A common-sense approach to acting

In the 1982 Oscar-winning movie "Tootsie," a struggling young actor played by Dustin Hoffman tries to explain to his agent why he was fired by the director of a TV commercial. They got in an argument, he says, when the director couldn't tell him the reasons for his character's actions. The agent replies, in effect, "You were playing a piece of fruit! A piece of fruit doesn't have any motivation!"

It's a funny moment, and a comment on how actors can overanalyze what they're doing and get tied up in intellectual exercises.

Playwright and director David Mamet makes a similar point in his little book "True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor" (Random House), out this spring in paperback. In one of Mr. Mamet's plays, a character says, "I've been in Germany for some years." A director once called him to ask just exactly how many years it had been?

Mamet couldn't help him.

" 'The character' did not spend any time at all in Germany. He never was in Germany," Mamet says. "There is no character, only black marks on a white page - it is a line of dialogue."

Just play the lines as written. That no-nonsense, practical view of acting will be on wide display in movie theaters in coming weeks in "The Winslow Boy," which Mamet directed and which many critics, including the Monitor's David Sterritt, applaud. In June, the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., will premire his new play, "Boston Marriage." (His previous works include "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "Oleanna" for the stage, and screenplays for "The Untouchables" and "Wag the Dog.")Although addressed to aspiring actors, his book can have a rousing effect on anyone, in any walk of life. It's "to thine own self be true" and "just do it" delivered with his blunt, distinctive brand of tough love.

Think less about yourself, he says, and more of the audience (am I reading in too much here to think of the friend? the family member?) and your performance (life?) will ring true. He advocates the simple age-old barometer of merit: your audience. "Did we think [the play] funny? Well, did the audience laugh? Did we think it moving - did they sigh? Was the second-act curtain surprising - did they gasp? (A standing ovation can be extorted from the audience. A gasp cannot.)"

Or this, on career and character: "Your character, onstage or off, is molded by the decisions you make: which play you do, whether or not to pursue employment in commercials, in sex films or pseudo-sex films, in violent or demeaning films, in second-rate movies or plays...."

If life is a stage, here's a book with good advice for all the actors.

*Send your comments on Arts & Leisure to entertainment@csps.com

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