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Excerpts from a discussion of
GROWN-UPS

The great characters in Leigh's films are asked to do the same thing the actors he directs are: to become ensemble players, masters and mistresses of supple, fluid responsiveness. For Leigh, partnering is what both art and life are fundamentally about. In this respect, his aesthetic goes against the grain of American film acting, where the goal is not ensemble playing but "starring." Everything in the American system works to create star players. American viewers are attracted to star names; American directors tailor their scripts to feature stars; and the American publicity system rewards stars financially. Even most American critics are captive to the power of the star. When an actor such as Orson Welles, Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, or Meryl Streep goes on a riff, steals a scene, chews the scenery, or serves up a big, fat emotion under glass, the pros and cons of the particular moment may be discussed, but the very notion of understanding experience in terms of stars or starring performances is almost never questioned.

Leigh regards "starring" (in life and in art) not as a triumph but a problem. In his dramatic universe the goal is not to solo but to partner; not to stand out but to fit in. Acting is interacting. Beverly shows what Leigh thinks of stars. Like a bad television talk-show host, she dominates every conversation, controls every beat, and fights to avoid being upstaged by anyone; but the work she is in clearly reveals Beverly's devotion to star-turns to be a moral nightmare. To star is to ignore others' needs. Peter in Bleak Moments, Mr. Thornley in Hard Labour, Keith in Nuts in May, June in Home Sweet Home, and Johnny in Naked cast themselves as the stars of the scenes in which they appear. They talk at but never really with anyone they meet. None of them can put his own emotional needs aside long enough to interact with anyone in a flexibly responsive way. (As Peter and Johnny in particular demonstrate, these figures run in terror from the prospect of giving up even a little control, sharing even a little emotional space with anyone else.) Leigh shows how horrific their starring is. Jack Nicholson's or Harvey Keitel's domination of screen space and upstaging of other actors is never critiqued by their own works in this way.

According to Leigh's work, our supreme creative achievements do not come by "starring", but by interacting. His greatest characters are asked to engage in delicate dances of interactional awareness and adjustment in which they complexly partner each other. Partnering can take many different forms–from the minor-key game playing of Sylvia with Norman and Hilda in Bleak Moments and the brief dance of affection that takes place between Naseem and Ann in Hard Labour, to the more intricate pas de deuxs performed in certain scenes in Four Days in July, Ecstasy, and Meantime, to the evening-length ballets of High Hopes and Life Is Sweet.

The preceding should suggest that the much-praised ensemble performances in Leigh's work are not just an accidental side effect of his rehearsal methods. They are at the heart of his vision of experience. For Leigh (as for Renoir), we are essentially not individuals, but members of a group. We share our identities with others and define ourselves in interaction with them. Identity is relational.

At the same time, it is important to add that, for Leigh (as for Renoir), the interactional nature of life does not in the least entail leveling, homogenizing, or eradicating individual differences. In fact, it maximizes them. To watch any of Leigh's works is to be plunged up to your eyeballs in expressive idiosyncrasy and bodily uniqueness. It is to be circulated through an almost dizzying variety of different ways of talking, moving, thinking, and feeling–each of which is honored. In every possible way, Leigh's casting, scripting, and photography communicate his supreme respect for personal differences. It is not unimportant that one of Beverly's shortcomings in Abigail's Party (like Melody and Dave in Home Sweet Home) is that she erases or ignores differences in thought and feeling (as when she assumes Sue feels the same way she does about divorce). Her smug knowingness prevents anyone from differing from her understanding of them.

Respect for individual differences may not sound as unusual as it is, but in fact the overwhelming majority of films (and scripts) unconsciously tend to privilege a particular way of thinking, feeling, or speaking. In mass-market films, the preferred view is usually that of the middlebrow viewer the film is meant to appeal to and not confuse or offend, so that any character with the least degree of expressive individuality is treated as being eccentric or weird. In many art films one can hear a particular screenwriter's "voice" emerging from every characters' mouth–Woody Allen's most interesting characters all sounding like little Woody Allens and Orson Welles' like versions of him. These films are a kind of one-man puppet show. To the extent that a character has the "right" sound or set of feelings, we are meant to admire him or her. And if a character acts, thinks, or feels differently from the director's or screenwriter's ideal, we are meant to judge him negatively (or regard him as a kook).

The virtuosic visual and acoustic styles of many films are other ways of leveling individual differences (as when the spooky lighting in a thriller makes all the characters scary or the Top 40 sound track in another makes everyone seem hip). Critics are fond of praising the "vision" of filmmakers who make highly stylized films, but the downside of this so-called vision is its blindness to other ways of feeling and being. The style swallows everything in its path and assimilates it to its purposes. The potential uniqueness of everything and everyone in the work is at least slightly attenuated.

The magisterial, omniscient view of characters and situations offered by the Hitchcock film is another form of simplification. Hitchcock's style promotes one way of seeing everything and rejects all others. Characters in Hitchcock's works who can't "see" (in both the optical and imaginative sense of the term) things in his way are invariably punished by the plot (by being either murdered or stalked). Leigh goes as far as possible in the other direction. He doesn't level, filter or homogenize the view. He shows us that there can be many different attitudes, many different ways of understanding, many different points of view in any one moment, no one of which is necessarily better or truer than any other. In any gathering of people, there is always more than one way of encountering experience. His work is an exultant celebration of the diversity of views, tones, and feelings....

–Excerpted from Ray Carney, The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

To read more about critical fashions, see the essay "Sargent and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and "Skepticism and Faith," "Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," "Art as a Way of Knowing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section.

Text Copyright 1999-2000 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.

This is only the "To Print" page. To go to the regular page of Ray Carney's www.Cassavetes.com on which this text appears, click here, or close this window if you accessed the "To Print" page from the regular page. Once you have brought up the regular page, you may use the menus to reach all of the other pages on the site.