The One Scene Every Actor Must See

James Dean. With only three films to his name and a sudden shocking death at 24, the handsome, sensitive young actor became so iconic that his image is visual shorthand for Hollywood. Because he's such a legend it's difficult to view Dean's work objectively. But, if you're able to put aside all preconceptions and simply watch James Dean in East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, it quickly becomes clear that yes, the kid was really that damn good. The fascinating complexity he brings to his roles along with his willingness to make odd, even risky choices sets him apart. His style and look have been endlessly copied but never with much success. Modern day actors who have been influenced by Dean too often miss the mark and end up creating characters who are sulky and puerile rather than finely drawn. 

Dean got his big break when Elia Kazan cast him as Cal Trask, the conflicted young man desperately trying to gain his father's love in East of Eden. Dean stunned audiences with the power of his performance and his sheer magnetism. He then took his place in the pantheon of Hollywood Stardom by playing Jim Stark, the angst-ridden teen, in Rebel Without A Cause. With his final role as the envious ranch hand, Jett Rink, in Giant, Dean stole the film from Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson  and proved his tremendous versatility as well.

But Dean was gone before Giant was even released and became the quintessential personification of the old phrase: "The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long". He was the first actor nominated for a posthumous Academy Award - nominated not just once but twice- for Best Actor in both East of Eden and Giant

Sometimes Dean's emotional, unpredictable Method acting confounded his more conventional co-stars. This worked to great effect in scenes with Dean and the stage-trained Raymond Massey who plays his father in East of Eden. Their clash of styles underscores their characters' inability to connect -  which is the emotional thread that moves the story. Other times, Dean's co-stars just seem stiff in comparison to his realism and truth.  

When Dean is in the company of a talent that matches his own the effect is riveting.That's the case when he's on screen with Jo Van Fleet who plays his hard-bitten, fiercely independent mother, Kate, in East of Eden. Van Fleet brings a nuanced intensity to the role that perfectly complements Dean's stellar performance. 

Before she was cast as Kate, Van Fleet was an acclaimed stage actor but, like Dean, East of Eden was her big break into film. Right off the bat she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Van Fleet became known for playing strong characters who were usually older than she really was. Ironically, as she actually aged she was cast in fewer roles. When her career languished she became frustrated and somewhat bitter. Hollywood is capricious and often talent counts for far less than it should. 

In this scene from East of Eden, Cal, who has never spoken to his mother, comes to the brothel she runs to borrow money so he can invest it and give the earnings to his father.

Both great actors create their characters from a masterful combination of words, rhythm and gesture. Watch the way they use their hands, eyes and posture to bring Cal and Kate to life. it's thrilling to watch even with the sound off. Their level of skill, and the layered interplay of subtext and expressed emotion makes this, in my opinion, the one scene that every actor who is serious about their craft must see. 


Too Sexy To Be Serious?

Long before she was a respected Dame, acclaimed actor Helen Mirren was a hot dame - in some ways, too hot for her own good .

The young Mirren first made an impact on the London stage in the National Youth Theatre. By her early twenties the Russian/British beauty had proved herself a performer of substance in The Royal Shakespeare Company. But as accomplished as she was, it wasn't Mirren's way with iambic pentameter that really got her noticed - it was her raw eroticism and voluptuous curves.

Even today, the mature Mirren is admired both for her spectacular acting and her sensuality; just recently she was dubbed Body of the Year by an L.A. Fitness poll.  At this point in her career she's considered one of the great actors of our time so being hot just adds to her cachet.

That wasn't always the case. In many ways, the lust she aroused got in the way of her talent. It made her have to work harder to prove that she was more than just a sex symbol. However, Mirren's screen debut in the rarely seen - and some say - highly influential experimental film Herostratus did little to dispel that notion.

By the time Mirren was interviewed in 1975 by British broadcasting icon Michael Parkinson, her list of classical and contemporary stage credits had grown ever more impressive. This was no talentless Hollywood hottie whose stardom was a fluke of popular culture. Yet, Parkinson wrapped his questions to Mirren in an attitude of leering condescension that was part Benny Hill , part Austin Powers. Mirren, seeming flustered, and defensive, was clearly taken aback, especially when Parkinson wondered if she could really be a "serious" actress given her "physical attributes".

Years later when the elderly Parkinson once again interviewed Mirren, now a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and an international star of stage and screen,his tone was highly respectful and her demeanor was confident and commanding. Times had changed and time had changed them.

Mirren has aged exceedingly gracefully and become performing royalty. The sultry, young seductress has evolved into a woman of substance. She can be a role model for all those beautiful up-and-coming ingenues, as long as they remember one vital thing. As a young woman Mirren wasn't just sexy, she wasn't just talented, she was - and is- devoted to the craft of acting. Think of all those years she spent perfecting her abilities on stage! You can't just by-pass that part of the equation and end up being such a strong, lasting presence.

Here she is in her Oscar-winning role as that stalwart and long-lived monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Long Live Dame Helen!


And The Oscar Goes To...The X-Rated Movie!

The end of the 1960's ushered in an era that could be called the Second Golden Age of Hollywood which lasted until the end of the 1970's. This dynamic era was characterized by gritty scripts, breathtaking, raw performances and risk-taking directors who were more concerned with bringing unsettling,resonant stories to the screen rather than big bucks to the box-office. 

Granted, the blockbuster also made it's debut in the 1970's with Jaws and Star Wars, (and Hollywood hasn't been the same since), but let's bypass those juggernauts and revel in the performances of two powerful actors who were kings of the Second Golden Age, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. 

