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Quotes / Elia Kazan

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Students have asked me if there’s no difference between acting for the stage and for the screen. Before I directed my first film, I believed that a good actor was a good actor in either medium. Of course, there were exceptions: Jean Arthur was an exceptional screen actress but never did, could, or would make it on the stage. Some of my Group Theatre colleagues, as I’d seen, were too graphica nice way to put it -— for the screen. A stage actor has to maintain a performance night after night, so a technique is necessary. He has to be both believable and highly visible, has to have a good voice and a way with words. Some intelligence helps.

But I soon saw that these requirements were not essential for the screen actor. What is required, I learned, besides an essential “animal” magnetism, is whatever’s necessary to provide for the camera a true piece of experience. Whereas you can — and many effective actors do — get away with faking, posturing, and indicating emotions on stage, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away with anything false before the camera. That instrument penetrates the husk of an actor; it reveals what’s truly happening — if anything, if nothing. A close-up demands absolute truth; it’s a severe and awesome trial. Acting for the screen is a more honest trade.
Elia Kazan, A Life

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Nearly every star today is claimed by one acting teacher or another; there are long lists of their “pupils” in the trade paper. It’s difficult to have a conversation with Robert Lewis without hearing him mention Henry Winkler, an old pupil, or drop the name of Meryl Streep, a more recent one. It’s a natural pride; architects point to their buildings. But now the thing is out of hand. Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame is dead; his place of business continues franchised, a syndication. Lee Strasberg is dead; his place of business continues...I have a shelf of these manuals, but I’ve found that information rarely helps an actor; training does. Even those books written by close friends have bored me, although perhaps that was mostly because I’ve spent so many years listening to dogma on the subject. I cannot believe that an actor should be instructed while sitting in a comfortable chair listening to a “guru.” The last class I taught (I mean the last, for I shan’t teach again), I didn’t let the actors sit down for two hours. They did the exercises I chose on their feet and found this exhilarating. The sight of actors perched row on row as magistrates passing verdicts on one another’s work raises my hound hairs. When I hear the phrase “master class,” I want to vomit...I shudder at the thought of giving quick counsel on the Art of the Theatre, on what will “get you there.” Yes, the experience of other actors and directors can be communicated and does help, but on the whole it’s better for a young actor, driven by a strong desire, to stumble, fall, pick up, come on again, so find his way.
Elia Kazan, A Life.

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Strasberg, the most famous and financially successful teacher of our day, helped some people — Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn swear by him. Other, equally excellent actors abominate him. Stella Adler, a spirited and flamboyant teacher who emphasizes characterization and role interpretation rather than emotional recall, came to her class the morning after Lee died and ordered them all to stand. "A man of the theatre died last night," she announced. For one minute, the members of her group, a large one, stood, some with heads bowed, all silent. Then Miss Adler ordered them to sit and said, "It will take a hundred years before the harm that man has done to the art of acting can be corrected." ... I think she might finally admit, with some nudging, that she learned a great deal from Lee in the Group’s first years. I can speak for myself; despite the negative impressions I formed more recently, I owe Lee a great deal and owe to the movement Harold and he started, the Group Theatre, everything. Because I was an actor — and could not possibly have been one without their help or outside their theatre — I’ve learned never to be afraid of actors, so I’ve never treated them, when I was making films, as counters in a game to be moved about as I pleased. I’ve never wished them struck dumb, always opened myself to their imaginations and benefited by their suggestions. I’ve been able to remain undisturbed by the questioning that other directors resent...No one who came out of the Group and now teaches does it precisely the same way or with the same emphasis. Sanford Meisner, Robert Lewis, Stella Adler, and Paul Mann have all helped actors become artists...But they are each extremely individual in their work and I’ve heard all four scorned by their own kind.
Elia Kazan, A Life.

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Acting teachers tend to disparage each other’s methods...But despite that, the teachers I’ve mentioned make the same basic emphasis, which is fundamental: Experience on the stage must be actual, not suggested by external imitation; the actor must be going through what the character he’s playing is going through; the emotion must be real, not pretended; it must be happening, not indicated...To indicate is the cardinal sin in acting. Yet even this is open to question. Some great actors imitate the outside and “work in” from there. Laurence Olivier, for one. Larry needs to know first of all how the person he’s to play walks, stands, sits, dresses; he has to hear in his memory’s ear the voice of the man whom he’s going to imitate. I lived across the street from him at the time I was directing his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the film of A Streetcar Named Desire, and would often drop over to see him. Larry was working with Willy Wyler on Sister Carrie and, as ever, concentrating on what might seem to “us” to be insignificant aspects of his characterization. I remember pausing outside a window late one Sunday morning and, undetected, watching Larry go through the pantomime of offering a visitor a chair. He’d try it this way, then that, looking at the guest, then at the chair, doing it with a hosts flourish, doing it with a graceless gesture, then thrusting it brusquely forward...always seeking the most revealing way to do what would be a quickly passing bit of stage business for any other actor...Which way is better? As in all art, both. There is content and there is form. The artistry is in the passion; it is equally in the way the passion is expressed. Perhaps the problem we have to deal with is how to create an expressive form within which the spontaneous life, the one that yields the unexpected, the dazzling surprise, is free to work. The greatest actors are known for giving the same performance a little differently each night—but it is the same performance in all essentials. Both techniques are important: turning your emotional resources on and off, this way and that, while at the same time directing the cunning of your body to the most telling external behavior.
Elia Kazan, A Life
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