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

Naturalist acting in John Cassavetes's Shadows (1959).
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

John Cassavetes.

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.

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