Sunday, October 29, 2006

A Film That Should Give Nepotism a Bad (Worse?) Name. "Marie Antoinette"

If ever a film (and its writer/director) should be beheaded, its "Marie Antoinette". It is written/directed by Sofia Coppola, daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, the great filmmaker behind and of "Godfather" (I and II), "The Conversation", "Patton" fame.

I just returned from seeing Coppola daughter Sofia's picture at the Motion Picture Academy. (I know, Sofia defenders will say: she did "Lost in Translation". That was a fluke. The hints of disaster were already in that, if anybody had cared to see beyond the "woman director" stuff.) I had a bottle of wine after "Marie Antoinette" numb my brain. I am now going to sleep. Thank God tonight I get an extra hour of Daylight Savings Time; the extra hour will help me think of something nice to say about the picture. Goodnight. Perhaps.

Oh...Off with her head.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The Courtroom Lawyer: Making it Interesting

One of the great impediments to enacting a lawyer in a courtroom scene is the overwhelming seduction of advance knowledge and superiority.

Nothing (and no one) on stage is more boring than someone who knows everything; and yet, in everyday life, a good lawyer is admonished: "Never ask a question of a witness that you don't already have the answer." So when playing a lawyer, how does one avoid the risk of losing many, many of the elements of good acting: surprise, moment-to-moment dialogue (living life without any foreknowledge of what is going to be said and done next), etc.

How does a good actor combine the truth of lawyer courtroom questioning with the good acting habits of actor innocence and perpetual freshness? The answer lies in lawyer reality of the courtroom progress itself: in the very fiction that is basic to the practice courtroom law, the very fiction that lies at the heart and soul of the adversarial system of the law: the lawyer is an officer of the court, a seeker of truth, not merely a purveyor of adversarial advantage. In this 'legal-fiction' light lawyers on either side of a case are bulwarks of the truth-seeking nature of the judicial system, adversarial in structure, true, but obedient to a higher function: the pursuit of overarching truth and its twin-sister, justice. That's why lawyers seek to avoid knowing--and as a corallary, assiduously avoid their clients ever telling them --they are guilty (or, on the other hand finding out they are innocent when the lawyer is a prosecutor). If they know their client is guilty (or innocent) they are honor bound to reveal their knowledge, to notify the system. Running parallel to this, all evidence must be shared by opposing counsels, part of maintaining that fiction of objectivity. the fiction of both sides of the legal line being, above all, 'officers of the court'.

So, the smart lawyer--and the smart actor playing a lawyer--uses this fiction of impartiality to his or her best arguing advantage: in questioning a witness they 'act' as if they know nothing. They are just 'good old boys' (or 'girls'), asking the witness to help them through their confusion about the facts. The 'act' as if they are as innocent and guileless as the jury; in fact, they act as if they are the 13th member of the jury, only trying to ascertain truth and bring about justice!

So when playing a lawyer (or, in fact, being one in everyday litigating): ask every question (of every witness) as if you know nothing. 'Act' in questioning not as a lawyer but as an officer of the court, as one who is confused, who needs the witness's help in your moving from confusion to clarity, who asks these questions only to the witness's help to 'connect the dots of justice', as it were.

And the lawyer or lawyer-actor who does this, 'acts' as an officer of the court, even if the most strenuous cross-examination, will maximize attractive sympathy, whether from a courtroom just or a 'jury' of an audience; and ears, ears and dramatic identification will flow to the innocent questioner (the good actor) who pursues only the advancement of dramatic/legal truth and justice, and does not know--like the jury--the answer to the next question!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Very Funny Book: "The Manhattan Beach Project"

I just finished reading "The Manhattan Beach Project" by a friend and very fine writer, Peter Lefcourt. It is published by Simon and Schuster. It is available through Barnes and Noble. I recommend it to everyone in the (film) business. It is a funny, funny, funny book. I rarely laugh out loud when reading, but this book caused many joyful moments over and over again.

The premise: the hero, a quickly has-been producer (after all, his Academy Award was FOUR years ago!), 'lucks' into a TV project, pitched to him by a former (maybe?) CIA agent, about a reality show set in Uzbekistan. The show follows an Uzbeck warlord 24/7 as he steals, kills, and is attacked by rivals. Tony Soprano meets Islam. (The CIA agent becomes his logistical liaison.)

The very quick-read novel spoofs ( nails the truth over and over again) the LA life-style of living-off-credit (the producer is in Debtor's Anonymous; and there are some memorable member meetings), Hollywood sexual politics, network and agent bullshit, executive-ego, producers and network executive's expertise in covering their asses as the producer's/network's develop and produce a reality show, AND the economics/politics of all the '-stans', Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, etc.

