Actors are our spectral friends. They are figures who loom in our lives as large as or maybe even larger than our actual acquaintances, but with an important difference: they don't know who we are.
But how intimately we know them! Sitting front-row-not-quite-center you seem to inhabit the left nostril of the male lead; you may raise an arm to wave away the smoke rings now obscuring the starlet's lips. When the lights go up -- go ahead, admit it -- you walk up the aisle with your hips tilted just so (like hers), your eyebrow cocked in that same know-it-all look. Some of it is a simple taking up of arms against the light, against The End. But some of it is the desire to have a life that big, that well described, that fully lived, that well understood. And so we bring them home with us, to populate our dreams, bidden or not. We take them along with us to work and dinner and on walks and car rides, and discuss them with others. We wonder if they can possibly be as brilliant and seductive, or as feeble and shallow, as they appear on the screen. We talk about them as if they were their roles, half the time, as if they were doing their own casting and writing their own scripts. We conceive crushes on this one and that one, without being terribly sure whether the desire applies to the human being, the fictional character, or an amalgamation of the two.
To pry them apart, indeed, would mean to rip away the very heart of the movies, to reduce the transforming power of film to sprocket holes and running time. No. Two hours in the dark can instead be nothing less than a life or a lesson or a trip. From the seats in the audience we project our desire to be wildly misled -- and our faith that we are about to be -- onto the director's clay. But it is the actor who comes along to blow breath into the homunculus, to make it throb and jump, and of course to reflect our desire back at us. That latter quality is why the art of the movie actor is so different in essence from that of his counterpart on the stage. The movie actor is not just up there on a screen; he is himself a screen. A movie actor may lack all the classic dramatic skills -- diction, rhythm, grace -- and still be powerfully effective. What is required is the ability to be a receptacle for all the sundry emotional baggage thrown up from the seats and then to send it back, subtly unpacked.
The movies erase distance. Our stand-ins, up there on the screen that is now inseparable from our own eyes, are us, only better, or worse, or different. Always different. The chance to be someone else for a brief spell makes us happier even than, say, finding an unexpected check in the mail. We owe effusive thanks to actors both quick and dead for this amazing gift. But our gratitude is not actually won by some vague "someone else" -- it is offered to Thelma, to Warren, to Jean. This is both a sadness and a cause for joy, because their very specificity, that which causes us to be able to merge lives there in the dark, is what is gone when they are. No one looks like her, or talks like him, no one. After you've walked a mile in their shoes, you really know what you're losing. The great movie actors are as singular as they are permeable. Some, though, are more singular than others. There are stars and then there are stars. From the very beginning of motion pictures, when popular favorites did not even have names (Florence Lawrence, for example, was for years known only as "The Biograph Girl"), there have been boy and girl ideals who were primarily pretty. They were so permeable they essentially boiled down to a dimple or a set of teeth. The byways of film history are littered with the husks of forgotten sweetie pies who kept the cash registers ringing in their time but evaporated like any fad.
In contrast, there have also always been actors who are so irreducibly themselves they can be inserted anywhere. A few of these are stars, but most fall under that near-euphemistic heading of "character actors." They are selected for their roles because they are not gorgeous enough for the leads, or because their noses have been broken one too many times, or because teenage acne and a Bronx upbringing have left unexpungeable marks. In short, they are real. The designations often blur, of course. It was said of Cary Grant that although he was a star by virtue of his looks, he was skilled enough to have been a character actor. And on just which side of the fence does Jean Arthur fall, anyway? Besides, there are second leads, professional villains, period specialists, reaction-shot specialists, double-take artists, actors who get hauled in whenever the script calls for a judge or a bookie or a society matron, actors who are foxes (they do too many things well to leave a specific impression), and actors who are hedgehogs (they can do only one thing, but they've cornered the market on it).
And this is what keeps us coming back, hoping they will keep coming back. As they reappear in one film and then another, it is as if they are returning in our very dreams: these characters take on character. You see an actor in enough pictures, you start to compile a biography, you get a sense of a complete and rounded personality at work, one that goes beyond character. Of course, you are indeed seeing a distinct personality on the job over a period of years, and as the movies pile up into a simulacrum of life, so do the events taking place in the downtime between camera appearances. This phenomenon causes confusion often enough, and not just in dewy-eyed teenyboppers. Actors lead two lives, one on and one off, and the personalities they display in each are not likely to be the same or even necessarily similar. But this imaginary life, and the coherence it can manage despite changes of location and costume and even century, is an important aspect of the movie actor's work, often more significant than any particular role. There are major-performance actors who never succeeded in constructing a persona (think Paul Muni), others who created an indelible persona without ever playing a specific part that left much of an impression (somebody like Robert Keith, who appeared in dozens of movies, usually as the father, so that the moment we see him, we think: "the father"). Actors who develop personae can become familiars, commonplaces, semiotic markers, figures out of Greek mythology. They may not always be stars, but they are bigger than life, because they so completely embrace it in all its trademark oddities and imperfections.
