A young student of mine had difficulty starting scenes. He seemed unable to invest and explode into a scene when it was called for. He was indecisive and afraid to make a choice in fear of a wrong move. He needed a dose of James Dean or James Cagney. Cagney just planted his feet, looked people straight in the eye and said his lines with a distinct confidence.
I advised my client to watch a James Cagney or Marlon Brando movie. Blank stare. My heart sank and my head dropped. The subtitle would have read, “Who’s Marlon Brando?” After some back and forth, I realized that he knew almost nothing about films, his peers, mentors, MASTERS before him or trailblazers in their way to movie magic & history.
I asked other students and discovered that almost no one in my semester for 2020 knew the work of a pantheon of great US actors: Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, George C. Scott, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Burgman and Vivien Leigh… and so many more.
I refer to this affliction as ‘Visual Literacy’. If you were training to be a brilliant painter, you would never think of not knowing the work of Renoir, Miro, Picasso, Rembrandt. Why should acting be any different?
We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
We need to know the great Billy Wilder films and those of Stanley Kubrick and on and on. This is a part of your training and with 24/7 access to nearly all the greatest films ever made, there is no rational excuse not to be visually literate.
So, the story did have a happy ending! My client then went off and watched “A Streetcar Named Desire” and came back the following week wide-eyed with wonder, inspiration, and respect for the film and Brando’s performance. My heart melted. I was thrilled!
Deep dive into the film history and you will be rewarded richly and truly changed as a young artist. Some may be old fashioned and dated, sure…but, there is magic to be discovered and savored.
You’ll thank me later.