In Focus: Routledge Film Readers
Series Editors: Steven Cohan (Syracuse University) and Ina Rae Hark (University of South Carolina)
MOVIE ACTING, THE FILM READER
Edited by Pamela Robertson Wojcik – 2004
Pamela Robertson Wojcik is Associate Professor of Film, TV and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Guilty Pleasures-. Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna (1996) and co-editor with Arthur Knight of Soundtrack Available-. Essays on Film and Popular Music (2002).
Some essays are influenced by cultural studies, performance studies, and historicism. Others represent relatively rare discussions of acting in formalist, ontological, or popular discussions of film. The first section of the book, “Ontology of the Film Actor,” includes essays that take up the question, “What constitutes film acting?” In different ways, these essays address the ways and degree to which film acting differs from stage acting; how film acting is shaped by cinematic techniques such as framing, editing, and sound; the meaning and function of type; and the role of the star as constitutive of certain kinds of filmmaking and of our understanding of film texts. The next section, “The Creation of the Film Actor,” takes an historical approach to the question of what constitutes an actor. The essays here offer detailed analysis of the construction of film acting as a profession and mode of performance from the silent era into the classical studio era; and include institutional and aesthetic history. The section on “Style and Technique” examines four distinct styles of performance—the work of silent star Lillian Gish in the film melodramas of D. W. Griffith; generic modes of performance in early sound comedy; Method acting in 1950s cinema, especially Marlon Brando’s role in On the Waterfront; and non-realist performance modes in independent cinema. The final section, “Character and Type,” emphasizes the ways in which acting both reflects and is constitutive of ideas about identity, and offers historical and textual investigations of type and typecasting not only in the work of stars, including African-American stars, but also in the work of character actors.
Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie (1919)
Griffith’s True Heart Susie opens in a one-room Indiana schoolhouse, where a teacher is conducting a spelling bee. The students are standing in a row around the walls of the room, arranged according to their ages. The camera isolates two students—William and Susie (Robert Harron and Lillian Gish)—showing them facing the camera as if in a police lineup. Susie stands on the left, holding herself at attention with her arms stiffly at her sides; her head is cocked slightly, her eyes opened wide, her brows raised in an exaggeratedly cute, almost dopey, innocence. Next to her William stands more awkwardly, rocking from one foot to the other in discomfort over the teacher’s impending question. Although a title card prior to the shot identifies Susie as “plain,’’ the girl we see is quite pretty. Her tiny nose and rosebud mouth are set off against her large eyes, and her pale face is surrounded by wispy blonde hair gathered into pigtails. A simple plaid frock conceals her body, but obviously she is slender and well proportioned.
Griffith now cuts to the teacher, who quizzes the younger students and turns to glance offscreen in the direction of William and Susie. “Anonymous,” she asks, and we return to a shot that appears identical to the previous one; at any rate the camera angle is the same, the clothing and the relative positions of the players are the same, and Robert Harron still looks like the same clumsy boy. Gish, however, might be a different person. One reason for the change is a subtle, unmotivated alteration in the lighting, which makes her hair seem much darker; but she also wears the hair differently, so that bangs fall over her forehead and her curls are less evident. Moreover, her posture and her facial expression suggest that she has totally revised her conception of the role. Her arms are relaxed, her hands are clasped calmly in front of her, and she glances sidelong up at William; gone is the kewpie-doll innocence, replaced by a quite mature face, less self-consciously pretty and more knowing.
Suddenly, a jump cut returns us to the first image of the couple, as if Griffith had discovered an error, partly erased it, and restored the original shot. William raises his hand for another chance at answering the question. Susie, looking rather dotty, her eyes wide with fake innocence and her head wobbling from side to side, seems to say, “I know!” She spells the word, ending her recitation with a self-satisfied smile.
