Countess from Hong Kong Chaplin Brando Loren

A Countess from Hong Kong

Acting is the Bermuda Triangle of film commentary, written and spoken. There are so many ways of getting around or over or past actually talking about acting in the movies that we take them for granted. Acting is brushed off with generalities (regular reviewing), displaced by descriptions of actors’ physiques and mannerisms and physical alterations per character (criticism of the more elevated variety), devalued or nullified by fixations on form and patterning (essentialist critics and bloggers), banned from consideration by moral edict (politically grounded film commentary), or simply ignored altogether and reconfigured as moving figures in a field (film theory circa 1980).

One might say the same of other areas of filmmaking—writing, for instance, commonly mischaracterized as the manufacturing of dialogue; cinematography, which is at least dutifully evoked with fragrant impressionistic language; production design, which goes all but unacknowledged. But in the case of acting, there are several more layers of complication. While cinematography and writing have merely gotten their due, you could stock a small library with critical considerations of actors: poetic tributes, evocations of actors as icons, studies of actors as auteurs, and, less frequently, analyses of acting by a parade of critics, the most brilliant of all from Pauline Kael. In a sense, Kael’s heart really lies with actors, and with directors whose moviemaking felt like a form of bravura performance (Peckinpah, Altman, Bertolucci, De Palma). Very few critics have had as close an understanding of the art of acting as Kael, and her collected writings read like an ongoing chronicle of the moment that American movie acting seemed to open up and change for good.

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