30 January 2018

Four Actors

by Kirk Woodward

[Readers of Rick On Theater may know that my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to this blog, is a long-time fan of mystery novels.  Among his most favorite series are the Erle Stanley Gardner novels about the indefatigable (not to mention undefeatable) attorney Perry Mason.  A devotee of the books and short stories (on which he’ll blog shortly), Kirk’s also a fan of the original television series starring Raymond Burr which ran from the 1950s into the 1960s.  I’m a fan, too, and we’ve each been watching the reruns on cable TV lately; we get different platforms on different services, so we don’t see the same episodes at the same times, but not long ago we both caught the four episodes filmed while Burr was recovering from an operation.  To cover for his absence, the series producers, Paisano Productions and CBS, brought in four prominent actors, two from the world of film and two from then-current TV series, to take the roles of the lead attorneys in the murder cases usually handled by Mason.  Kirk saw an opportunity to examine acting, especially—but not exclusively—TV acting, using the four contiguous 1963 episodes as examples.  So give “Four Actors” a read; I think you’ll find Kirk’s analysis of some aspects of acting edifying—and the look back at some old Perry Mason shows is kinda fun, too!  ~Rick]

A great deal has been written about the art of acting (including on this blog), much of it fascinating, but acting is difficult to write about. One reason is that to describe a performance of any size in detail is a daunting task, but, on the other hand, to zero in on a trait or several traits (as the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times reviewer Walter Kerr frequently did) risks oversimplification.

There is also a memory problem: how much of a performance on stage can one recall afterward? Even with a superior memory – something a reviewer surely needs – is there space in which to publish a description of a performance in detail? When Bernard Shaw reviewed performances of the same role (Magda in the play Heimat, written by Hermann Sudermann in 1893) by Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) and Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), his review (in the London Saturday Review, 15 June 1895) was one of the longest he wrote. It takes up seven pages in the volume of his collected reviews.

And theorizing about acting isn’t much easier than describing it, as illustrated by the wide variety of ways the subject can be approached. (A convenient sample can be found in the classic collection of essays Actors on Acting, published in 1949, edited by Toby Cole and Helen Krich Chinoy.)

I can illustrate this problem by posing a classic question: is acting basically an internal or an external process? Typifying answers to this question are the Actors Studio (highly internal) and traditional British acting (highly external). The answer surely is that acting is both internal and external, in varied degrees of emphasis depending on the actor, the play, and so on; but this answer has hardly quieted the debate.

With the advent of film, video tape, and digital recording, fortunately, acting performances can now be studied over and over, and much can be learned from such study. One highly interesting example of contrasting acting styles can be found in four episodes of the original Perry Mason TV series (1957-1966). (For information that follows about the shows, I am indebted to the compendium The Perry Mason Book: A Comprehensive Guide to America’s Favorite Defender of Justice, published in 2014, by Jim Davidson.)

In 1962, Raymond Burr (1917-1993), who was in his sixth of nine seasons with the first Perry Mason TV series, had what was described as minor emergency surgery but was in fact the removal of an intestinal tumor that turned out, to everyone’s great relief, to be benign. Burr missed the filming of the four episodes we will discuss; brief instances of his talking on the phone with his substitutes were filmed after he got out of the hospital.

Four actors took Burr’s place as the lead attorney in the four episodes he missed: Bette Davis, Michael Rennie, Hugh O’Brian, and Walter Pidgeon. I will briefly comment on the acting in these shows, and at the same time try to identify issues about acting that are raised by the performances of those four actors in those episodes – which have been released on video and can also be encountered on stations that rerun the show’s episodes.

“The Case of Constant Doyle” (season 6, episode 16, originally aired January 31, 1963)

“Constant Doyle” is the name of the character Bette Davis (1908-1989) plays in this episode – a tribute to Davis that was one of only two times in the series that a character name was used in an episode title. (The other was “The Case of Paul Drake’s Dilemma.” Ordinarily an episode title in the series would be something like “The Case of the Constant Doyle,” referring to an object or a situation.)

Doyle, Bette Davis’s character, is the widow (and former law partner) of an attorney whose reputation has been besmirched, and as she solves a mystery involving a young man arrested for a petty crime, with much larger implications, she clears her husband’s name as well.

In 1963 Davis’s career was at a difficult stage. She was fifty-five, not old by everyday standards but old for Hollywood (especially women), where she was no longer a top box office attraction. (She had, however, just finished filming the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, which would significantly boost her career.) There was hope that the Perry Mason episode might lead to a new TV series for Davis, although this did not happen.

Fans of Davis’s work reflect in web postings enthusiasm for her performance as Constant Doyle. To my mind her performance is erratic and “stagy.” Davis did some stage work (including a lead in Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana in 1961, quite a histrionic play in itself), but most of her work was in movies. It seems fair to say, though, that her acting style became increasingly mannered and baroque, a fact memorably displayed in Baby Jane and its 1964 sequel Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte

To put it another way: I don’t find her performance in the Perry Mason episode to be believable. But what do we mean when we say a performance is believable?