When the sequence is slowed down with an analyzing projector or when a single frame is isolated from the two shots, the transformation in Gish is remarkable. During an ordinary viewing, however, the error in continuity goes by almost unnoticed – I mention it chiefly because the two images of Gish indicate a polar opposition that she keeps in balance throughout the film. Her performance ranges between innocence and experience, between stereotypical girlishness and wry, sophisticated maturity—the latter quality giving True Heart Susie much of its continuing interest. In other ways, too, Gish adopts a variety of expressive attitudes for the role. As the narrative develops, she exhibits distinct personae that mark the growth of the character; and within individual sequences, her performance involves multiple faces that the audience is supposed to notice—especially when Susie is shown masking her feelings around others. If we look at her work more closely, we can see that it also entails a variety of acting styles, creating a complex emotional tone within Griffith’s otherwise simple story. Thus, although Susie may be a “true heart,” her identity (much like Gish’s public identity as a star) is created out of disparate, sometimes contradictory, moments, all held together by a name, a narrative, and a gift for mimicry. The minor disturbance of illusion in the sequence I have described helps call attention to the way Gish normally keeps differing elements of the characterization in harmonious relation, maintaining a sense of unity across scores of shots. I want to emphasize Gish’s variety because True Heart Susie requires a good deal more actorly invention than is usually recognized. Then, too, I hope to counter the misleading notion that good movie acting consists of being rather than meaning. In certain ways, of course, we hardly need to be reminded that Gish was a player who contributed artistic labor to her films; her scenarios were constructed to highlight her emotive talents, and the silent medium made her seem an artist by definition, a “poet” who suggested character through pantomime. Even so, the dominant theory of movie acting after 1914 was articulated in terms of “natural,” transparent, behavior. “We are forced to develop a new technique of acting before the camera,” Griffith wrote. “People who come to me from the theater use the quick broad gestures and movements which they have employed on the stage. I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose” (quoted in Gish, 88). As a result, performers like Gish were frequently praised for their authenticity, a quality that transcended mere art. The star system contributed to an increasingly antimimetic conception of acting because it made some of the links between actors and roles seem inevitable. Almost from the beginning, movie stars were regarded as aesthetic objects rather than as artists, or as personalities who had a documentary reality. Griffith and many other directors strengthened the “organic” effect by inserting details from an actor’s real life into the fiction. In True Heart Susie, for example, when Susie carries on imaginary conversations with the photograph of her dead mother, the picture she looks at shows Lillian Gish’s own mother, cradling the infant Lillian in her arms. When William later tells Susie that men flirt with “painted and powdered” women but marry the “plain and simple ones,” the joke is partly on Robert Harron, who said the same thing during his offscreen courtship with Dorothy Gish. It hardly matters whether anyone in the audience recognized these details, since the deepest purpose of biographical material was to facilitate performance, helping players to merge with their parts. The emphasis on personal relevance and sincerity was further enforced by the early critical discourse on stars, which helped shape the attitudes of viewers and moviemakers alike. Thus Edward Wagenknecht, who in 1927 wrote the first extended appreciation of Gish, remarked that “she always claims the right to make her roles over to suit Lillian Gish.” He praised her for expressing “her own point of view, a distinctive something which is Lillian Gish and nobody else on earth.” “The part and the actress are one,” he wrote. “In a very deep and very true sense, she is the profoundest kind of actress: that is to say she does not ‘act’ at all; she is” (249-50),
At first glance, True Heart Susie lends additional support to such romantic-realist attitudes. It contains a virtual sermon on the theme of Art versus Nature, and its central character is valued precisely because she is what she seems. “Is real life interesting?” Griffith asks in the first title card, and the story, as it develops, becomes a parable about craft and deception in conflict with simple, artless goodness. Susie, the true-hearted country girl, is contrasted at every point with Bettina (Clarine Seymour), the scheming milliner from Chicago: Bettina drives around in “Sporty” Malone’s flashy car, dances the Charleston, and engages in loose sex; meanwhile Susie embraces her cow, does spontaneous dances of joy, and lives in single- minded devotion to William. Bettina spends a good deal of time in front of a mirror, fashioning an image, whereas Susie is shown hoeing the fields or sitting by the hearth. Bettina “acts” in flamboyant style, deceiving men with her paint and powder, but when Susie tries to follow suit, daubing her face with cornstarch (a homelier, more “honest” substance that is all she can afford), her puritanical aunt berates her: “Do you think you can improve on the Lord’s work?” The equation seems exact: if Art is as bad as Bettina, then Nature is as good as Susie—hence, by a process of association, we might argue that Gish is profound to the degree that she rejects old-fashioned theatrical mimesis, letting her moral “self” shine through the fiction.
