Really helpful 3-part interview with former child actor/now director, Fred Savage, (“The Wonder Years”) on the SAG website.
A One-Man Movement
Cary Grant Set a Pace for On-Screen Grace That’s Left His Followers Mostly in the Dust
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009
“North by Northwest,” Alfred Hitchcock’s sprawling 1959 thriller that takes us to the top of Mount Rushmore by way of a near-miss with a killer crop-duster, begins with the basics. A man is walking down a corridor.
But because the man is Cary Grant, the moment is anything but ordinary. He has us at the first step: that long, brisk stride and its driving rhythm, a ticktock pace that telegraphs purpose, clarity and elegant efficiency. We watch him stroll out of an elevator toward the street, dictating correspondence to the secretary at his side. He’s not some stiff, starchy suit. There’s a relaxed, easy give in Grant’s body as he moves, and as he leans toward his secretary while he speaks to her — he’s so very pleased with his own labors, and yet so exquisitely courteous to his assistant. A nice guy, and smooth as whiskey, too. He’s getting further under our skin with every move.
What Grant’s character, advertising executive Roger Thornhill, is actually saying in this scene isn’t nearly as important as his movement. It’s the movement that hooks us. It always does. Intuition? Training? Astute directors? Whatever its source, Grant knew a timeless truth: There is nothing we watch so keenly as the human body in action, because the way it moves tells a story.
The art of moving well, call it kinetic acting, has nearly vanished from movies today. I don’t mean among dancers on the big screen — that’s a different subject altogether — but among actors. The attention to physical expression, to one’s carriage and gestures and their dramatic and emotional implications, has faded. I’m talking about a sense of grace. About acting that involves a meaningful motor impulse. A signature style of moving, bigger than just body language or bits of what actors call “business” — lighting a cigarette, picking up a drink. Think of Gary Cooper’s quick, impatient stride across town to the church in “High Noon,” when he thinks he’ll be able to round up a posse among the worshipers, folks to join his fight against a group of killers. And then his stiff, pained walk back to town after he fails to find help. He doesn’t say a word, but the heaviness he feels is right there in his legs. You ache watching him.
A person’s way of moving through space tells us something on a base, primitive level. It’s animal to animal. It’s something so subtle you may not consciously notice it, but when an actor moves honestly and with intention, your eye will follow him anywhere.
The trouble is, you don’t see it that much. The buzz around this year’s Oscar favorites got me thinking about how the artistic trend in acting has gone from the external to the internal. We’re in the age of the close-up. Realism and psychological truth rule, and you find them in facial expression, in the little muscles around the eyes. The focus has tightened. Sure, there’s gobs of emphasis on sexy bodies, but the body as an expressive instrument just isn’t much in the picture.
Perhaps this is because actors aren’t formally trained in dance and movement much anymore, as they were in the early years of filmmaking. There’s also the invasion of psychoanalysis, and the rise of Method acting starting about a half-century or so ago, with its emphasis on emotion, interior motives and lots of mental preparation. Actors started questioning the precise blocking of action — the choreography of the scene — that was so prized by Grant, Cooper, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn and other stars going back to the 1930s and ’40s. For that era, physical elegance signaled inner elegance. Actors today seek more of a warts-and-all approach.
But kinetic acting is wrongly overlooked. It has an undeniable power over an audience. Consider Grant — and you needn’t only take my word on his greatness. He’s been famously deconstructed in Pauline Kael’s sharp-eyed essay “The Man From Dream City.” And film historian David Thomson, writing in his “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” describes Grant as “the best and most important film actor in the history of the cinema.” Grant’s dark beauty, cultured diction and gift for comedy are unmistakable. But what I find most fascinating about him — and I believe it’s the reason he is as watchable now as he was all those decades ago — is his physical grace, an effortlessness that borders on the surreal.
It’s always there, in every role, in the way he walks, the way he slips a hand into his pocket, the way he stands, with his shoulders melting just a bit toward the co-star his character is invariably secretly in love with.
Grant’s art was all about physical expressiveness and emotional understatement. He never did musical comedy per se — no Donald O’Connor-style routines (though you can imagine much of the sophisticated slapstick in the screwball comedy “Bringing Up Baby,” in which Grant teamed with Kate Hepburn, set to music and a song). But you could say Grant is one of the great musical comedy stars of the 20th century. Like the very best dancers — think of the versatile perfectionists Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and even the ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov — Grant based each role on an array of physical details. He got into acting that way; the Cockney kid named Archie Leach left England for America as a member of a troupe of acrobats. After he went to Hollywood and became Cary Grant, the acrobat’s love of physical play, his feline reflexes and reckless courage stuck with him.
