JULIE HARRIS looked at all the elements, then boiled it down to see what would work and what wouldn’t work. Even when she had a role that was ‘off,’ she brought a greater truth to the situation. She put her unique stamp on roles, regardless of the genre. She never served the plot. She used the plot to gain insights about character and make us relate to her and what her character was going through. I can never tell if Julie Harris brought something from her own life into the roles she played, or if Julie Harris took something from each role and applied it to her own real life.
JEAN ARTHUR had to be the sweetest movie star of all time. Painfully shy in real life, and someone who didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, Jean radiated a fragile warmth on screen. She also had a knack for picking good material, good directors and good costars. She made more classic films than most.
JEAN HARLOW took a monologue and turned it into a long run-on sentence. Then she delivered it in one breath. She would pivot, look at her costar and get ready for the next rapid-fire delivery. At the same time, she used her mind to absorb the plight of the character and exaggerate it for comic effect. She must’ve had attention deficit disorder, way before it was ever diagnosed in people.
MARION DAVIES was unrivaled in terms of concentration. She lived inside the world of each of her characters. A lot of actors break ‘the fourth wall.’ They do it consciously when they look at the director (because they think the camera is not on them); or unconsciously, because they are aware of the mechanics of storytelling, and are not fully experiencing the story from the character’s point of view. But with Marion, there was a total suspension of outside reality, in an effort to concentrate on make-believe and turn it into something real.
HELEN HAYES did scorching pre-code roles early in her screen career. Later she graduated to neurotic women in social message dramas. Then in the last phase of her career, she played warm character parts. It doesn’t matter what stage of Helen Hayes’ career you look at, because she was consistently good through the years. She used the hysterics of the plot to convey a real, subtle moment of understanding for the character. She would bring it up full-throttle, then she slowly lowered the boom.
LUISE RAINER brought multiple realities to the screen. She liked to combine the ideas of past writers and directors and superimpose it on to her current performance. She was very deliberate in this process, and earned two Oscars for her efforts. In an episode of The Love Boat where she plays a woman and her doppelgänger, you can see how she creates a distinct philosophy for each of her characters.