Critics’ Picks – ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ | The New York Times

A. O. Scott looks at Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 film starring Burt Lancaster as a powerful gossip columnist and Tony Curtis as an ambitious press agent.

Alexander Mackendrick (September 8, 1912 – December 22, 1993) was an AmericanScottish director and teacher. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and later moved to Scotland. He began making television commercials before moving into post-production editing and directing films, most notably for Ealing Studios where his films include Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955).

After his first American film Sweet Smell of Success (1957), his career as a director declined and he became Dean of the CalArts School of Film/Video in California. He was the cousin of the Scottish writer Roger MacDougall.[1]

Filmmaking Philosophy

In an interview[7] he said, “Hearing the lines, hearing the playing of the lines in your mind’s ears, and seeing the performance in your mind’s eye, is the essence of filmmaking. The other thing—getting it on the screen—is the medium; film begins between the ears and under the hair of one character, and ends between the ears and under the scalpel of the audience.”

On Acting

“I’ve concentrated most of my energies on this particular program, which I like very much indeed, which is to take the make-believe of acting and working with actor, and requiring people who will develop behind the camera to be in front of the camera, requiring the directors to learn about working with actors, by being actors, by knowing what it means to be inside the skin of an actor”, he said in his interview.[7]

On Writing

“Imagination after all is the making of images. In the case of dramatic imagination it means the capacity to see an image from this point-of-view and then switch to another point-of-view. Without that playfulness of leaping points of view, you don’t have somebody who has the impulse to become a dramatic writer”, he said in his interview.[7]

On Directing

“It is really essential for the director, who is going to work with actors, to have attempted acting and to have learned the problems of the actor from inside, from the actor’s point-of-view and not the director’s point-of-view. Because you’ll learn things there, what you must never again do to an actor… I think the directors who are insensitive to the performers are really bad directors”, he said in his interview.[7]

Getting an actor to do what you want

Once a student persistently asked him,[7] “How do you get an actor to do what you want?” After persuasion he replied, “You don’t. You get an actor to want what you need. What the director must do is, provide the actor with the encouragement to be what the director needs him to be. There is a reason why you are doing this. It is simple, almost too simple.

“What you do as a director is that you fall in love with the actor in the role. Note that I say, in the role. You’ve got to get yourself infatuated, to a degree that you find yourself besottedly adoring the actor while he is inside the role, as you feel it… If the actor moves outside [the role], what you do, consciously or unconsciously, is you dim the beams of your love, and the actor feels cold and they move back into your love. It is emotional blackmail, on a very good cause. [Hence] before you can control an actor, the thing that you have to control is your self and your own feelings.”

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