Last night, when we were watching Mary Poppins, you wanted to act out the scene with the magical bag. What the hell, I thought, you are four now, let’s work on it for real. You ran to your room and brought back a bag. We filled it with things you would need to reproduce the scene. And then we broke the scene down into small moments. Mary Poppins adjusts her hat in the tiny mirror on the wall. “Oh!” She cries, in a strangled gasp. “This will never do!” Then she pulls a full-length mirror out of her bag and replaces the tiny mirror with the long one, sighing happily as she regards her reflection the second time. “I much prefer seeing my whole face at the same time!”
You began your scene and said your lines. When you got to the bit about the mirror, I stopped you. Why does Mary gasp, I asked you, when she looks in the mirror? You screwed up your face, hunting for the answer. “She says later that she much prefers to see her whole face at the same time!” “You got it,” I said. “Why is she surprised when she looks in the little mirror, then?” You scrunched up your face again. “Because she expected to see her whole face and then she didn’t?” Bingo. She expected one thing, and she got another.
How does an actor, then, achieve that startled gasp if she actually knows how the whole scene will be going in advance? How does she plan her movements, with total precision, so that she can be startled? The answer to the Mary Poppins question is that people are always expecting something, never nothing. Novice actors are frequently stumped by this problem of how to create surprise. How can I create the sensation of surprise in my own body, if I know what is coming?
Once I played a scene in a film in which I walked into a bathroom to discover a chopped up corpse in the bathtub. What was my character expecting? Not nothing, but something. I was expecting a bathtub. An empty bathtub. And so I had a picture in my mind of an empty bathtub. Something clashed (quite violently in this case) with my expectation. And when that happens, as it does a thousand times a day for every person—pay attention and you will see it in your own life—your whole body reacts. When you bump into somebody as you exit the subway station, you and the other person react bodily. Your nervous system is jangled. It is because you were expecting a clear route to your destination. You were not expecting contact with another human body. Your expectations were subverted. So it is with Mary Poppins. She expects to see her whole face in the mirror, and she does not. And so she gasps.
It seems so simple when you watch a film, doesn’t it? You don’t think about it if it is done right—unless you know what to look for. It’s hard work, this acting business, and requires a precision of mind and a determination as steely as that of an athlete.
Surprise is only one of many aspects of human behavior. There are dozens. Maybe even a hundred. And all of them must be studied and understood if you care about acting, and about doing it right. How to be surprised, L, is where we just happened to begin last night.
I grew up watching actors at your grandmother’s knee. Grandma Ellie was herself an actress: she studied with Sandy Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse in its heyday—at sixteen, she was the youngest student he ever took—and years later she studied with Uta Hagen, who, upon the birth of your aunt, sent your grandmother a note: “Congratulations. Now come back and we’ll make you a fine actress.” Were an Olympian god to come down and offer a spot on the mountain to a mortal, it couldn’t be a bigger endorsement than getting such a note from Uta Hagen.
We watched TV a lot together, Grandma Ellie and I. It was through her reactions—her criticism as well as her praise—that I first studied acting, long before I attended The Playhouse myself in the late 1990s.
It was your grandmother who explained beats to me, your grandmother who took me to see her once teacher and idol, Ms. Hagen, in one of her final plays: Collected Stories. When the curtain rose to reveal the actress sorting papers on her desk and at last uttering her first line—“It’s funny the things we keep”—a tear rolled down Grandma Ellie’s cheek. “Do you know how many beats she broke those ten seconds into? Do you know how many hours of work went into those ten seconds?”
Acting is frequently misunderstood. Sometimes it’s even referred to as “lying for a living.” L., if there’s one thing I can impress on you, acting is the very opposite of lying. Acting is all about hunting for, discovering, and investigating the truth.
The Greeks used drama to examine the meaning of life. The concept of “lying” as a part of drama stands directly opposed to its origin. It’s a noble art form, L; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
If audiences knew more about what goes on in an actor’s mind and at a screenwriter’s keyboard, and how a director puts the two together to ignite a flash of light, how much more would they enjoy their Saturday nights at the movies?
Uta Hagen once wrote: “An alert mind is an actor’s prerequisite.”
I would add this: an alert audience is a film’s prerequisite.
A good way to start your education is with classic movies. I trimmed my list to five that represented the best of acting, writing, and directing. It is by no means complete.
