It wasn’t until 1927 that the art of acting was fully captured on film (with recorded sound in “The Jazz Singer”). While fine artists and writers have always been able to directly study the work of their predecessors, prior to this, actors could only wistfully read about great acting performances of the past.
Every actor worth their salt should nevertheless acquaint themselves with the films of the preeminent actors of the past and the iconic characters they portrayed.
Here are six of those iconic characters and some of the masters who rendered them:
1. The Tough Guys: Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Steve McQueen
Modern master: Samuel L. Jackson
These actors specialized in playing dark heroes with old souls. They exhibited a cynical humor and a knack for violence. Their characters proudly proclaimed themselves only interested in their own welfare, but were consistently found risking it all for the underprivileged and the downtrodden. Watch the ability of actors who are good at playing this character combine great knowingness and confidence with a sense of being dangerously on the razor’s edge.
2. The Vixens. Jean Harlow, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Kim Novak
Modern master: Angelina Jolie
These artists had the courage to walk up to the line, and often over, of what’s currently accepted as decent female behavior. They portrayed women with an open sexuality and a strong sense of themselves. Oh yeah, and they’re usually very easy on the eyes. Watch how they’re able to combine vulnerability and even a deep sweetness with the quality that they’d stick a knife in your heart without blinking if it got them what they wanted.
3. The Everyman. Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Jack Lemmon
Modern master: Tom Hanks
These actors played characters with the just the right amount of every personality trait: humor, adventurousness, loyalty. This is the kind of guy you’d want with you on a cross country trip. You’d want your sister to marry this kind of guy. They’re humble and unassuming, but when fate taps them on the shoulder, they rise to the occasion. Watch how the great actors who play this gracious character have full access to their anger.
4. The Good Girl. Mary Pickford, Eva Marie Saint, Doris Day, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn
Modern master: Reese Witherspoon
The women who’ve played this part effectively portray guile-free good-heartedness without coming off as a doltish or quaint. Similar to the Everyman, they demonstrated great pluck and a large capacity for joy. Watch how the experts at playing this character also had their full range of anger, as well as their pain, and they put together an elegant sense of duty and virtue with an earthy common touch.
5. The Fools. Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Jean Arthur, Cantinflas, Jerry Lewis
Modern master: Jim Carrey
These artists demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice their vanity and health of their bodies playing open, childlike beings while often performing extreme, physical comedy. While these oh-so innocent characters have virtually no regard for where they rank in the social pecking order, they can nevertheless, on rare occasions, flip out and be very reckless. Watch the masters of this character type to see their sweet vulnerability, pluck, and delightfully open engagement with the world.
6. The Raw. Peter Lorre, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift
Modern master: Joaquin Phoenix
Actors good at playing this character tend to strike awe in the hearts of the public. If you met a person actually like this in real life you’d probably feel like getting them into a quiet room with a blanket and a bowl of soup...or calling someone with a net. You probably don’t want your brother or your sister marrying one of these. Learn from the very special artists who can do this work by watching the magnitude of sensitivity, volatility, and the degree of torment a human soul can express.