Playing to the Camera – 1998
(Film Actors Discuss Their Craft)
Edited by Bert Cardullo, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman, and Leigh Woods
If the film is the director’s work, then, when we think ofgood films, why do we think of actors as often as of directors? When I remember Way Down East, certainly I recall Griffith’s mastery, but equally I think of Lillian Gish’s body language as her life and status change.
The Silent Performance
Griffith’s authoritarian qualities were doubtless strengthened by his fondness for hiring, and then molding, actresses sometimes even younger and less experienced than Marsh. One of these was Lillian Gish, who began working with him while still a young girl and whose exposure to him influenced the rest of her career. In capturing Griffith’s passion for demonstrating effects, Gish makes it clear in her narrative that he possessed a highly developed narrative sense, which he drilled into novices and seasoned professionals alike. By doing so, he helped her and others generate a full – bodied style, capable of expressing emotion without making it seem grotesque. This style, at its best, distinguishes acting in silent films from the acting in films with sound, which was typified by greater restraint.
Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me
Excerpt from Lillian Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), 84-86, 96-102, 279. Copyright © 1969 Lillian Gish and Ann Pinchot.
Before a movie was filmed a player would often get a chance to rehearse each part in the film under [D. W. Griffith’s] supervision. As casting was not decided on until shortly before filming, we were obliged to be familiar with all the roles we had rehearsed. This system taught us range and flexibility. . . .
Once the parts were awarded, the real work would begin. At the initial rehearsal Mr. Griffith would sit on a wooden kitchen 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. As rehearsals continued, Mr. Griffith would move around us like a referee in the ring, circling, bending, walking up to an actor, staring over his great beak of a nose, then turning away. 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 we would run through a scene dozens of times before he achieved the desired effect. If we still failed, he would act out the scene himself with exaggerated gestures that he would later moderate in us. . . .
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. Most rehearsals were open—that is, the whole staff, actors, workmen, and the men from the laboratory were free to come and watch. Often there would be visitors on the set. Mr. Griffith loved the presence of an audience while his company rehearsed—and rehearsed so effectively that at the end of the scene, the onlookers would be in tears. Later, we learned to withhold, not to give as much as we would if the camera were operating. Film was expensive, and a scene was shot only once, so we conserved our strength for that one take. . . .
During lunch he would help those who happened to be eating with him. If an actor did not know what to do with a character, if he was baffled and could not get insight, Mr. Griffith would say: “Well, haven’t you seen someone like this in your life? Go find him. Go get an idea from someone, and bring it back to me, and let me see if it’s any good. I can’t think of everything! I’m writing the whole story. You have only one character to worry about, so you try to round it out and make it real and whole!” . . .
I would often be called in to rehearse parts for the more experienced actresses, who would sit by and watch me to see how the story unfolded. They thus gained perspective on their roles. Afterward I was allowed to stay while the more experienced players took over. Changing places in this way proved to be beneficial both to the craftsman and the novice. I often saw the scene again in the darkroom, thus learning how to correct my mistakes and profiting bv the skill of the others. . . . I won the role in The Mothering Heart, ancl it turned out to be a milestone in my career, primarily because, with two reels to work with, Mr. Griffith could concentrate more on the effects that he wanted and exercise more subtlety in his direction. During the filming I worried that I was overplaying. But when I looked at the rushes during a lunch break, I asked Mr. Griffith why none of it showed on the screen. He explained: “The camera opens and shuts, opens and shuts with equal time—so half of everything you do isn’t seen. Then take away the sound, and you lose another quarter. What’s left on the screen is a quarter of what you felt or did—therefore, your expression must be four times as deep and true as it would be normally to come over with full effect to your audience.” He taught us that false emotions never move an audience, that you cannot make viewers cry with make-believe tears. “The first thing an actor needs is soul,” he said. “The actor with soul feels his part, he is living his role, and the result is a good picture.” . . .
He made it clear to us that acting required study. “No matter where you are, watch people,” he told us. “Watch how they walk, how they move, how they turn around. If you’re in a restaurant, watch them across the table or on the dance floor.” Whenever he saw some behavior pattern that intrigued him, he would use it at an appropriate moment in one of his pictures. “Catch people off guard,” he reminded us continually. Sometimes, at the end of a shooting session, he would talk with those of us who remained to watch the rushes. “Too many of us walk through life with blinders on our eyes. We see only what concerns us, instead ofwhat goes on around us. Let’s take a scene that is played again and again every day—one that we see and yet do not see. Let us imagine ourselves standing on a street corner. A pretty girl is waiting at the curb for a bus. A commonplace, undramatic event. Nearly every corner has a pretty girl waiting for a bus. But suppose we already know one fact—if the girl misses her bus, she’ll be late for work. If she’s late, she’ll be fired. Let us begin then in the morning, when she comes awake abruptly in her room. We close in on the face of the clock to see the time. We watch her dressing with frantic haste. We see her drinking coffee. We show the hand holding the cup. It is trembling. We are becoming involved in the multitude of details which clothe every human event. When the girl leaves the house it is raining; she rushes back for an umbrella. Then we see her last-minute dash through the rain puddles for the bus. All of this, mind you, set against a montage of the hands of the clock moving and a backdrop of the office she is trying to reach. If we saw all this, we would be reliving our own tensions in similar circumstances, simply because we have been made to see it in all of its parts.” And he would repeat the familiar cry, “I am trying to make you see!” To learn about human nature and to build our characterizations, we visited institutions normally closed to young people. At insane asylums, for example, we were escorted through wards by nurses or the doctors themselves. . . .
