Film actors have a genius for developing various stratagems to maximize their face-time on screen.
Common among those thespians with sufficient clout is suddenly discovering that the script needs to be rewritten, in ways that, astoundingly enough, significantly increase the number of lines, closeups, and other assorted shots afforded the discoverer. Dustin Hoffman is said to be master of this facet of the craft.
Then there are the practitioners of “the rugby school of film acting,” as director Terry Gilliam once put it, actors who physically fight for space. Gilliam describes watching Italian actress Valentina Cortese engage in such manuevers during the making of his film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen:
[W]herever the camera was pointed she knew exactly where the cross-hairs were, so that in scenes with lots of people she would always be dead centre. The other actors used to complain to me that she was kicking and elbowing them out of the way to get to the centre of the shot. Valentina got her comeuppance on her very last day, when we were shooting the scene where she enters with the headless king. That day there was a Swiss documentary crew doing a piece on her and she was being wonderfully grand, but the girl who was playing the king’s headless body was pushing and shoving her mercilessly. Suddenly she sank to the floor, sobbing, “Terry, make her stop, I can’t stand this.”
Klaus Kinski, the late German actor described by his frequent collaborator, director Werner Herzog, as “a monster and a great pestilence,” devised unique and unnerving ways to enter the frame. Says Herzog:
There was the “Kinski Spiral” for example, something I talk about with photographer Beat Presser in My Best Fiend. When you enter the frame from the side, showing your profile and then face the camera, there is no tension, so whenever there was a reason for it, Kinski would make his appearance from directly behind the camera. Say Kinski wanted to spin into frame from the left. He would position himself next to the camera, with his left foot next to the tripod. Then he would step over the tripod with the right leg, twisting the foot inward. The whole body would organically unwind before the camera, allowing him to smoothly spin into frame. It really did create a mysterious and disturbing tension. By the way, there is also a move called “Kinski’s Double Spiral” where the initial movement is followed by a counter-spin, but I could never explain it to you in words. It is complex stuff.
Kinski, shown above in script conference with Herzog during the filming of Cobra Verde, was also the undisputed king of sucking face-time from his co-stars by employing weighty, endlessly elongated silences, before, during, and after lines.
Pre-Kinski, Laurence Olivier believed himself prince of such perfidy. Until, during the filming of Spartacus, he encountered puckish Peter Ustinov.
Ustinov describes their battle of the hams in his memoir Dear Me:
One of my first scenes with Larry Olivier consisted in my rushing up to his horse as it cavorted among a huge mass of prisoners-of-war, grabbing its bridle, and gazing up at its immaculate rider: “If I identify Spartacus for you, Divinity, will you give me the women and children?” I said, in the character of the sleazy slave dealer.
There followed the most enormous pause while Larry let his eyes disappear upwards under his half-open lids, licked his lips, pushing at his cheeks from within with his tongue, let his head drop with a kind of comic irony at the quirks of destiny, hardened once again into the mould of mortal divinity, looked away into the unknown as his profile softened from brutal nobility into subtlety. “Spartacus!” he suddenly cried, as though slashing the sky with a razor, and then hissed, “You have found him?”
I was so absolutely staggered at the extent of the pause that I expressed precisely the surprise I felt. Now I gazed over the prisoners with a closed expression, giving nothing away. Then I let a furtive smile play on my lips for a moment at some private thought, chasing it away, and seemed about to say something, but changed my mind. I ran the gamut of impertinence, of servility, and of insincerity as he had of vanity, power, and menace. At long last, when he least expected it, I let a practically inaudible “Yes” slip from my mouth.
“Dear boy,” said Larry, in a business-like voice which ill-concealed a dawning annoyance, “d’you think you could come in a little quicker with your Yes?”
“No,” I said politely.
We both looked at each other straight in the eye, and smiled at the same moment.
Ustinov can be seen below re-enacting this exchange—for Jack Paar, and an appreciative audience—complete with viciously accurate Olivier vocal mimicry.
Spartacus also featured Charles Laughton; Ustinov writes in Dear Me that Laughton felt abused by Olivier, and so “decided to sulk, an activity at which he was particularly adept. He refused to act the scenes given him, and I was solicited by the management to try and bridge the gap by finding out what he wanted.”
Olivier regarded all his fellow actors as unworthy upstarts to be defeated and humiliated, and he was capable of anything to secure victory. Olivier once succeeded in keeping the extremely shy and self-conscious John Gielgud, a closeted gay man, out of the movies for nearly 20 years, by airily observing that Gielgud’s walk, up there on the big screen, looked “prissy.” Ustinov delicately passes over what might have been exchanged between Olivier and Laughton, but since Laughton too was a closeted gay man, it is possible that on this occasion Oliver went there as well.
In any event, Ustinov succeeded in keeping the film on the rails by “rewr[iting] all the scenes I had with Laughton[;] we rehearsed at his home or mine, often slogging away into the middle of the night. The next day, we rearranged the studio furniture to conform with what we had engineered at home, and presented the company with a fait accompli: [director Stanley] Kubrick accepted what we had done more or less without modification, and the scenes were shot in half a day each. Laughton was easy to work with, in that he overflowed with an almost carnal glee at the process of acting.”
That glee can be seen in the clip below, which offers Ustinov and Laughton in their finest Spartacus scene together. Ustinov was an immensely talented man, in many fields, and was never really used properly by Hollywood. Among his other gifts, Ustinov was a beautiful writer, and the same hand that penned the excerpts of Dear Me quoted above can be easily perceived behind the lines uttered by these two men. The scene is wonderfully done, but it is also barely within the movie, offering, more than anything else, two good, knowing, charmingly dissolute hams, getting on well together.