The Art of American Screen Acting charts a fascinating history and development.
Acting is often one of the last elements treated in a movie review, if it’s dealt with at all, and even seasoned critics can struggle with what seems like hopelessly subjective criteria that seems based more on persona than anything quantifiable. How does one fairly analyze an actor’s choices, and determine where the actor’s role ends and the director’s begins? In The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912-1960 veteran theater and film critic Dan Callahan, who’s written biographies of Barbara Stanwyck and Vanessa Redgrave, may not bring a definitely objective eye to a thespian’s craft. But his attentive, provocative and occasionally salty prose puts generations of performers into a revealing – and entertaining – context.
Callahan recently told Slant that he was inspired to write the book because of his experience as an acting student at NYU, where one of his teachers was prone to writing off actors from classic Hollywood as pre-Brando phonies. But is the “naturalism” we associate with Brando truly more authentic than the stylized diction of a Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn, who happen to grace the book’s cover?
Not necessarily, Callahan argues. In a series of profiles and analyses of essential and influential actors, from silent legend Lillian Gish to ill-fated rebel James Dean, Callahan eagerly catalogs a performer’s strengths – and candidly acknowledges their failures. Gish’s silent work, for example, is lauded for elegant articulation, from expressive fingers to the simple power of her eyes. While modern Method actors are patted on the back for immersing themselves in what seem like the destructive element, did any of them have the courage to take on her own stunts in the treacherous icy waters of Way Down East (1920)? Gish had an “extreme masochistic devotion to her art, and to [director D. W.] Griffith,” Callahan writes, but just four years later, in Romola, he admits that she “falls back on mannerisms from her early work.”
A clip reel would be enormously helpful to follow along with Callahan’s litany of performances, but you trust his authority enough to believe his judgment – and want to seek out movies that may have never occurred to you before. He does helpfully point out, in a chapter on the ferociously talented James Cagney, that a devoted fan has uploaded extended clip reels on YouTube made up of nothing but the actor making strange noises.
Some of the actors Callahan champions may be considered hams, but, as in the case of John Barrymore, the author distinguishes between good ham acting that’s “emotionally connected” (his Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet) and bad ham acting that’s just mugging (his Richard III).
In a chapter on Katharine Hepburn, he reminds us of something that seems to be avoided in much cultural discourse these days: “Part of acting is being looked at, and you are naked emotionally if not physically. And so women understood the nature of that right away, whereas most men of this time shied from it.” Callahan isn’t shy about sex, from Louise Brooks’ seductiveness to Montgomery Clift slyly baiting John Wayne in Red River, “You’re going to wind up branding every rump in Texas except mine.”
The Art of American Screen Acting charts a fascinating history and development. Readers may inevitably debate his canon and highlights, but they will be too busy discovering and rediscovering old movies, and thinking about what makes acting successful.