[My report on David Thomson’s book Why Acting Matters is published in two parts. Part 1 below covers the background of my interest in the book and my introduction to it, a brief bio of the author, and then my appraisal of the “extended essay,” as Thomson labels it. Part 2, to be published in a few days, is a discussion of one of Thomson’s points, the one I think is the most interesting and meaningful, acting in everyday life. I won’t say more about that now, though I touch on it in Part 1; I’ll let readers come back and see what I (and to some extent, Thomson) have to say on the subject.]
When I first read about David Thomson’s Why Acting Matters (Yale University Press, 2015) in the Washington Post last March, I thought, ‘What a great topic to write about for the blog!’ After all, I was trained as an actor, I worked in that profession for a number of years, I’ve taught it and written about it, and Charles Matthews’s review made the book sound absolutely fascinating—right up my alley for ROT, if you will. Asserting that Thomson launches a discussion of the “deceptive nature of acting,” Matthews writes, “Acting is, for better or worse, universal,” and, paraphrasing T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, declares: “We all prepare faces to meet the faces that we meet.”
I even know something about that. First, when I was getting out of the army, where I’d been a counterintelligence officer in Cold War West Berlin, friends confronted me when they heard that I was planning to go to acting school. “Isn’t that a huge change?” they’d ask—“From the army to acting?” My response was always the same: “Why? I’ve been acting the part of an army officer for five years.” Because I wasn’t really the guy I’d been pretending to be since I started active duty—especially the persona I presented in Berlin: Special Agent K*****, the spook. Then, when I started teaching acting, I told my students that we all act in real life. We aren’t the same people when we’re with our boss at work as we are with the cop who’s pulled us over on the highway, I explained. We’re different people with our spouses or lovers than we are with the store clerk or the waiter in an upscale restaurant. We don’t think of it as acting, but it is. Shakespeare told us we’re all “merely players” and that “one man in his time plays many parts.”
The Bard, in fact, provides us with excellent models of this phenomenon. Leaving aside the actual actors, professional (the Players in Hamlet) and amateur (the Rude Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the transformations by magic (Lysander, Demetrius, Titania, and Bottom in Midsummer), and even the overt disguising (all those women who pass themselves off as boys or men, such as Viola in Twelfth Night, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Rosalind in As You Like It), there are fine examples of characters playing different roles with respect to specific other characters. Shakespeare’s villains are arguably the plainest instances of characters taking on assumed personae: Iago in Othello and Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, who both dissemble effectively enough to everyone but their henchmen, to whom they reveal personalities more like their true ones, engage in what one of my acting teachers called “Mask or Face.” In “An Actor’s Homework, Part 2” (22 April 2010), I defined this acting tool as “the latter our true and honest selves revealed without pretense or disguise, the former a role we choose to play for the outside world to protect our vulnerabilities or conceal our motives,” and I explained, “Most of us have several ‘masks.’” (Persona, Charles Matthews points out in his review of Why Acting Matters, is the Latin word for the theatrical mask.)
Two of Shakespeare’s most complex “maskers” (another word of actor or player) are Richard III and Hamlet. Richard is perhaps the more contrived dissembler in that he dons his alternate personae for the purposes of deception and we know he’s doing it and why. He pretends to be the loving brother to gain Clarence’s and then King Edward’s trust, he becomes the ardent lover to woo Lady Anne, he plays the reluctant heir apparent as he rejects the offered crown, and so on. I’m sure we all know people who can do this (we call some of them “politicians”; I was reminded of the crown-refusal scene when Paul Ryan repeatedly demurred when his party beseeched him to accept the speakership of the House of Representatives). Hamlet’s transformations are more like our own—sometimes conscious and contrived and other times natural and spontaneous: the good and trusting companion to his comrade-in-arms, Horatio; a distracted but concerned suitor to Ophelia; the outraged but conflicted son to Gertrude; the suspicious and angry nemesis to Claudius; the distrusting and watchful companion to his school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; with the Players, the conspiratorial conniver “to catch the conscience of the king”; and of course, the young man who’s “but mad north-north-west,” yet sane “when the wind is southerly” with Claudius, Polonius, and Ophelia, to give himself cover. Don’t you recognize yourself in such guises—if a little less dramatic and extreme?
