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Transformation Versus Revelation

May 17, 2007

Michael Billington's lovely portrait of Laurence Olivier in yesterday's Guardian in honor of the great thespian's 100th birthday, makes some graceful points about the art of acting. Billington's observation about Olivier as an actor who was capable of a largely forgotten art -- lively transformation -- resonated with me in particular. He writes:

"If I stress Olivier's physical range and shape-shifting quality, it is because that is something that today has largely gone out of fashion. We see acting more as a form of self-revelation than of impersonation: aside from Antony Sher, I can think of few actors now who share Olivier's delight in transformation. A mastery of external details was Olivier's map towards a character's inner being. As a result, there was all the difference in the world between the desolate pathos of his Macbeth in its climactic stages and the glittering vengefulness of his crazed Titus."

What Billington says about Olivier makes me think of watching Notes On A Scandal on DVD a few days ago. Judi Dench's performance made me believe that the art of transformation is alive and well in the best acting today. I was glued to my seat during the film. Dench's embodiment of the elderly schoolteacher Barbara Covett clogged my pores. There are so many adjectives I could apply to her character in the film -- closeted, scheming, spinsterly, lovable, lonely, educated, tough... I don't know how to pin her down and yet she seems so believable, so much like someone I might know.

When a string of long adjectives doesn't get you close to describing a character, then you know you're in the presence of a great actor.



  • Indeed! Well said! It was great having lunch with you yesterday. Good luck on your move!!!

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