In his early films (take “Singapore Sue” of 1932, for one — Grant plays a skirt-chasing sailor), he comes across as blocky and stiff. His delivery is corny and over-eager. Later, as he refined his athlete’s energy and channeled it into a smoother physical bearing, his acting relaxed.
Revisit “His Girl Friday” (1940), one of filmdom’s most perfect creations, directed by Howard Hawks. Sparks between newspaper editor Walter Burns (Grant) and his ex-reporter and ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) pop the whole way through, but in one scene Grant’s nuanced physical maneuvering is particularly marvelous. Seated over a polite lunch with his former bride (for whom he still pines) and her new fiance, Bruce (Ralph Bellamy), Walter aims to show Hildy just how foolish her fantasy of impending domestic bliss sounds.
“Ah yes, a home with Mother,” he enthuses — then there’s a smothered chortle and a little roll of his shoulder — “and in Albany, too!” It’s a picture of devastating mockery, but so slight and slippery that Bruce doesn’t notice. Hildy does, and we do, too. Grant orchestrates the moment perfectly. With every move leading up to it, he’s drawn our eye to his shoulders, squeezing them together slightly, not relaxed until now, this instant, when that little action that starts in his neck and trickles across the top of his suit jacket shouts out loud and clear that Hildy is making a stupid mistake. It’s not flamboyant, there’s nothing self-indulgent in that gesture, and it’s over in a wink — but it reveals the calculating trickiness as well as the feelings of his character. That liquid, nearly imperceptible roll of a muscle hangs there like an echo, a ripple in the airwaves, a shiver in the emotional current that encircles Grant and Russell and us.
Grant “accepts performance as a physical act, not just an emotional one,” says film scholar Jeanine Basinger, chair of Wesleyan University’s film studies department. Grant crafted his roles through movement, she says, “the way a dancer understands the role can be believable only through the physicality of it. It’s not just vocal, or emotional, but head-to-toe physical.”
Think of the yearning vulnerability in his posture as he leans in to trade barbs with Hepburn, playing another ex-wife who still owns his heart, in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). What his lips can’t say, his body whispers — he stands too close, inclining toward her, yielding in the middle like a surrendering wolf flashing its underbelly. In the scene where he barges into her house just before her marriage to another man, Grant shows how much he wants to reclaim her with that long stride that eats up the space between them, propels him right up to her. His effort to follow (so microscopically beseeching; we get it, though she doesn’t) as she backs away becomes a brief tango of pursuit.
Hitchcock was a master at exploiting Grant’s elegance, and “North by Northwest” is the definitive study of Grant in motion. Here, in fact, is film as modern ballet. There is that churning, driving Bernard Herrmann musical score. And the story unspools in a classic ballet structure, moving from the simple to the complex in the buildup of athletic images, revolving around brilliantly restrained duets and — most delicious of all — Grant’s stylized bravura solo turns that explode with drama and emotion. This is the film, after all, where that nice ad exec runs for his life from a crop-duster, his gait pinched and strained to show us how bewildered and trapped he feels; he makes a splayed-out, elegantly finessed dive into the dust that a Baryshnikov would envy, and later arcs spectacularly backward, up on his toes, even, from Eva Marie Saint’s gunshots. All the comedy, tension and romance, the racing pace and the plot twists register on that lean, alive body.
The Modern Actors
There are no Cary Grants today. But there are a few actors who engage us with performances of luscious physical awareness. Sean Penn’s liberating, joyous mobility in “Milk” is a sterling example. (More on this later.) Rarer still, there are those kinetic actors who throughout a career convey a sense of physical intelligence, as Grant had.
Tom Cruise, for one. “Valkyrie” may not be a showcase for his athletic intensity. But whether it’s vanity or art, he pays attention to his physical form in his movies. Particularly when he’s running. His mad dashes in so many movies have become something of a joke, but the truth is nobody looks better in a sprint than Cruise did in “Mission: Impossible III” (that helicopter in pursuit — a nod to “North by Northwest”?). There’s a blazing efficiency in his stride: relaxed shoulders, no extraneous movements. Well-coordinated limbs translate into a deadly coordinated purpose of mind.
