Cinematic Discourse Notes 9:
Some Issues in Characterisation & Acting

A) Relationship of characterisation and acting

In film, unlike written literature, characters have to be realised by actors. This is similar to drama, but there are some differences: the cinematic actor has a more important role to play in our understanding of the character than in drama. According to Erwin Panofsky,

Othello or Nora are definite, substantial figures created by the playwright. They can be played well or badly, and they can be “interpreted” in one way or another; but they most definitely exist, no matter who plays them or even whether they are played at all. The character in a film, however, lives and dies with the actor.

Thus cinematic characters usually have a closer connection to the actors who play them, whereas dramatic characters are relatively more independent from the actors who play them.

B) Evaluative criteria for acting

Evaluative criteria for cinematic acting cannot be ignored (NT: 11.26), even if many of these criteria are not clearly formulated. In cinema, unlike drama, an actor is not usually evaluated on the basis of his ability to play a particular character. The difference in criteria may hinge on the availability of a written source. On the basis of a well-known text, we can say whether an actor has followed the author's portrayal of a character. However, a well-known text is not available beforehand for most films, hence we are not able to judge on this basis. If a film has a well-known source, the evaluative criteria for the portrayal of a character are not limited to the character; other persons involved in making the film  ?  such as the director, cinematographer and editor  ?  also have a part to play in how the character is portrayed

C) Actor and character in film and drama

The fact that the script of a film is usually not readily available also means that there is generally a greater convergence of actor and character in film. As noted, this convergence is less often seen in drama, as the script is more regularly published and available as a separate entity. A greater value is also placed on the relatively more autonomous dramatic script.

In film, there is usually only one unique performance of the script available to the viewer. Hence the actors' unique performance is distinctively identified with what the character does. In drama however, even in a single run of a play, there are several performances. Hence several characterisations may be possible in drama, and the one-to-one relationship between actor and character becomes less tenable.

Unlike dramatic actors, actor-characters in a movie seem to be living in a world of their own, separated from our world. Dramatic actors, on the other hand, perform live in front of us. Metz believes that the separation of the film's actor-character from our world contributes to the film's realism; we can note here that the movie actors do not seem to be play-acting, like the actors in a dramatic performance, but appear  ?  even if this may be illusory  ?  as characters in their own right.

D) The microscopic nature of cinematic acting

In a film, the small gestures and twitches made by actors may be seen by the audience (this section takes its title and some of its points from NT 11.27). But this is not the case with dramatic acting. In film, unlike drama, actors' facial features can be clearly seen by the audience. One consequence of this is that, unless heavily made up, cinematic actors have to play characters who are closer to their age. This is especially true for actors who are too old for certain characters. This is not the case in drama, where older actors can play significantly younger characters. In this regard, Ellen Terry has even said that ‘an actress cannot play Juliet until she is too old to look like Juliet’. The oldish actress may indeed pass off as Juliet on the stage, due to the audience's distance from her, but this is more difficult to accomplish in cinema, where it is not easy for the camera to keep its distance from the major characters.

The camera has a part to play in the microscopic nature of cinematic acting. Close-ups, for example, are possible through the physical nearness of the camera, or by the use of a telephoto lens (for more discussion of lenses, see Notes 6, Section B). Even medium shots show the details of actors' faces more clearly than in a theatrical performance.

Another microscopic feature of cinematic acting has to do with voice. Due to the availability of the microphone, cinematic actors need not project their voices. Even whispers can be heard, thus giving the actor's voice more flexibility and range than in dramatic acting

E) Actors as authors

As was discussed in the lecture on authorship, it is possible for some actors to author at least a part of a film. As mentioned, they may do this by verbalising some words that cannot be found in the script. They may also perform certain actions that are not indicated in the script.

The authorship of actors or characters is less of a factor in some examples of drama and theatrical performance. This is due to the pre-existence of the print version of the play, which is taken by some theatrical producers as the authoritative version on which the play is based. The belief in the authority of the print version of the dramatic text, especially if it is written by some celebrated writers, such as Shakespeare, may be overwhelming. Unless one is dealing with an experimental adaptation of a Shakespeare play, actors are relatively less able to perform an authorial function when performing a Shakespeare play, when compared to movie actors in general.

Film stars usually have a greater contribution to make to the authorship of films than actors who are not stars. To begin with, their star status usually gives them more control over films than other actors. The convergence of actor and character may be even closer with some film stars, who portray only certain types of character, such as John Wayne, who was mentioned in the previous notes. The film may be different if another actor plays the role.  Some films are made with certain film stars in mind. In this regard, moving backwards to an earlier stage of authorship, some popular fictional works were in fact written so that certain films stars could play in them. Closer to the film, many scripts are in fact written with the intention that some film stars perform certain roles. Some film stars are 'iconic' (not in the semiotic sense), and they accordingly contribute to the film's meaning.

Can characters be authors?

