November 23, 2017

The quintessence of the role


English is a Germanic language, but thanks to the Romans, the Vulgate, the Normans, and Latin being the lingua franca of academic scholarship well into the 17th century, Latin left its indelible mark on the language.

One of those truly cool marks is the word quintessential.

It derives from quīnta essentia, meaning the "fifth element" or essence of the heavenly bodies (believed to be "ether"). The other four elements are air, fire, earth, and water. (And now you also know where the title of The Fifth Element came from.)

For the past five centuries or so, quintessential (adj.) and quintessence (n.) have referred to the pure essence of a substance or the perfect embodiment of a thing.

I think it should refer to a school of acting.

The thought occurred after catching several episodes of Kojak (1973–1978) on Cozi TV (also available from Netflix). A recurring theme in Blue Bloods is how bad the "good old days" were. Crime statistics from the past quarter century prove it. Or you can watch Kojak.

Inspired by gritty crime dramas like The French Connection (1971) and Serpico (1973), the grime and nihilism is lightened by Telly Savalas's witty, wry, better-honest-than-nice Lieutenant Theo Kojak. Savalas was doing the cop version of Hugh Laurie's Dr. House thirty years before House.

In the role, Savalas captures the quintessence of the hard-nosed Brooklyn detective. His performance reminds me of Luca Zingaretti's in Inspector Montalbano (not just because they're both bald). Both play to type, a Greek-American and a Sicilian, and play that type over the top.


Zingaretti plainly states that his Montalbano is an exaggeration, a "commedia dell'arte," which is a

theatrical form characterized by improvised dialogue and a cast of colorful stock characters that emerged in northern Italy in the fifteenth century and rapidly gained popularity throughout Europe.

It is exactly this embrace of the inner stock character that allows an actor to "transform and enlarge" the part, that allows the essence of the person represented by the character to shine through. Such a performance creates an emotional rapport with both the cast and the audience.

This is what makes Savalas's and Zingaretti's characters so memorable. They key in on our familiarity with the type (which all fictional characters must be to some extent) and use that familiarity to pull us deeper into the substance of the person they are playing and the story he is telling.

I call this "acting to the quintessence." It deliberately skirts the Stanislavskian approach because theater isn't real life and actors aren't the real people they are portraying. The most "realistic" portrayal on screen is ultimately a made-up story told against an artificial backdrop.

Even a rigorously objective documentary is a shadow on Plato's wall. Once a camera starts rolling, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Embracing the type while transcending it is no simple task. Cast as Japanese, Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's delivers a cringe-worthy stereotype, while Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon convincingly depicts a person utterly unlike himself.

Brando was famously a method actor, except that all the "method" in the world wasn't going to turn him into a Japanese living in post-WWII Okinawa. What he could do was focus on those demonstrable aspects of the character that communicated the essence of his part in the story.

In other words, Brando acted like he was that person, and being a good actor, those actions resonated with the audience.

The job of narrative fiction, regardless of the medium, is not to recreate the real world. It is to draw in rough sketches with a specific and artificial focus, giving our own creative instincts enough material and latitude to fill in the rest. Our minds are the only virtual reality machines that matter.

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