Friday, November 18, 2005

John Barrymore

Mary Astor writes in her autobiography, A Life on Film (Delacorte Press; New York; 1967, 1969, 1971; pages 53 - 54) about John Barrymore's private dramatic lessons:
. . ."Think! The camera's a mind reader. Don't let your thoughts wander to what kind of shoes you're going to buy, or to plan on what you'll say to so-and-so when you see him. Sustain--even though you're made the shot fifty times."
I remember we were sitting at lunch and I said, "May I have some more butter, please." He used it. He said, "Before any scene--go over how long you've known him--or her. You even say 'Pass the butter' differently, according to how you feel. Right now you're bored--I can hear it. There's always something under what you're saying--caused by a million things. How does it make you feel? Suppose, for instance, the guy says--maybe he's your husband--'I've quit my job.' And your line is, "Pass the butter, please.' O.K. now don't giggle like an ass. Listen, there'd be a world of difference if you think. 'Well screw him, I'll get somebody else to buy me a sable coat.' Or if you feel happy that the guy's finally got up enough nerve to do something that was your idea all along. Now let's try it. Let's improvise. I'll go out and come in and tell you I've quit my job. I'm, ah--let's see--a shoe salesman, and I'll tell you I've quit my job and you invent something and let me see you thinking."
A few years ago I was working with some Actors' Studio people in a TV show, trying to make sense of the nomenclature they used. I asked one of them, "What do you mean by 'subtext?' " he explained. My thoughts whisked back thirty years to "Pass the butter."
(John Barrymore as Hamlet)
The young John Barrymore could have melted Miss Maven's butter anytime!
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