The Key to Acting

Ira Levin had a remarkable run of hit ideas in the late Sixties and Seventies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Deathtrap …and The Boys from Brazil (1978), which is about Brazilian boys created by Dr Mengele in a plan to seed the world with twelve-year-old Hitler clones. Cloning was then new, and Mengele was old but still alive and kicking, so it was an interesting juxtaposition of old Nazi potboiler themes and cutting-edge science. If the film version hasn’t held up as well as one might have expected, it still has its moments – including a remarkably raw fight scene between a sexagenarian and a near septuagenarian – Gregory Peck and James Mason.

The other moment I always enjoy if I happen to catch it while channel-surfing is the meeting between Laurence Olivier, as a Simon Wiesenthal-style Nazi hunter, and Uta Hagen, as the woman who helped place the cloned Brazilians with families in the USA. It’s a great encounter marvelously brought to life by both parties that also happens to be a summit between exemplars of two polar opposites in acting theory. Miss Hagen was the leading American exponent of the Stanislavskian school of acting, requiring “object exercises” to be conjured from within in daily life to maintain one’s skills. And Olivier was the chap who thought all that was a lot of hooey, and, as we’ll come to, delivered one of the most famous putdowns to a notorious luvvie making a meal of a bit of simple board-treading. In Miss Hagen’s approach, the character is created from within. In Olivier’s, the character is someone else’s creation, and you’re merely the interpreter – like a musician playing Bach or Cole Porter. So you can be a Nazi hunter in one film and a Nazi dentist the next – because neither is anything to do with you.

Uta Hagen’s centennial falls this coming week: She was born in Germany on June 12th 1919 to an art historian and musician who brought her to America at the age of five. At seventeen, she was cast as Ophelia opposite Eva Le Gallienne’s Hamlet. At eighteen she made her Broadway debut with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Seagull, and never looked back. She played Shaw’s Saint Joan, and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, and created the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (a title derived from a certain “Big Bad Wolf”, for more on which see here). She was Desdemona to her husband José Ferrer’s Iago and Paul Robeson’s Othello – and, as a cautionary tale in what can happen when you insist that the character has to spring from within you, Iago’s missus then one-upped the Bard backstage and began an affair with Othello. Robeson was famously a Communist and, when he got blacklisted, that pretty much killed any prospect of Hollywood work for Miss Hagen.

So she became a teacher – a famous one, of even more famous pupils, among them Jack Lemmon, Jason Robards, Faye Dunaway, Gene Wilder, Liza Minnelli, George Segal, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Eileen Heckart, Debbie Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Charles Grodin, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew Broderick …and Orson Bean, with whom I had dinner the other night, when Uta Hagen’s name came up in conversation. I always enjoyed talking to her about acting, interviewed her many years ago for The New York Times, and briefly considered taking lessons myself, mainly as a kind of exercise in seeing how her exercises worked on a chap of extremely limited acting ability. Instead, on this centenniaI, and mindful that we don’t always pay enough attention to the acting in this department, I thought I’d dust off some of what she said to me – because everyone from Judy Garland to David Hyde Pierce swore by her advice.

In her classes, Uta Hagen commended the virtues of the old gag: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” But she extended the punchline to every aspect of life: How do you get to your apartment? Practice. Every day, she told me, she “always” comes home around 3.30pm from teaching acting at the HB Studio in Greenwich Village, fixes herself a drink and watches a little television in the bedroom of her flat on Washington Square

Then she cited two examples of this “undeviating” routine: On the one hand, a sleety day in mid-January, when she arrives late because she couldn’t get a cab and so she walked, and her hands are numb with cold, and she drops the mail as she pulls it from the box, and she yanks off her damp mittens with her teeth so she can tear open the letter from NBC – which proves to be a tax form, not the anticipated check.

Then there’s a spring day, seventy degrees, and she skips home early to bound up the stairs like a kid so she can catch the end of the Yannick Noah/Andre Agassi tennis match on TV …but can’t find her key.

And on both occasions, even as she was pulling off the mittens or fumbling for the key, she was wondering whether she should immediately re-enact the mini-scenes as what she called one of her “dropped object” or “lost object” exercises.

I thought of Olivier and wondered whether she wasn’t getting carried away with the significance of opening the front door.

“No,” she said firmly. “All life has a subliminal cause that sends you to a destination. Nothing is, in that sense, random. The actor has to know why that character is doing that. There has to be cause.”

There was much sniggering when I recalled this exchange a week or so back with Orson Bean – and not just from the non-thesps present. But for Uta Hagen, acting has to have cause and a good way to understand that is to think of why the humdrum maneuvers of life have cause. She wrote two useful and provoking books on the subject – A Challenge for the Actor and Respect for Acting – and taught their lessons every day at the studio founded by her husband, Herbert Berghof. Notwithstanding the long list of bankable starry pupils, she never became, like Stanislavsky, a theory, or, like Lee Strasberg, a method. Her teaching was rooted in what’s necessary and useful to an individual actress to convince both herself and the audience that she is, say, Ophelia. “Nudity isn’t useful, or realistic,” she told me. “When I see a nude scene, I don’t think about the character or the play. I think, ‘Aren’t her nipples big?’ – not the character’s, the actress’s.” So, from The Country Girl (for which she won her first Tony Award, in 1951) to her final film appearance a couple of years before her death in 2004, she built her characters from tiny, practical details — remembered sights, sounds, smells, dropped mail and misplaced keys. She had a precise, vivid memory and precise, vivid speech – “standard American,” she calls it – which descended into the vernacular only for pithy dismissals of contemporary Broadway. When I knew her, age had silvered her distinctive curls, and she had the familiar props of a theatrical grande dame: the ever-present, perfectly poised cigarette plus a devoted miniature poodle called GBS, as in George Bernard Shaw. There were no airs or hauteur or any sense of status, but she was an elegant toughie in defense of her art. Yet, for all the specific forensic examination of the torn envelope with the NBC tax form, you couldn’t help noticing that she’d turned out not that different from the way Broadway dames are on any cookie-cutter telly knock-off of All About Eve.