The author is a board member of the Writer's Guild, novelist and successful screenwriter living in LA. He brings that first hand knowledge of all of these venues to the book. Plus he brings a style and corrosive intelligence and wit. The book is a winner.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Movie Review: "Little Children"

A busy week for moviegoing...but not a great week.

"Little Children"...I felt one should see a film with Kate Winslet and Jennifer Connelly, especially one directed by Todd Field who, by the way, did such a bang-up job a few years ago with similar material (suburban marital dysfunction and angst) in "In the Bedroom", starring Sissy Spaceck and Tom Wilkinson.

So I went to the movie...but, unfortunately,l the experience was not as rewarding as "In the Bedroom". This time the suburban angst was not, as in "In the Bedroom", about a son's murder putting corrosive pressure on a dysfunctional marriage, but about the pressure of sex...or rather, the pressure of married people not getting enough. The central tension element in "Little Children" is just that: neither the married Kate's character, nor Jennifer's husband's character, is getting enough; Kate, because her husband would rather masterbate when viewing internet pornography, and Jennifer's husband (a stay at home Dad) is not getting enough because Jennifer kept letting their three-year old child sleep between them every night. So Kate and Jennifer's husband have an affair...what else...and the story develops along the lines, with typical plot twists usually attendent on such matters in these kinds of domestic dramas. (Oh: there is a pedophile sub-plot that resonates throughout...pedophelia as poetic metaphor: how about that for modern drama?!)

I'm sorry; it's just not the stuff of compelling drama for me.

Perhaps my problem is what "Little Children" is about: spoiled adults acting like children. If so, count me out. I don't like to be around spoiled adults or spoiled children in real life; I certainly don't want to be around them when I'm paying $10 for a ticket. (Also, I am rapidly getting inured to the sensitive meaningfulness of pedophiles. Perhaps I have read too much about Catholic priests and Rep. Tom Foley to remain open to the sympathetic meaningfulness of it all.)

"Little Children" is a well-acted, well mounted, but in the final analysis, it is an over-meaningful little movie that tries (and succeeds in some ways in spite of itself) to hide its content insignificance in its style.

I'm afraid one (I) gets the feeling that the producers/writers/director of this movie take their own upper-middle class domestic dramas a little too seriously, and want us to share and understand their angst. I appreciate angst...and understand sexual deprivation...but I respectfully suggest: the theme of this movie is better left to a psychiatrist's couch. Psychiatrists are generally much more attentive with those issues; they getting paid to identify with all that jazz/drama. I'm not.)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Monologues: "Worthless to Study"?

The same agent (quoted with a similar problem below) said to the same actor/client:

"This is a huge bone of contention with me. WHY are some acting coaches insisting on studying monologues? This industry NEVER requests monologues. They show NO interaction with another character and NO reaction to other stimulus. It's a waste of time and I want to know which acting coaches are including this in their agenda. If your coach is doing this, I want to hear from them WHY they think it's beneficial. Why waste you money on something that this industry does not even require and is not aiding you in your career?"

My answer to the actor (after a sigh):

"Where do I begin?

First: I am guilty of suggesting actors work on monologues. I am a bad, benighted, wasteful acting teacher (at least according to this teacher)? I hope not.

Second: Dear teacher; if your client/actor's monologue performances "show NO interaction with another character and NO reaction to other stimulus", I would say that the problem--at least concerning monologues (which are a form of acting...SEE Shakespeare's sililoqies)--may be that your actors may not be very good actors. A monologue IN REALITY is two people interacting: one with words and one silently listening and facial reacting! Just because only one person is talking (monologues is derived from two Greek words, MONO-LOGOS: one+words), does that mean two people are not involved? Didn't you ever harrangue a client with a long speech? About the need for better pictures, for example, or making appointments on time, or, more pointedly, the value-less-ness of monologues? Wasn't there an interaction (even though you were only talking)? Wasn't their dumb (meaning non-verbal; non-LOGOS) stare in fact often the very stimulus in fact that made YOU KEEP TALKING!!

Third: the reason I do this (encourage monologue practice) is because if actors need practice...and if they have no one to practice their acting with (or pay for classes) they can at least practice good acting on their own. And when I encourage them to learn monologues, I properly teach them that monologues require all the aspects of good acting as much as a scene (agent: we can talk more about that at another time...if you don't mind my possibly going into a long monologue about it)...even though I admit they are not the ideal form of interactive acting. And so I suggest monologue practice as a way to practice/workout when other more ideal options (paid work itself, class, etc) are unavailable. Monologue study is not a form of "wasting money" for actors. It is a form of perhaps SAVING THEM MONEY and/or creating a possible way (when they have no money for classes) to hone their craft!