But when we examine Griffith’s parable more closely, it doesn’t work out so neatly. All three major characters aspire to middle-class respectability, and this desire involves them in various degrees of “acting.” True Heart Susie is therefore filled with performances-within- performance: Bettina is the most obviously theatricalized figure, batting her eyes seductively at William, playing a carefully contrived role that enables her to capture the town’s most eligible bachelor. Prior to her entry on the scene, however, William has also developed an image for himself. When he returns from college, he no longer behaves like a rube; grandly stroking a new mustache, he parades the streets and practices a sermon, using Susie as his enraptured audience. As for Susie herself, she is in one sense as much a schemer and actor as Bettina. She decides early in the film that she will change William from a bumpkin into an educated pillar of the community (“I must marry a smart man!”). She sells her farm animals in order to pay William’s college tuition, and then keeps the source of the money secret, playing the innocent companion. From the first we see that she is more clever than William; unable, because she is a woman, to become a Horatio Alger, she determines to create one and marry him. And although she is less sophisticated than Bettina, she seems no less sexually and romantically driven, ready at any moment to dress up for William. Bettina is in fact Susie’s doppelganger, as Susie inadvertently acknowledges in the scene where, overcome with pity, she holds her ailing rival in her arms. The real difference between the two is that Susie is wiser and more self-sufficient, and her craftiness is benign; William is her work of art.
It is difficult to say exactly how much Griffith wants the film to be interpreted in this ironic fashion. Like the novelist Samuel Richardson, he is too didactic to be described as a formal realist, and too realistic to be described as a “primitive” or a wish-fulfilling fantasist. Terry Eagleton’s remarks on Richardson’s Pamela could be applied with little qualification to Susie: “Do we laugh with Pamela at the novel’s solemn moralizing of her ‘baser’ motives, or laugh with the novel at her. . . self-apologies? Do we have the edge over both the novel and Pamela, or does the novel have the edge over us all?” The problem confounds us because Richardson’s writing (like Griffith’s direction and Gish’s performance) seems compounded of two voices, neither having absolute priority. The result is what Eagleton describes as an uneasy relation between “the meta-language of bourgeois morality” and a “still resilient popular speech” (The Rape of Clarissa, 32-33).
The film seems only partly aware of the discrepancy, and its plot goes through a series of improbable twists in order to achieve a happy ending. Bettina steals William from Susie, marries him, and becomes a philandering wife. One evening, she finds herself accidentally locked outdoors during a rainstorm. Her exposure to the elements gives her pneumonia, and even though Susie nurses her, she dies. Later, one of Bettina’s friends tells William the truth about his dead wife’s infidelity, and at nearly the same moment he learns that Susie paid for his education. Soon afterward, in an especially coy scene, we see him proposing marriage to Susie from outside her flower-bedecked window. They consummate a long- deferred kiss, and to make the ending still more rosy the film transforms Susie—now a mature woman who has suffered rejection—back into a girlish innocent: Griffith closes with a reprise of an image we saw near the opening, showing William and Susie as children, walking together down a country road. The soft focus shot is bathed in a nostalgic light, and a title card asks us to imagine the two “as they once were.” Thus, using plot conventions of nineteenth- century melodrama, together with certain events from Dickens’s David Copperfield and Great Expectations, Griffith has awkwardly smoothed over the many contradictions that sustain an ideology of the natural self.
As Thomas Elsaesser and others have pointed out, this sort of plot has a long history; where Susie is concerned, the ancestry of the narrative can be traced back not only to Richardson’s novels but also to the eighteenth-century dramatic genre known in England as “sentimental” or “weeping comedy.” Literature for the stage in the eighteenth century was designed to challenge the cynical attitudes of Restoration drama (much as Griffith denounces flappers and city slickers), showing bourgeois life in its best light. Leading characters were admired for their sincerity or “sentiment”—a term that suggested “virtuous or moral emotion”—and the chief acting style, made famous by the tragedian David Garrick, involved painterly tableaux, in which the players struck elaborate poses (Todd, 34). The typical plot formula combined pathetic and comic situations, resolving all conflict in the fifth act and confirming marriage and sensitive fellow-feeling as the ultimate good. Oliver Goldsmith joked about the form, noting its hypocritical tendency to forgive any fault or reprieve any character “in consideration of the goodness of their hearts.” Nevertheless, sentimental comedies multiplied, directly influencing Victorian literature and, indirectly, the Hollywood narrative. The leading characters of such dramas also helped to form the style of early movie stars. Gish, for example, repeatedly played women whose emotions were “spiritualized,” motivated by a simple goodness of heart. Charles Chaplin is a more complex, refined version of the same type. As David Thomson notes, “Chaplin’s persona is often very close to eighteenth-century sentimentality: a beautifully mannered dreamer who has trained himself into the emotional sensibility that will sometimes shame a woman” (98).