Hoffman has had one of the most prolific and impressive careers in Hollywood. All you have to do is take a look at his page to see how many great films he starred in. His big break was in the classic movie The Graduate in which he played Benjamin Braddock, the unlikely lover of the the sexually aggressive archetypal "cougar", Mrs. Robinson. Originally, the part of Benjamin was supposed to go to a handsome, preppy type like the young Robert Redford, but Hoffman was cast instead and entered the rarefied chamber of Hollywood Stardom - a perfect example of a less than classically handsome actor who became a legendary Star

His co-star here is Jon Voight, whose good looks and intense performances in movies like Deliverance, Coming Home and The Champ made him as big a name in the Second Golden Age as his daughter Angelina Jolie is today. 

This excerpt from Midnight Cowboy , the only Oscar-winning X-rated movie, features these two extraordinary actors lighting up the screen as opposites Joe Buck and "Ratso" Rizzo. What a scene!

** strong language


The Secret Of Star Quality

What is it that makes an actor a Star? Is it looks, talent, sheer luck? Or is it something else entirely? 

Let's talk about looks first. There are a lot of very beautiful people who try to make it in Hollywood. N
ewcomers who were the most dazzling specimens in their hometowns get a big jolt when they move to L.A. and discover that they're just one of many, many dazzling specimens all vying to be the Next Big Thing.
Beauty alone doesn't make a Star, not by a long shot. Of course, Hollywood puts a premium on great looking people, but because there are so damn many of them there it takes something else to be elevated to that place in the ether that's called Stardom. Strangely enough, that something else isn't necessarily talent. Like I said in my previous post, In Character, there are a lot of supporting actors who have far more raw talent than some of the greatest stars. 

On the other hand, soap operas are full of actors who, feature for feature, are more "perfect" looking than a lot of great stars. Oh, and as an aside - beautiful in real life doesn't always translate into beautiful on camera. When I was casting I saw it time and time again. 

An actor would come in for an audition who seemed to have all the right elements but once on-screen their beauty faded, their personality fell flat. There they were in the flesh - gorgeous and fascinating, but the camera spit them out like spoiled food. 

And, of course, the opposite was just as true. In would come an actor who was appealing enough - nothing special, but then, like magic, they'd be transformed on-screen into the most scintillating presence imaginable. 

And that's the key. Stars have that quality often referred to as It - or Charisma, that magnetic, almost other-worldly screen presence that compels you to watch and be fascinated by what you see. It doesn't even mean that you have to love what you see - that's a matter of taste. But, even if you're repelled, a Star elicits an intense, visceral response rather than a *yawn*.   

Once in a rare while someone arises who happens to be as charismatic and stunning  in person as they are on camera. And that, my friend, is what we call a Superstar.

Let's take a look at a scene from Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof featuring two of the biggest Stars and most luminous humans and ever to be paired on film before or since: Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman


Are You In Character?

Some of the most beautiful actors in the world are character actors. I'm not talking about physical beauty. I'm talking about the beauty that comes from being able to inhabit a role so fully and lovingly that the audience never forgets the experience.

It used to be that character actors were more often supporting players rather than leads - although there were some who became major stars - especially in the 1970's. These days television, which has become just as important and respected as film, has an abundance of terrific character actors in leading roles. But ultimately it doesn't matter, whether they're considered stars or supporting players, character actors are some of the best of the best!

Great character actors will work forever. Time is much kinder to them. You can be Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Lawrence Fishburne, or Frances McDormand and as you age people will watch your performances without any ugly, little thought bubbles popping up about how much older you look or how much plastic surgery you must have had. The reality is that after a certain age those gorgeous leading men and women start battling the crueler side of nature and both Hollywood and the audience can be unforgiving.

It's very important to understand the benefits and power of being a character actor because if you happen to fall outside the narrow spectrum of what Hollywood considers a leading man or woman, and most people do, you shouldn't spend endless hours trying to look like one. It's a waste of time, a distraction and can get very, very frustrating and depressing.

I've seen too many supremely talented young actors twist themselves in knots trying to prove to Hollywood that they're hot enough, sexy enough or good-looking enough. Enough for what? You can't prove anything to to Hollywood except that you're desirable because of who you are not what you think they want you to be. Embrace your individual beauty as an actor. Become the greatest actor you can possibly be. Blow them away with how prepared, interesting and unique you are.

If you're fat, scrawny, goofy, weird, or comically cute- that's great! There's actually more work for you in your field than for the very few "beautiful people" whose reigns tend to be glorious but far more brief and limited.

Shelley Winters was a Master. She started out as a "Blonde Bombshell" but deliberately turned herself into a character actor because she wanted more challenging roles. This chameleon strategy doesn't always work but in Winters' case it was a brilliant move. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for this role in A Patch of Blue. You'll also see Elizabeth Hartman, a talented but tragic actor, in her film debut. She was completely unknown when she was cast and this big break won her much acclaim. Wallace Ford, a strong character actor whose work spanned many decades, appears here in his final role.

A Patch of Blue was ahead of it's time. Set against the backdrop of the growing civil rights movement, it tells the story of interracial love at a time when the very idea was incendiary.

Hartman's leading man is the gorgeous, charismatic Sidney Poitier, a true star and a pioneer in film. He was the first African-American to win an Oscar. There'll be a lot more of him on future posts.

This  excerpt starts off with Poitier and his brother, played by Ivan Dixon - a powerful actor who deserves better than being best known for his role in Hogan's Heroes - argue about Poitier's growing relationship with Hartman's character.

**strong language