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Friday's Book: Playing to the Camera: Film Actors Discuss Their Craft

Playing to the Camera: Film Actors Discuss Their Craft edited by Bert Cardullo, Harry Geduld, Ronald Gottesman and Leigh Woods (Yale University Press, pounds 19.95)
What are the great moments of screen acting? One example might be the monologue by Bibi Andersson in Bergman's Persona, with its extraordinary expressiveness and intimacy. Another, contrasting, example might be the climax of Queen Christina, with Greta Garbo at the prow of the sailing ship. The director, Rouben Mamoulian, famously told Garbo to express nothing, think nothing. The audience would project their emotions on to that huge, beautiful face.

Is film acting a "craft" at all, in the way that stage acting unquestionably is? In order to act in the theatre, all actors need at least the basic skills of voice projection and movement in order to be intelligible. They need to learn lines, and turn up on time.

There are certain technical skills necessary for film actors - to do with eyelines, camera angles, hitting marks - and one of the most interesting pieces in this book is an essay by Hume Cronyn enumerating them. It was written, significantly, for a theatre magazine, as if describing the habits of an exotic tribe. But Cronyn was never more than a supporting actor in Hollywood. For major stars, all rules become negotiable.

Playing to the Camera consists of interviews with or essays by a host of actors past and present, from Europe and Hollywood. It is a Babel of contradictory opinions and conflicting maxims. How could it be anything else? James Stewart tells us that he came on set with all his lines learned. Marlon Brando gave up learning lines at all, and here defends his practice of writing them on props or even a fellow actor's forehead if it "improves the spontaneity".

The director Sidney Lumet conducted weeks of rehearsal with his cast. Alfred Hitchock barely spoke to his actors. Henry Fonda expects to deliver the lines as written; Dustin Hoffman defines himself as a full collaborator in every aspect of the production, whatever the cost.

What is missing from this rich anthology is a sense of the sheer uncanniness of screen acting. Stars like Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger require careful protection by their directors in order to shield their basic limitations, yet in the right roles they make contact with the audience in a way that gifted actors like Pacino and De Niro can't. Why is John Wayne a greater screen actor than Laurence Olivier?

For all their talk of reading scripts and learning their craft, most screen actors haven't a clue what they're up to. One of the most horribly salutary moments is a 1973 interview with Liv Ullmann, then shooting Lost Horizon, a financial disaster and one of the worst films ever made. Why is she doing it? "It's artistic in its way," she says. "I wouldn't have done it if it had been The Godfather or something which I would really be against." For a major Hollywood star, the "craft" is a discreet combination of being yourself and hoping for the best.

Sean French