November 2, 2008

Stage to Screen to Stage

Amy Von Nostrand and John Carroll Lynch breathe life into 1955 Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Saturday night I saw a phenomenal production of Arthur Miller's "A View from the Bridge" at the Guthrie Theater. In addition to being blown away by the acting, set design, and direction (as is the case with every Guthrie production I see), I found myself wondering about the careers of the actors. Playing the lead role of Eddie Carmone was John Carroll Lynch, former company member at the Guthrie, now unofficially known as one of the most underrated character actors in Hollywood. Just last year Lynch was snubbed for Oscar consideration for his performance in Zodiac, which he then followed up with an outstanding performance in Things We Lost in the Fire. Look for him next in Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Incidentally,
as I'm writing this I'm actually seeing him on TV in 1997's terrible Volcano.

Anyway, here's what I was thinking. What do actors like Lynch prefer - stage or screen? Does doing one make them better at the other? I wish I could have interviewed him; he seems like a personable guy. In fact, in one of the most bizarre incidents I've ever witnessed in a theater, Lynch came out of character to calmly tell an idiot in the audience, "Sir, you're going to have to be quiet while we're doing the play." Dead. Silence. He took a moment, backed up a couple of lines and reentered his character. If you know anything about Eddie Carmone, and you know anything about John Carroll Lynch, you can imagine how breathtaking that momentary transformation was, made even more incredible because Lynch was so superb in his role (his curtain call brought the capacity crowd of over 1,000 people to their feet in standing ovation).

So Lynch started his career in theater, like nearly all film actors. In fact, aside from child actors and the occasional casting call, it would be fair to say that every film actor began their career on a stage. What makes them leave, stay, return? Does it really just come down to paychecks? Years ago in New York I saw Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright in the two-character play, "Topdog/Underdog". To my knowledge, neither of them have returned to stage acting. Unfortunately, according to what I've seen, neither of them have had a film role nearly as impressive since that play. I fear the same may be true for the dozens of actors and actresses currently working on Broadway, including, for example, Peter Sarsgaard and Kristen Scott Thomas in "The Seagull". Are we possibly missing the best performances these and other actors have accomplished because we're only seeing them act on screen?

What do you think - have you seen any actors or actresses on stage at different times of their career, and do you have any opinions on where their talent was best on display? I'd be interested to hear other thoughts because the question will continue to sit with me whenever I see stage productions.


  1. I've seen many perfomers on stage and screen. A lot of them were just coming up when I saw them work on stage--John Malkovich, Gary Sinise and the rest of the Steppenwolf Ensemble. Others, like Brian Dennehy, Barnard Hughes, and Paul Henreid, came to my attention on stage well into their careers. I've also had the opportunity to see Steppenwolf actors on stage after they made it big and had appeared in many movies. Martha Plympton, a Steppenwolf Ensemble member, came from films and now works almost exclusively in the theatre. John Mahoney has also "retired" to the stage.

    I find that the actors currently working seem very similar on stage and screen. In the case of a commanding presence like Brian Dennehy, the stage allows him to be as big as he likes without losing control. On the other hand, actors from bygone times, like Paul Henreid, did things on stage I never would have imagined. I saw a reader's theatre production of Shaw's Don Juan In Hell starring Agnes Moorhead, Ricardo Montalban, Edward Mulhare, and Paul Henreid many years ago. One of the actors pulled focus for a speech their were doing so well that I never even noticed that Henreid had lit a cigar. I've never seen its like since, and I would say that these actors are better on stage simply because they don't have a camera, a director, and an editor to create moments for them.

    All that said, it's very hard to compare movies and theatre. In the theatre, the audience participates in the creation of the performance. As your example showed, when one audience member created a disturbance, his "coplayer" had to stop and tell him to shut up. The energy or lack thereof in the audience can completely change things. Likewise, I've seen plays in small spaces in which the actors were not in control of their instrument; I felt physically beat-up by one such play about domestic violence, not because of the subject matter, but because the actors' emotions were at loose throughout the theatre. This is not good stage acting.