The ever-relaxed, deadpan Bill Murray is another Grant offshoot. He delivers a Grant-like sense of comfort in his own skin in the masterfully underplayed “Lost in Translation,” which is essentially a movie about energy. There’s the jangly buzz of Tokyo’s night life, and the somnolent unease that brings together Murray and Scarlett Johansson. But it’s not just sleeplessness that joins this pair of misfits who meet at a hotel. It’s that their motors run at the same leisurely rpm. It’s through his slowness, his unhurried, unfussy elegance and languid physicality that Murray creates a character we can trust, who comes across as confident, humble and wise.
Denzel Washington has an especially pronounced sense of elegance, which gives the hostage negotiator he plays in Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” an extra dimension of truth. He’s so solid and calm, with that loose stride and its soft jazz-cafe rhythm — you might actually trust him, even if you were a psychopath. This is a fascinating film to watch from the point of view of the body, how bodies (those of the hostages in a bank heist) are dehumanized and robbed of their individuality, and how the characters who seek to control the situation carry themselves. Jodie Foster is a supremely kinetic actor; in her role as a high-powered, behind-the-scenes operator of shadowy origins she conveys deadly sureness with a cold, unyielding physicality. She’s as tightly cocked as a revolver. Watch the firm, deliberate cadence of her stroll as she lets Christopher Plummer know who’s boss, and you figure she could put your eye out with one of her high heels as smoothly as she takes another step.
To me, it’s a woman who is most like Grant today. Cate Blanchett, who interestingly enough plays a dancer in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” has long struck me as an actor with a dancer’s energy. There is a reined-in elegance about her, a sense of explosiveness carefully under wraps, which gives her an active presence even when she’s not moving. With that comes firm self-possession and a watchful intensity, even in so small a role as that of the elf queen Galadriel in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” She seems to float as she descends the stairs in her midnight scene, breastbone high, a slight arch in her back. She communicates a mystical depth in that taut, gliding physical presence.
There is unlikely to be a return to the prevalence of kinetic acting that you see in the old movies, when stars male and female bewitched us with the transcendent glory of how they moved across the screen. Emotional truths have long trumped physical truth. The emotion-driven Method acting espoused by New York’s influential Actors Studio in the 1940s and ’50s arose in answer to the more formal, traditional style of meticulously crafting a role, and it rejected accepted standards of bearing and grace. The camera zoomed in close, the actor’s face became the canvas. Characters became more emotionally “real,” and also more static.
Before Method acting came into vogue, “American acting was much more in line with English acting, where physical grace was a very important thing,” says Thomson, the historian. “Approximately with Marlon Brando, we suddenly get physical gracelessness.”
“We’re still very much in the vogue of the Actors Studio,” he continues. “The search for inner truthfulness, abandoning elegance and clarity. . . . We’re into a style of more awkward personal truths.”
Enter slumping and mumbling, exit agility. “From Here to Eternity” (1953) is a neat example of the split. On the one hand, you have Burt Lancaster — onetime athlete and trapeze artist, body cut from stone, forever hot under the collar. Like Grant, Lancaster’s acting was rooted in the physical, how his characters moved. (Lancaster didn’t have Grant’s range, though. He had the power but not the tenderness.) In “From Here to Eternity” he takes the physical to a combustible extreme; his 1st Sgt. Warden is all raw animal power.
Compare Lancaster with his co-star, the young Method actor Montgomery Clift, whose Pvt. Prewitt is freighted with the past, self-absorbed, just this side of a head case. Obsessed with personal truth. Now, remember Lancaster’s roll in the surf with Deborah Kerr — one kiss, one wave, destined to crest forever in American loins? To hell with truth; they wanted contact. They were the body; Clift, the brooding loner, was the soul.
This is why “Milk” is so interesting. There’s a graceful sweep to this film, directed by Gus Van Sant, which echoes the uninhibited expressiveness and the deeply sensual nature of the gay community that it portrays. Penn, the psychologically driven Method actor, is a revelation; his portrayal of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk, the doomed politician, is thoroughly, exuberantly, juicily physical. And honest. Penn doesn’t overplay it; there’s nothing swishy here. But to watch him wield his newfound expressiveness — the outgoingness and vulnerability in his upper body, the little fillips in his hips — feels like a luxury, and you realize what so many other films are missing: the body with the soul. The physical awareness that Cary Grant perfected. Acting you feel as well as see. And along with it, the stories the body tells.
I attended Stagedoor Manor for 3 summers as a teenager and was also recently interviewed for this book. Stagedoor is a magical place that brings together kids who all have the same love of theatre and performing.