We might mean that if we saw the same person say the same words and do the same actions in everyday life, that behavior would be convincing to us. A moment’s reflection will show that that is seldom if ever the case. The simple fact that a piece of behavior is being performed before an audience changes the nature of that behavior. Add the conditions of the theater, a film set, or a television studio, and the result would definitely seem strange to us if transplanted to everyday life.

When we say a performance is believable, surely we mean believable in the context it’s presented in. One would hardly suggest a real life King Lear to walk in a pub, order a drink, and chat mildly about the weather. King Lear exists in the context invented by Shakespeare for his play, and a “believable” actor in the role is one that behaves appropriately in that context. In that sense, Davis simply does not strike me as believable in her role as Constant Doyle – or as a lawyer, for that matter. She seems to me constantly (sorry) to be a performer, rather than a person in the particular context of a particular script.

Comment on the web, however, often disagrees with me, which brings up another issue about acting, namely, the hopes and expectations we as audience members bring to and project on an actor’s performance. Bette Davis is a much admired performer and, although she hardly brings a “soft” dimension to her work, even (perhaps for that reason) a beloved one. Is an admirer justified in saying she’s wonderful in the role because she’s Bette Davis?

A stalwart aesthetician might say no, but I have no right to say that, because I do the same thing all the time. A best practice in reviewing is that a reviewer ought to analyze a famous person’s performance as though the person were unknown, and vice versa. Personally, however, I seldom do that. If I am an admirer of a particular performer, it is hard for me to admit that anything that artist does falls short of the mark.  In that respect I resemble, I imagine, many fans of Bette Davis. 

“The Case of the Libelous Locket” (season 6, episode 17, originally aired February 7, 1963)

Michael Rennie (1909-1971), appearing at the time of this episode as the TV incarnation of Harry Lime in The Third Man series (1959-1965) but best known perhaps for his role as Klaatu, the visitor from outer space in the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), plays a law professor, Edward Lindley. A student in one of his classes believes she’s killed a dance instructor – except that no evidence of that murder can be found, until the instructor is found dead the next day, murdered at a different time in a different way. Lindley, who at the beginning of the episode has belittled the profession of trial attorney, decides to defend the student himself (with a bit of encouragement from Perry Mason, seen, as in all four of the episodes discussed here, talking on the phone, in this case from the hospital).

Rennie’s performance, to me, is tentative and halting. (The Perry Mason Book says that “Lindley [note – the character, not the actor] seems diffident, out of his league, bland, and generally unappealing.”)

Not so fast, though – because the character Rennie plays is also uncertain how to proceed in defending the case, since he has little or no trial experience. Am I responding to the actor or the role?

The acting issue raised here, then, is that of the relation of the actor to the script. If my observation about Rennie’s performance is correct, is it the actor or the character who lacks assurance and confidence? (Or, of course, is it both?) Has the actor’s personality overwhelmed the script, or is the actor simply carrying out the script’s requirements?

Reviewers frequently point with conviction to a director, an actor, or a script as the reason for something that happens in a production, but in many cases it’s difficult to be sure who’s responsible for what, and some highly dubious assertions can be made.

For example, I recall a production of Bernard Shaw’s play Captain Brassbound’s Conversion (1900) in which reviewers generally blamed the script for the production’s weaknesses, when in fact, as far as I could tell, nearly every element of the production, including the acting, the direction, and the set, had the effect of sabotaging an excellent play.

The lesson I take from this subject is that we need to be careful when making statements like my “Rennie’s performance seems tentative and halting.” That impression, if accurate, may be Rennie’s fault; or he may be doing exactly what the director told him to do, or what he thought the script demanded. In deciding who’s responsible for what in a production, a little humility is perhaps not a bad thing.

“The Case of the Two-Faced Turn-A-Bout” (season 6, episode 18, originally aired February 14, 1963)

No apology is needed for the performance of Hugh O’Brian (1925-2016), best known for his performance from 1955 to 1961 as the title lawman on TV’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (still running when he made his Perry Mason guest appearance), as Bruce Jason, a former World War II spy turned attorney, in a frankly pretty improbable story of international intrigue, including mysterious papers that could have a huge effect on public opinion; representatives of foreign dictatorships freely wandering around Los Angeles chatting about their government; and a doppelganger.

The Perry Mason Book says that O’Brian “handles the role competently, but comes off a bit smug – a quality Gardner always cautioned about.” Competently? The man is sensational – relaxed, in control, commanding every scene he’s in, polished, smooth, droll, entertaining. Smug? Absolutely – see the previous sentence! O’Brian breezes through the preposterous plot in high spirits.

