Acting Connects Us All, Which Is ‘Why Acting Matters’

Through memorable, entertaining stories about actors and a brief history of acting in Britain and the United States, David Thomson reveals why acting matters so much to us all.

Readers who prefer authors to ask a question like Why does acting matter? and immediately respond with one or more reasons may be surprised when David Thomson takes a fresh but more circuitous route. His approach to convincing readers why acting matters seems to evade the question and instead focus on anecdotes about actors. By sticking with Why Acting Matters, however, readers eventually come to understand those reasons, even if they are never summarized in a Top Ten list.

Thomson is a storyteller with some fantastic tales about actors — in particular, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando — whose careers intersect in interesting ways. When The Godfather was being cast, for example, Francis Ford Coppola considered both Olivier and Brando for the role of Don Vito Corleone. Would Olivier have made a “better” Don Vito than Brando, who received the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal? What does “better” (as well as “good” or “bad”) mean in the context of acting?

Thomson uses examples of casting and performance to analyze how acting is or should be evaluated by critics or the public. The threads linking Olivier, Leigh, and Brando within the acting profession during the 20th century form the framework for a much larger discussion of the history and significance of actors and acting. Because these three actors worked in the theater and in films, Thomson often uses their roles or performances to compare acting opportunities and styles on stage and on screen, as well as British and American schools or methods of acting. The latter is especially insightful and well written.

Thomson confides early on that readers must share his “uncritical love for actors; we revere them, we need them. They nourish us; they entertain us. We have been changed by them” (p. 9). To express such “uncritical love”, this slim volume includes a vast collection of shorter stories and commentaries about actors ranging from Richard Burbage and David Garrick (required reading for those unfamiliar with these names) to James Dean, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Julia Roberts.

Some of the most memorable are a sentimental tribute to William Holden, insights into Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance of Hamlet, and a discussion of the acting talents within the Barrymore dynasty — but every name dropped is a worthy inclusion and helps explain why acting matters. (Unfortunately for readers who like to locate their favorite actor’s name in the index and then read those pages first, Why Acting Matters does not provide an index and requires cover-to-cover reading to understand not only the history of acting, but the significance of the dozens of actors mentioned in the detail-packed 178 pages of body text.)

At the conclusion of stories about William Holden and Jean Seberg, Thomson explains the way that actors may defy death because their work in film survives them and keeps them “alive” on screen, but he also reminds celebrity seekers that no one knows whose names, a century or more in the future, will be remembered or lost to history. Actors who were famous in their day (such as Richard Burbage and David Garrick) may not be remembered clearly or at all by successive generations. Incredible theatrical performances often are not recorded and can only be recalled by memory, not the most reliable of recording devices. Even actors whose work is preserved may not be revered in the future as they are during their lifetime. Thus, Thomson’s points often seem paradoxical: How may actors become “immortal” but also forgotten?

A similar conundrum exists between acting and reality. Acting illuminates humanity and attempts to explain human behavior and emotion; therefore, audiences surely must learn something about real life from actors and their performances. The more “real” the performance, the more likely it will resonate with audiences. However, people often go to movies or watch plays when they want to escape their everyday lives, to avoid reality, and merely be entertained. Which is more important: the quest for understanding reality or the desire to escape it? How can acting, which is inherently “fake”, be perceived as “real”?

Although Thomson frequently presents what seem to be conflicting statements, through these oppositions he makes readers aware of the complexity of the acting profession and the human need to make sense of life. He also underscores the point so often lost in a celebrity-dominant culture: celebrity is not the point of acting and is no guarantee of “immortality”. Acting matters because it involves more than the individual performer or performance.

Among the stories about actors are thought-provoking ideas about the nature or profession of acting. Thomson often draws conclusions after he tells particularly intriguing stories about actors’ off-screen/stage lives. He reminds readers that “if acting matters because it can illuminate the depth in life, don’t forget that it also condones or enables bad behavior” (p. 17). Thomson does not gossip but does provide evidence that not every actor who sensitively portrays a devoted lover on screen repeats that performance in an affair or a marriage.

Thomson also includes little-known facts that likely will fascinate film or theater fans. Yul Brynner starred in 4,625 performances of The King and I. Olivier agreed to have a cigarette named after him; the product’s marketing reflected Olivier’s “smooth, cool, refined, sophisticated” style and subsequently earned him more than £3,000 a year in royalties. Such trivia may not help explain why acting matters, but it’s still enjoyable to read and may someday help a Jeopardy! contestant.

The book’s jacket notes describe Why Acting Matters as both a meditation and a celebration of acting, an accurate assessment of these witty reflections on an elusive topic presented by one of Britain’s foremost film experts. Thomson is a film critic; author of biographies of David O. Selznick, Orson Welles, Warren Beatty, and Nicole Kidman; and novelist. He has authored more than twenty books, including the academically important, inclusive tome, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He equally understands the entertainment industry, actors and acting, and the way to tell a good story about them. Among these fascinating tales, he weaves salient points about why people care so much about acting.

Why Acting Matters is the latest in a series of “why X matters” books published by Yale University Press. As might be expected from this publisher, the book’s language and tone are scholarly, but that does not mean dry. Thomson’s prose is thought provoking, engaging, and reflective. Although Why Acting Matters is a short book, it’s not necessarily a fast read, because readers should take the time to consider what Thomson is defining or suggesting about acting.

Everyone acts every day, Thomson notes, but not everyone will be remembered for acting. The people who take on the title and job of actor reveal as much about each of us as about themselves or characters they choose to portray. Perhaps the greatest reason why acting matters is because it is “a model for our existence and collapse” (p. 168). Through actors, we observe the process of life and how, in the end, we all are connected.

RATING 8 / 10