On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter)

screen acting

Filmmaker Edward Dmytryk published a series of books on the film trade when, in the last section of his life, he became a film teacher. We have already reviewed here his book On Film Editing. Now it’s turn for On Screen Acting, a book written along with his wife, actress Jean Porter. The book works as “a lively dialogue between husband-director and wife-actress, about screen acting”.

Let’s hear some pieces of film wisdom from these two professionals:

The casting session

The casting session from the director’s point of view

Edward Dmytryk, the director, speaks: “The eyes are probably the most important single feature of any actor’s presence or personality (have you ever seen a dull-eyed movie star?), and unless I can see them as we talk I cannot properly judge whether or not they can bring life to a character on the screen.”

Murder My Sweet
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

(At the reading) … “I look for a number of things: how well has the actor learned his lines in the time available? Does he know them well enough to be able to be “with” his acting partner as he reads? Does he look directly at him to make his points? Can he “throw away” a casual line and still maintain his vitality? Does he have vitality?”

“Are his reactions spontaneous or contrived? If the scene calls for laughter, does he laugh easily and well? If it calls for tears, can he manufacture his own? If the scene demands anger, does he maintain control of his voice? Can I see the “acting wheels” turning in his brain?”

The casting session from the actor’s point of view

Jean Porter, the actress, speaks: “They are looking for someone different”. “That’s what you want to keep in mind. With all the copying done today, too many people look alike, sound alike, and act alike. Be an individual. Believe me. It is someone different, with something new to flash, who will get the part.”

Jean Porter
Actress Jean Porter

“The moment comes for the reading. If you have been sent the script, know it. Have it memorized. Know all the lines -his and hers and yours. Know the scene so perfectly that it seems a part of your life that you’re allowing them to look in on. If you have been handed the scene in the outer office just a half-hour before, do your best to learn it well enough to look up from the pages as often as possible, especially at crucial points, to show that you have a clear understanding and feel for the character. “

(When the casting session is over) “You thank them all, with charm and poise, and if you can remember their names (especially the director’s) it’s a point in your favor to say goodbye to each one personally.”

The first reading

Before the rehearsal, the reading

Again, Edward Dmytryk, the director: “Readings come first. Before the camera is brought near the set or a single light is lit, everyone must know how the scene is to go (It will not necessarily play as well as it reads). At this stage, the director has a good idea of how the scene is to be staged, of how it should be played, but his early conceptions must not blind him to new, possibly superior, avenues that may open up when the actors are allowed to offer their contributions. (…)”

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

“A reading is the time for testing, for listening, for molding, and for editing. The reading, which is not really a reading, since most of the cast know their lines, allows the director to hear the actors and the actors to hear each other for the first time. It is a fresh, occasionally a startling experience. Even though the performances are not full bore, the manner of playing and the range of vitality contained in the scene quickly become apparent. A line of dialogue spoken by an actor may differ considerably from the other actors’ conceptualization of that line.”

Acting or reacting?

(…) “the most important skill an actor must develop is the ability to listen, which is not exactly a universal aptitude. Yet listening, really listening, not just pretending to, is the necessary prerequisite for nearly every other facet of a screen acting; most of the actor’s other skills – reacting, speaking dialogue, even movement – are inspired by what he hears.”

“Every student of acting should study Jack Lemmon‘s performance in the film “Missing “. One careful viewing is worth a month of exercises. Here is attention at its highest level. The intensity of his listening and watching is awesome. His bodily movements and attitudes are also something to study (..).”

Actors and acting lovers, this is your book.

(And, Mr. Lemmon, wherever you are now, many thanks for your amazing career!)

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