Variants of bourgeois sentimental comedy can still be found in modern theater and films, disguised somewhat by naturalistic conventions and inflected by the Freudian “family drama.” Critics nearly always treat Griffith’s uses of the form with condescension, but the survival of the basic plot indicates that we have not moved far from his values—especially as they are expressed in marriage, family life, and charity toward the weak. Raymond Williams has cautioned historians not to take these values lightly: The wider basis of sentimental comedy, and of a main tradition in the novel, was the particular kind of humanitarian feeling, the strong if inarticulate appeal to a fundamental goodness of heart”; the sense of every individual’s closeness to vice and folly, so that pity for their exemplars is the most relevant emotion, and recovery and rehabilitation must be believed in; the sense, finally, that there are few absolute values, and that tolerance and kindness are major virtues. In rebuking the sentimental comedy, as in both its early examples and its subsequent history it seems necessary to do, we should be prepared to recognize that in point of moral assumptions, and of a whole consequent feeling about life, most of us are its blood relations. (The Long Revolution, 288).
Seen in Williams’s terms, one of Lillian Gish’s achievements was to embody a “feeling about life —making “good heartedness” plausible, conveying sweetness and moral sentiment without making us doubt her sincerity. The somewhat Cavalier ethos of American life after World War I, when a good many important stars were beginning to resemble college boys or flappers, made this job especially difficult; Gish was able to maintain her stardom into the middle twenties (when L. B Mayer tried to talk her into having an “affair” that the studio could publicize) only because she was a master at expressing believable contradictions within her old-fashioned characters, hinting at sensuality and sophistication even in a purely bucolic role like that of Susie.
Gish’s ability both to play comic scenes and to give a relatively complex tone to pathos also suggests that she was far from being a “natural” personality whom Griffith employed in appropriate fictional contexts. True, she had physical characteristics well suited for Griffith’s fantasies of delicate, idealized girls tormented by brutish males. Never an extraordinarily beautiful or striking woman, she had a china doll’s complexion and an ability to look young (which she retains even today). To a degree, however, her physical appearance was the product of design. Her features seem petite and regular—the perfect incarnation of WASP beauty—but she has said that she never laughed in her early films because her mouth, which is so tiny on the screen, was oversized in relation to her eyes. She is usually described as “frail,” but her softness was an illusion, like Chaplin’s. She was small but strong, as anyone can see from her erect carriage, which in some contexts made her look prim. She had an iron constitution, a highly conditioned and flexible body, a cheerful and attractive face, and a capacity for delicate gestures. Out of this raw material, aided by her intelligence and apparently Spartan devotion to her job, she made herself into a memorable character type and an expressive instrument with more range than is immediately apparent.
Gish specialized in child-women with a strong maternal streak—a description that already suggests some of the oppositions she was able to contain. Despite the cloyingly sweet roles she was given, she was able to seduce the audience and redeem the movie, sometimes with such skill that her art was invisible. Thus Charles Affron, who recognizes her inventiveness in other contexts, finds her merely “adorable” in True Heart Susie, a film he describes as a “personal” and “original” Griffith work in which Gish is “never asked to be anything more than cutesy-pie.” Her performance, he claims, is “simplistic” and “shackled by sweetness” (48-47). The trouble with this conclusion is that if the film works—and virtually everyone seems to agree that it does—it must do so largely because of Gish, who contributed to its most compelling imagery and who completes what one might call the “writing out” of the plot through action. In fact Gish is asked to do a great deal in the course of the film. Not only must she convey Susie’s growth from innocence to experience, charting the turns of the narrative; she must also provide a lively charm that will countervail self-sacrificing goodness. As she herself once put it, “Virgins are the hardest roles to play. Those dear little girls—to make them interesting takes great vitality.” At every moment, therefore, she suggests a duality in her character, making us feel cleverness beneath youth, strength beneath fragility, humor beneath spirituality, and sexual warmth beneath propriety. To do all this, she has to call upon a variety of skills and a number of possible “selves.” In the following brief analysis, I try to point out some of them, illustrating the range of tasks she accomplishes in the course of what might seem one of her simplest performances.
