Friday, May 18, 2007

ON ACTING: On Heroes and Generations

The acting student asked me: "Why are there so few heroic American actors/stars today; take-it-on men like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant? The actors of today," she said, "seem by comparison to exhibit a certain 'non-masculine-ness' about them: they are less direct, less willing to take charge, less responsible. They seem more 'delicate-under-pressure.'?

My answer: art mirrors the nature--and more cogently, the philosophy of its time. And audiences, when looking in that mirror, want to see reflections of themselves.

The philosophy of the Nineteen Thirties, Forties, Fifties, emphasized a certain optimistic worldview: that life could be confronted; a humans life and present/future could be moulded--with effort, granted--to his/her desires. A confidence was in the air then, a belief in the possibility of 'free will'; that the active expenditure of heroic qualities could effect positively the human environment. As Shakespeare said: "The fault, Dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in we ourselves." And even more pointedly: "We are the architects of our own design."

Today, in our post-modern, relativistic world, a philosophy of determinism seems to hold sway. Today's predominant philosophy seems antithetical to these earlier positivist 1950's sentiments. Life now seems now to be seen mostly as something beyond each individual capacity to change. The present events of each humans life are severely restricted--pre-determined-- by one's past, one's genetics; and the future is waiting to be created by forces outside our control. The goal of most humans today is merely to survive. We today are mere leaves on a river, floating to a destination we know not where; our only hope, our only possibility, is to stay afloat in the tumult of the currents.

In comparison: the leaves floating on the rivers of mid-Twentieth Century America--while fragile also...and they were floating just as rapidly on downstream currents...were more positivist leaves; they acted as though they had sturdy arms and legs; John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant would have churned their leaf/appendages and begun to swim to a distant shore. Survival for those actor/character/star's was an active pursuit of success and not a passive chore of survival.

John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant were scripted in their performances to take on hundreds of black hats at once; their characters were written to believe they could win. Even in their screen romances, girls tested them and challenged them to prove their full mettle. They were expected to swim moats, lead armies and destroy dragons.

Whether they did or not was irrelevant. What was most important was that they exhibited these heroic tendencies to accept challenges and seek victory. Because they were being paid (in admission fees) by a generation of people who believed in heroes--and the possibility of the heroism--and they wanted their convictions to be substantiated and confirmed by their onscreen actor/hero's behavior.