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.
from Ray Carney's Shadows
Acting as Playing
Madness and the Method
The contrast with the Studio stung Cassavetes all the more, since he had both personal and intellectual differences with Strasberg. He was resentful about the power the Studio exerted over New York casting directors and was convinced that his not being an alumnus was what had prevented him from being hired early in his career. He was also scornful of what he called the "guru" aspects of the Studio, and despised the cult of personality that had grown up around Strasberg (scorning it as only someone half envious of it can). Cassavetes and Lane pointedly described their own approach to students as being "anti-guru." Cassavetes believed that although figures like Clift, Brando and Dean had had a salutary influence on acting in the late 1940s and early 50s, by the middle of the decade the Method had hardened into a received style that was as rigid, unimaginative and boring as the styles it had replaced ten years earlier. The slouch, shuffle, furrow and stammer had been turned into recipes for profundity.
Acting as Playing
Cassavetes had one more encounter with the Actors Studio in late 1956. One day he approached Burt Lane and the two young men he regarded as being the best actors in the Workshop, Tom Gilson and Tony Ray, and told them he had cooked up a fun thing to do. The four of them would “crash”one of the Actors Studio auditions, scheduled for a couple days later, and show those “stars and bigwigs”what they could do. When Lane, Gilson, and Ray asked Cassavetes what scene he had in mind for the audition piece, he said that would be part of the fun. They would not use a text, but improvise something on the spot. The goal would be to hold the stage for as long as they could. The morning of audition day, the four of them batted around a few ideas and agreed to meet later at the Studio. Cassavetes told his three co-conspirators that if they were asked, they were to say that they were doing a scene from a new play titled Bill Bower’s Boys. It was about black siblings passing for white.
There was an immediate problem once they arrived at the Studio. There were no walk-ins. Auditions were by reservation and audition days were always booked up well in advance. But Cassavetes was not one to let something like that stop him. According to Burt Lane, he talked his way onto the stage and he and his cohorts improvised the craziest, most demented, Jerry Lewis-like moment they could come up with. According to Tony Ray, they couldn’t have been more successful or more outrageous: “We were not signed up to audition. We concocted the framework of an improvisation, went to the Studio, made a big ruckus and [forced our way] on stage. Auditions are supposed to last five minutes, but we worked for at least fifteen minutes before they got us off.”
It was a typical Cassavetes prank, but it also summed up the philosophical difference between his approach to acting and that of Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan. The Studio's sense of acting was that it was something serious, laboured and earnest. Cassavetes' understanding was that acting was a form of play. It could be zany, comical and madcap. In Strasberg's vision, the theatre was a church; in Cassavetes', it was a playground. While the Actors Studio specialised in moody, broody anguish, Cassavetes felt that acting was fundamentally an expression of joy and exuberance.
The Mask of Personality
There was another difference between Strasberg on the one hand and Lane and Cassavetes on the other. As Lane told an interviewer in 1958, the problem with the Method was that:
In focusing on core emotions, it removed the masks of the characters and deprived them of personalities. In real life, we rarely act directly from our emotions. Feeling is simply the first link in a chain. It is followed by an adjustment of the individual to the situation and to the other people involved in it, and this in turn leads to the projection of an attitude which initiates the involvement with other persons. On top of that, there is the problem of characterisation. Actors who are preoccupied with themselves – with examining and recalling their own innermost experiences – cannot properly interact with others on stage, much less approximate the interactions of others with themselves. Since most dramatic conflict arises either from characters trying to get behind the personality masks of others, or from trying to prevent others from seeing through their own masks, a method which neglects the recreation of a character's mask is essentially destructive of dramatic values.
Cassavetes drew many of his fundamental dramatic concepts from Lane, and Lane's notion that characters wear "personality masks" informs all of Cassavetes' work. Not only are there explicit references to masks in Shadows in the scene in the Museum of Modern Art sculpture garden and in the shot that begins the post-coital scene between Lelia and Tony, but it is not an overstatement to say that the fundamental drama of the film is generated by the mask each character wears.
Cassavetes felt that the appeal of the Method arose from the fact that actors didn't have to create and maintain a mask or a sharply defined character. The actor was allowed to fill the character up with his own private fantasies and emotions. Rather than going out of himself to become someone else, the actor defined the character in terms of his own personal needs and desires. This flattered the actor because it told him that acting was ultimately about himself. The result, in Cassavetes' and Lane's view, was lazy, sentimental, narcissistic acting. In ignoring the "mask" – the obliquity and ulteriority – the unique, personal colors emotional expression took on as it passed through the prism of character – the Actors Studio radically simplified both acting and life. The outside of life dropped away; characters became all inside. The individual's social expressions of himself – the complex algebra of bodily, gestural and verbal interaction – ceased to matter or even be represented on stage. The dismissive term Cassavetes and Lane used to describe the Method was "organized introversion." Since one of Cassavetes' fundamental dramatic beliefs was that individuals are social beings, there could be no greater loss. To understand life in terms of simple states of feeling rather than complex social expressions of those feelings was to trivialize it – dramatically and humanly.
Shadows, Published by the British Film Institute (London, England)
Distributed in America by the University of California Press at Berkeley
88 pages; thirty illustrations
© Text Copyright 1999-2001 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.