' Cinema Romantico: A 2013 Scene To Go Home With You

Friday, January 10, 2014

A 2013 Scene To Go Home With You

"This method acting? Well, I call it living." - Bright Eyes 

A common phrase employed in conjunction with that most bandied about of performing topics - Method Acting - is this: Living The Part. Living the Part was more or less born of Experiencing the Role, a critical ingredient of Constantin Stanislavski's system for acting, a system out of which parts of the Method would eventually flow. Stanislavski would discover that in truly experiencing a role, his mind and being would merge with the character's mind and being, allowing them to act jointly. He was, in other words, Living the Part. Now, that sounds mystical, and the New School of the Method certainly adds to that mystique. People think Daniel Day-Lewis and they automatically assume the man's personage literally fused with the soul of Honest Abe. Of course, it's never really that simple, and Method Acting combines psychological and physical preparation with affective memory. Stanislavski writes in his book "An Actor Prepares": "Always act in your own person, as an artist. You can never get away from yourself. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part."

In other words, there is no magical melding nor does an actor simply become someone else when living the part. He or she specifically brings him or herself to the part and his or her own feelings. "And any exception to the rule of using your own feelings," writes Stanislavski, "is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul."

"American Hustle" is based on the infamous Abscam FBI sting operation of the 70's and 80's, though "based" might be too strong a word. Perhaps we should say loosely based. Or, excessively loosely based. Or, director David O. Russell and writer Eric Warren Singer lift the Abscam riff to cultivate their very own unwieldy power ballad with disco underpinnings. This jumping off point is entirely appropriate given the film's primary motif - acting. Here, Abscam is merely dinner theater, and all the characters use it as an excuse to role play.

One scene in particular captures the essence of "American Hustle." The gang's role-playing grandmaster, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), is forced to spend an evening out in the company of Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). Ah, but he is forced to spend it not in the company of his buxom role-playing cohort Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but in the company of his mouthy, headstrong wife (Jennifer Lawrence). He'd really rather be with Sydney. And Sydney would really rather be Irving. But, she isn't. She's alone. And in being alone she is forced to square with reality. And who in their right (wrong?) mind wants to square with reality?

So she calls up Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), the FBI man running point on their sting who has gotten in too deep. Not in too deep in the manner of, say, Donnie Brasco, but in too deep in the manner of Kirk Lazarus. He's at home, so desperate to ignore the reality surrounding him - his fiancé he apparently doesn't like and his screeching mom - that he retreats to the bathroom with dinner. So, when Sydney phones, he's out the door in a flash.


The shot that initiates the scene is as side-splitting as it is sad - Richie is all done up like a permed OCD Tony Manero and Sydney dons a fur coat like a more assured Stephanie Mangano. They strut down the street, through the night, to the club. They are themselves, which is to say they are not themselves, because they are uncomfortable in their own skin, and assuming alternate personas and the lead roles in Sydney & Richie's Night Out! (in neon). It's a disco-era paradox, and in the disco-era where better to deny your true self then on the dance floor? What did Kylie Minogue say about the "Dance Floor"? Ah yes. "Gonna lose it in the music."

So they do. Donna Summer croons about how she "Feel(s) Love" on the soundtrack and Richie and Sydney shimmy and shake and sweat and move in close. They are not know who they are. They are whoever they want to be. But you know what they say about dancing - it's like sex. Thus, they hustle to bathroom stall to have some. Except they don't. They don't want to consummate until they've consummated the sting. They want to know that the sex is real, not something used to level the scheme-playing field. Except, of course (did I forget to mention this?), Richie doesn't even know she's Sydney. He think she's Edith, a totally proper British Lady. And so even though they have just decided in a bathroom stall to be entirely on the up-and-up, they are not at all on the up-and-up.

It’s a complicated moment. She is pledging honesty even as she maintains fakery by not divulging her true identity. Yet, in her own mind, crucially, she is not faking it. In the moment, she is Lady Edith, only Lady Edith, Sydney momentarily forgotten, and as Lady Edith she is being utterly forthright. This is to say, she has made an exception to the rule of using her own feelings. The scene concludes with Sydney releasing a blood-curdling shriek that you can literally (figuratively) see rise to the discoteque's rafters, symbolically working as the death cry of the person she is portraying, even if that death will stay on life support for several scenes.

As of this moment, she is no longer living the part.

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