Fourth: pass this onto your agent."

Friday, October 13, 2006

Scene Study vs. Auditioning and Improv Skills

An agent wrote an actor-client heatedly: "Intense scene study [class] is good ONLY after a mastering of cold reading and improv. Why bother with intense scene study if you can't make it through an audition?"

The actor/client wrote me and asked me what I thought of his agent's statement.

My answer: Tell your agent an actor can't make it successfully through a cold reading audition probably because they can't act...which is the ability to do the whole job...which is what scene study teaches...and requires actors to accomplish. To phrase it differently: why try out for a job (cold reading) when you have no familiarity with the whole think being cold read. That would be like trying out for a football team having never played football, just simply threw a ball around and worked out in a strength gym; or, worse, putting on a Vegas demo show for a car that can't run.

An audition merely a demo show...and a lack of ability to act will become apparent when even packaged in the most skilled demonstration of auditioning skills. Remember: (1) Acting is the job being cold read or auditioned for. (2) Acting occurs within a certain form (called a scene; or whole film or play) and acting happens only in accordance to the job spec: the script (often called a scene). If you can't do the scene (i.e., the work; i.e., act) why audition? Why put a pretty package on an empty box. ONCE IT IS OPEN YOU (WHAT'S INSIDE) WILL ONLY BE FOUND OUT LACKING!

Now I am not deriding demo shows, or the learning of auditioning skills: that is, the learning how to best show off in a sales show your worthwhile acting product; but rotten meat is rotten meat no matter how enticing its surrounding serving, place setting and ambiance. The rule in acting (or any other endeavor) is cook the great meat first; that is, develop the product; then give an sample to the buyer in a demo-show or audition.

Similarly in 'cold reading'...a cold reading is a sample audition where the actor has not had the time to 'warm up'. I'll go back to meat again: rotten meat is rotten whether served warm or cold. And a cold slice of well cooked (even one previousloy heated) meat will always taste better than a cold slice of rotten meat.

An auditioning skill is the artistic presenting of a worthwhile (that is, worth eating) product.

Finally: as to I agree, improv is a great actor's training tool. It is eminently worthwhile studying. But it is not the job. Like weight treaining is not the job of football. Acting is the job. And while acting demands impvov's skills of sponteneity, reality, impulsivity, react-ivity, etc...all the elements that are practiced and served in improv training...those spontaneous, real, impulsive skills ultimately have to be presented in scene work. And scene study, the study of the whole job, is the class that teaches and practices that most directly and fully.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Movie Review: "The Last King of Scotland"

This film will not make you want to visit Africa any time soon!!

A film very-well-worth-seeing, however, one that aesthetically assaults the senses...Violence, quick cutting, throbbing music, vivid color...And powerful performances, especially by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin, Kerry Washington as his wife (the hero's--not Idi Amin--African love interest), Gillian Anderson (as the hero's European love interest) and especially Simon McBurney subtle against-the -grain performance as the government heavy. Unfortunately, James McEvoy, the Scot idealistic young hero, gives a less than adequate performance as a Scot idealist who goes to Africa as a physician to 'help'. As the audience eyes into the brutality and passionate horror of the piece, his soft performance leaves one looking for a hero to like, admire and identify with.

The IMDB story summation: "Based on the events of the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's regime as seen by his personal physician during the 1970s."

The film is based on a novel about the events, and is well directed by Kevin MacDonald. The conceit of the piece is akin to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (the novelistic basis of "Apocalypse Now"): a good man travels into the heart of Africa, only to find the rot...outside and within in his own soul.

I wanted to be overwhelmed more. The film touched my senses, my appreciation, my actor's respect but not my heart. That is primarily the script's fault. It emphasizes filmic style over substance, illustration over dramatization. I never fully understood the why of what went on, and therefore never left with the lesson of the piece: other than "men are brutal, men are corrupt", and common people suffer because of it (although the film never lets us know any of them except as an anonymous and thus capable-of-being-distanced-from undifferentiated mass). As I said in the lead ofd this piece, the film seduces us to stay out of Africa unless we want to go as crazy as the hero...which is unfortunate and I'm sure unintended result since Africa is the greatest tragedy of modern times...and that continent and its people need all the attention, love, concern, humanity and help it can get.