That’s what I imagined I’d be reading and where I’d begin with my post.
So I went out the first chance I had and bought Thomson’s little (178 pages) monograph and started to read it. I quickly began wondering if I’d thrown away my $25 plus tax. I couldn’t grasp Thomson’s prose, much less his ideas on acting. His writing’s so loose, I had trouble actually following Thomson’s thread. (I’d never read anything by Thomson, but my friend Kirk Woodward had and when I described my trouble, he observed, “Thomson strikes me as—how can I put this—as an expressionist writer,” an author who depicts his subjective responses to objects, events, and experiences, and further characterized Thomson’s writing as “woozy,” a term of W. H. Auden’s the poet defined as “too dependent upon some private symbolism of his own to be altogether comprehensible to others.” In my opinion, Kirk nailed it.) I had no idea where Thomson was going or what he was getting at. If my intention was to read Why Acting Matters and then comment on it and pick up Thomson’s discussion for my own insights on acting in everyday life, which is what I thought the essayist was going to get into, I was apparently operating under a misapprehension. I felt as if I was on a boondoggle, a wild-goose chase.
I put the book down in disappointment, and also because personal matters were intervening and I had to divert my attention pretty much full time to other things. Then there were other posts for ROT that seemed more pressing or timely, including several performance reports to which I always give priority, and Why Acting Matters got shoved to the bottom of the pile. I didn’t get back to Thomson for many months. I did find it easier to read on the second try, but I still had trouble seeing where he was headed.
Thomson, a British film critic and historian based in the United States, was born in London in 1941; in the 1950s, Thomson attended Dulwich College in southeast London, a school founded in 1619 by Elizabethan actor Edward Alleyn. He lives in San Francisco with his family and in 2014, the San Francisco International Film Festival presented Thomson the Mel Novikoff Award, “bestowed upon an individual . . . whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema.” He’s also served on the committee of the New York Film Festival. Thomson, who studied filmmaking at the London School of Film Technique and is the author of several unproduced screenplays, taught film studies at Dartmouth College and has published more than 30 books including reference works such as Have You Seen . . .?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Knopf, 2008) and The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (6th edition: Knopf, 2014). Other books include biographies of David O Selznick, Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, and Nicole Kidman, and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood, as well as books of essays and several novels. As a journalist, Thomson’s been a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Independent, Film Comment, Movieline, Sight & Sound, the New Republic, and Salon. Thomson scripted the 1988 CableACE Award-winning documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, directed by David Hinton for Turner Network Television (TNT).
Why Acting Matters is part of Yale Press’s Why X Matters Series, which aims to champion the cause of important disciplines and influential thinkers that are perhaps under-represented in modern discourse. The series features pairings of authors with subjects and each volume, which already includes such titles as Why Architecture Matters by Paul Goldberger; Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman; Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini; Why Arendt Matters by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl; Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters by Louis Begley; Why the Constitution Matters by Mark Tushnet, presents a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea.
As I see it, there are two ways to look at Thomson’s monograph. I can try to discuss his view of his stated topic, the significance of acting in human society, or I can dwell on his outline of the history of acting, theater, and film and the performers’ profiles he uses to illustrate that chronicle. (This aspect of the monograph includes a simplistic but extensive—it threads throughout the book—discourse on the contrast between the British traditional approach to acting as modeled by Olivier and Vivien Leigh and the Stanislavsky-derived American Method, exemplified by Brando and Dustin Hoffman. Thomson isn’t subtle about his preference for the British style.) I find both approaches unsatisfactory. In the first instance, Thomson’s own discussion of why acting is important is skimpy and unfulfilling. I doubt I could wring more than a page or two out of it at the most. In the case of the writer’s principal focus, however, I find Thomson’s coverage disjointed, digressive, and diffuse. Most of it is anecdotal with a lot of questionable conclusions and a number of fanciful scenarios he makes up. Besides, a history of performing isn’t what I wanted to write about for ROT.