As actors, especially those who have star status, can contribute to film authorship, can the same be said about characters?  There are some difficulties, however, if authorship is extended to characters. One difficulty is that characters and authors belong to different worlds, unlike actors and authors, who belong to the same world. Authorship may be more applicable to some characters, such as those who are iconically linked to film stars. In this sense, the characters are closely linked to the stars who portray them, and thus it is really the actors who contribute to authorship.

F) Cinematic characters and real people

Cinematic characters may seem to resemble real people more closely than ‘people’ in written fiction.  We are able to see them, unlike the mere words pertaining to a character on the pages of a novel. But cinematic characters are not completely comparable to real people. There are significant differences (see also the wider discussion of the differences between fictional persons and real people in NT: 4.8).

Cinematic characters may resemble real people physically, as they are enacted by actual persons. But this may be a superficial basis for comparison. One must go beyond mere physical resemblances if one wants to seriously compare cinematic characters with real people. Biographically, cinematic characters are, like their counterparts in written fiction, either distortions of, or truncated versions of, real people. Massive portions of their lives are bound to be missing, even when one looks at the major characters. Cinematic characters may also be more coherent, more comprehensible, and more easily pinned down than actual human beings.

Even in films based on the lives of actual persons, the characters are usually not played by the actual persons. There are bound to be differences between the two. The persons depicted may even be distortions or caricatures.

Method acting is an approach that puts a high premium on realism. A method actor acts and behaves like what people actually do, or what they would do, in the real world. However in spite of the attempt at realism by method actors and others, there is an element of conventionality in acting. Schemas help us in the perception of real people, how they interact with each other, and how they are viewed within social contexts. Since schemas help us to understand real people, there is no reason why they should not be used for our perception and appreciation of actors in their portrayal of characters. The cinematic text is not a transparent medium which allows one to ‘see’ the character (or the ‘person’ depicted by the character) as he or she actually is.

G) Characters and ideology

Characters may be biased by ideological considerations, either by the filmmakers or the audience. However, cinematic characters who exist for purely ideological purposes are not common. But there are significant exceptions, such as the ideological character types, according to Stephen Heath (in his Questions of Cinema), in the films of Eisenstein and Godard. To Heath, Eisenstein's notion of the typage views characters more in terms of ideas than characters in their own right, and Godard views characters more as personified ideas in the presentation of arguments. In the light of Heath's comments, if characters serve an ideological function in a movie, could they serve an argumentative instead of a narrative function in the cinematic discourse? Or is the narrative replaced by argumentation in the discourse? Or could we say instead, that if characters are presented as arguments, this is still compatible with the narrative thrust of the movie?

H) Inter-linking of characters

Cinematic characters do not exist by themselves, but are linked to other characters (NT: 4.22). Characters may be linked through their family, profession or the institution they belong to. Certain standards of behaviour may be upheld in such inter-linkages of characters, and characters who do not uphold them, are treated accordingly.

The importance of the inter-linking of characters is reflected in actors playing as an ensemble. In most films, actors are not only viewed individually, but also in their relationship with other actors. Ensemble acting is of course necessitated by the fact that characters do not stand by themselves.

The audience's impressions of a character’s personality traits in a movie are not totally determined by the character himself or herself, but partly arise from his or her relationships with other characters. We depend on other characters’ words or perceptions to get a more general impression of the character. Characters' differing opinions of a particular character converge to form a more comprehensive and balanced overall image of the character

I) Movie length, characterisation features & psychological depth

Whether a character is static or developing may be a factor of the length of the movie: developing characters may depend on the movie's length for their development to be realised. It has been noted by the filmmaker Michael Sokolar, for example, that characters do not have time to develop in short movies, as these movies are just snapshots.

Length is also a factor in the question of whether psychological depth can be found in film. Most films are not lengthy enough for the development of psychological depth.

Another factor that may affect the development of psychological depth is the amount of actions shown in the movie. A complaint against some action-based movies, such as the video-game derived Silent Hill (2006), is that they are ‘all action and no psychology’ But it has been argued that there are a number of action-based films that have managed to attain a certain level of psychological depth, such as Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Part II (1974) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976)  Dialogue and other features may be increased in order to infuse greater psychological depth, without sacrificing too much of the action in the movie, which explains the difference between Quentin Tarantino's largely actional Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003) and the relatively more psychological Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004), or for that matter, between the more psychological Godfather Part II and its predecessor The Godfather (1972), or more obviously, between Taxi Driver and John Avildsen's Rocky (1976). There is also the genre of the psychological thriller in cinema, where some actions are seamlessly blended with what goes on in character's minds. In some examples of this genre, such as David Fincher's Fight Club (1999) and Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010), what goes on in a character's mind or in characters' minds are enacted as physical actions for a good part of the movie.

J) Movie characters & settings

Movie characters are connected to their settings. Minor characters are even more closely connected to their settings, and perhaps are more appropriately discussed under settings and not under cinematic characterisation, as they lack individuality and do not stand on their own. Settings and movie characters are not a one-way relationship: the characters are stuck to the settings they are in and are influenced by them. Movie characters can determine or have an influence on their settings too.  In this regard, although the setting may mold a movie character, some characters may want to reverse this process.


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Last revised: 11 August 2018.