars see a transition in the 1910s from presentational to representational acting styles. The change in acting style is linked to the rise of naturalism in late-nineteenth-century theater and to developments in film practice as the movies became an entertainment form for middle-class audiences. Scholars have used terms such as "verisimilar acting," "naturalistic performance," and "realistic acting" to describe the representational styles that accompanied the transition to feature-length films and the rise of the star system. In contrast to the emphatic poses featured in presentational acting styles, representational acting involves extensive use of props, blocking, and stage business to reveal dramatic conflict and characters' inner experiences.

By the 1920s representational acting styles were the norm in Anglo-European filmmaking, and thus an aspect of film practice open to challenge. While mainstream cinema continued to feature representational acting styles, filmmakers inspired by Soviet cinema rejected them on the grounds that they were one of the culture industry's more insidious methods for instilling false consciousness in mass audiences. Turning instead to epic theater and documentary forms, leftist filmmakers produced work such as Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Native Land (1942). Creating work that sometimes is compared to surrealist films of the 1920s and 1930s, experimental artists began using presentational acting styles to illustrate archetypical figures in dreamlike narratives such as Meshes in the Afternoon (1943).

Impatient with the conventions of commercial film and theater, modernists such as Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) found inspiration in stage productions mounted by Bertolt Brecht's (1898–1956) Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s. The influence of Brecht's views on dramatic art is visible in films directed by Godard and in the work of filmmakers such as Danièle Huillet (b. 1936) and Jean-Marie Straub (b. 1933), who were influenced by Godard's contributions to the French New Wave. In this line of modernist cinema, characters are presented as social types or stereotypes. Dispassionate performances obscure access to characters' inner experiences. Functioning as news readers more than characters, actors break the illusion of the fictional world by using direct address; working as cultural or media images more than characters, actors become pieces of the film's graphic design.

In Godard's films, performance elements are just one part of an audiovisual collage. Performances function independently of or in counterpoint to framing, editing, camera movement, and other cinematic elements. As models of social types, Godard's actors display little or no emotion. They often convey information about their characters' social and narrative situation by reenacting a gesture or assuming a pose drawn from film and media culture. For example, in a scene in Àbout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Jean-Paul Belmondo (b. 1933) pensively draws his thumb across his lips, emulating a gesture his character has seen on a poster of Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957).

Brecht's writing on epic theater prompted film critics to see the truncated performance style in modernist films as "Brechtian." The term served to differentiate the minimalist presentation of social types from the more histrionic style used in early cinema. With impassive performances in modernist films identified as Brechtian, expressive performances in a representational style came to be seen as "Stanislavskian." The connection between representational performance styles and the Russian actor-director-theorist Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky (1863–1938) is not surprising. In 1906 the Moscow Art Theatre's first European tour prompted theater critics to discuss the marvelous details of the actors' stage business. Their reviews called attention to the actors' ability to create the impression of everyday life. During the Moscow Art Theatre's tours in America in 1923 and 1924, which featured productions from the company's 1906 tour (Tsar Fyodor, The Lower Depths, The Cherry Orchard, and The Three Sisters), American critics were

b. Omaha, Nebraska, 3 April 1924, d. 1 July 2004

Marlon Brando is often considered by many to be America's greatest actor. He made his stage debut in 1944 and won acclaim for his 1947 performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. Following his film debut in 1950 Brando quickly became the preeminent actor in postwar America. He received Academy Award® nominations for his performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Viva Zapata! (1952), and Julius Caesar (1953), and an Oscar® for his performance in On the Waterfront (1954).

Publicity surrounding these films helped to establish the idea that Brando's acclaimed performances represented the arrival of Method acting in Hollywood. To understand Brando's work as a Method actor, however, it is important to recognize that the principles of acting and actor training associated with the Method were developed by three different individuals: Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. Each focused on different methods of preparation and character development: Strasberg focused on affective memory, Adler emphasized imagination, and Meisner stressed the importance of actors' connection. Brando took classes at the Actors Studio when it opened in New York in 1947, but he did not study with Strasberg, who joined the Actors Studio in 1948 and became its artistic director in 1951. Instead, beginning in 1942, Brando studied with Adler at the New School in New York. The New School's Dramatic Workshop, established by Erwin Piscator, who established the principles of epic theater that Bertolt Brecht would make famous, gave Brando the chance to perform in Shakespearean and symbolist productions. Studying with Adler, Brando was trained not to use memory and personal history as the basis for developing characterizations, but to enter into a character's fictional world by studying the script and historical accounts that would shed light on the character's given circumstances.

