Thoughts As They Arrive
Actors in film
I’ve been thinking about a scene in Joanna Hogg’s film The Souvenir: Part II. Julie, the protagonist, is trying to make her autobiographical film in the most honest way possible. She’s with Pete, the actor who is to play a fictional version of her lover; an interesting part for Pete, because the lover was an inveterate fantasist who died of a heroin overdose. The actor is discussing a scene with his director, and he hesitates: perhaps this is all too close to the bone for Julie?
It’s a small moment in a collection of small moments, by which I mean that the film builds like a mosaic. Each piece is precise and telling, and the whole is more than its parts. So why have I been thinking about this particular scene?
It portrays an actor at work in a respectful, admiring way. It’s rare. When we see actors in film, there are usually inverted commas around them. “Actors …!”
David Thomson’s fascinating, dense book Why Acting Matters (Yale University Press) makes clear that anyone interested in people should be interested in acting. We are, of course, all actors. But a glance through a library of film fiction tells a different story.
In Lubitsch’s exquisite To Be Or Not To Be, the actors’ brilliance saves their lives but fails to heal their marriage. Of course: acting is an addiction to pretence, so how can you trust someone who does it for a living?
In Mankiewicz’ All About Eve, the point is jabbed harder - the actress as serpent - and in Wilder’s Sunset Blvd it’s drifted into the shadows; actress becomes monster.
Even when actors are eulogised for their abilities, the tendency is to come back to what is perilous and unreliable about them. Yates and Harwood’s The Dresser shows a flickering, grandiose greatness propped up by a self-sacrificing servant. Szabó’s Mephisto is the ultimate warning from history: acting is lying, and the greater the lie the greater the acting; thus, when a really great lie like Nazism emerges, the actor is the perfect stooge. Even in the elegiac ending of Robinson’s Withnail And I, where Richard E. Grant’s rumpled malcontent allows a more dignified self to flower, we’re left with pathos. The loneliness of the unwitnessed performance.
But here is Pete (Harris Dickinson) with Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), behaving like a human. At this moment he’s concerned, not with the potential for his own exposure, nor even with the process of letting the fictional persona fill and animate him; he’s watching out for a colleague’s well-being. You could say this is self-serving - is the shoot going to fall apart and cheat him of his chance? - but it doesn’t come across like that. The context is a precise, humane film, in which everyone has their ways and reasons. Even if Pete does have one eye on his career, his other eye is appreciated for its tenderness.
It’s a moment in which the whole solar system of acting in film is subtly adjusted. The actor becomes a person who acts, rather than an actor concealing the absence of a person - unlike the character he’s hoping to portray.
The Souvenir: Part II is currently on MUBI
Written and directed by Joanna Hogg