Annually the editors of Back Stage West publish the Actors We Love issue in which they discuss their favorite performers. But whom do actors themselves most admire, and why? Let's start the new year on a jubilant note, with actors praising actors.
In In the Company of Actors (Carole Zucker, Theatre Arts Books, 1999), Alan Bates raved about the late Marcello Mastroianni ("I believe this man every time, every single time…. Great film acting is about simplicity, absolute truth, and trusting yourself"). Judi Dench mentioned the usual suspects: Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm. Stephen Rea chose Robert Mitchum because he didn't show emotion, he simply thought, and also Marlon Brando in his early works because "he had a wonderful imagination and wonderful restraint as well." Odd how all three picked men, and mostly dead ones at that.
Would our West Coast actors be so male-oriented? I contacted a few and asked them to name their favorite performers, whether living or dead, male or female, famous screen star or unknown talent.
Maura Vincent promptly said, "David Dukes." She worked with the late Dukes when she understudied Peter Hall's productions of Measure for Measure and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Ahmanson. "When I first met him, his reputation preceded him," she told me. "I watched him in rehearsal, and he was living up to everything his reputation said about him. I never met anyone so dedicated, so intelligent, so precise, such a tremendous zest for life." She added, "There hasn't been a day that goes by that I don't think of him. There was something about the way he led his life…. He'd come offstage and jump into a round of poker or whatever was going on backstage. It was never about pretense. He leveled the playing field." While understudying, Vincent finally had a chance to go on, and when she came offstage, the entire cast was applauding—and Dukes was leading the applause.
Vincent named a few others that she has worked with and admired: Laurie Metcalf, Emma Thompson, Tony Amendola, Sharon Lockwood, and Dan Hiatt. "Dan is of the same ilk as David," she commented. "Such precision, such timing, such intelligence. He can spin language, has such a joy for life. I have great respect for people who make smart decisions and who are personally wise. For women it's incredibly complicated when you add children into the mix."
Sharon Lockwood remembered seeing Paul Scofield in Amadeus in London. "He really took the audience in, created a sense of intimacy in this big theatre, yet he had this incredible instrument, his voice," she said. "I felt I'd seen one of the greats."
Ken Albers e-mailed me from Ashland: "When I first began working professionally at the Cleveland Playhouse in 1974 there was an actor in the company named Allen Leatherman. We worked together for the first time in William Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. We didn't share a scene together, but I used to sneak out front to watch Allen play his first scene with Evie McElroy and Lizbeth Mackay. Allen didn't have a lot to say or do in the scene, but his work was a textbook in economy and stillness and concentration and nuance. I have never forgotten that scene, and I admire that performance." Albers added, "Gene Hackman is the perfect actor. His range always astonishes me, and I do not believe that I have ever seen a false moment from him in anything he has ever done. When I imagine the perfect actor, I think of a combination of Allen Leatherman and Gene Hackman."
Albers wasn't the only one to mention Hackman; Pamela Gordon did too. After I called her, she and her friend Michael Shurtleff sat down to compose a list. Gordon said she cried as she worked on it, "because I feel so passionate about theatrical and artistic values in the theatre and in the media…. I started in theatre as a child; that's my main home. I always return to theatre. I'm fortunate that I've had the opportunity to do that and that I've insisted on life providing it."
Michael Caine was at top of Gordon and Shurtleff's list. "The Quiet American is a performance that sums up everything that he is and more," said Gordon. She met him once and found him to be kind and giving. "Vanessa Redgrave," Gordon continued. "I've never been able to figure out how she does what she does, but she's really fine. Helen Mirren. Juliet Binoche and Catherine Deneuve, who made an extraordinary crossover. They used to be about being beautiful. Now Deneuve is turning in work that is so profound, so accurate."
Other Gordon favorites are Robert Redford, "especially since he's been a contributor to the artistic legacy in our country, without asking anything in return except our participation." Also Gena Rowlands: "I've worked with her quite a lot and find her to be unstinting, generous, giving, a fantastic actress. There's never been anything like A Woman Under the Influence. Paul Newman—a great giver. Jack Nicholson, the arch clown, is on my list, although I haven't liked his latest stuff." (She hadn't yet seen About Schmidt.) "I like actors who don't tell you that they're there, who don't call attention to themselves but to the thing itself," she explained. She values those who make her laugh and cry, and who "convey an understanding of life and quality of being, act as channels for the world."
As we talked, Gordon kept adding to the list: Harvey Keitel, Jeremy Irons. Hackman. The up-and-comers: Javier Bardem, Benicio del Toro, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And she had special praise for three colleagues: Michael Harris, with whom she worked on the film The Technical Writer, which will screen at the Sundance Festival this month; Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge, co-founders of Los Angeles' Evidence Room, where Gordon often performs. "The common denominator for all my nominees is their bravery, intelligence, and charm," she said, concluding, "A person's generosity is so crucial to me—a quality of soul, of humanity, that certain people have."
When Ego Goes
Bay Area actor Remi Sandri came up with a couple of local favorites: Mark Phillips and Dan Hiatt. He also came up with three film favorites: Chris Cooper, Derek Jacobi, and Ellen Burstyn. For all these actors, he said, "It always seems to be about the work, not something else. There's an egolessness that I sense about them—it's not about them, it's about the story being told. Their work seems simple without being plain or boring—it's cleanly executed. And it's always specific, which I believe is essential to good acting. And they have the ability to subtly transform themselves."
Hiatt's name came up yet again, when Howard Swain voted for him and Charles (Jim) Dean among his Bay Area stage colleagues; for Daniel Day-Lewis and Gary Oldman as his contemporary screen favorites, and for Charles Laughton and Peter Sellers of the bygone era. "All of those actors transform themselves to somebody completely different," he noted. "They seem to channel another spirit, go all the way into something beyond."
Swain's wife, Nancy Carlin, instantly named three women: Ashland-based Michelle Morain and Robynn Rodriguez, as well as screen star Judy Davis. "There's something so surprising, so human, direct, and interesting about them," she said.
Scott Paulin also thought first of a woman: "That's an easy one: Meryl Streep," he said. "In my opinion, she's the greatest actor." He went on, though, to describe two performances that were important in forming his aesthetic as an actor: Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick in the 1960 film Wild River, directed by Elia Kazan. He first saw the movie—about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the projects to develop electrical power in the Deep South—when he was a kid, then saw it 10 times after that. "It made real how difficult it is to love," he said, "and how important. Whether it's love of a family, a place, or another person, it's frightening and dangerous. Since then, the artwork that appeals to me as an actor and director has to do with the redemptive power of love."
P.S. It's National Mentoring Month. Do you have a mentor—a teacher, director, friend, playwright, agent, casting director, manager, or colleague—who has helped you in your acting career? Have you yourself mentored an actor? If so, tell me about it. Who is that person? How did the arrangement begin? What has he/she done for you and/or vice versa? If I get enough interesting responses, I'll publish them in the next Craft. Please include your phone number, so I can call you. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And happy new year! BSW