How Open Sobbing Ruins Acting (for me)

Tonight, I watched The Descendants, an interesting film featuring George Clooney as the “back up Dad” trying to hold his family together as his wife lies dying in a hospital after a tragic boating accident.  It’s a relatively strong film that’s well-acted and emotionally packed.

Except for one moment.

There’s a scene about one-third into the film where a family friend receives unexpectedly heartbreaking news… and she immediately bursts into open weeping.  Immediately.  Without hesitation.  IMMEDIATELY.


I just don’t buy that human emotion can swing that quickly.  There are circumstances when the energy of a location, like a courtroom, is so charged that an emotional outburst holds ground.  Generally, however, there must be a transient place between the receipt of shocking news and its interpretation.  This can take the form of almost any other emotion: denial, bargaining, waiting for the punchline, ANYTHING.  Anything but the open, guttural, ugly cry that usually involves at least one hand covering the mouth.

The interest for me, as an audience member, is in the conflict of the soul.  The fight within.  The desire to control the emotion, to remember the boundaries.  To remember the OBSTACLE.  The character wants to sob, yet the timing, the people, or the place are inappropriate.  Or even more interesting – the tears won’t come.

A tear in the eye is worth ten on the cheek.

Unless you’re doing Chekhov.  Then weep away.

2 thoughts on “How Open Sobbing Ruins Acting (for me)

  1. Hmmm.
    (I haven’t seen The Descendants, but…)
    Begging your leave to disagree, milady. I think that any person that has “tripped the boards” would agree with your sentiment. Control, poise, searching the moment for its “gravity”, all of these are things that I think an actor (on stage) would hope for, because those actions/reactions bear such great power when you are in the presence of an unknowing audience.

    I’ve heard terrible news before, and I’ve openly wept. I’ve heard wonderful news, and openly wept. My initial reaction was not to hope that I could control what I was feeling at that moment, it was (what I believe to be) an honest and immediate reaction. I think it’s jarring to see in a movie, because we don’t want to see it. It is unattractive. It is maudlin. It is life, sometimes.

    Don’t get me wrong, Lady Baker. You know me, I’m a sucker for holding the moment. But I think that in those rare, truly heartbreaking moments of action in the human heart, what your eyes do, and what your brain tells you to do are the most honest reactions filmmakers can hope for.

    Ps. She could have also been forced to do that. Directors can make actors do anything. Anything…Use your power wisely.

  2. No, you may not disagree! (openly weeps)

    I hear what you are saying, and I’m all for true, honest reactions. Perhaps a ban on all weeping is too strong. I just ask for the little (it can be so tiny!) moment between the unknowing and the knowing. The transition doesn’t have to be milked. But there has to be something, yes?

    For example, I saw a play a while back where several characters entered the stage to discover the dead body of a beloved, only to jump straight to emotion without some sort of moment of putting the pieces together. I assume there would be a variance of reactions to such a particular scene but it just turned into weeping and gnashing of teeth. They emoted so much, the audience really didn’t need to do any work. Where was the crack in the planet?

    In truth, I hardly ever blame actors for the faults of a production. No one can recognize the stink of bad direction better than a director!

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