“I’m skeptical of dogma and ready answers,” she said, and laughed. She was getting ready to open Mrs Klein, about a refugee from Germany, who came to Britain with a controversial mission to extend psychoanalysis to children. Nicholas Wright’s play had been a West End hit in 1988, and, almost from opening night, Miss Hagen received weekly calls from London friends insisting that the role was made for her. “From beginning to end,” she said, “it’s loaded with my own life.” Like Uta, Melanie Klein was born in Germany. Like Melanie, Uta knew the physical landscape of the drama, the London of the mid-1930’s: in 1936, she’d studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She understood about refugees because her late husband had been one. “The play is loaded with …loss,” she said softly, “which isn’t very hard for me to particularize.”

It takes place on one night as the analyst struggles to analyze her son’s death. “Mrs Klein is a survivor of the height of German culture,” Nicholas Wright told me, “and I suppose, in some ways, because of the seriousness with which she takes theater, I think of Uta like that too. And, like Mrs Klein, she’s also a teacher.” But this is where actress and character parted company: Mrs Klein comprehends nothing but theory; subjective experience has no meaning for her. “She can come up with a wonderful paper on her son,” Miss Hagen said, but that’s it.

In London, the play tapped into the instinctive British suspicion of psychoanalysis. In New York, Miss Hagen got irritated when a dozen inconsequential lines were suddenly getting huge in-joke laughs in previews from a very knowing Manhattan audience. “I’m very wary of psychoanalysis,” she said. “In New York there are so many people who are analyzed, and there are big fights among Freudians, Kleinians, Jungians. But I’ve never been in analysis. So I had to do a whole bunch of translating — what it means to me in terms of teaching – pro-Stanislavsky, anti-Stanislavsky. I don’t think analysis could exist without Freud, and I don’t think modern acting could exist without Stanislavsky. But the dogmatism and hanging on to verbatim statements of these people I find appalling.”

I’ve heard a zillion actors over the years compare acting to psychoanalysis. Not Uta Hagen. “Psychoanalysis is useless – useless – applied to acting,” she said. “Somebody can say Hamlet is a play about an Oedipus complex. I think it’s a tragic play about a man in crisis; it’s not about an Oedipus complex. The theorizing, the mental explanation, doesn’t help art. The actor can write an essay on it but he’s not going to be able to use it as a tool for his performance.”

Almost everything else I know about acting I learned from the late George Abbott, who directed the original play of Chicago in 1926 and got his first Oscar nomination for All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930. He was the master director of American farce comedy and musicals, and a mentor to Rodgers & Hart, Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Gwen Verdon, Bob Fosse, Frank Loesser, Hal Prince, Kander & Ebb… The legendary Mister Abbott is admired by writers and directors, but actors can be more grudging. It was Abbott, after all, who delivered the ultimate dismissal of acting integrity, when Stephen Douglass, in the cast of Damn Yankees demanded to know his “motivation” for a particiular scene: “Your paycheck,” said Abbott.

Miss Hagen appeared in a flop Abbott comedy, In Any Language (1951), and learned a lot. “Oh, I was just crazy about him,” she said. He gave her line readings and gestures, which actors hate, but he didn’t want them copied. “He said ‘I’m giving you the intention – for you to translate.’ It wasn’t gimmicky, it wasn’t fake, and it was much quicker than talking about it for an hour. I also worked with Lee Strasberg, and I’d much rather work with Abbott any day. Lee Strasberg talked for nineteen hours and I never knew what he was talking about. My husband used to say, ‘Never study with a teacher you haven’t seen on stage.’ Abbott was a very good actor.”

But Abbott, to the end, lived by the rules of show business, and Uta Hagen could never see the point of that. She thought that ninety per cent of the available film and stage work was inimical to great acting. “The last time we had real theatre in this country,” she said, “was before the turn of the century” – ie, the the late nineteenth. Then “the actor-managers like Booth and Mrs Fiske lost power to the real estate boys, and it’s been downhill ever since.”

Nicholas Wright remembered the first time he saw Uta Hagen, in the London production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “I was a terrible actor,” he told me. “And in Britain we think it’s pretentious to make acting sound difficult. We love Olivier telling Dustin Hoffman when he was making such a meal of Marathon Man, ‘Why don’t you try acting, dear boy?’ But, before Uta, I’d never seen someone just adjust their glasses and be that character. It’s a fabulous technique, but you don’t see it.”

After I saw Mrs Klein, the thought occured that this tough, unsentimental woman was a generation older than the character she was playing. “In Europe,” she said, “the thing that was always accepted in acting was age. Here, that’s a taboo. We cast a black man as a white king and somebody with a thick Spanish accent as British royalty – that’s okay, but you can’t be old.” She laughed a grand, ripe, throaty chain-smoker’s laugh. “It is,” she said, “inconsistent.” And so in old age she taught young people, and, until they too got old and consigned to bit parts, you can see the results in fifty years of film performances.

~As this second-anniversary season of The Mark Steyn Club draws to a close, we would like to thank all those First Month Founding Members who’ve decided to re-re-up for another year. Club membership isn’t for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. And we’re proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before in its sixteen-year history.

What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it’s a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it’s also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle (the latest airs tomorrow). We don’t (yet) have a clubhouse, but we do have many other benefits, and an upcoming cruise. And, if you’ve got some kith or kin who might like the sound of all that and more, we also have a special Gift Membership that makes a great birthday present. More details here.