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
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.