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Talking About Movies

With Frank Beaver

Observations on Screen Acting
Jamie Foxx in Ray

When Oscar nominations for actors in lead and supporting roles are announced each year, the 10 men and 10 women singled out express amazement and gush with gratitude, and journalists rush to interviews them. Yet, in spite of all the clamor, there's very little discussion of the qualities inherent in the nominees' performances. And understandably so.

Describing the techniques of screen acting is challenging. Film theorists have described film acting as the “art of effective behaving,” as the “subtle making of faces” and as being dependent, more so than stage acting, on identifiable physical characteristics often carried forward from film to film.

The director Michelangelo Antonioni said “the film actor ought not to understand; he ought to be.” Federico Fellini liked to tell his actors, “Be yourselves and don't worry. The result is always positive.”

These theories and directorial urgings spring from the aesthetics of filmmaking—from the fact that, as Sergei Eisenstein argued, films are not just shot, they are “built.” Associating actors with concepts through editing is a powerful tool for the director, often at the heart of the screen actor's performance.

No where is this more evident than this year's Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood's performance as an aging boxing-trainer in Million Dollar Baby —a performance that he also directed. Eastwood's screen image has remained virtually unchanged from his early acting days in the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns,” through the rogue-cop Dirty Harry series and into individual character roles like that in The Bridges of Madison County.

Whatever the role, Eastwood's face is locked into a perpetual squint with its mouth slightly agape. Yet, when we watch the last powerful 30-minutes of Million Dollar Baby, we experience the magic of contextual editing's impact on screen performance. In spite of that all-too-familiar visage, Eastwood's face seems to harbor and convey a complex, psychologically credible range of emotions. The effect, achieved by intercutting close-ups of Eastwood's face with other characters and inanimate objects, is unforgettable.

Still, it would be wrong to imply that screen actors lack the skill to disappear into their characters. Such is the case with several of this year's nominees: Alan Alda's portrayal of Senator Brewster in The Aviator; Imelda Staunton's interpretation of a 1950's backstreet abortionist in Vera Drake and perhaps most notably in Jamie Foxx's rendering of music legend Ray Charles in Ray.

Not since Roy Scheider's portrayal of choreographer Bob Fosse in All That Jazz has there been a more convincing and complex rendering of a character in a musical bio-pic. The impersonation is perfect—the body language, the performances (lip-synced) of Charles's great R&B songs.

Yet, there's something else: the projection of Charles's inner self—those compulsions and personal demons that drove the darker, private side of the singer's life. In creating his on-screen character Foxx provides a magic that goes beyond the film's artful construction, and when that happens it's a performance that deserves the great praise that has come its way.


Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.


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