Acting in the Cinema

Acting in the Cinema

Acting in the Cinema

Acting in the Cinema


In this richly detailed study, James Naremore focuses on the work of film acting, showing what players contribute to movies. Ranging from the earliest short subjects of Charles Chaplin to the contemporary features of Robert DeNiro, he develops a useful means of analyzing performance in the age of mechanical reproduction; at the same time, he reveals the ideological implications behind various approaches to acting, and suggests ways that behavior on the screen can be linked to the presentation of self in society.

Naremore's discussion of such figures as Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, and Cary Grant will interest the specialist and the general reader alike, helping to establish standards and methods for future writing about performers and their craft.


This is a book about the art of film acting, but I had better make clear from the outset that it will not teach anyone how to become a successful performer. My approach is theoretical, historical, and critical, and I write from the point of view of a voyeur in the audience. Terry Eagleton has remarked that such writing ought to produce bad actors. Perhaps he is correct, but my own aim is simply to make readers conscious of behavior they usually take for granted.

At a certain level, of course, we easily recognize the flourishes, emotional intensities, and expressive nuances of acting in the movies—indeed we are supposed to recognize them. Even so, the most interesting figures on the screen often look “natural,” as if they were merely lending themselves to the manipulations of script, camera, and editing; the work they do is variable and vague, and critics usually discuss them as personalities rather than as craftspeople. This potentially contradictory attitude is significant, suggesting that the very technique of film acting has ideological importance. After all, one purpose of ideology (as defined by most contemporary theory), is to seem the most natural thing in the world, understandable only in terms of common sense. In the book that follows, therefore, I have tried to analyze conventions of filmed performance in some detail, isolating them both at points where they are obvious and at points where they are relatively invisible. By such means I hope to reveal buried, paradoxical assumptions about society and the self.

I hope also to indicate something about the theatrical quality of movies and of ideology in general—an issue that has been neglected in criticism . . .

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