Film, as the newest art, has amassed an unusually ripe pile of theoretical approaches, offered in apology for its short and unabashedly popular life. As a kind of religion, it naturally beckons to theologians aching to account for its force and to harness it by means of a structure. These theories have given off the important scent of formalism, structuralism, Marxism, semiotics -- primarily European-derived perfumes designed to elevate the senses into the clouds. All of these theories are perfectly correct. Sergei Eisenstein was right just as André Bazin was right just as Christian Metz was right, and their successors and epigones are also right. Cinema is vast and can effortlessly absorb any number of conflicting ideas. But in the end, the only reason to watch the movies (unless they are mere exercises in formalism or structuralism or . . .) is that in the dark it always comes down to just you and that mug up there on the screen. And so the approach that bridges the span from the cave-dwelling days before theory to the post-theory fatigue of the present is finally the personal one.
The personal approach is not in conflict with nor a rebuke to theory. It registers affinities, judges specific works or performances according to the rules they themselves purport to follow, focuses at all times on the particular, with no thought of a northwest passage or a philosophers' stone. Since it abjures received ideas it tends to see film as a plastic medium and so avoids the literary cast that disfigures so much nontheoretical writing on film -- the kind that treats movies as if they were illustrated books. There is a rich American tradition of lucid writing on the movies, beginning in the 1930s with Otis Ferguson, continuing in the following decade with James Agee and Manny Farber, three writers whose ability to concentrate upon, convey, and argue with what they actually saw before them on the screen makes you wonder what most of their contemporaries were going on about.
Indeed, that dumbfounding clarity is located in the certainty of an I who believes in the eye as the portal to mysteries that hitherto looked plain, as well as plain things that suddenly reveal themselves to be mysterious. Or, in other words, it is voiced only by someone who is confident of his voice. The essays collected here, each with its own peculiar timbre, speak as individuals with something to say about being individuals. Not unsurprisingly, they take as their subjects those movie actors who became known for being the kind of individual you could call in to provide the generic color only a complete individual could provide; largely character actors, they filled in background even as they stood out and called, perhaps, your name.
One doesn't usually think of acting as a solitary pursuit, but it is. With others all around, the great ones -- and that, by the way, includes the ones you may never have heard of -- have, like writers, built an entire cosmos within themselves, and their art consists in part of projecting it outward. You might think it a strange thing to say that actors don't often get their due in print, considering the thousands of acres of trees felled each year to convey piffle about hairstyles and lifestyles and styles in inebriation. The fact remains that too little gets written about what actors actually do on the screen, and of that little, most of it consists of observations of the same Chaplins and Marilyns as ever. This book is instead dedicated to the proper investigation of the screen's ordinary Joes, those who therefore render themselves extraordinary. A few exceptions represent those universally deemed extraordinary (e.g., Liz Taylor) but who, with a talent for reversal, manage to render themselves ordinary by their insistent wanderings through the realm of the personal. The point always, however, is to listen for the whisper that emanates from the theater's speakers but seems intended for one's ears alone. Thus this book collects stories that are nothing so much as romances: awash in the occult peculiarities of individual attraction. Who can explain such chemistry? Trust a writer to try.
This century belongs to the cinema; it is the lingua franca of our age. Those who speak its varied accents are our emotional government. Actors aren't elected, but they wind up representing us whether we like it or not. We're shackled to the screen even if we don't go to the movies much, seeing everything in our lives projected up there, seeing the movie of this minute as it happens, feeling simultaneously inflated and deflated by the impression. So actors aren't just artists we admire, or fantasy love objects, or chessmen in some strange game -- they're us, a bigger us. They spook us, stalk us, fulfill us or fail to. Whatever it is, it's an intimate relationship. Let's break it down.
-- Melissa Holbrook Pierson and Luc Sante
Excerpted from O.K. You Mugs by Edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson. Copyright © 2000 by Edited by Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.