Hugh O’Brian was also, in “real life,” a smart, funny man. Wikipedia gives us this glimpse of his mind: when he married, fairly late in life, “the couple spent their honeymoon studying philosophy at Oxford University.” From the same source, we have this glimpse of his humor: after his original last name (Krampe) was misspelled in a program as “Hugh Krape,” he changed his name because “I didn't want to go through life being known as Huge Krape.

The acting issue here is that of personality versus, well, acting. Is O’Brian giving an acting performance or is he essentially just lending his personality to a role? My own response to this question is that at least he has a personality to lend. Many of the performers we really want to see are “characters” in their own right.

For example, I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about Bette Midler (“Two Greats,” 3 May 2017), who has just finished up her role as Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly on Broadway. Midler is and apparently always has been an outsize and vivid personality. She certainly brings that personality to the role of Dolly. However, she doesn’t use her personality to burst the bounds of the musical; she lends it to her role.

An actor who in effect ignores a script and imposes her or his personality on a play or film is another matter. Zero Mostel (1915-1977), for example, was accused of doing this in the later part of his run as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), and was widely reported to be unpopular with both the director and the cast. I only saw Mostel once, in a preview performance of a revival of Ulysses in Nighttown (1974) on Broadway, and what I remember best is that Mostel at one point “broke character” and imitated an actor who bobbled a line.

O’Brian doesn’t impose his personality on his Perry Mason episode, but he certainly pours a great deal of what appears to be his own charm and energy into a head-scratcher of a script. He stays within the bounds of his character (such as the character is); but he fills it to the brim.

“The Case of the Surplus Suitor” (season 6, episode 19, originally aired 28 February, 1963)

I have a memory of seeing Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) at the Brown Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, in a road company production of some Broadway play when I was a teenager, but I don’t remember much about his performance there. On his Perry Mason episode, Pidgeon plays Sherman Hatfield, a lawyer who takes on a case involving a struggle for the European rights to an electronics company, and, of course, murder.

Pidgeon’s performance on his Perry Mason episode is a delight. I spent a lot of time analyzing why I thought so – was it, for example, because of the richness and quality of his voice, equal to that of Raymond Burr’s? Finally I realized what struck me even more: Pidgeon is a terrific listener.

“Acting is reacting,” the saying goes, which implies that the actor has to listen to the other character in order to be able to participate in a scene. Similarly, the acting technique of Sanford Meisner (1905-1997) is based to a considerable extent on training an actor really to hear what the other actor is saying. In another example, the actor James Garner (1928-2014) wrote in his autobiography that he learned acting while appearing on Broadway as a juror in the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1954), in which he never spoke a word and only listened and reacted.

Listening is an essential of the actor’s craft. What sets Pidgeon apart as a listener is that he is an animated, active listener, essentially a participant in everything going on in a scene, even – or especially - when he’s not speaking. With a mobile face and a great deal of energy at his disposal, he listens so actively that one almost experiences the moments when he’s listening as two actors are speaking.

What’s more, he listens so completely to what’s happening that his spoken responses practically seem to bounce out of him. Unlike Bette Davis and Michael Rennie (but not Hugh O’Brian) in their Perry Mason episodes, Pidgeon doesn’t gather his thoughts and then speak; he is always on the mark. He has taken in everything that’s been said and he is ready to move the scene forward . . . which he does, with enthusiasm.

*  *  *  *

Acting is a fascinating subject. There’s always more to be said about it, and we are fortunate to have the four episodes of Perry Mason discussed here as examples of the craft.

Perhaps I should also say a word about Raymond Burr, who so memorably played Perry Mason in the series.

Burr makes a big impression – that’s no secret. For one thing, he was a big man, and he had a sonorous voice. But his acting is minimalist – it almost all takes place in his eyes. When he raises his voice, the effect is thunderous. He is not like any other actor I can think of. But surely that’s an important fact about actors – like snowflakes, no two are alike.

[At the top of “Four Actors,” Kirk says that a lot has been said about the art and craft of acting even on ROT.  Almost all my performance reports and most of the other review-like posts say something about acting and actors, and many of the other posts often include comments on acting or make some point pertinent to the art.  By my spot count, however, nearly 25 posts are specifically about acting or discuss it in significant terms, including “Acting Shakespeare,” 5 September 2009; “Kabuki: A Trip to a Land of Dreams,” 1 November 2010; “Herbert Berghof, Acting Teacher” by Kirk Woodward, 1 June 2011; “David Mamet On Acting & Directing,” 16 August 2013; “Acting: Testimony and Role vs. Character,” 25 September 2013; “The Father of Actor Training: Fran├žois Delsarte,” 4 January 2014; “Why Acting Matters,” 10 and 13 February 2016; “Those Guys” by Bilge Ebiri (T magazine, New York Times), 11 December 2017; and quite a few more.

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