Smoking and “Business”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There have been attempts to create new business, some successful, some not. George Raft repetitiously flipped a coin in Scarface and looked cool and smart. Bogart’s Captain Queeg rolled those little steel balls, and as the picture progressed, you did not even have to see them; they became the sound of Queeg’s mind breaking down. But there are only so many devices that can be manipulated without becoming a distraction. In The Cheyenne Social Club Henry Fonda repeatedly cracked large nuts that looked like pecans but made a loud snap like a finger being broken. This rapidly went from distracting to irritating.

Business in films is part of the legacy of theater, where it is the crutch of nervous neophytes and the cherished tool of veteran scene-stealers. In the hierarchical and authoritarian Hollywood of the thirties and forties, when studio executives controlled every aspect of the image, they often even controlled the most minor bits of physical business and ad-libbing. Meanwhile New York stage actors involved in the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio were leading a movement to gain more control of their performances. “The Method” was about the actor’s deciding for himself the essence of the character, including its tics and habits. A pivotal moment in modern acting was Marion Brando’s portrayal of the volatile and charismatic Stanley Kowalski in the original New York production of A Streetcar Named Desire . Brando used business to achieve his remarkable characterization and to keep it fresh. During a quiet scene with Kim Hunter (“Stel-la!”) , he would delicately pick a piece of imaginary lint off her dress, from a different spot each night. Brando repeated the performance one last time in the movie version and demonstrated that Method acting was ideal for the psychologically informed films that were emerging after World War II. The basic techniques became the core curriculum for almost every serious American actor and actress to emerge thereafter, right up to the present time. And smoking has followed right along. Anne Bancroft’s long, thin cigarettes in The Graduate gave her a cool and debauched air, while Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy sucked his butts as if they could ward off the cold and hunger; Glint Eastwood’s cowboy cheroots were the most emotional things in his face, while Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run smoked as if he really needed to relax.

So don’t expect screen smokers to be forced out into the parking lot to light up. As long as actors need something to fidget with and directors see dead space in a scene, there will be business. But there is hope that an obsessive actor or director will discover some new bit of business to replace smoking. DeMille, for one, was always looking for something “fresh,” some bit of business he had never seen before. The screenwriter Jesse Lasky, Jr., tells in his memoir Whatever Happened to Hollywood? of his travails in trying to come up with a unique bit of business for the villain Brian Donlevy in Union Pacific . He thought of having him pick his teeth with a bowie knife, bend gold coins in his hands, build houses of cards. “DeMille even took to phoning me in the middle of the night. No hellos. No apologies. Only the cold nocturnal ear-stab of the phone and the rasping voice, slightly nasal, insisting, demanding, ‘What does Donlevy do with his hands?’ . . . Rude possibilities suggested themselves.”

DeMille rejected every suggestion until Lasky chanced upon having Donlevy dip his cigar in a glass of whiskey before lighting it. This improbable shtick finally impressed DeMille and got his writer off the hook, but it never became classic business.

So the search continues. With the end of production on “Seinfeld,” we probably have lost our best hope of a major breakthrough with Jujyfruits, but somewhere in Hollywood some latter-day Lasky or DeMille is sitting up late pondering: pick, bend, crack, scratch, chew, dip, flip, draw, twirl . . . what does he do with his hands?