The biggest difficulty I had with Why Acting Matters, however, is that Thomson’s writing almost exclusively about actors (Olivier, Brando, Leigh, William Holden, Daniel Day-Lewis most prominently) rather than acting, and it’s almost exclusively stories about their performances (screen and stage) and lives (especially their love lives). (The author’s focus on the affairs and marriages of his actor-subjects, along with the manners and circumstances of their deaths, seems largely gratuitous and entirely gossipy, in spite of one reviewer’s assertion that “Thomson does not gossip.” You better believe he does.) Thomson states early in the book, a warning, I suppose, to readers like me: “So let us be quite clear—turn to some other book if you do not share in an uncritical love for actors; we revere them . . .” (p. 9). Indeed, the book’s almost exclusively about Thomson’s own responses to actors in various roles; Olivier’s Archie Rice on stage in John Osborne’s The Entertainer (1957) when Thomson was 16 was a watershed moment for the writer. Essentially, Why Acting Matters makes David Thomson seem like an inveterate star-fucker. I didn’t get much of a point concerning why the art or craft of acting is important on some kind of universal level.
Perhaps the cover illustration for Why Acting Matters is revealing of what I find problematic about this book. It’s a photo of the head of an ape in three-quarter profile, looking sideways at the reader. Why an ape on the cover? “Acting is baked into our primate DNA,” asserts the dust jacket blurb. Is Thomson going to propose that apes were really the first actors and that they passed that drive along to humans as we evolved and “flung ourselves down from the trees and began to walk upright,” as the front jacket flap has it? But no, the photo’s not actually an ape at all. It’s actor Andy Serkis as Caesar in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. This fact is noted nowhere in the book (where Serkis or Dawn aren’t even mentioned) or on the jacket, and I find this emblematic of Why Acting Matters: Thomson doesn’t like to tell us what he’s really on about. (Yes, I know that the author probably wasn’t responsible for selecting the cover art for the book. But he certainly approved it.) Thomson calls his “extended essay” Why Acting Matters (though, again, I know that the title was handed to him), but he writes about why actors matter—to him. He also explores a little why acting matters to actors—which is a lot like looking at why carpentry matters to carpenters or cooking matters to chefs. It’s like that GEICO ad on TV: If you’re an actor, you act. It’s what you do. But that doesn’t help the rest of us much, does it?
(Now, Thomson does make a little something of this in his continuing contrast between Laurence—“Larry,” the writer likes to call him occasionally—Olivier and Marlon Brando. Olivier, Thomson says, always relished acting and the rewards it garnered him, working at it until he couldn’t do it anymore. Brando, on the other hand, not only gave up performing in his later years, negotiating the least amount of work he could get away with on his last films, he gave up on acting, having come to distrust it. It’s a plausible analysis of an aspect of the characters of Thomson’s two recurring figures—the evidence of their lives and careers seems to bear it out as true—but I fail to see what this revelation—if it’s even that—has to tell us about the importance of acting to you and me. A lot of what Thomson finds worthy to report leaves me asking that question.)
In addition, I feel Thomson makes pronouncements that aren’t just subjective (and states them as established Truth and Fact), but made-up: he’s prone to inventing scenarios that are pure fantasy—or “fancies,” as he likes to call them. (One, to be fair, was purloined from a Nabokov story, but he doesn’t acknowledge that except in an endnote.) They’re meant to illustrate something (about acting, I daresay), but I’m not sure what exactly. (They’re mostly about filmmaking—not film acting, but the technical process of shooting a movie.) I don’t have the expertise or historical knowledge to determine for myself if, say, John Osborne, playwright of The Entertainer which he wrote for Olivier, actually composed the play out of retaliation for the famous actor’s request, “Perhaps you could write something for me,” as Thomson asserts, “as if to say, ‘Well, see if you dare play this’” (pp. 24, 23). While Olivier’s suggestion is backstopped by a citation from Arthur Miller’s Timebends (the American playwright and the British actor had just attended Osborne’s Look Back in Anger together), Thomson’s depiction of Osborne’s attitude is undocumented. The book is chock full of assertions like that, and I can only take or reject Thomson’s word for their veracity.
