As an actor it is always important to keep on honing and fine-tuning your craft. Watching master’s of the craft at work is a great way to learn.
I find that some of the best inspiration for my acting comes from work others have done before me. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and so I am going to be posting some of my favourite scenes and sequences from movies which show off some exceptional acting.
These are all examples of screen acting at it’s best and by really studying these masters at work you can learn huge amounts about the subtle art of screen acting. Think about how you can start to apply this to any screen work you do in the future.
In this scene from Taxi Driver Robert De Niro and Peter Boyle give stunningly convincing performances. Travis Bickle is confiding in The Wizard, a fellow taxi driver, about his thoughts which are beginning to turn violent.
Look at the subtlety of both performances and how desperately ‘underplayed’ they seem.
The moment where De Niro talks about having ‘some bad ideas’ look at how he has desperation, embarrassment, confusion and many more emotions all playing across his face whilst he seems to do nothing.
Peter Boyle as The Wizard gives a great performance as one of those classic ‘bar stool’ philosophisers spouting out ‘wisdom’ whilst not really listening to the person talking to him.
Both actors make really interesting choices at certain moments which makes this exchange both mundane and electric.
On The Waterfront
A classic scene from On The Waterfront which shows just what a true master of screen acting Marlon Brando was. The scene is probably one of the great moments of cinema.
The beauty of this scene is that the glove being dropped was not planned, Eva Marie Saint dropped the glove by accident, Brando does a classic ‘accept and build’ and makes a real moment out of the dropped glove.
Brando is always so in the moment and everything about his performance makes you believe fully that you are really witnessing an intimate moment between two people – you really believe that this is just a lonely boy who likes a girl.
The tiny moment at 3.30 where he stops chewing exhales and hold her eyes – details like that make this seem so intense and real.
The Browning Version
This final speech from The Browning Version by Michael Redgrave is simply devastating. Professor Andrew Crocker-Harris offers an apology on how his performance has been lacking.
The emotions which are held beneath the surface in this impassioned speech offer a masterclass in underplaying for the screen. The entire speech demonstrates perfectly how we as viewers are able to see exactly what is happening behind the eyes without any overacting – the slight quiver in the voice during the ‘goodbye’ is just perfection.
A rigid stiff upper-lipness that you only get in classic British cinema, and yet behind it all is a man who is simply falling apart.
A Single Man
This scene from A Single Man with Colin Firth is just heartbreaking to watch. George Falconer is a closeted gay professor in the early 1960’s, in this scene he takes a phone call from his partner Jim’s cousin to let him know that Jim has died in a car accident. George is not welcome at the funeral.
This scene offers a beautiful and subtle realisation of tragedy. Firth display’s enormous emotion whilst not seeming to emote at all.
Everything is in the underplaying.
We see love, loss, rejection, and even an understanding of how powerless he is in the closeted society to be able to mourn. Once the phone call ends Firth displays raw and honest grieving.
This scene left a whole cinema totally silent.
(FYI: The voice on the phone is that of John Hamm from television’s Mad Men, of which director Tom Ford is a huge fan!)
Term Of Endearment
Sometimes underplaying is not the only choice to make for the screen and in this short scene from Terms of Endearment Shirley MacLaine shows that screen emotion can be big and ugly as well as small and underplayed.
Aurura Greenway’s (MacLaine) daughter Emma has terminal cancer and is dying in hospital. The helplessness of a mother watching her child suffer explodes in this perfect, moving and powerful scene.
I also love the composure and focus of the actresses playing the nurses which are a wonderful counterpoint to MacLaine’s high emotion.
MacLaine won an Oscar for this performance.