Working with Adler also instilled in Brando the belief that actors were not isolated artists, but instead citizens who should have a point of view about society. Brando's decision to protest Hollywood's representations of Native Americans by declining the Academy Award® for his performance in The Godfather (1972) is seen by many critics as a flamboyant gesture of a short-lived political stance. Yet, careful review of the roles Brando selected throughout his career reveal an engaged and long-standing interest in decrying the unchecked exercise of power. Brando's characterizations in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and Burn! (1969) are especially rich for their depiction of power's devastating effects. His portrayals in The Ugly American (1963), The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now (1979) are good examples of his ability to craft performances that suggest the allure and the ruthlessness of men who operate beyond the boundary of social norms. While he is often associated with the rebel characters he portrayed, Brando is best understood as a gifted actor, skilled enough to create performances that also invariably exposed the downside of rogue masculinity.


A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Wild One (1954), On the Waterfront (1954), The Young Lions (1958), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), Burn! (Queimada!, 1969), The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979), A Dry White Season (1989)


Brando, Marlon, with Robert Lindsey. Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. New York: Random House, 1994.

Hodge, Alison, ed. Twentieth-Century Actor Training. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Krasner, David, ed. Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future. New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

McCann, Graham. Rebel Males: Clift, Brando, and Dean. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Shipman, David. Brando. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1974.

Cynthia Baron

equally impressed by the simplicity and naturalness of the actors' performances.

There is a connection between the multidimensional "System" Stanislavsky developed over the course of his career and representational performance styles because the System included new methods that actors could use to prepare for and execute performances suited to the demands of late-nineteenth-century naturalism. For example, in place of studying painting or sculpture to create poses that would reveal characters' emotional states, actors using Stanislavsky's System learned to use script analysis to understand a character's circumstances and a script's fictional world. Rather than working to create certain images in their performances, Stanislavsky's actors turned to historical research and observation of everyday life. This research provided the basis for actors' imaginative creation of details about their characters' life history and social environment. When combined with exercises that enhanced actors' ability to relax on stage and focus their attention on fellow actors, the process of script analysis devised by Stanislavsky made it possible for actors to create performances that seemed to be lifted from everyday life.

From the 1920s forward, most actors in the United States have approached performance using strategies based on their understanding of the approach to actor training, character development, and performance outlined in the Stanislavsky System. In the 1930s dialogue directors, who worked with film actors to develop characterizations, and drama coaches, who developed actor-training programs for the studios, became an integral part of Hollywood's industrial production process. At institutions such as the American Academy of Dramatic Art and the Pasadena Playhouse, actors working in film learned scientific, modern, and systematic methods for developing characterizations and working in film. Many film actors took classes at the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood, which was established in 1941 by Group Theatre actors Morris Carnovsky (1897–1992), Roman Bohnen (1894–1949), J. Edward Bromberg (1903–1951), and Phoebe Brand (1907–2004) (all of whom shared Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner's opposition to Lee Strasberg's interpretation of Stanislavsky). Courses at the Actors Lab and at long-established institutions, and working sessions with drama coaches such as Sophie Rosenstein, were all grounded in Stanislavsky's view that actors must ask what the character would do in the given circumstances. In the late 1940s, when studios reduced their investment in contract players and communist-front allegations forced the Actors Lab to close, Robert Lewis (1909–1997), Elia Kazan (1909–2003), and Cheryl Crawford (1902–1986) established the Actors Studio in New York. Soon after, Lee Strasberg (1901–1982) assumed the role of artistic director, and in the decades that followed, Strasberg popularized the American Method, which inverts Stanislavsky's System by encouraging the actor to ask how he or she would feel in the character's situation.

The distinction scholars seek to describe by referring to Brechtian and Stanislavskian performance styles is an important one, but it is better understood as a contrast between presentational and representational styles. In a Hollywood studio–era film such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939), editing and framing choices are subordinate to actors' movements and facial expressions. Like the film's musical score and sound design, they serve to enhance audience access to characters' subjective experience and desires. Actors' performances are designed to disclose the inner lives of their characters. By comparison, in a modernist film such as Godard's Weekend (1967), editing and frame compositions often exclude close-ups. That approach eliminates cathartic or emotion-laden moments from the screen. Weekend's editing, framing, sound design, and camera movement also are often unrelated to actors' movements or interactions, serving instead to provide commentary on the film's polemical vignettes. The figures in the film are not defined by their personality traits, but instead represent social types shaped entirely by external forces.

As shorthand, it might make sense to discuss Stanislavskian performances in films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Brechtian performances in films such as Weekend, but doing that obscures important information about the multifaceted system Stanislavsky developed. Today, scholars and practitioners alike recognize that Stanislavsky's System can be used to create a range of performances styles. They see the value of analyzing scripts to understand (1) the problems characters need to solve to reach their goals, (2) the specific actions characters will use to reach their goals, and (3) the structure of scenes that arises from the actions characters take in pursuit of their goals. Many scholars now recognize that Brecht actually used Stanislavsky's System to develop performances and that Brecht's approach to staging required actors to use direct address, truncated performances, and animated acting styles imbued with the dynamic energy of circus and music hall performances.

