Dialogue Through the Ages: Mumble, Tumble, Sharp and Spark

Way to Talk, Man.

My Week with Marilyn (2011) is one of my favorite films, but perhaps not for the usual reasons.  Its appreciation comes from the portrayal of a bit of cinema history, of a changing time when actors were transforming movies to what we are accustomed to see now on screen.   I find the most interesting conflict in My Week With Marilyn  to be the full clash of Stanivlasky’s teachings –via Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio and on display in the story through the Paula Strasberg character– with the school and long tradition of  acting derived from theater.  At least from a film buff’s point of view.

That the world was divided in these separate ways of acting is revealed in the “introduction” of Marilyn.  Sir Laurence, a great actor (as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh), epitomizes “Classical” acting.  This new girl, Marilyn (as portrayed by Michelle Williams), is into “Method” acting, but maybe she wants to get serious and do the kind of acting that Sir Laurence does:

The evolution of cinema is a convoluted, multiple party affair.  From a curiosity at fair booths in the 1900’s to the smashing blockbuster of today the contributions from the technical side, the business side, the film makers and the talent have led to extraordinary peaks and radical changes in the way movies are made and seen.

Clear examples from the technical, were “talkies”, color, CGI, 3D, etc.  In the business, of course Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks & Griffith’s United Artists, the anti-trust settlement to break exhibition from distribution, studio contracts vs. talent agencies, the MPAA rating system vs. the code.  Film makers and talent recognize the difference between “indies” and studio production and seek the former to push envelopes, thematically, visually as well as in performance, the latter to mainstream.

In terms of acting, this evolution is clear in a simple characteristic: enunciation.  From its resounding stage like quality in the 40’s and 50’s to our present day low keyed mumbles and whispers, the way actors talk in movies is distinctly different.  It is what makes some of those “old movies” seem awkward and clunky to younger audiences (okay, sometimes it’s the music too).   But even in such different styles of acting, the power of performance is timeless.

In the following four clips, great performances highlight the distinction from what can be considered a classical approach to movie acting, to a contemporary style.


All About Eve (1950)

Bette Davis‘ great performance in this classic movie, thematically remade countless times, uses all the techniques of stage on cinema.   Wait ’til the end: a young Marilyn, on her way to full blown stardom.  The new Eve.

“Fasten your seat belts…” :


North by Northwest (1959)

Hitchcock’s carefully crafted cinematographic suspense with characters that have such witty dialogue, say it so clearly, hide their meaning from each other.

This scene occurs right after the famous crop duster scene.  Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) knows Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) had set him up to be killed at that desolate corn field.  She knows he knows,  and he knows she knows he knows.  Yet…

Eve Kendall’s & Roger Thornhill’s hidden agendas:


On the Waterfront (1954)

Marlon Brando and James Dean were the bad boys of the 50’s.  They took this method acting thing and pushed into the mainstream.  Acclaim and Oscars followed.  Brando, though, left the Actors Studio early (it is said he hated Strasberg) to study with Strasberg’s rival Stella Adler, another follower of the Stanivlaski method.

Brando won an Oscar for his portrayal of Terry Malloy in this movie, a tortured soul struggling to do the right thing.

Terry Flirts with Edie:

It is by coincidence that Eva Marie Saint is in this clip as well as the one above.  Check another clip from this movie in our video clips tab:  “The Contender”


There Will be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day Lewis is the great actor of the moment.  His versatility in characterization blows away the notion of typecast that could be an underlying public misperception with method acting theory, in which the actor has to find the character from within him/herself.  This erroneous notion of what the method is was noxious to Marilyn, as has been to others, when public and producers alike believe the actor is the person on screen.  News flash: It’s acting.  Most of the time.

I Drink Your Milkshake:
(with Paul Dano)


It used to be there were separate breeds of actors: stage, cinema and TV.  That is not the case so much anymore and crossover is common throughout all three disciplines.  The use of microphones on stage, episodic movie series, high production cable and network shows, all set up this crossover.  Great actors still want “to be the best actor I can be” and the distinction between “classical” acting and any other has blurred or gone away.  We, as an audience, benefit in multiple ways from it.

Granted, technical advances in audio recording and playback has allowed for subtle speech modulation but, as said above, evolution is a multiple party affair.  It has made a distinct difference in the way actors act.  The upcoming Les Misérables (2012), for example, has made great publicity about this in a featurette regarding singing and acting at the same time.   That is one of the reasons it is always a great pleasure to watch any movie.  Do.

C. J. Rangel – Dec. 2012