Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lanegella's Nixon

Thinking about actors and the art they possess in making difficult personalities likable and why they do it. I've known many actors, some well and many less well but I think, one and all, they are sensitive people who want to be liked. In their desire to be liked the brilliant ones know that they can play unlikable characters, say Shylock or Iago, Hitler, Dracula, Nixon, the Queen of England [well, she's not unlikeable, just unknowable for most of us]. A part of the fine actor's art is to find the humanity he or she shares with the character he or she will become on stage or screen. They find the moments when the depths of the human need to be liked, to gain approval either makes the character painfully vulnerable or moments when a realization that honesty and soul baring will lift them beyond the ordinary coward who always covers his vulnerability with bluster.

This is what Langella did with Nixon and he did it with great subtlty, I think in the same way Helen Mirren showed us Elizabeth II as a woman dedicated to her inherited role but a woman dealing with pain and needing to make a change in her usual way of acting. So did Nixon during the last interview. In both cases it was not spelled out in CAPS for the dull witted but done by the actor with his or her most important possession [as actors] their emotional instrument. They were acting, yes, playing roles, but at the same time they sincerely felt with their whole beings the emotions of the characters they portrayed.

The first time I heard the phrase "emotional instrument" I felt a the truth of that phrase, "blew my brain." I realized what fine actors really do -- they have found a way to use their own emotions as musicians use their pianos or violins or flutes. Great actors' talent is that the emotional instrument is accessible and usable in a way it is not for lesser actors. Those great actors do not take their talent for granted but truly work at using those emotions and honing their expression.

A fine actor was telling me about this before I truly understood that it is possible to reach into one's emotional instrument at will and hit a note as a violinist can play a certain note. The actor said, "I can go from just talking to you to being furious at you" -- and as he said "furious at you," he was to the extent the look on his face changed in that instant. I felt I'd seen a sleeping lion suddenly roar, his jaws open and great teeth bared, right in my face, ready to chew me to bits.

Wonderful actors amaze me in the same way wonderful pianists, or painters or dancers do -- they display areas of art most of us cannot fathom accomplishing, but which we are richer for having experienced. This is part of why I choose the movies and art I go to see carefully now. When you understand the wonderful of fine art other art is a disappointment.

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