"A little less," said Wilder

Directors often ask actors to underplay closer shots, because too much facial movement translates into mugging or overacting. Billy Wilder once asked Jack Lemmon for “a little less” so many takes in a row that Lemmon finally exploded: “Whaddya want! Nothing?” Lemmon recalls that Wilder raised his eyes to heaven: “Please God!”


— Roger Ebert, in an essay on Dr. Strangelove


Sometimes I wonder about the term “over-acting”. There are so many examples all over the place. The scenes that I find really effective most often are the ones where little is said or done, but much is accomplished. The scene in Deepa Mehta’s Earth that I spoke of in an earlier post is a prime example. You don’t see Aamir Khan doing much. And yet, he leaves you shaken.


And then I think about someone like Arjun Rampal. Most of the time, that guy does nothing as well. What’s the difference? Why is Aamir Khan’s nothing better than Arjun Rampal’s nothing?

I guess the difference lies in two things. One, when Aamir does nothing, it’s a contrast to the scenes where he has done something and done it well, so we interpret it differently. The other big difference is in the way a scene is set up. When Lenny betrays Shanta unwittingly to Dil Navaz, everything else we have already scene or heard lets us know the magnitude of the situation. If the audience already knows what to feel, getting out of the way and letting them feel it themselves is far more effective than actually trying to “do” something. That is why, for instance, I was less than impressed with Kamal Hassan’s antics in the railway station in the closing moments of Moondram Pirai – I felt he had destroyed all that had come before it by trying too much.


4 thoughts on “"A little less," said Wilder

  1. randramble says:

    Interesting to see a new point of view about Kamal in Moondram Pirai. I don’t agree with you though. Any man would do so out of desperation.

  2. Ramsu says:

    It was one way to go, I think, but not the only way. I don’t think any man would have done that.

    This is not take anything away from how well he did that scene. Did he do it well? Yes, I think he did. Could he have done it differently, more quietly but with intensity? I think so. And he could still have been effective.

    I am not against a strong dramatic performance – Kamal did that in Salangai Oli, and that performance still gives me goosebumps. But this one, somehow, hasn’t aged well in my opinion.

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