Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Big Head Theory.

Robert Goulet, Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in CAMELOT.

I don't know why it is that some actors are so much more, well, watchable, for lack of a better word, than other actors.  It's an intangible thing.  It, in fact, makes no sense sometimes.  I personally know some really fine actors that bore me.  And I know some actors with really small ranges, not terribly proficient, really, but absolutely electric on stage.  It's a mystery, as the line goes in Shakespeare In Love.  And it is.  I only know that some actors simply command audience attention and others don't.

My friend and former acting teacher, Michael Moriarty, told me something interesting once.  He said one of the reasons he never became a major movie star was because his head wasn't big enough.  He said he had a theory that one of the prerequisites to becoming a movie star was a big head.  Literally.  He said, DeNiro...big head.  Nicholson...big head.  Katherine Hepburn...HUGE head.  Nick Nolte...big head.  Streep...very big head.  He said, as far as he could discern, there were no exceptions to this rule.  He told me that often times, on screen, one couldn't really see this.  But up close, in person, there was a direct correlation between stardom and the physical size of one's head.  Fascinating.  And Michael knew and worked with all of those people.

Angie, who spent over twenty years as a casting associate in this town, seconds his opinion.  She tells of people she knew and met over the years with the same observation.  Anthony Hopkins...big head.  Richard Dreyfuss...big head.

Michael said of course one has to also be a good actor but coupling that with having a big head usually means stardom.

It sounds utterly ludicrous, but I think there's some truth to it.

But that's movie stuff.  I was speaking more along the lines of seeing someone onstage.

I've met John Malkovich (big head, by the way) a few times and also seen him onstage.  I'm here to tell you, it's nearly impossible to watch someone else when Malkovich is onstage with them.  And it's not because John has such a huge range as an actor.  He doesn't.  The few times he's strayed outside of his particular niche as an actor, he flounders a bit.  Yet I can understand why he doesn't do stage a lot anymore.  It must be exhausting for him.  He never seems to relax.  Even while relaxing onstage, he is like a coiled snake.  At no moment does he seem to just pull back and coast for a few seconds.  Even when silent, when listening, when not actively involved with the immediate action, does he seem to be in repose.

I am reminded of something I read years ago about Richard Burton in Camelot.  Apparently during the out-of-New York run of that show, before they took it to Broadway, there was a scene that was eventually cut.  It involved Robert Goulet (Lancelot) and Julie Andrews (Guinevere) having a conversation, flirting, having a sexual connection, while Burton (King Arthur) stood upstage looking into the fireplace, his back to the audience.  He didn't have any lines in the scene.  The director and producers realized after awhile that the audience was missing the information in the scene because they couldn't pay attention to it.  Everyone in the theatre was staring at Burton's back.  His BACK was more interesting to them than Andrews and Goulet playing the scene.  That's precisely what I mean by 'watchable.'

In a film called Reflections in a Golden Eye, the great director, John Huston, said he did something with Marlon Brando that he would never dream of doing with another actor.  There is a moment toward the end of the film when Brando sees a man (the object of his affections in the movie) kneeling beside the sleeping Elizabeth Taylor, smelling her undergarments (yes, it's an odd film).  Brando looks on in horror and then leaves and gets a pistol and comes back and shoots him.  Huston shot the scene with the camera on Brando and when he leaves, the camera stays on the doorway where Brando had been standing.  He doesn't move the camera.  It takes Brando quite a while to get the pistol but finally, he walks back into the frame.  Huston writes in his autobiography that he didn't move the camera because Brando's presence is so palpable, so overwhelming, so powerful, that the audience continues to stare at the spot where BRANDO HAD BEEN.

In my own career I have run into this sort of thing a few times.  Years ago I did a play with an actor named Jim Petersmith.  Jim is a good friend of mine and, strangely, no longer in the business.  I hated working with Jim.  Not because he was difficult.  Quite the contrary.  He was a delight to work with.  But he had one of those stage presences that just entranced an audience.  I always got the feeling that even if I stood on my head and spit snowballs out my ass, they'd still watch Jim.

Another was an actress named Katherine Kelly, whom you can see in one of the photos to the right of this blog.  Katherine played Laura in a production of Glass Menagerie I did.  During rehearsal I realized I couldn't pull any of my tricks (every actor has a whole bag of tricks he carries around...'tricks' are things that have always worked for him, tried and true mannerisms that have proved fruitful in past productions).  Katherine is incapable of being dishonest onstage.  She is blazingly truthful.  So anything less from me would have made me look like bad soap actor next to her.  And her honesty is such that the audience, again, only watches her.  She's still in the business and a staple with the famous Arena Stage in Washington D.C.  I adored working with her.

And then there are actors that are entrancing on stage but not so much on screen.  Kevin Kline is like that.  His stage work is absolutely mesmerizing.  But on screen he's just okay.

Pacino is a perfect example of all this regardless of whether he's on stage or on screen, and I've seen him on both.  One just can't help watching him.  The only time I've seen another actor take the stage (screen) from him is The Godfather.  Brando did it.

George C. Scott, like Malkovich, is another actor on stage that simply demands the audience watch him.  The very fine actor, Charles Durning, once did the play Inherit the Wind with him.  He says if he had to do it again, he wouldn't because people didn't SEE him in that play.  They only saw Scott.  He says in his autobiography that he once even asked Scott about it.  George C. apparently said, "I have no idea, Chuck.  You're a better actor than I am.  You always were.  I don't know know why I even get hired."

It's a mystery.  Some have it, others don't.  Often times it has absolutely nothing to do with talent.  It just is.

Maybe it's just me, but stuff like that just fascinates the hell out of me.

See you tomorrow.