This list won’t give you the tools you need to become a fine actor. If that is what you want to be someday, you should start with a copy of A Challenge for the Actor. This list is meant as a place to come for inspiration. You can find fine work in many films, but a film which unites flawless direction, writing, and acting is still very rare. I’m also going to tell you a bit about the storytelling in these films. Always remember, L, an actor is not a discrete entity, and neither is a director or a script. All three players are dependent on one another to make the engine run. All three are storytellers. An actor needs to understand what story is being told before she can then pull back and figure out her contribution to the whole.
There’s no lying in acting, L. And, as many of the films below demonstrate, one pays a high price for lying in life.
May you always tell the truth.
All the world’s a stage, as you’ll learn.
I wish I had been around for the dingy period in the 1970s and 1980s so brilliantly depicted in Tootsie. Actors worked damned hard not only to acquire jobs, but to be really good actors. They studied technique, spending their last dime on classes. Back then, Manhattan was more affordable, but still, they lived in crummy places. Tootsie captures all that anti-glamour. It is also a landmark film in its commitment to exploring sexism and planting a staunchly feminist flag. Finally, it’s a raucous and at-times slapstick comedy, a product of the collaboration of many screenwriters.
Right now, L, at only four years old, you are obsessed with Tootsie. Your favorite scene is the one in which Dustin Hoffman’s Michael Dorsey announces his fraud on live national television. He is not an actress named “Dorothy Michaels,” playing “Emily Kimberly” on the soap opera Southwest General; instead, he is Michael Dorsey, an actor in drag, playing the role of the female hospital administrator.
“You’re an actor in New York. There is no work. But you have to work.” So says Dorsey at the start of the film. And after an epic fight with his agent, George Fields, played by Sydney Pollack (who also directed the film), that’s exactly what Michael does. He finds work.
“No one will hire you, Michael.” The scene in Field’s office ends on that line, and we know something big is about to happen. We don’t know how Dorsey is going to pull it off after alienating every director in town with his tiresome work ethic, but we know he’s going to get a job.
And he does. He dons a wig and invents a new identity and he gets himself a job.
L, you love Tootsie’s dénouement because of the symphony of comedy that ensues when Michael Dorsey pulls off his wig on national TV. A four-year-old can grasp the effects of shock on an audience. Revelation is profound and watching it play out is riveting. It’s also hysterically funny.
But there’s more at work. Tension has coiled around Michael Dorsey as the movie wears on. He is caught in a web of lies. He is falling in love with a woman who loves him as a friend—and loves him as a woman; he has had to fight for his rights as a woman—even though he’s really a man, he’s been juggling two men who have fallen in love with him as a woman, and he’s hiding his deception from a close friend—a woman who wanted the role he scored. And so he bursts. He needs a way off of this show. It is no longer a lifeline; it is now a noose. Ironically, the agent who said he’d never land a part is now unwilling to get him out of his contract. He is cornered and has to work his way out of this mess by himself. And so, impromptu, he stages a reveal, while the show just happens that day to be airing live.
We must see Dorsey decide that this is his moment. We must see him begin to improvise. We must see him trip up on his own words and attempt to construct a coherent narrative. We must see him feel terror and then total relief that the charade is over. Finally, we must see his triumphant joy when he whips off his wig, and his desperate hope that Julie will forgive him, all in one glance at her. That’s a lot of beats.
Those five minutes of screen time took many, many hours of rehearsal. It is astonishing to watch Dustin Hoffman playing Michael Dorsey playing Dorothy Michaels playing “Emily Kimberly” revealing that she is actually a man. If every moment, every decision along the way weren’t perfectly mapped by the actor and director, the scene would never have played as though it were the most spontaneous of human unravelings.
Rehearsal, my love, is the key to spontaneity. If you remember nothing else, remember that the more prepared you are, the more you have thought through each beat, the freer you are to believe that every moment is happening for the first time. Many actors doubt this; it strikes them as counterintuitive. But it’s always true. You want to be spontaneous in a scene? Rehearse every moment and then rehearse some more. Preparation is the key to freedom as an actor. If you want to believe every moment is happening for the first time in a scene, know every beat inside out. It’s only then that you can surprise yourself —and your audience.
Tootsie is about a lot of things, but it is mostly about depicting the art of acting itself. By Hoffman’s own acknowledgment, the character of Michael Dorsey was based on him, and he admits that he was poking fun at his own dogged pursuit of perfection. But that doesn’t mean Dorsey, and Hoffman, aren’t right. An actor knows that anything less than perfect isn’t good enough.
“I bust my ass to get a part right!” he exclaims in his agent’s office.
“And you bust everyone else’s ass, too.”