Gish was influenced by the pantomime, or mimetic, form of acting she had learned in turn- of-the-century theater. But in Griffith’s films, even at this relatively late period, players could swing back and forth between radically different kinds of behavior. At one extreme, especially in comic episodes, his characters used a rudimentary gestural “signing.” Notice, for instance, the scene in True Heart Susie where Susie shares her bed with the ailing Bettina: first Gish purses her lips, squints, and doubles up her fist as if she were going to sock her rival in the jaw; then she virtually wipes away the angry expression and registers ostentatious pity, tenderly putting her arm around the sick woman. At another extreme, Griffith inherited some of the performing conventions of eighteenth-century sentimental drama. In close-ups, his actors could sometimes behave with remarkable naturalism, but they were also required to model for artfully posed moments of gesture-less “restraint.” The style was influenced by late Victorian portrait photography and painting, which meant that Gish had to serve not only as Griffith’s Little Nell, but also as his Elizabeth Sidall and his Jane Burden. She seems to have been eager and skillful at turning herself into a pictorial representation, an object of desire; she selected her own clothes with fastidious care, she persuaded Griffith to hire Hendrick Sartov because of his ability to light her hair, and she was able to pose for virtually still, “painterly” imagery without appearing as rigid as a figure in a tableau vivant. Susie is full of these images, largely because the central character spends so much time “waiting” for her man. It is worth considering some of them to illustrate how even as a photographic model Gish appears in a variety of guises.
At one point, for example, she is Susie the rural maid, patting her cow on the neck and kissing it farewell; the dumb animal nuzzles her, its broad, hairy face in vivid contrast to her own, which is childlike, pigtailed, sad, and very pretty beneath a flat little hat. Later, preparing herself to be a “fitting mate” for her hero, she is posed like a young Lincoln, reading books by firelight, her hair gathered in a bun and a look of eager studiousness on her face. Still later, in a shot titled “Susie’s Diary,” we see her in her room at night, her hair down to its full Pre-Raphaelite length, as in an illustration for a pseudo-Arthurian romance. Wearing a loose dressing gown, she is seated on a stool at the right of the frame, her knees toward us and her upper body twisted slightly to the right as she leans forward on a desk to write—an unnatural position that creates a languid, graceful line and contributes to the sublimated eroticism of the image. An unmotivated keylight falls from the upper left, making her skin glow white, and backlighting halos her fine hair, which spills in ringlets down her cheeks; her lashes are lowered to the paper, her slender hand holds a pencil, and her features are relaxed and aristocratically serene. By contrast, toward the end of the film she is depicted as a “single- track heart” and is seated more naturally at the same desk, her hair gathered in a spinsterish bun and romantically backlit; two white, furry kittens are perched on her shoulders, making her look like an angelic Venus im Peltz. In shots like these Gish is virtually a piece of statuary, but in the more dynamic portions of the film she employs a wide vocabulary of movement. The demands on her in this regard would have been great in any film, but Griffith’s rehearsal methods gave the leading players an especially important function in the “writing” of his stories. He seldom used a script, preferring to start with a vague outline and develop the action by positioning the players on a bare stage. Sometimes he demonstrated all the parts himself, but by 1919 Gish had become so sensitive to his methods that she was allowed to create the details of her behavior and appearance. Much of her activity in Susie consists of variations and sudden departures from a simple graphic set of movements: she holds her head straight and high, squarely topped by a flat, narrow-brimmed hat, keeping her arms stiff at her sides, so that when she walks her upper body seems disassociated from her legs. In the first part of the film the posture and walk are comically stylized and exaggerated; in context with the rest of the action, they suggest various things about Susie: her naive innocence, her puritanism, her directness, her single-minded devotion to a man, her almost soldierly courage, her sense of duty, and her “unaffected” country truthfulness. Her movements make an amusing contrast to Bettina’s swiveling hips and butterfly gestures, especially in the scene where the two women are brought together at the ice-cream social in the local church; and although Gish modulates her behavior slightly as the character grows older and gains dignity, she often duplicates the best work of the silent comedians. Her doggedness as she paces along behind her lover is much like Keaton’s; her slump-shouldered movement away from Bettina’s flirtations with William is pure Chaplin; and her innocent, level-headed gaze whenever she enters or exits a scene makes her resemble no one so much as Harry Langdon.
