“…. great acting is like painting. In the great masters of fine art one can see the small gesture of a finger, the turn of a head, the vitriolic stare, the glazed eye, the pompous mouth, the back bending under a fearful load. In every swerve of a painter’s brush, there is an abundance of life…not imitation – that is merely caricature – and any fool can be a mimic! But creation is a secret. The better, the truer the creation, the more it will resemble a great painter’s immortal work” – Charles Laughton
When I originally read this quote by Laughton some years ago,* it was the first time that I had seen a major actor talk about the craft in artistic terms. Most big name stars disparaged their work, an expression of their own self-loathing at the preposterous rewards they received. But Laughton was different, one gets the impression that he would have been performing regardless of whether he gained critical or commercial success. He openly showed passion and respect for acting and, crucially, that acting could be art and that actors could be artists. This opens up all sorts of possibilities about how actors should think about themselves and their work, that they need not be drones, churning through one casting after another, that there is something else, something more. Actors can strive for different kinds of goals, technical and aesthetic, as well as for creative independence. They aren’t just employees, but individual creative artists creating a body of work in the same way that painters do.** Further, Laughton illustrates that being an artist doesn’t mean that you have to be solipsistic and without an audience (which is the usual complaint). After all, he had been one of the most popular actors of his generation, in Hollywood and previously on stage in the West End.
Charles Laughton is the ultimate actor-artist, and an embodiment of the creative values he espoused. He is an example to us all.
*in a biography of him by Simon Callow, the best book on acting there is.
**Remember too that he directed Night Of The Hunter, one of the great American films of it’s time.