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
L, your mother grew up auditioning in Hollywood, so I have particular fondness for this movie. It is about as far as one can get from the sooty NYC acting world Tootsie nails. We are now in Hollywood in the 1990s, and the topics are: sex, aging, drugs, and insecurity. Postcards is about the impossibly tight, at times strangling but life-saving knot that ties mothers and daughters together. It’s about coping with the humiliations of drug rehab, feeling past your prime, and trying to find costumes that fit you on the set of a low-budget film.
CCH Pounder is wonderful as a drug counselor in her first scene with a recently-stomach-pumped Suzanne, played by Meryl Streep. Pounder quietly studies Suzanne’s justifications for drug use; she responds to each bit of Streep’s posturing as though she were playing a game of chess, and ultimately, she elicits capitulation from her patient. Their duel pits Pounder’s rationality against Streep’s shaky, defensive wittiness and it’s a perfect demonstration of actors really listening to each other. You can’t do battle unless you are paying close attention to your opponent.
One other thing to note about Postcards, L, is backstory. An actor must always know her own character’s backstory, of course, but certain performances reveal just how much homework the actor has done. Meryl Streep is legendary for her preparation. Her character, Suzanne Vale, is a mess. She has been on drugs for decades and she has never managed to pull of a stable romantic life. At forty, she is told that if she wants to make a film, she must submit to daily urine screens and live with her mother. Every ounce of Streep’s body is heavy with resignation.
“Do you always talk in bumper stickers?” she asks Pounder one day on the drug ward.
When Pounder replies with another platitude, Streep’s body crumples. “You do, you do…” she says. I can’t think of another actor who could quite pull off the mixture of fragility and brutal wit that fuses to form Suzanne Vale. Years of feeling like a failure, like a second-rate actress, and now feeling over-the-hill, to boot, have taken their toll and Streep’s voice testifies to her defeat.
“Nothing you say to me is as bad as the things I say to myself,” she whispers to Gene Hackman near the film’s end. “And at least it’s outside my head, where I can handle it.”
At the film’s end, there’s a moment between Streep and Shirley MacLaine as the former tends to her mother in the hospital after a car accident.
“Are you less mad at me now?” MacLaine asks shyly.
“I’m always less mad at you, Mom,” Streep replies.
And in one line, Streep responds to an entire lifetime’s worth of battles.
Maybe someday that line will resonate for you, L.
It always has for me.
Quiz Show (1994)
Sometimes a screenplay steals the spotlight.
Quiz Show brims with snappy, erudite dialogue and moral complexity. It’s also a feast for the eyes, particularly if you like period films whose cinematographers nail the hazy colors of historical events we imagine in sepia. Rob Morrow, Mira Sorvino, Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Hank Azaria, Paul Scofield, and Elizabeth Wilson give knock-out performances.
The real Charles Van Doren disputes the film’s accuracy, but it still sheds light on a pretty shocking scandal in United States history. The film is—among other things—a meditation on the cultural shift brought about by television.
When I first saw Quiz Show, I assumed that the screenwriter, Paul Attanasio, was a playwright, so fine-tuned and flawless were the dialogue and storytelling. Every word, every beat, every character is essential.
It’s impossible to know with certainty how a film was made just by watching the final product. Was there improvisation on set? Did the director ask for the collaboration of the actors? Was the final shooting script followed to a “t”? I feel confident when I watch Tootsie that I am seeing a lot of free play; similarly, when I watch Quiz Show I feel certain I am watching actors diligently playing each beat as written.
Quiz Show’s tension is always below the surface. Tootsie, by contrast, offers up countless explosions. Interestingly, both are suspense stories. When will the protagonist be caught in his lie?
There’s a moment in Quiz Show when Charles Van Doren is approached by two TV executives, played by Hank Azaria and David Paymer. Their goal is to persuade Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes) to agree to get the answers to the trivia questions on Twenty One in advance. The game show, Van Doren learns, is a fix.
“I’m just trying to imagine what Kant would make of all this,” Fiennes (playing an erudite teacher at Columbia) says, smiling politely while he squirms with discomfort. We feel his deep revulsion for the set-up even as we sense him already considering the proposal.
Azaria’s character, a TV producer who has no idea who Kant is, replies: “I don’t think he’d have a problem with it.”
Azaria’s character gambles, hoping that a bit of reassurance, offered up lightly, will be enough to persuade Van Doren to cheat. And he plays the line to perfection—he is so subtle in his predation.
With one line, the screenplay also helps the audience understand the difference between Van Doren and the men who woo him to the dark side, without absolving Van Doren of his responsibility. In fact, his mere mention of Kant reminds us that Van Doren is privileged enough to have no excuse for what he later does: cheat on national television by getting the answers to obscure trivia questions related largely to academic study.
