When did actors start getting real?
April 7, 2008 8:47 AM   Subscribe

When watching older movies (say, through the 60s), the acting seems more exaggerated--for lack of a better term--than in modern films. Is there terminology for these differences in acting styles, and when/why did it change?
posted by mpls2 to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Dunno if it took that long to transition, but certainly part of it is that during the early days of film, actors were used to, and trained for, being on stage - where exaggeration is necessary for anything to be visible from way back where the audience is sitting.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:50 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've heard it referred to as the pre-method style.
posted by wemayfreeze at 8:56 AM on April 7, 2008

I've noticed this too, not just in old movies from Hollywood, but in current Bollywood movies. In many ways today's Bollywood movies have a lot in common when it comes to the kind of acting with old movies from Hollywood in terms of the exaggerated facial expressions and the way in which you're always aware throughout the movie that you're actually watching a movie.
posted by peacheater at 9:04 AM on April 7, 2008

Yeah, I think most people would say that it's the influence of Method acting, probably most importantly the work of Marlon Brando.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:08 AM on April 7, 2008

I've most often heard less realistic performances called "stylized" and more realistic perforances called naturalist or realist.

Although there has been a gradual shift from stylized to realistic over the years, there have also been specific movements toward realism in film such as Neorealism and more recently Dogma 95. These movements generally rejected the idea of film as empty entertainment and escapism (such as bright and happy American musicals of the early 1940s) and instead tried to make statements about the world by accurately representing realistic events onscreen.
posted by burnmp3s at 9:20 AM on April 7, 2008

Actually, you can see the source of the realistic performances in Dreyer's work (who Lars von Trier, of Dogme 95 fame, was heavily influenced by). Supposedly he put the actress in The Passion of Joan of Arc through mental torture in order to get her incredible performance, which is still chilling even by today's standards.
posted by FuManchu at 9:55 AM on April 7, 2008

We're all familiar with earlier shifts in acting styles for a myriad of reasons, ranging from transplanted stage actors to trendy method theories (yet can find plenty of acting examples that holds up perfectly well today), so I'll confine my observations to the 60's on.

I don't know if it's the acting so much as the cinematography (which tended to zero in on the acting, thus over emphasizing it). Things changed dramatically when people like Steven Bochco hit the scene and rewrote the book. Stuff like "Hill Street Blues" not only radically changed the way realistic fare was presented on TV -- but it immediately impacted big screen movies as well. I really can't think of too many things before then where you had 6 things going on at once and a POV camera weaving in and out of half-completed conversations, and such.

I recall loving "Hawaii 5-0" as a kidling. And was mortified to see how klutzy it all looks now. But I can't help thinking that the same actors giving the same lines in the same manner could look a million percent better if they had Bochco's cinematographers picking the angles and doing the editing.
posted by RavinDave at 10:03 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

The acting is more presentational for a variety of reasons. Brando made the Method philosophy a Big Deal, and Dean turned understated je ne sais quoi into a style unto itself. Film was maturing as a medium, which meant not only that evolution was going to happen either way, but also that it was divorcing itself from the (itself old-fashioned) styles of theater acting which had come before (think about how much you have to exaggerate your acting and speaking style in order to be seen and heard onstage). Also, more primitive sound technology had meant that actors had to SPEAK UP in order to be heard - check out how Soderbergh rejiggered his shooting style for the self-consciously old-fashioned The Good German. When microphones can't deal a quieter, more brooding, more natural speaking style, then you design your acting around those limitations.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:07 AM on April 7, 2008

If we're gonna go way back, I'd put in a pitch for "Citizen Kane". Welle's genius is often difficult to see nowadays, since his ideas were so copied that we take the original for granted. Due to his radio background, he was the first one to really play with sound in a realistic manner. You'd get proper echoes to convey the feeling of space, modulated sound as people approached and withdrew, overlapping sound, etc -- really radical stuff at the time. Particularly as it came out during a glut of movies that were little more than transplanted stage plays complete with 4th-wall blocking. And sound is just one element. I could just as easily go on about lighting, editing and (yea) even acting styles.
posted by RavinDave at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

i've heard that brando was the turning point.
posted by ncc1701d at 10:57 AM on April 7, 2008

Best answer: Method acting was certainly a big deal, but I feel like even early Brando performances look really mannered and over-the-top now. (Also probably a key player was John Cassavetes, who was making really raw movies outside the Hollywood system as early as the '50s.)

Neorealism was a big influence, though I think it also filtered through '60s European art films -- Bergman for sure (who was also obviously influenced by Dreyer) and the French New Wave -- which were huge sources of inspiration for the '70s New Hollywood directors (Coppola, Scorcese, etc. etc.). Which is, to my mind, when Hollywood acting started to look like it does now.
posted by SoftRain at 1:41 PM on April 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

yet can find plenty of acting examples that holds up perfectly well today

Worth repeating. The framing of the question is a bit unfair; there are plenty of performances in movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s that hold their own against "realistic" acting today. One classic example would be 1920s star Louise Brooks, who's often credited with a noticeably more "real" style of acting that was way ahead of its time, esp. in the 1928 film Pandora's Box. It's a fantastic, very natural performance that feels very modern. There are plenty of "real" performances like it scattered throughout the early history of film (and plenty of schlocky, completely unreal performances post-1960, too).
posted by mediareport at 7:32 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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