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Seeking the actor's truth

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Seeking the actor's truth

The Hollywood Reporter asked me about the criteria that is useful in "judging" an actor's performance. The first question to be asked in return is: Is this a legitimate question at all? Can there be a valid opinion in a matter as subjective as acting, or is one opinion as sound and acceptable as another? I believe that that question was answered definitively by James Whistler when, at the opening of an exhibition of his paintings, a spectator gushed, "I don't know anything about painting, but I know what I like," to which the famously acerbic (and knowledgeable) artist hissed, "So do the monkeys." On the theory that Whistler was right in his insistence on informed opinion, whether positive or negative, and in his obvious belief in the eminent possibility of subjective objectivity, I'll offer some criteria -- which I'm prepared to admit may be different from, and inferior to, the criteria of some who are reading these words.

Jean-Luc Godard defined film as "truth, 24 times a second." If one accepts his definition -- and I confess I do -- the criteria may have something to do with truth. But that brings us face to face with a new dilemma: whose truth? Brecht's truth is much harder to quantify than Pythagoras'. Fortunately or unfortunately, "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" isn't a right triangle. So, whose truth are we talking about?

The actor's? Yes -- but with a qualification. The actor is interpreting the author's truth, with which, in some respects, the actor may not agree. But, whether the actor agrees with Iago's villainy or not, he must believe in it, from curtain up to curtain down, from "action" to "cut," moment to moment, frame to frame. So, at last, we may have an operative word.

Since the actor is believing in and interpreting the author's truths for someone, we may have a second factor in the equation -- the person for whom the actor is doing the interpreting: the audience. Who else can it be? As Robert De Niro remarked to the mirror in "Taxi Driver," "You talkin' to me? There's nobody else here."

Now we are stepping out on firmer ground. The actor must believe -- not indicate, not imitate, not illustrate, not demonstrate -- he or she must believe in whatever his or her character is saying and doing, feeling and wanting -- for a 30-second take or an entire evening on stage. And, since we've posited a relationship, the audience must believe in all of that -- as thoroughly and fervently as the actor. It should be noted that this classic suspension of disbelief is the audience's business and not the actor's. The actor is, or should be, too focused on what is happening on stage or in front of the camera to concern himself or herself with how the audience may or may not be reacting. "Public solitude" was the way Stanislavski described the actor's lot, and public solitude it is.

But I was asked to address this primitive primer to academy voters, which is to say, to the witnesses -- the audience. By translating elusive "truth" to tangible "belief," we may have come up with something that can be quantified -- and applied. Of course, the actor on the screen and the audience members out there in the dark share profound differences -- but it's equally undeniable that, by simply being human, they share significant similarities. It's on that vast playing field that the actor and audience meet with a thrill of mutual recognition and appreciation that both of them can feel. They may not be able to define or explain it, but it's there, as big as a bus, as unforgettable as first love.

At the Actors Studio Drama School of New School University, where the faculty and I audition hundreds of actors each year to choose some 80 entering master's degree candidates, we're often asked, "With all those applicants parading by, how do you know which actor is good enough to be accepted?" to which I invariably reply, "Would you recognize your sister in a crowd?"

In sum, all of us, amateur or professional, have seen good acting -- and known it was good acting, not theoretically but viscerally because of something that happened inside us. It's a conditioned reflex, born of many moments of belief. We don't have to be experts to subscribe to Godard's contention that film (which is to say, good film, good acting) is "truth, 24 times a second." We only have to have responded to an actor's unequivocal belief and joined him or her in that lustrous moment. Once it's happened, it's there, inside us, waiting to awaken us to quality again.

Can we become conditioned to bad acting as actors and as audience? Of course. Technique can be taught, but talent is what the actor brings to the table. Stanislavski said, "The purpose of technique is to free the talent," and talents can vary -- widely, even wildly. Stella Adler's harshest curse to her students was, "I caught you acting!" And Ben Kingsley recently cautioned our "Inside the Actors Studio" audience, "The camera is allergic to 'acting.' It's only interested in behavior."

God knows there are places where these fundamental caveats and principles are ignored -- and even defied. Impressionable young audiences watch manifestly bad acting and learn to accept it. But the antidote is always there -- in the equation, waiting to alert the most benumbed of us to new and maybe even ennobling sensations.

In judging actors -- on the theory that there are occasions when the public or a peer group should judge them -- the final question to be asked is, "Is there one acceptable kind of acting? Is that what we should be looking for? A 'style,' a 'brand name,' an exclusive 'secret ingredient'?" The obvious answer is, of course not. A circus clown can believe so thoroughly in his or her nonsense that we laugh. (The equation remains unbroken: We have to believe the clown's belief, since it's only the recognition of our common humanity, or foolish inhumanity, that makes us laugh. Or, as Sacha Guitry put it, an actor can pretend to be serious, but he can't pretend to be funny.) The exquisite artifices of Kabuki or Peking Opera can reduce an audience to helpless -- and authentic -- tears. A dancer can stop our hearts with a grand jete. What counts is the connection -- and the breathtaking magic of mutual belief.

So, we who are being asked to form an (informed) opinion can relax. Nature's on our side, and God (not the devil in the popular misquotation) is in the details. If the actor is relaxed (rather than tense and pushing), and we in the audience are relaxed (rather than guarded and predisposed), we'll connect somewhere in the moment. Then we'll be able to make up our minds about what we've seen because we'll know what we've seen -- and felt.

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James Lipton is dean of the Actors Studio Drama School of New School University and the host of "Inside the Actors Studio" on the Bravo cable network.

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