Susie’s wide-eyed face and fairly rigid upper body become a character “tag” and a recurrent joke (at one point, delighted to discover that Bettina is showing interest in another man, she skips across the floor of her room and spins in a joyful circle without moving her arms and head), but they also establish a pattern that can be broken in interesting ways. Because her posture suggests the idealism, determination, and restraint bred into her by an aunt who tells her, “Deport yourself,” her moments of letting go have a special force, like emotions breaking through repression. Sometimes they also reveal new aspects to the character, as if a mask had been dropped briefly.
One of the best examples of the latter effect occurs in Gish’s pantomime during the comic sequence when Susie and William walkthrough a lovely, almost expressionist, bower of trees on theirway home from school. Susie is in an adoring trance, walking about one step behind William but occasionally brushing his arm. Each time he moves, she follows. He pauses, turns, and paces toward the camera with her immediately behind him. Awkwardly pretending that his mind is on something other than the girl at his side, he turns again and walks toward the trees; she wheels and turns with him, patiently waiting for his attention but not demanding it. Griffith cuts to a closer view as they come to a stop before a tree, showing them from the waist up, looking at each other in a shared composition. Susie stares straight up at William from beneath her flat bonnet, her eyes no longer adoring nor quite so innocent; in fact, the look has a great deal of frankly knowing sexual desire behind it, so that it tempts William and flusters him at the same time. He bends slightly to her; suddenly she leans forward on tiptoe most of the way toward his face, closing her eyes in a comic gesture of passivity. At the crucial moment he hesitates, backs off, and turns his head toward the tree so that his back is to the camera. For just an instant Gish makes a gesture that almost breaks the representational surface of the fiction: she turns her own face away from William for the first time, showing it to the camera but not quite looking into the lens. She registers frustration and sad disappointment, but she also seems to comment on William, taking the audience into Susie s confidence as if she were a roguish character in a farce. Almost immediately her expression turns back into the sad look of a little girl, but not before it has told us that her character is more clever and self-aware, more of an “actor” than we had thought.
Gish also changes the basic pattern of her behavior when she expresses hysteria or inconsolable grief. Her pantomime when she receives William’s first letter from college is silly (she wrote that she had a “constant argument” with Griffith because he wanted her to play little girls as if they had “St. Vitus’s dance” |99|), but her moments of pain are among the most effective in the film. At one point, wearing the flat.hat and a frilly, beribboned dress that makes her look as old-fashioned as ever, she prepares for an “overwhelming assault” on William. Marching to his house, she arrives only to find him embracing Bettina, and she instantly shrinks back against a door to hide herself, holding a small black fan like a shield in front of her body. As she leaves the scene, she is hunched over and hobbling slightly, shaking with ironic laughter and tears. Later in the film, her spunky, straight-backed posture gives way completely. After the wedding of William and Bettina, she waves goodbye to the married couple, backs away into the garden behind her house, walks slowly and weak-kneed toward a fence, holds it briefly for support, and then suddenly collapses to the ground, her body curling into a fetal position. It is one of many occasions in Gish’s career when she is subjected to overwhelming torment; yet here there are no bullies, no ice floes, no blasts of wind or ravages of disease—only the force of the character’s emotions and a sudden release of stiff muscles.
Gish’s most impressive moments, however, involve her face alone. I am referring not only to the relatively crowded middle-distance shots, which she usually dominates by her position in the frame and the animation of her features, but also to the several instances when she is given large, lengthy close-ups. Here, virtually unaided by mise-en-scene or expressive objects, she reduces theatrical pantomime to its most microscopic form, displaying a stream of emotions, conjoining her movements so gracefully and inventively that we hardly notice how various they are.