A better film on the same subject is "Hotel Rwanda".

Monday, October 09, 2006

Thanks from Oregon (from Former Student)

"Hi Cliff, I am presently preparing for a role which starts shooting next week, see I just received my script and find your blog a great way to jog my senses and memory to the knowledge you imparted to me. I am playing the Emcee at a western bar and then later for the climax at the outdoor concert, see story board. I want to thank you for being available this way. It's a huge boost in getting down to the business of preparation, thanks!



M: Sorry I am late responding. (You send the note July 15th!!!) Hope the movie is going--or went--well. Cliff

A Nice Note

"Mr. Osmond,

Years ago (about 18 or 20!) you came to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX and lead a workshop for a handful of Dr. Jim Miller's theatre students.

I just wanted to let you know that to this day, I still remember that workshop and the lessons you shared with us! I am now a professional improviser, voice over talent, and work in short films. I also coach beginning improv students.

Thank you for continuing to share your expertise!


S.D. I spoke with Jim a week ago. He remains a dear friend and valued colleague. Cliff

On Keeping Secrets Secret

I remember an acting teacher who would advise actors to find the "secret spine of the scene" and then instruct the actors to play 'the secret'. I always assume by 'secret' he meant the actor should discern the character's 'sub-text', the hidden emotional agenda that characters (like fellow human beings they represent) carry in our own drama, the feelings and needs that swim beneath the surface events of our lives, the truth beneath the truth, as it were, the visceral gunpowder which threatens to ignite our daily lives into explosive drama....and play that in performance.

I believed his advise to be partially true: because I believe in 'sub-text, hidden agenda...BUT... where I differed with that teacher is that I believe the actor cannot play it. The "secret spine of the scene" is just that: the deep emotional truth kept SECRET by the character; so if the actor-as-character PLAYS is no longer can be a secret! To play something is to maneuver it, to cause it to happen, to consciously make it arise. It's like gossips who say, "I want to tell you a secret." I always think: WHAT SECRET?? You're telling me! How can it be a secret?!

It behooves a good actor to have a 'secret spine to their scene', a 'sub-text--in acting terms, the 'hidden truth'...but then should try everything in their power NOT to reveal it. The scene, the other characters, the very construct of the conflictual drama only and reluctantly FORCES them to reveal it...and only at the end of the drama, against their will.

During the scene, the audience functions like a psychiatrist. Trust their instincts They will see and know truth from the quantity and qualities of the patient's (character's) obfuscations and denials. Shakespeare said it best, about a character who said she couln't stand a certain man: "Methinks the Lady doth protest too much," thereby revealing how much she (secretly...even perhaps to herself) she cared for him!

So : feel 'the secret spine of the scene', but don't play it; rather have its swimming about deep within your character resevoir, and let the scene's other action and dialogue FORCE its secrets to be revealed INDIRECTLY AND INADVERTENTLY by your lies and evasions...and perhaps, at the end of a scene, when the dialogue indicates, let the 'secrets' be a final means of survival/conquering.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Short Examination of 'Plot' and 'Character'

Character is who we are, a static definition of our life. It is a summation of our past experiences, their emotional effect, registered in our present personna. It is our personality's kinesis (potentail) awaiting actualization.

Plot is what we do, the dynamics of present life. It reveals our private personna (our 'character') in the activities of the present (all, of course, aimed toward a hopefully better future). Plot is our personality's kinesis realizing itself in activity.

"Character (the past) drives plot; plot (the present) reveals character." That is the old saw. Together they are the total 'chicken and the egg' of drama.

Friday, October 06, 2006

On Tragedy

Tragedy re-affirms the human spirit. It is an ennobling and essential part of life; it defines and rationalizes the vastness, energy and worth of living. It explains and glorifies human travail; gives pain and death meaning and comprehension...and purpose. There can be no lessons without tragedy's blood, sweat and tears. Ascending a high mountain top begins with a long, slow climb from a deep valley. The celebration and re-birth of Easter is not possible without the torture and descent into hell of Good Friday.

Tragedy was once considered only within the purview of Kings, Queens and Nobles; no commoners allowed. Only a fall from a height could achieve tragic sacrifice and doom. And only the nobility lived in high towers; the rest of us lived in flat, squat houses. No great fall is possible from a low ceiling; tragic learning required high, gilt-edged books. But as our measurement of human worth moved from purely economic measurements, wealth and silk and perfume, and as Darwin, Freud and Einstein has made all humanity subject to the same inner humbling definitions and laws, we are became equally high...or low. Human dignity, humankind's worth, has become universally valued, and made tragically comparable.

