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David Thomson’s ‘Why Acting Matters’ is a keeper, but Richard Schickel’s ‘Keepers’ is not

November 2001. A warehouse in Hollywood.

According to Benjamin Svetkey in the June 19 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, Marlon Brando began a 10-day acting workshop – both his first and his last ever as sole instructor. It was titled “Lying for a Living.” Among its enrollees were Sean Penn, Robin Williams, Nick Nolte, Whoopi Goldberg, Edward James Olmos, Jon Voight and Harry Dean Stanton.

It began thusly, says Svetkey: “When the doors flung open, the 78-year-old Brando appeared wearing a blonde wig, blue mascara, a black gown with an orange scarf and a bodice stuffed with giant falsies. Waving a single rose in one hand, he sashayed through the warehouse, plunked his 300-pound frame into a thronelike chair.… and started fussily applying lipstick.

“ ‘I am furious! Furious!’ Brando told the group in a matronly British accent, launching into an improvised dialogue that ended 10 minutes later, with the act of turning around, lifting his gown and mooning the crowd.”

Longtime scholars in Brando studies will immediately recognize the more salient features of Svetkey’s reportage.

1. The sudden explosive entrance of the massive actor in unexpected drag. On the set of Arthur Penn’s movie with Jack Nicholson “The Missouri Breaks,” – where Brando played a cold-blooded killer for hire – Brando unexpectedly emerged from his trailer in full period granny dress and sunbonnet, looking like the woman on the label of a 1958 can of Old Dutch Cleanser, or perhaps the denizen of Dogpatch in one of Al Capp’s Lil Abner cartoons.

Because he was among friends – most notably Penn and Nicholson – he got away with remaining that way during the most important murder scene in the film. Shortly afterward, the film became fondly remembered by Brandovians everywhere for his kissing and expressing loving kindness toward his horse while cooingly sharing a carrot with the animal.

2. Mooning is an ancient way in which Brando instructs younger practitioners in his profession in his lifelong attitude toward both their trusting audience and the larger faithless machinations of the business that pays them. It seems integral to the fables about the making of “The Godfather” that Brando led the younger male members of the cast (James Caan, Robert Duvall) in mooning moments and pranks. When the film opened, of course, Brando won the Oscar for playing Vito Corleone (and sent Sasheen Littlefeather up to retrieve it for him. Whether he mooned his TV at home during the ceremony is unknown.).

When the subject is acting, all serious discussions will eventually turn to Marlon Brando – or they will turn to Laurence Olivier. That’s the case in David Thomson’s entirely fascinating and often revelatory little book “Why Acting Matters,” wherein acting is considered by one of the finest film critics still working and the man whose “Biographical Dictionary of Film” and “Have You Seen: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films,” are necessary cornerstones of an adequate film library, much less a good one.

Late in “Why Acting Matters,” which keeps turning repeatedly to vaunted Brandovian and Olivier moments, Thomson makes an outrageously thought-provoking suggestion: what if the two had exchanged some roles?

“If Olivier would have been stealthy and impressive in ‘The Godfather’ [as Vito], wouldn’t Brando have made an improvisational and dangerous Othello – if he and some management had been prepared to let him put on blackface? No one really rebuked Olivier for that in 1964 (though the production never went to America). Ten years later, Brando would have been attacked for the same thing.”

Well, then, how about Olivier’s famously extolled and revered performance (onstage and in film) as sleazy Archie Rice in John Osborne’s “The Entertainer?” Could Brando have done that? “No one would deny or impeach Brando’s genius. In offering the possibility that Olivier could have done an intriguing Vito Corleone, I don’t think he would have been as effortlessly moving as Brando managed. And effortlessly is the key word.... Could Brando have captured the resplendent self-loathing in Olivier’s Archie Rice without being ruined?... Whereas Olivier seems never to have tired of self-admiration, Brando succumbed to its opposite.”

“Why Acting Matters” is part of a Yale University Press “Why So and So Matters” series of books featuring Jay Parini on Poetry, the late Peter Gay on the Romantics and Paul Goldberger on Architecture. Thomson’s book might logically have turned into a more or less high-toned throwaway, an intellectual improvisation by a brilliant and gifted critic that, when all is said and done, was destined for no permanence whatsoever.

Instead “Why Acting Matters” is, in its improvisational freedom and depth of thought, one of the great and original books about its subject in recent days. What Thomson is doing for 178 pages is what he does, in shorter form, in the best entries in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: he is following individual trains of thought wherever they take him, even if that is in swampy waters patrolled by snakes and alligators.

It is, page by page, brilliant.

Even more improvisational but not a fraction as enduring – the simple word “ripoff” occasionally comes to mind while reading it before being rejected – is Richard Schickel’s “Keepers” whose subtitle is “The Greatest Films and Personal Favorites of a Moviegoing Lifetime.”

Schickel is usually a critic more than deserving of such a summing up. He should have been commanding and fascinating in writing it. He has, in his lifetime, been exceptional on the subject of film, in criticism, biography, cogitations on celebrity etc.

Strictly speaking, “Keepers” doesn’t seem “written” as much as it seems dictated on the fly into a recorder. Or perhaps “jotted down.” It is one end of a potentially compelling conversation with the reader in which the “writer” seems in a hurry to get to a podiatrist’s appointment for which he’s already 20 minutes late.

There are interesting things in it – some warmed over tales told out of school about Pauline Kael, for instance, and an aside about a romantic relationship with Dana Wynter, co-star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Sadly, “Keepers” is a mildly interesting movie list but no “keeper” in and of itself. Unexpectedly, “Why Acting Matters” is every inch a keeper.

Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of The News.

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Keepers

By Richard Schickel

Knopf

304 pages, $26.95

Why Acting Matters

By David Thomson

Yale University Press

178 pages, $25