Describing performances in mainstream Hollywood films as Stanislavskian and performances in modernist European films as Brechtian dissuades observers from seeing that even in largely representational performances, actors step outside their characters to comment on their characters and on their performances. What makes performances so compelling in Cassavetes's films, for example, is the fact that they not only create memorable characters, but also contain moments when actors seem to comment on the narrative and on their participation in the film. The Brechtian potential of Stanislavskian performances is also disclosed by many of Orson Welles's performances. His portrayals in Jane Eyre (1944), The Third Man (1949), The Long Hot Summer (1958), Touch of Evil (1958), and Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, 1965) do not simply present audiences with a character, or even the star performance of a character. Instead, Welles's portrayals enlist sympathy for the characters, critique the social and economic conditions the characters exemplify, and comment on Welles as an artist working in a capital-intensive industry.


Film scholars are coming to the view that presentational and representational acting styles are options that exist along a continuum, rather than opposite and mutually exclusive approaches, and they recognize that actors draw on a range of methods to prepare for and execute film performances. Acknowledging that film and theater portrayals require the same depth of preparation, and that each context requires unique adjustments, film scholars have set aside definitions of film acting that involve a strict opposition between stage and screen acting. Instead, gaining insights from video and performance art, television and performance studies, they now see connections between performance in film and other forms of mediated performance. Anthologies such as More Than a Method (Baron, Carson, and Tomasulo, 2004) feature scholarship that considers ways that performance elements contribute to films' meaning and emotional effects—even though audiences encounter performances in relationship to other aspects of the film's visual, aural, and narrative design.

Scholars have also developed more nuanced ways of considering authorship and film performance. They acknowledge that film performances are made up of physical and vocal expressions produced by actors—even in cases when directors such as Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) maintain a high degree of control by tricking actors, misinforming actors, or giving actors predetermined line readings and body positions. They recognize that screen performances depend on actors' voices and actors' bodies as the source of characters' movements—even in animated and computer-generated films. Like performances in disparate forms of theater, video, television, and new media, acting in film depends, at least in part, on actors who use their bodies and voices to create impressions, moods, and characterizations.

SEE ALSO Casting;Character Actors;Child Actors;Direction;Star System;Stars;Supporting Actors;Theater


Baron, Cynthia, Diane Carson, and Frank P. Tomasulo, eds. More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

Barton, Robert. Acting Onstage and Off. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2005.

Benedetti, Robert. Action! Acting for Film and Television. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.

Brewster, Ben, and Lea Jacobs. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Cardullo, Bert, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, and Leigh Woods, eds. Playing to the Camera: Film Actors Discuss Their Craft. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Carnicke, Sharon Marie. Stanislavsky in Focus. London: Harwood Academic, 1998.

Lovell, Alan, and Peter Krämer, eds. Screen Acting. London: Routledge, 1999.

Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Pearson, Roberta E. Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Rosenstein, Sophie, et al. Modern Acting: A Manual. New York: Samuel French, 1936.

Tomlinson, Doug, ed. Actors on Acting for the Screen. New York: Garland, 1994.

Tucker, Patrick. Secrets of Screen Acting. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Weston, Judith. The Film Director's Intuition: Script Analysis and Rehearsal Techniques. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese, 2003.

Wexman, Virginia Wright. Creating the Couple: Love, Marriage, and Hollywood Performance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Wojcik, Pamela Robertson, ed. Movie Acting: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Cynthia Baron


views updated May 09 2018

4. Acting

  1. Berma great actress, whom the narrator sees in her prime and in her decline. [Fr. Lit.: Proust Remembrance of Things Past, in Benét, 99]
  2. Meeber, Carrie small-town girl finds work on chorus line and matures into a successful actress. [Am. Lit.: Sister Carrie in Magill I, 895]
  3. Players, the acting troupe employed by Hamlet. [Br. Drama: Shakespeare Hamlet ]
  4. Thespis first individual Greek performer; whence thespian. [Gk. Drama: Espy, 46]
  5. Trelawny, Rose young actress sees married life as dull and returns to the stage. [Br. Drama: Arthur Wing Pinero Trelawny of the Wells in Benét, 1022]
  6. Vitus, St. patron saint of actors. [Christian Hagiog.: Brewster, 291]
  7. Woffington, Peg married and unmarried men admire her stage talents and fall in love with her. [Br. Lit.: Peg Woffington in Magill I, 724]


views updated May 11 2018

act·ing / ˈakting/ • n. the art or occupation of performing in plays, movies, or television productions: she studied acting in New York.• adj. temporarily doing the duties of another person: acting director.