- American Film Acting
- The Stanislavski Heritage
- by Richard A. Blum
- Copyright © 1984 Richard Arthur Blum All rights reserved
- Produced and distributed by UMl Research Press an imprint of University Microfilms Inc. Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106
A time will come when the evolution of art shall have completed its predestined circle and nature itself will teach us methods and techniques for the interpretation of the sharpness of the new life.
—C. Stanislavski, My Life in Art
The intimacy of acting of the Stanislavski school… is inevitably and remarkably developed in the cinema.
—V.l. Pudovkin, Film Acting: A Course of Lectures Delivered at the State Institute of Cinematography, Moscow
[Method] actors made a powerful impression and showed a remarkable ability to bridge the gap between stage, screen, and television to an extent that aroused excitement and interest in the rest of the world.
—Lee Strasberg, “Acting,” in the New Encyclopaedia Britannica
The impetus for emotional realism—or inner truth—was pronounced, and Griffith actors delved seriously into character traits, motivational behavior, and the given environment. Like M.A.T. players, they would study other people in every environment to develop their capacity for observation and identification. Lillian Gish was asked to visit a psychiatric institution to study the inmates and to visit the scene of a bombing to study the victims and their families.’’ Griffith felt this kind of observation was essential for learning about human nature and developing empathy.” Stanislavski also advocated observing human nature for building emotional empathy:
We use not only our past emotions as creative material, but we use feelings that we have had in sympathizing with the emotions of others…. so we must study other people, and get as close to them emotionally as we can, until sympathy for them is transformed into feelings of our own.’
Griffith’s search for a natural style of acting led to a carefully orchestrated rehearsal, with the full use of improvisational technique; much like the practice of the First Studio in Moscow.
At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden chair, the actors fanning out in front of him, and, as he called out the plot, they would react, supplying in their own words whatever was appropriate for the scene…. By the time that we had run through the story several times, he had viewed the action from every conceivable camera angle. Then he would begin to concentrate on characterization. Often he would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect.”
He also used sense-memory technique in rehearsals, similar to the sense- memory exercises derived from Stanislavski’s teachings.” Lillian Gish recalled: “In rehearsals we were expected to visualize the props—furniture where none stood, windows in blank walls, doors where there was only space. Our physical movements became automatic and our emotions completely involved.’’
Stanislavski’s “magic If’ was used to strengthen imagination and spontaneity, calling upon the actor to envision what he would do ifhe were in the given circumstances of the character. Stanislavski explained: “I call if jokingly a ‘magic’ word because it does much to help an actor get into action. Griffith used a similar technique, supplying the given circumstances and imaginative action through side-coaching technique. A most telling narrative was offered by Lillian Gish, in preparation for her role in The Mothering Heart’.
As I rehearsed the scene, Mr. Griffith fed me the reactions of the injured wife: “You feel that you’ve been humiliated by your husband in public. You think that he doesn’t love you any longer because you’re carrying his child. You’re afraid that he wants to get rid of you.” With his intense voice coaching me, I felt the heroine’s agony….
After leaving her husband, the wife bears her child alone in a cottage. The infant dies. In her grief she wanders into the garden, picks up a stick, and beats the rose bushes until they are stripped bare. This was Griffith’s idea. He was justly famous for the bits of “business’’ that he injected into his films. Even when they were not really essential to the basic plot, they communicated emotions that he wanted to project. If an actor devised a good piece of business during rehearsals, Mr. Griffith would keep it in.”
The “bits of business’’ which communicated emotions are directly analogous to Stanislavski’s later emphasis on the logic of physical actions. The dramatic action is tied directly to the emotional impact of the scene’s reality.
Griffith also stressed the importance of analyzing the story and character in preparation for a part. Mae Marsh outlined that technique:
[In approaching a part] we first look to the plot and theme of the story. We want to know what the author is telling and how he is trying to tell it. We find the big situations and the action that preceded them. More important, we locate the “why” of it.”
One can see the conventionalized realism in any number of Griffith films, beginning with his own acting chores in Rescued From An Eagle’s Nest for Edison Studio, through his directorial efforts in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920).” The melodramatic tone is strong and is evident in the performances of Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess. Nonetheless, Griffith actors were generally more aware of the need to underplay their parts, and to approach their roles from the perspective of human nature. Even outside the Griffith stable, certain actors approached their roles from a realistic standpoint. Charlie Chaplin based his characterizations on the realism of human nature’ and was considered “one of the great actors of all time in any medium” by Lee Strasberg.
One of Griffith’s actresses, Lillian Gish, received a letter of commendation from Nemirovich-Danchenko, who cofounded the M.A.T. with Stanislavski:
I want once more to tell you of my admiration of your genius. In that picture “The Wind” the power and expressiveness of your betrayal began real tragedy. A combination of the greatest sincerity, brilliance and unvarying charm places you in the small circle of the first tragediennes of the world…. It is quite possible that I shall write [of it] again to Russia, where you are the object of great interest and admiration by the people.”
Clearly, D. W. Griffith was an important figure in establishing realistic acting standards for American film, just as Belasco popularized realistic detail and understatement in commercial theatre.