John Turturro’s performance as the downtrodden Herb Stempel—desperate after being cast out of Twenty One and replaced by the handsome Van Doren, is heartbreaking. Despite his craven longing for the national spotlight, despite his festering anger that borders on narcissism, we see a man who is hurting inside, from years of being a Jew in a Gentile’s world. Dick Goodwin, the Congressional investigator looking into a suspicious sealed court hearing on Twenty-One visits Stempels’s home. Stempel offers Goodwin (played by Rob Morrow) some rugelach and is surprised to discover that Goodwin “is quite familiar with rugelach.” Turturro’s shock consumes the screen.
“How’d a guy like you get into Harvard?” he asks.
Ralph Fiennes’s performance, by contrast with Turturro’s, is one of quiet dread. How long can a man lie before his sanity crumbles? In scene after scene, he is forced to blatantly deceive Dick Goodwin, while flashing his gentrified, elegant smile. His mouth flattens almost imperceptibly in the moment he first decides to cheat on live TV. You can feel his heart sinking as his pockets fill and his fame grows.
It’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite moment from Quiz Show—the zingers and profound moments both pile up quickly as the film unfolds—but one of my favorites, now that I have you, L, might be the one in which a guilt-ridden Charles shares some cake and milk with his father at the family’s Connecticut home. Ralph Fiennes, as Charles, struggles to tell his father what he’s done, but succeeds only in wading into a memory from his youth. His father smiles reassuringly, understandingly; he is—as yet—blissfully unaware of his son’s lies and cowardice.
“Coming home from school, going to the fridge. Ice-cold bottle of milk, big piece of chocolate cake… it was just the simplicity of it. I can’t think of anything that will make me that happy again,” Charles says.
“Not till you have a son,” his father responds.
The scene ends on Charles’s face. If betraying the family name was eating at him before, his father’s innocent adoration of his son crushes Charles. Fiennes barely moves, but there is no mistaking his devastation and regret.
Mira Sorvino might steal the movie in her final scene, in which she cooks dinner while berating Dick for failing to call Van Doren to testify before the Congressional subcommittee investigating the quiz show scandal.
Her anger grows as the steak sizzles on the stove. She pokes and stabs it.
“You’re ten times the man Van Doren is! Ten times the brain! Meanwhile you’re the one bending over backward for him!” she shouts. “You’re like the Uncle Tom of the Jews!”
Goodwin is ready with an answer.
“I’m glad it’s so easy for you to destroy a man’s life, Sandra.”
She won’t be manipulated by her husband’s chess move. She won’t be put on the defensive and thrown off the issue at hand.
“Quiz show hearings without Van Doren—it’s like doing Hamlet without Hamlet.”
The scene ends in a standoff between two equal intellects. The tension is at full tilt. Every time I watch that scene, L, I can’t decide who’s right.
Broadcast News (1987)
Broadcast News exists in a morally grayer universe than does Quiz Show, despite tackling the same issue: staging something on television and presenting it as truth.
When Jane (Holly Hunter) a network news TV producer discovers that Tom (William Hurt), the newly hired anchor, staged a reaction shot in an interview, she shouts: “You crossed the line!”
“It’s hard not to cross it,” Tom replies. “They just keep moving the little sucker, don’t they?”
Broadcast News’s Jane Craig and Quiz Show’s Dick Goodwin both fall for men whom they must ultimately give up—for similar reasons. Jane falls in love with Tom, hired for his pretty face. She falls for him despite his representing everything she stands against. She knows he is only a façade—he confesses this as soon as they meet, readily acknowledging his ignorance of current events and his lack of qualification for his new job.
“What do you want from me, exactly?” Jane asks him. “Permission to be a fake?”
Dick Goodwin falls in love with Charles Van Doren because of Van Doren’s family background and professorial mystique. Jane falls for Tom because he is beautiful and represents a chance at romance. And both Dick and Jane are flattered by the attentions of men who are normally beyond their social orbit.
Everyone is strong in Broadcast News, but the movie belongs to Holly Hunter.
Early on in the film, Jane does battle with Paul, a top network executive. Paul wants the unqualified Tom to anchor a live weekend broadcast of an unexpected international political crisis. Jane tells Paul that Tom isn’t qualified, not by the longest shot, and he has to use Aaron (Albert Brooks) to anchor this challenging segment. Paul is wrong and she’s right; there’s no margin of doubt.
“It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” Paul says.
“No,” Jane replies. It’s awful.”