One of the most protracted examples of the technique is the scene in which Susie, hoeing in a garden, overhears William and Bettina conversing on the other side of a hedge. The scene serves both to illustrate how much emotion Gish could gather into a single close-up and to rebut oversimplified interpretations of the Kuleshov effect. In one sense, of course, Kuleshov was correct: the various muscular arrangements of a human face (which are “coded” differently in different cultures) have little force or meaning outside a specific narrative context. We are able to “read” the lengthy succession of emotions in this scene—tension, pain, worry, grief, numbness, anger, fear, suspicion, curiosity, confusion, shame, and so forth—partly because of Griffith’s repeated crosscutting between Susie and the couple on the other side of the hedge. Once a general context has been established, however, we are able to make clear distinctions between the emotions by reference to Gish’s face alone.
Later in the Him—in what must be one of the more complex reaction shots in the history of movies—Gish employs the same close-up pantomime without benefit of crosscutting, using only her face and her left hand to speak to the audience. After Susie accidentally discovers that William and Bettina are engaged, she backs out of William’s doorway and leans against a wall. Unseen by the couple in the next room, she tries to recover from the shock and assess her new situation. In close-up, Gish makes Susie waver between shock, grief, fear, and a sense of ironic detachment that keeps her from falling into self pity. In fact, Gish elicits more emotion from the audience than she herself shows—although there are tears in her eyes at one point, she demonstrates how the close view of the camera enables the actor to use smaller and less extreme emotional gestures. At no time is she the wilting, suffering heroine who gives way to hysterics. She laughs ironically more often than she cries, creating a drama out of Susie’s precarious balance between strength and pain.
A few of the many faces she gives us during this crucial close-up |. . .] give the impression of expressive gymnastics, but in the shot itself they are linked together with such fluid transitions that Gish seems to be doing hardly anything. Turning her head away from the scene she has just witnessed, she faces the camera and looks abstractedly downward, her lids half lowered. She seems dazed or lost in thought, and her left hand rises to finger the dark choker around her neck. (This movement echoes a gesture from earlier in the film when William sits on her front porch and asks if she thinks he should get married. Trying to conceal her emotions, Susie smiles pleasantly and lifts her hand involuntarily, somewhat nervously, to stroke her neck and cheek.) There is just a hint of crazed numbness in her face, an effect that owes chiefly to the unfocused look in her eye, and to a tiny wisp of hair sticking wildly out from under her bonnet. Her fingers rise slowly from the choker, moving up her throat and cheek to pluck at her right earlobe. Her head tilts and she “thinks,” a sad, faraway look in her eyes. Her half-closed lids blink, her head straightens almost imperceptibly, and the corners of her eyes turn down more; she blinks again, looks up a bit, and a wry little smile breaks over her mouth. Fora moment Gish allows herself a half-suppressed laugh that seems to block her tears, her hand moving down from her ear to cradle her chin. She lowers her eyelids again and purses her lips slightly, continuing to smile. Turning her head, she glances toward the room where she has just seen William and Bettina; still holding her hand to her cheek, she smiles more openly, presumably amused by the foolishness of everyone concerned in the love triangle. (At this point she looks older than at any time in the film and evokes the same sort of saddened, tolerant, maternal amusement she uses in Laughton’s Night of the Hunter thirty years later.) Her smile fading a bit, she turns her head back toward the camera, her eyes cast to her left, looking at nothing in particular. Her head then turns to the left, and she brings her hand from her cheek to her chin. Cradling the chin once more, she brushes her lips thoughtfully with her extended little finger. Her smile has faded almost completely, and her mouth parts while her finger moves gently, pensively, back and forth across her lower lip; maternal only a moment ago, she now looks sexual and childlike, her lips forming into a moue. Her eyes blink again and glass over, as if she were in a trance. Her little finger plucks more roughly at her lip, rubs it, and then plucks it again. She turns her head back toward the room and inserts the tip of her finger between her lips, nibbling it thoughtfully. Her other fingers, spread across her cheek, clutch slightly at her face, the nails digging into her flesh in a way that suggests a sudden painful surge of emotion. She holds this position for a moment and then relaxes, moving her hand away; a slack, heavy-lidded look passes over her, and her head bobs. She seems on the verge of fainting, but then rights herself, raising her head. Her mouth opens slightly and her eyes widen in fear, her brow furrowing. She tilts her head to the right, her hand touches the choker again, and she softly rubs her neck to dispel the fearful thought.