The fanciful scenarios are a different matter. Although the first time I encountered one in Why Acting Matters I thought Thomson was repeating a documented passage from one of the several actors’ biographies and autobiographies he cites, the problem isn’t that they’re presented as fact. They’re not once the reader twigs to the gimmick. But they’re airy and aimless from my perspective—one’s a fantasy of Marlon Brando and David Garrick, the 18th-century actor, in the back seat of a New York City taxi, playing a scene from On the Waterfront They’re not about acting and they’re not about real actors, or even real situations in which actors might sometimes find themselves. They’re imaginary, and a writer—remember that Thomson’s also a novelist—can manipulate fiction to come out any way he wants, to make any point he wishes to make. So what’s the purpose? Some of these go on for pages; one makes up nearly an entire (short) chapter. As one reviewer quipped about one of the author’s “fancies”: “Does he secretly hanker to write a novel?”
Even further, out of the blue Thomson imagines Spanish soccer-player Christiano Ronaldo playing Hamlet. The essayist posits that footballers Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Pelé, Diego Maradona, George Best, and Johan Cruyff are like actors playing “themselves,” which, as much as their tremendous athletic skills, is why fans are fascinated by them. (Indeed, Thomson admits that Ronaldo, “the contemporary soccer player with perhaps the sharpest sense of show business” [p. 12], reminds him of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino or swashbuckling matinee idol Tyrone Power. On that last comparison, the writer revised his assessment: “He’s Carol Burnett doing Tyrone Power.”) Of course, this side trip mostly demonstrates Thomson’s own obsession with soccer, since he could say the same thing about any category of celebrity from industry leaders (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Anna Wintour, Elon Musk, Lee Iacocca) to chefs (Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Julia Childs) with whom we become captivated. It covers everyone who manages Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Then we are indeed all actors—and no one is genuine.
(Thomson seems to have composed his own author’s bio for the end of the book, and it’s in a similar vein as his other windy diversions—except that I assume it’s intended to be whimsical. He relates that after film school, he went on to “a rather overdone obsession with movies that was barely rescued by his career as a celebrity podiatrist”; I can only presume Thomson was, as he asserts, a foot doctor. “Between soles and toes,” he tells us, he “conceived and wrote strange books on the lives and works” of actors and “a legendary study of Nevada.” “Retired now from feet,” he concludes, one of his current occupations is “a researcher on left-handedness.” “To hear” this, reports Tim Robey in the London Telegraph “is to feel a forced writerly eccentricity being rammed down your throat.”)
There’s something precious about these detours and the gossip, as if Little David were letting us in on his very private fixations, the things he keeps in a cigar box under his bed. I felt the same way about the structure of Why Acting Matters. Instead of chapters, Thomson divides his book into acts like a play script. The chapter headings have titles like the scene descriptions of a script, too: “Act I: Towards the End of the Day”; “Act II: Twilight”; and so on. The act titles don’t seem to have much to do with the content of the sections themselves—each one’s just as meandering as the others and contains essentially the same material. The titles are pretty much arbitrary, and each one (along with the untitled epilogue) is followed by an epigraph made up of stage directions from a play or movie script (which also has little connection to either the act title or the chapter contents, and the source is only identified in the endnotes). These are all little shiny objects that aren’t worth much, but Thomson finds them irresistible.
Now, I have to admit that some of the anecdotes—and even some of the gossip—is interesting, or at least titillating. Thomson’s so enraptured by Olivier’s Archie Rice that his description of that long-ago performance (captured for posterity on film in the 1960 movie adaptation), which he says seemed only feet away from his seat in the balcony, is nearly as mesmerizing as the live experience must have been. I was less engaged by the tales Thomson tells out of . . . well, the theater, I guess. Olivier’s affairs (one, allegedly, with American comedian Danny Kaye) or other Hollywood cover-ups (Clark Gable once killed a woman in a drunken-driving incident). Do I need to know that? I think not. And now I can’t not-know it.
