PRESENTATIONAL ANDREPRESENTATIONAL ACTING
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.
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.
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.