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Jo'Burg Days: The Art Of Acting

Barbara Durlacher considers the demands on the skills of TV and film actors.

Have you ever thought just what it takes to be a good actor? Some time ago, I viewed a short Canadian documentary series, The Call, which gave a fascinating insight into the skills of being a television or film actor. Watching the short, out-of-context scenes given to the three auditioning actors to perform and seeing them work under the beady eyes of the casting director, the producer and sundry other personnel in a bleak, uninspiring studio as they changed their interpretation of the scene again and again while responding to the director’s commands for “Fear,” “Anger,” or “Disillusion,” gave me a better appreciation of the skill it takes to be an Oscar-winning actor.

Imagine what it must be like to be lying on a hard bed under theatre lights in a room of total strangers dressed in caps, masks, and doctor’s scrubs as these people pretend to peer between your knees, “delivering your baby.” Your part is to lie gasping and grunting, showing every sign of giving birth, while some actor pretends to drag the mewling infant from your unwilling womb. The worst part must be the enormous strain it puts on the facial muscles and the subsequent sore throat from the shrieking and groaning.

Unbidden the thought creeps in, “Wonder if she’s wearing any knickers?” but commonsense tells you that of course she is. No decent actress, no matter how keen she is to succeed, would want to be filmed, legs spread wide, or worst still, up in the stirrups, supposedly birthing a baby, surrounded by total strangers while a movie camera records every grimace and embarrassing moment.

Another interesting conjecture is to wonder by what sleight of hand the actors always manage to snatch a ‘real live’ newly born infant from between the legs of a woman who, only minutes earlier, was delighting in showing off her superlative figure clad in a tight fitting wedding gown. The answer must be clever editing; baby dolls that really look live, and the quickest substitution on record of an older infant for the supposedly minutes-old poppet who has just popped out.

Then, there are the subtleties of conveying emotion, so often seen in those wonderful BBC classics like Sue Birtwhistle’s production of Pride and Prejudice, an infinitely better version than the recent much-acclaimed movie. Or the excellent Charles Dickens classics; a beautiful production of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga also for the small screen, BBC Wales mini-series of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and many others too numerous to mention.

The recent hype over Tsotsi the screen version of Fugard’s only novel overlooked the delicate sensitivity of Lettie Kumalo’s work in the all-Zulu anti-AIDS film Yesterday. The overwhelming acclaim for Brokeback Mountain failed to acknowledge the undoubted skills and dedicated acting of Heath Ledger, who in real life, is a totally different character to the introverted, tongue-tied, homophobic Ennis of this poignant film.

To see talented people with the skills of Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes or Ed Harris interpret and bring to life the characters and incidents of sometimes impenetrable, difficult stories is to watch real talent at work. Forget the marble statues, the gothic cathedrals, or the acres of canvas covered in oil paint; there is no doubt that good television and films are the real art forms of today.

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