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Inside the Brain of the Movie Star

Apr 15, 2008
"But they have no brains !" someone is sure to say. That sort of thing is rather cheap cynicism. As a matter of fact, they have plenty of brains, but of their own peculiar sort. A movie actor, like any other type of artist, is an emotional, temperamental crea- ture; but the problem which worries him the most is one of intellect rather than emotion; in short, just how to control the reactions inside that discredited gray matter of his.

Every movie actor and you, too, if you enter this field is at one time or another confronted with the perplexing problem of just how much thought he should allow to go into his work ; that is, whether his acting should be emotional or intellectual. The question resolves itself into this :
Does an actor feel?
Should he feel?

There are two schools of thought on this seemingly academic but in reality most important subject. First are those who say that an actor must feel the part he is playing. The greatest actors, they say, have always been those who wore themselves out in an hour's time, because they felt the emotions they portrayed. They tell stories such as that of Mrs. Kendall, who, having lost her own child, electrified an English audience by her portrayal of the bereaved mother in "East Lynne" to such an extent that women leaped to their feet in the pit, shouting, "No more, no more."

They point to the fact that the great stars of the screen and the stage alike are able to simulate the three reactions which are quite beyond the control of the will pallor, blushing, and the sudden perspiration which comes with great terror or pain. This, they say, is proof positive that these actors are feding every emotion as they enact it.

The second group declares that all this is nonsense and that if an actor really felt his part he would lose control of himself, and perhaps actually murder some other actor in a fight scene. Acting, they say, is an art wherein the artist, by the use of his intellect, is able to simulate that which he does not feel using his face merely as the painter uses his canvas. The moment an actor begins to enter into his part, his acting is either overdone or underdone and the scene is ruined. The whole trick of it, they add, is to keep perfectly cool and know exactly what you are doing, no matter how spectacular the scene.

Still a third school declares that both these views are wrong, and that acting is neither a matter of thought nor of emotion, but is purely imitative. An actor observes his own emotions as he experiences them in each crisis of his real life, they say, and re- members them so well that he is afterward able to reproduce them before the camera.

The truth of it seems to be that all of them are partly right and partly wrong. The great stars of the movies to-day, when one is able to draw them out on the subject, say that when they are acting they are thinking not about one thing but about several things. The brain is divided into different strata, and while one section is thinking about the part, another section is entering into it, while still a third stratum is busy- ing itself with idle speculation about the cameraman and the director.

There are two important secrets, connected with the psychology of screen acting, which every beginner should know, even if he never makes use of them. The first is that of Preparation; the second, that of Auto-Suggestion.

A movie actor or actress is in a more difficult position, so far as the artistry of his work is concerned, than the players of the spoken drama. In the movies the scenes are nearly always taken out of sequence, the first last, the last first, and so forth. For that reason the motion picture stars have great difficulty in working themselves up to the proper "pitch" to play a scene, inasmuch as they have not been through the action which leads up to it.

The movie directors know this, and in most studios try to help them up to this "pitch" by employing small orchestras to play during the important scenes, in nearly every large studio where more than one company is working there are to be heard the faint strains of Sonata Pathetique, where some melancholy scene is being taken, or livelier music for a bit of comedy in another set.

Also the directors are always behind the camera to guide their actors with spoken directions as the scene is made. This orchestra business has always seemed to us pure buncombe, but if the director or actor gets any fun out of it, it doesn't do any particular harm.

The wise movie actors of today are borrowing these two tricks of Preparation and Auto-Suggestion from their brethren of the stage. Preparation consists merely of spending a little time before the scene is begun in going over the part, in thinking about it, and in trying really to feel all the emotions of the character in question. This seems a simple matter; but it makes the difference between real acting and routine work.

Once an actor has carefully worked out the part for himself he can easily conform to the director's ideas; and once he has let himself feel his part he need waste no emotion upon it when on the "set," for his mimetic powers will reproduce his feelings of an hour before.

Auto-suggestion consists in working oneself up to the part before going before the camera by various expedients. For example, one actor, before playing a part calling for extreme anger, spends some ten minutes in clenching his fists, swearing at the handiest fence post, setting his jaw and so making himself really angry. It is not hard to reproduce emotion by these tricks of auto-suggestion.

Try thinking of something sad draw your face down and before long you will be in a very glum mood. That is the way such stars as Norma Talmadge and Mary Pickford produce tears on short notice. Most people think they are tricks of make-up, such as drops of glycerine ; as a matter of fact, it is a matter of puckering the face and a few gloomy thoughts.

All this sort of thing sounds very intricate and unnecessary. And yet it is the really practical side of screen acting. The psychology of each actor is different and his manner of preparing for a scene and of enacting it will be different. The important thing is that he be aware that there is such a thing as psychology, and that if he will only understand it as applied to himself he can improve his work as a film player.
About the Author
Malcolm Blake has researched and written about movies and entertainment, including how to make the most of your Zune .
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