I don’t even begrudge Thomson his idolatrous attachment to certain actors and certain performances. I trained as an actor and worked briefly in the profession so I share Thomson’s love for the practitioners of Thespis’ art. I even used to keep a memory-list (never committed to paper) of individual performances that I thought were astonishing: James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope (Arena Stage, 1968), Stacy Keach in Indians (Arena, 1969), Alec McCowen in Hadrian VII (Broadway, 1969), Virginia Capers in Raisin (Broadway, 1975), Pat Carroll in Getrude Stein, Getrude Stein, Getrude Stein (Off-Broadway, 1980). The list went on, though I no longer keep it, even in my head. But I understand—and appreciate—Thomson’s enthrallment. I also get how certain roles will always be associated with one actor no matter how long ago we saw it or how many good actors have assayed the part since. I’ve copped to that feeling several times, most prominently in “A Broadway Baby” (22 September 2010). But that’s all eye-wash: it looks good and hypes up the content, but doesn’t add any substance.
As far as what David Thomson seems to think makes acting matter, it’s hard to pin down. One reason, illustrated by his at-length reminiscences of stage and screen performances he’s witnessed, is that some of us soak that stuff up like sponges. Especially since the advent of film, first still photography, then moving pictures a little over a century ago, and finally talkies after World War I, actors have become a fascination of much of planetary society—even in places where TV is rare and movies aren’t made. (Video, DVD’s, and finally the Internet have spread access to movies—and, hence, the images of actors—to the farthest recesses of the earth.) “For some of us, on some days, we spend more time with acted figures than with real people” (p. 149), asserts the writer.
The “marketable celebrity of actors” has made them important to society and Thomson demonstrates this by delving into their sex lives, marriages, peccadilloes, and the bizarre or gruesome circumstances of their deaths. (The frequency, in fact, with which the essayist mentions or alludes to death or dying makes me wonder if he’s not just a little morbid. The significance to him of the advent of cinema, for instance, is not only that it allows performances to be captured for future generations of spectators to see, but that it endows the actor with “the beginning of eternal life” for, Thomson avers, “it’s not going too far to call” being recorded on sound film “life after death.” [p. 17]) But that’s hardly enough to declare that acting matters outside a small circle of devotees.
The next step, according to Thomson, is that the people the actors play in those ubiquitous movies and TV shows become our surrogates for, in the words of actor Simon Callow, “We see them as prototypes of ourselves and the people we know; their stories become our stories.” “Don’t we go to actors as we might seek analysts or witch doctors or forgiving lovers,” asks Thomson, “on the chance of being made whole? . . . If they can be extraordinary for an hour, we may dream of a new life” (p. 9). Acting, he insists, “is a model for our existence and collapse” (p. 168). Instead of the actors trying to behave like us, or others in the “real” world, we have begun to behave like the actors on the screen; they’ve become our models for everyday behavior in a kind of endless loop of who’s copying whom.
Thomson seeds his book with a dozen or so more reasons for acting to matter, but with respect to the kind of acting we associate with show business (plays, movies, and television), the overall reason is, “because of our dying attempt to believe that life is not simply a desperate terrifying process in which we are alone and insignificant. Acting may matter because we resist that atrocious plan” (pp. 7-8). In Thomson’s final analysis, “the best everyday reason why acting matters” is: “It’s a way of getting through life” (p. 84).
I have some small problems with this rationale for the importance of acting in the lives of all humanity—for Thomson never restricts his field to, say, Western or developed cultures. Yes, movies and TV have spread acting and actors’ images all over the globe and I imagine there are very few spots on the planet left where a George Clooney or a Julia Roberts or their counterparts from other filmmaking societies, isn’t at least vaguely familiar. But I wonder how influential they are as models for behavior and demeanor in places like, say, Tibet, Tierra del Fuego, or Nunavut. Would any of the male inhabitants be driven to try to launch a romance with a woman by taking two cigarettes from a pack, putting them both in his mouth, lighting them both, and then handing one to the lady—like Paul Henreid famously did in Now, Voyager? Somehow I doubt it, even though it inspired many a fellow in the West to try it. I doubt that many Inuit or Tibetans are so taken with actors and acting to the extent Thomson posits we are—even if he is right about the rest if us.
[With my mini-review of Why Acting Matters, I end the first part of my report on David Thomson’s monograph. (A monograph, by the way, is a scholarly essay of book length on a specific, often limited subject.) I hope ROTters found it engaging and provocative enough to come back in a few days and read Part 2 which, as I said above, contains my discussion of the real reason I think acting matters: how we use performance in real life.]