“You are empty. You have nothing to fill you up.”
In my twenty-five years in Hollywood, the most baffling people I work with are actors. They can alternately be a blessing, making my words come alive in ways I never imagined. Or they can be a curse, taking my scripts in directions I never intended and making a mess of things.
I have screened dozens of films about the lives of actors, looking for that one film that touches on the truths that I recognize from the actor’s life and craft.
Most are just a pack of lies.
But I have finally discovered one film that is truly about acting.
I want to thank my friend Michael Makiri, from the Young Israel of Century City, for bringing this film to my attention. Michael collects obscure films. Every few weeks Michael schleps over to my house with shopping bag in hand, filled with goodies, and lets me paw through it. From this pile of DVD’s I pick and choose various treasures and some truly wretched films, like Blood Island. Don’t ask.
It’s a small, obscure British film that takes place in the 19th century. Oddly enough, the heroine comes from an orthodox Jewish family. Enamored of Yiddish theatre, she yearns to break away from the family sewing business and become an actress.
Let me be clear, Esther Kahn is not big on plot, it is slow and uses voice-over narration not quite successfully. There is a great deal of Yiddish at the beginning. The opening scenes in the Jewish ghetto evoke atmosphere in a self-consciously European style. And this film is loooong. Over two hours. Longer than The Godfather. Oy-vey.
But this film is about the psyche of an actress, and in that it succeeds brilliantly.
Summer Phoenix (yup, the family that keeps on giving) plays the lead role of the young Jewish girl who, in the words of Ian Holm, who plays Nathan, her acting teacher, “Feels nothing, for you have nothing at your core.”
There is one scene in this film that just knocked me out and brings home what great acting is all about.
Ian Holm is giving Esther her first acting lesson. He tells her to walk a dozen paces across the stage and greet him. She does it.
Then the acting begins.
He makes a chalk mark on the stage floor.
“Here is where you take your first step, Esther, you will register surprise.”
He makes a second chalk mark.
“Here at the second mark, you will register, hesitancy.”
Third chalk mark.
“Now anger, Esther.”
“Self loathing, Esther.”
And so on for twelve paces.
“Twelve simple paces, Esther, twelve completely different ranges of emotion.”
Esther Kahn looks at him in complete bewilderment.
And then she does it.
The point of the movie is that Esther becomes a great actress because she has no center. There is no there… there. And she has to fill up that emptiness with various characters. With stories and drama.
Every great actor and actress I have worked with in Hollywood is an empty vessel. Oh, they try and fill that emptiness with celebrity, with vacuous relationships, with absurd leftist politics they can’t even begin to comprehend, they go through drug phases, they try Zen, Kabbalah, Dianetics, whatever, but in the end, there is nothing there; and that is why they can take those twelve paces brilliantly, and normal people can only gaze in wonder.