Of the three nominees for best actress of 1928-29, one of them, Marion Davies, is pretty much here just to round out the field. Which is not to say Davies didn't deserve the nomination. While she is mostly remembered now as the inspiration for no-talent opera singer Susan Alexander in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane—a grossly unfair characterization if that's what Welles really thought of her—Davies was actually a very talented comic actress and it shows in the silent comedy, Show People, for which I've nominated her. But the fact is, no matter how good Davies was, 1928-29 boils down to a race between two actresses, Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc and Lillian Gish in The Wind, who between them deliver not just the two best performances of the year, but two of the best performances of any year.
By now if you've been following this blog (a big "if," I'll grant you), you've heard of both Lillian Gish and Maria Falconetti. Gish, as you may recall, was my choice for the best actress of the Silent Era. She was D.W. Griffith's go-to actress for every great movie he ever made and then after his career faded, she carried on for another decade making nothing but top-notch films. The Wind is probably the finest performance of her award-winning career.
Falconetti, on the other hand, only made one movie of significance, The Passion of Joan of Arc, but, boy, what a movie. Pauline Kael, the influential albeit erratic critic for New Yorker magazine, said after Carl Dreyer's masterpiece was rediscovered in 1981 that Falconetti's performance "may be the finest performance ever recorded on film." Premiere magazine ranked it as the twenty-sixth best performance of all time in a list of the 100 greatest performances in film history, making it the highest ranked silent performance.
Choosing between them involves not so much a matter of knowing good from bad as knowing what it is in a performance that you value. And this is where I run into a problem: as a woman I once knew said to me twenty-five years ago, "You don't have any values."
True. But she of the Katie Awards, Katie- Bar-The- Door, and Mister Muleboy of the blog The Mouth O' The Mule are positively silly with values and fortunately for me, often have strongly held opinions even on issues they have no opinion about. They both agree that Lillian Gish was a great actress; where they disagree is on the issue of whether Maria Falconetti was an actress at all.
Two events in movie history permanently scarred Katie, Ali McGraw's Oscar nomination for Love Story and Anna Paquin's win for The Piano. Subsequent work firmly established in Katie's mind that neither can act a lick and that honors were bestowed on them in anticipation that they might one day prove to have talent and in recognition of the work of other people. In reaction, she's adopted an informal rule: "Never give someone an Oscar for their first performance."
Here, Maria Falconetti wasn't technically appearing in her first movie—the Internet Movie Database lists small roles in a pair of 1917 shorts—but she might as well have been. And while Katie agrees that The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest movies ever made and that Maria Falconetti is effective in it, she's convinced Falconetti's performance is a product not of any particular skill but of director Carl Dreyer's relentless bullying, Rudolph Maté's excellent camera work and Dreyer's and Marguerite Beaugé's patient work in the editing room.
Roger Ebert describes the effort that produced the performance this way: "Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face—so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression."
Katie-Bar-the-Door thinks that given to what degree Dreyer hectored and humiliated her, and worked her to the point of exhaustion, it's no surprise that Falconetti convincingly comes across as hectored, humiliated and exhausted.
Consider too that since this is a silent film we're talking about, there are no line readings, which greatly complicate the actor's task, and because Dreyer shot the whole thing in a series of close-ups, there's very little need for Falconetti to play off the other actors. Dreyer simply put the camera on Falconetti and recorded everything and then assembled a character out of the footage.
Katie says that's not acting, it's something else—maybe a perfect face and a lot of film. I mean, if you put a stovepipe hat on your dog and took a hundred pictures of him, in one shot he's bound to look like Abraham Lincoln. But that doesn't make your dog the 16th president of the United States. (And no this is not my dog, who actually bears an uncanny resemblance to Woodrow Wilson.)
On the other hand, Mister Muleboy who is actually a trained actor in addition to being a highly intuitive blogger, points out that's "presumably the case in every feature film," that most screen performances consist of "a director badgering, sucking, pleading, or manipulating a 'performance' out of the actor. Usually manipulating it at the editing table. Crafting that 'great scene' from the (potentially nonsensical) multiple takes that, when combined, gave rise to that 'perfectly modulated, brilliant' performance. And that, in this director's/editor's medium, the idea of one acting performance that is in the control of the actor is—at best—only conjecture."
In fact, this is true of every per- formance, he says, even Marlon Brando in On The Water- front. Trying to identify where the work of the director and editor and cinematographer leave off and the work of the actor begins is like trying to identify the individual ingredients in a baked cake and then hand out an award to the sugar and the butter.
Hmm. So who's right?
Oh, wait. Katie-Bar-The-Door just reminded me that I'm married to her which pretty much means that even if she's wrong, she's right. But I don't think she's wrong. You know?
Also she says it's recycling day and can I please put out the newspapers? Gotta go.
To read Part Two, click here.