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Marilyn. How interesting to see Henreid and Montalban on stage.

    I like that thought about actors having a little more freedom on stage and creating their moments. I don't know Broadway directors to know who would be more of a "hands-off" stage director, but I'm sure that influences the production as well. For what it's worth, Lynch sure seemed natural up there.

    I guess I didn't consider actors' emotions taking over the theater, but I can think of a couple of times where I've seen "overacting". Is that the same thing?

  3. Not exactly, Daniel. If you've ever had the experience of expressing an emotion while maintaining your cool, you'll understand what I mean. An actor has to be able to create, manipulate, project, an react to emotions in order to create a fully realized character. In order to have this kind of control, the actor must be able to stand a bit aside from the emotion. This will keep the performance from getting away from him or her. When an actor loses control of the emotion, it can create an uncomfortable intrusion on costars and the audience. Overacting is when an actor can't create and control a genuine emotion and overcompensates by faking it, which almost always makes the emotion bigger than it should be.

  4. I am very happy to see you are now adding stage plays to your site Dan, and I appreciate the succinct piece on Miller's VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. Like Marilyn, I have also seen Brian Dennehy, and I've recently seen Vanessa Redgrave in her one-woman show, Patrick Stewart as Macbeth, Patti Lupone in GYPSY, Martha Plimpton in CYMBELINE and many others dating back a few decades. I fondly remember Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson in a definitive MAC BETH years back.
    To answer one of your questions, I don't place one medium over the other, meaning I don't prefer film to theatre or vice-versa, but I do find that stage acting is rather in a class by itself--in its intimacy and the fact that it is almost always the central focus. Film is not normally the same, except in character-driven dramas. I understand what Marilyn is saying, but I find that by its very nature the stage is a showcase of an actor's talents.
    I agree it would be interesting fo focus on an actor's movement from stage to screen (and maybe back to stage.)

    Interestingly enough, Ms. Redgrave, who I loved so much in ATONEMENT, was quite the prima donna in her extended monolgue of her one-person presentation, and the theatre seem to bring it most (undesirable) personal traits.

    I am a regular theatregoer and I am thrilled that you are branching out here Dan. Excellent review and look forward to more.

  5. I'm not a fan of the stage ordinarily, but I am indeed a fan of Lynch's. The guy is versatile as hell. I've loved him ever since Fargo. (Can't believe I've never had him as an FF-UN! I need to get on that, stat.)

  6. Great explanation, Marilyn, thanks. I guess I've understood all of that before but just haven't heart it so concisely described.

    Wow, Sam, that's another fantastic anecdote. I know you are truly a connoisseur of the performing arts and that you've seen all number of great shows in NYC. I never really considered discussing theater here mostly because I don't take the opportunity to see many (even though Minneapolis has the highest number of theater seats per capita outside of New York) as you, but Lynch's performance here really intrigued me.

    I think you and Marilyn have kind of said the same thing about the focus being on the actor creating their own moments. There was something naked, raw about Lynch's performance.

    There's no music or framing or editing on stage. I saw a one-woman performance of "The Syringa Tree" last winter that took my breath away. One actress, multiple roles, all outstanding. I think I would prefer that over Redgrave's monologue, as you describe it.

    Seriously, Fletch, I'd be lying if I said I didn't consider FF-UN during the performance.

  7. I first remember Lynch as the tranny brother of Drew Carey. He was equally chilling in "Zodiac."

    As far as the stage goes, I recently saw Al Pacino in the Morton family dinner-theater production of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" right here in Tuscaloosa. Stunning.

  8. He was insane in Zodiac. I should see that movie again.

    Oh man, Pacino. That...would be tremendous...if it were true? Sadly, at this point in his career that would hardly be a project beneath him.

  9. Unfortunately, Daniel, Pacino wouldn't even know how to SPELL Tuscaloosa much less how to get here ...

  10. I wonder how well Pacino could perfect a Southern drawl? That must be one of the only things he's never done.


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