Tears pool. Suffering the perfectionist’s agony, Jane is the recipient of her own punch. She is tortured by her own intelligence and conviction. Her response is a confession, not a spear aimed at her opponent. She is not showing off; she is simply telling the truth.
Watch her carefully, L, as the movie unfolds. Watch her try to resist speaking her mind. She always succumbs to her need to be honest, which makes her internal battle (one your mother has fought all her life) mesmerizing.
There’s a sequence early on in which Jane decides to add a bit of footage to a segment airing on the national news—fifteen minutes before the broadcast. Everyone panics: not even Jane can pull off such a tight deadline.
“There isn’t time!” Joan Cusack screams at her.
Hunter looks at Cusack with a glint of madness. “Yesthereis!”
It’s impossible to tear your eyes from the drama of Hunter battling this deadline. She records a new voice-over and edits in a photo from a history book in her office, all as the clock ticks and Cusack screams about Jane getting everyone fired. If high stakes and a deadline drive a good performance, they send Hunter into the stratosphere. Her performance runs on rocket fuel. Tom watches, astonished, as Jane throws the tape to Cusack, who delivers it to the newsroom moments before it goes live.
William Hurt’s even-tempered, vain but gentle Tom is the perfect foil for Hunter’s high wattage. He absorbs Jane’s numerous insults, he accepts her superiority, and he returns to her again and again, pursuing something nobler and therefore compelling to him. His performance straddles vacuity and insightfulness, not an easy feat.
And then there’s Albert Brooks, whose character knows from the start that the whole situation is going to hell. Brooke’s performance demands a chronic state of anxiety. His role is a passive one; he doesn’t drive the story—until in one final act, he changes everything.
Everyone remembers the scenes in Broadcast News where Holly Hunter unplugs her phone and cries. But be mindful, L, of how she copes with the stress that fuels those tears when she is on her game. Be mindful of how a person functions with rocket fuel flowing through her veins, for this is what Hunter conveys masterfully every moment she is on screen.
Clean and Sober (1988)
L, when Grandma Ellie was on a rehab ward called New Beginnings in the 1990s, they assigned a few films for the patients to watch. She fell in love with this one. Put Michael Keaton, Morgan Freeman, and the underappreciated Kathy Baker in the high stakes world of fighting for sobriety, and stand back—fireworks will ensue. The film captures the culture of life on the drug unit, the journey from denial to acceptance, and the humor that keeps us sane when we are fighting for our lives.
Take the one in which Daryl (Michael Keaton) is desperate to make a phone call from the rehab facility he has checked himself into. He’s sought refuge in a rehab facility not because he wants to be sober but because the police are after him. He’s wanted for corporate embezzlement. Oh, and a woman overdosed and died in his bed.
His counselor, Craig, played by Freeman, tells him he isn’t allowed to use his phone.
Craig: “You know what the addict’s least favorite word is? No. Ask me if you can use my phone, Daryl.”
Daryl: “Say, Craig, may I use the phone?”
This scene is but one in a battle of wills—the film is built on them. This type of conflict is a perfect example of “the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object” exercises we drilled at The Neighborhood Playhouse, and should be studied by anyone interested in the most basic principle of acting. The actor must always ask: “What do I want? How do I get it? What’s in my way?”
There is nothing to warm up an actor’s engine like conflict.
Of all the films on this list, Clean and Sober boasts the most classic story arc. Watch Michael Keaton, as Daryl, on his journey from denial to acceptance, from cynicism to humility. Watch him crumple when he loses the first person who has mattered to him in decades, and watch him go from a nasty, cocaine-fueled corporate embezzler to a man committed to sobriety—all because he had to avoid the police one fateful morning.
I used to visit Grandma Ellie at New Beginnings, L. She had the same nurse that Carrie Fisher had when Fisher did her time there. Whenever I watch Clean and Sober or Postcards, I think of your grandmother and her strange journey through the underbelly of a rehab ward, and of its many Hollywood (and Broadway) refugees. Life with your grandmother was never dull. She taught me a lot about acting, where you might find many actors on their down time, and about the life stories they shared with each other on the ward.
People often say daughters don’t want to be anything like their mothers. Their insights and their passions can make a teenage girl cringe—especially when that teenage girl has a showbiz mother.
But it’s also true that if you have a gifted and smart mother, as was your grandmother, you one day feel grateful for all she taught you.
Grandma Ellie now suffers from dementia brought on by a brain bleed years ago. It is left to me to pass her insight and her love of great films and fine acting to you, L, her precious granddaughter, one tiny beat at a time.
As famed screenwriter William Goldman once wrote:
What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all.