For most movie fans, the actors are the main attraction – and throughout the history of movies, movie stars have been worshipped by the general public.  For anyone more aware of the movie-making process, however, actors are a part of a complex craft.  Even if their contribution is central to most films, there are myriad other elements that work together to create a film.

In this lesson, continue your look at acting, deconstructing some iconic performances to understand more clearly the actors’ role, along with the filmic details that mediate their work.

Watch this excellent video analysis explaining how British actor Alan Rickman became a big star as a result of his nuanced performance in Die Hard (1988).

Here’s a useful exercise:

For the two scenes below, make two lists.  First, in point form, list everything you can guess the ACTOR is contributing to the scene – their physical looks and the sound of their voice, but also the way they move, the way they speak, every nuance of their actions you can see.  Sometimes, actors are even bringing their public image or offscreen reputation to the film!

On another list, put down everything the filmmakers are doing to aid the actor’s performance and integrate it into the overall film.  That would include the costume – often a big part of how we perceive a character – the hairdo and makeup, the lighting, where the camera is placed (how close, what angle, etc), how the scene is edited (and what we see at what moment), and what can be heard in the soundtrack.  Along with the actor’s contributions, all these additional elements help us to understand and feel what is going on in the scene.  The Oscar may go to the star, but their work has usually been enhanced tremendously by a talented director and their support team.

When you have completed your list, click on the link below to compare to MY list.  Watch the scene again if you’d like!  Get started by studying classically-trained Anthony Hopkins in his famous first appearance in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and look for the ways director Jonathan Demme and his crew have made that performance part of a memorable scene.

WARNING: Disturbing content!

The film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, released in 2017, tells the story of a woman who has lost her daughter – a victim of a murder which has not been followed up by the local law force.  In frustration, the woman eventually pays for three billboards which she hopes will publicly shame the police into doing something.

In this scene, Frances McDormand speaks to a deer – a clever device that enables her to perform this touching soliloquy.  Again, try making two lists, and separate what the actress is doing from what the filmmakers are doing.  Compare your lists to mine by clicking the link below.


In the scene below, compare the performances of two great screen actors – method actor Rod Steiger, and Sidney Poitier, first black actor in history to win a Best Actor Oscar.  The film is Canadian director Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, ostensibly a crime story but one which looks powerfully at racism in America.  Watch closely to see how the two actors use voice, body language, gestures, and much more – in short, everything in their repertoire – to create these diametrically opposed characters whose friction with one another is the film’s central premise.


Have a look at the two clips below.  Actor Robert Duvall plays a country & western songwriter who is a recovering alcoholic, in Tender Mercies (1983).  The film is a quiet, understated story in naturalistic style by Australian director Bruce Beresford, and Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for his believable and soft-spoken performance.  Below it, Duvall raises the intensity of his acting as the exaggerated Captain Kilgore, a gung-ho helicopter squadron leader in Vietnam, in one of the outrageous scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s grandiose, operatic, and highly expressionistic Apocalypse Now (1979).

Below are two wonderful scenes from 1976’s big hit, Network, written by playwright Paddy Chayevsky and directed by Sidney Lumet.  The film is a dark satirical look at the rise of corporate culture in America, seen through the experiences of a television network intent on raising their ratings, even at the cost of their integrity.  British actor Peter Finch died after shooting the film, but won a posthumous Oscar for his starring role as the newscaster-turned-mad messiah.  His “I’m mad as hell” scene is one of the iconic moments of cinema!

In the second scene, it is Ned Beatty who shines, masterfully delivering the sharp Chayevsky speech with a variety of techniques, ranging from a preacher-like ranting to a seductive whisper.