I sympathized deeply with all the patients. They may have been aware of my compassion, for one day when the nurse left the ward for a moment a young woman shuffled over to me. She whispered: “I’m no more insane than you are. My relative put me in here for a purpose. Here’s my mother’s telephone number. Call her and tell her to come and get me. I’m unjustly confined.” She sounded completely rational. Her appeal touched me, and I took the number. Just then the doctor entered and looked at her shrewdly. “Mary, why did you break the window this morning,” he asked, “and then take the glass and cut your leg?” She regarded him innocently. “But I had no pen. And I had to write with something.” Later, when I was faced in a film with a scene that required knowledge of insanity, I had seen enough of its physical manifestations to convey the necessary range of emotions. During the filming of The White Sister many years afterward, I drew on my knowledge of epilepsy for one scene; it proved an effective way to register shock. Whenever I had doubts about the appropriate reactions to certain situations, I would consult an expert on the subject.
Mr. Griffith always emphasized that the way to tell a story was with one’s body and facial expressions. “Expression without distortion,” he always said. He meant, “Frown without frowning.” Show disapproval without unsightly wrinkles. The only makeup he suggested was a golden tone, an idea he borrowed from Julia Marlowe, with whom he had acted and whom he admired tremendously. I learned from him to use my body and face quite impersonally to create effects, much as a painter uses paint on canvas. Later on, when I worked with other directors, I would hang a mirror at the side of the camera, so that in a closeup I could see what effect I was producing. Mr. Griffith kept constantly at his young players: “Let me see you walk with happiness. No, not gaiety, that’s something else. That’s better. Now, with sadness—not sorrow. Now—with comedy, tragedy, sickness, blindness. Now. let me see you run in all these ways. Some of you move like wooden Indians. Must I open a dancing school to teach you flexibility?” He and I used to have a constant argument on one point. When I played a young girl, he used to have me hop around as if I had St. Vitus Dance. “Young girls don’t do that,” I complained. “How else can I get the contrast between you and older people, ifyou don’t jump around like a frisky puppy?” he asked. Then, imitating a young girl, he would get up and hop about, shaking his balding head as if it had a wig of curls. A stranger would have thought him mad. We were encouraged to train our bodies for acrobatic pantomime, which was particularly useful when the camera was shooting from a distance. We were also called upon to perform the most dangerous stunts. None of us ever objected; it did not occur to us to object. I studied fencing with a teacher named Aldo Nadi. He approved of my good eyesight and long legs and told me that in two years he could have me ready for the Olympics. But I was interested in fencing only as an adjunct to acting. I alsojoined the Denishawn Dancing School, studying with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, whose pupils—among them Martha Graham—have since won acclaim for their great talents. Their large living room had been converted into a studio with mirrors and practice bars, and later, while Miss Ruth and Mr. Ted were on tour, Mother rented it so that we could practice early in the morning and late at night. Within a few years my body was to show the effects of all this discipline; it was as trained and responsive as that of a dancer or an athlete. Mr. Griffith also encouraged us to take voice lessons to develop strength and proper breath control. His studio was certainly no training camp for weaklings; the working hours were unlimited, the demands unpredictable. Under Mr. Griffith’s tutelage, some of the younger girls of the company also had a small, impromptu class. Strindberg, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — we read them all with earnest, patient concentration. We might not have absorbed all the ideas, but we tried awfully hard. I myself was seldom on the set without a book under my arm. During that time I developed an admiration for anyone who knew more than I did, and I must confess that the feeling is still part of me. We also were expected to search for possible story material, reading everything in the public domain. We would find promising stories, change the locales, and use the characters and situations in our films. Mr. Griffith urged us to mingle with audiences in movie theaters to observe their reactions. “It doesn’t matter how you feel when you’re playing,” he said. “I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what you make an audience feel. You may be crying or having hysterics, but if you’re not making the audience feel that way, you’re not any use to my story. Go to a movie house and watch the audience. If they’re held by what you’re doing, you’ve succeeded as an actress.” I have often sat in the balcony, staring at faces to measure the effect of a scene. More than once I’ve put my face directly in front of a spectator’s face; instead of being distracted, I found, he would move his head aside in order not to miss a second of what was happening on the screen. Then I would know that I had achieved what I was striving for. . . .
The essence of virginity—purity and goodness, with nobility of mind, heart, soul, and body—is the stuff out of which, under [Mr. Griffith’s] prompting, I created heroines. He made me understand that only governments and boundaries change, that the human race remains the same. . . .
. . . Before Mr. Griffith would begin filming any production, he would rehearse the entire film from beginning to end. Other directors, I discovered, simply rehearsed each individual scene before it was filmed. I wanted full rehearsals on La Boheme; I had never worked without them. Through them an actor could develop his character, grow used to his partners, time his scenes, and set his tempo. This approach wasn’t known at M.G.M., nor was my method of rehearsing. It didn’t take me long to see that the other players were greatly amused by my actions—opening doors that weren’t there, going up and down stairs that didn’t exist. When they tried to imitate my actions, they simply became embarrassed. I could not impose my kind of rehearsal on the others, nor could I object when they wanted music for their scenes. I had never had music before, and I simply had to close my ears and continue working. The music was fine, of course, when I wasn’t trying to concentrate on a scene.