The tumble of a lowly clown is now as great as the instructive fall of a great king. Tragedy is a common coin; its purchased lesson are universal. The defintion of all human tragedy, that is sacrifice=worth, defines us all. As the street would have it: 'No pain; no gain'. Tragedy is humanity's glory...and burden; and the essential core of all great drama.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

A Character Comparison--Fifty Years Later

I was sitting by a stream the other day, musing over the difference between dramatic characters of today and the characters of my youth.

Today's dramatic characters are often leaves dropped into the streams of life unwillingly and deterministically from fragile trees . Once there, they hopelessly bob about, hurtling downstream willy-nilly to an unknown fate. Their only chance of survival is a moment-to-moment attempt to maintain buoyancy, helplessly careening off the flotsam and jetsam of life which threatens to ensnare them--to fragment them, disintegrate them into such small pieces that soon they will no longer even be called a leaf.

Fifty years ago, in the art and culture of my youth, dramatic characters had more positive sense of their possible interaction with their personal flow. Their leaves fell into the same streams, true, but they believed they could will their eventual survival. They felt their banks on either side of their river created an opportunity for escape; they believed they could--and would--swim to those shores and thereby avoid being drowned into a larger ocean ahead.

They believed in will: confront the streams rapids, positively define the parameters of the flow within those shores, fix hard on a destination (will, remember) and swim like hell toward freedom. Their fate was not up to the streams flow, but to themselves. Life was manageable; their destiny was not fixed, but could be made positive by an expenditure of effort.

Character in these fifty years had changed from belief in will to the acceptance of futile fate.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Mask of Character

Character is a fictional mask, where the actor's playing of character becomes an indirect means of freely exploring oneself behind the mask; beneath the mask of character lies the actor's true face, conveniently hidden.

Think of centuries centuries past: the joy of attending masked balls was the freedom to pursue one's own pleasure and desire, anger and venom, all made possible beneath an anonymous face.

Masking creates license, permission and possibility. So does acting. The joy of acting a a similar subterfuge. "It wasn't me kissing him or her, honey was the character!" "My character hates men, not me!" "My character loves wittily reducing fools to their naked folly, not me!" All such acting statements are masks.

The audience grants us that masked freedom. They attribute all of an actor's acts, of inner emotions and outer results, to the character. "The script made him/her (their actor) do it."

The actor is granted the audience's amnesty from responsibility. Evil (or goodness) reflects not on the actor, but on the character.

The logic of such license : How else could the audience feel the full range of its own desired emotions, sexuality, love, fear, thrills, rage if the actor is not given a corresponding a freedom--behind the mask--to explore those particulars human feeling in themselves in performance?

To choose a role is to don its mask; to play a character is to be granted by the audience all societal exception. All acts are permissible. More than permissible, they are demanded. Audience and actor alike attend a masked ball. All character consequences are only immediately consequential; they end with "Cut!" or the curtains fall. A performance is thereby a consummate 'one night stand'. Little wonder actors choose such a freeing and feeling art?

Monday, October 02, 2006


Great art is learning to say a lot simply. As Thomas Mann is said to have instructed about making love in a gondola: "Move little; now move much." Muhammad Ali said it in his fashion: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." The great artist must offer the power of an atomic bomb in a delivery system the size of a pea. Notice there are two aspects to this: the amount of energy transferred and the condensation of the delivery mechanism. The great actor's obligation is likewise twofold: have inner complexity drive their outer simplicity.

Inner complexity is the actor's emotional multi-dimensionality. It is the totality of one's human-being-ness. It is beyond cognitive knowledge. It embraces in performance the experiencing of inner opposition, contradiction, and paradox. A great performance poses great questions, then simply offers textually strong character statements/answers.

How does one achieve that? More pointedly, is it possible for all actors to achieve that complexity and profundity in every performance...AND with great simplicity? The answer lies in a further question: "Are actors not human?" Complexity, profundity, opposition, contradiction, paradox--and simplicity--lies at the heart of the human condition. The smart actor learns to get out of their way; to be simply comfortable as their character (their life onstage) is dramatically uncomfortable.

The great actor must train themselves to move beyond personal doubt, fear and hesitancy; to allow themselves to be complexly and simply human in performance, to allow their natural human complexity to be experienced in a simple performance; to allow the performance activated dopamine to flow simply through the cellular richness; to follow Thomas Mann's injunction, "Move little; now move much;" and don't tip over the gondola!!