I have dwelled upon this shot because it shows various articulations of Gish’s face and also because shots of its type occur in modified form in virtually all “women’s melodrama”—a genre that True Heart Susie prefigures. The full close-up of a woman suffering for love is the very centerpiece of such films, the image to which they all gravitate. But the actor is seldom called upon to register suffering alone. Usually, the fi 1m wants the woman to express some delicate, “restrained” mixture of pain, renunciation, and spiritual goodness—a smiling through tears that leads up to a kind of acquiescence in suffering. Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas is a classic example, and it is interesting to compare Gish’s long close-up to one of Stanwyck. In both cases, the actor’s job involves combining conventional expressions (anger or indignation are the only emotions the genre seems to rule out), so that the shot has a slightly ambiguous effect.
Where Gish is concerned, the close-up is especially notable on technical grounds, giving her an opportunity for straightforward, bravura pantomime, showing the remarkable range of effects she could achieve within the limits of a formula and without the aid of props, editing, or expressive photography. Her carefully modulated changes of expression also reveal something about the structure of her performances in general. She was a superb instrument for Griffith’s obsessive “visions” of maidenhood crushed like a flower, and she was also good at suggesting other qualities—maternal care, sexuality, intelligence, and a prim courage and resolve that embodied elements of the pioneer ideal. In some ways, she was a more sophisticated artist than the director she always referred to in public as “Mr. Griffith”; in both the comic and pathetic episodes of this film, she gives her character an ironic self-awareness, cutting against the grain of Griffith’s pastoral allegory, as if she were constantly tending toward the more plausible version of Susie that can be seen in the second image at the beginning of this chapter. Whatever her personal motives, however, her success depended on the way she collaborated with and complicated Griffith’s sentimental fictions; ultimately, her different faces and gestures were organized into the illusion of a “personality,” and her mime took on the power of myth.
1. Gish recalled that one of Griffith’s favorite mottos was “Expression without distortion,” and Mack Sennett once claimed that when he tried acting for Griffith he was congratulated by the director for simply standing in front of the camera.
2. Wagenknecht’s rapturous mystification of Gish is understandable, given her charm, and is no different from countless other essays about actors. Compare, for example, George Bernard Shaw’s comments in the English Saturday Review of the 1880s, on the stage performances of Mrs. Patrick Campbell: “Who wants her to act? Who cares twopence whether she possesses that or any other second-rate accomplishment? On the highest plane one does not act, one is. Go and see her move, stand, speak, look, kneel—go and breathe the magic atmosphere that is created by the grace of all those deeds. . .
Interestingly, although Hollywood promulgated similar ideas, it sometimes tried to create counterillusions that would selectively dispel them. Hence, the typical fan magazine story that showed an actor like Edward G. Robinson at home among his paintings and children, a happy bourgeois rather than a Little Caesar. Dorothy Gish once joked about how her sister was confused with her screen persona: “The popular conception of Lillian as soft and dreamy makes me think of the gag used too often in the comic strips. A hat lies upon the sidewalk; some person kicks it enthusiastically and finds to his astonishment and pain that there is hidden inside it a brick” (The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, 96).
3. Griffith’s racist imagination prompted him to turn Gish into an Aryan ideal, but he was not alone in such attitudes. Throughout the silent period, the faces of “spiritualized” characters were supposed to have small, delicate features. As late as the thirties, Humphrey Bogart was typed as a villain partly because executives at Warner Brothers thought his lips were too large to play a sympathetic leading man; ironically, as Louise Brooks has pointed out, Bogart’s mouth was quite beautiful, and once he became a star, it turned into his most expressive feature: “Bogey practiced all kinds of lip gymnastics . . . Only Eric von Stroheim was his superior at liptwitching” (Lulu in Hollywood, 60).