Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances

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by Lincoln Flynn
June 14, 2013 8:37 AM
3 Comments
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The notion of an actor “playing him/herself” is slippery. When expressed, it implies that we really know the performer when we probably don’t; we just know their often-employed stage or screen persona. But also, it suggests that there is something easy, automatic and unskilled about an actor’s “being him/herself” when, in fact, being one’s self in an artificial and contrived situation or scenario really isn’t a cakewalk.

Maybe when we say that an actor “just plays him/herself," what we mean to say is that an actor has grown (perhaps too) comfortable in their craft. And under this description fall many renowned older actors: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Christopher Walken, and, not least of these, Alan Arkin. Yet what’s interesting in Arkin’s case is that, unlike those other stars, he seems largely exempt from being criticized or lampooned for “playing himself,” probably because many do not mind him doing so (including myself). When he won an Oscar for his supporting turn in 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine—in which he was part of an ensemble cast and not on screen that much—it was as though he was receiving one of the highest rewards in his profession for doing what only he can do best: play “Alan Arkin,” and as a flawed yet lovable grandpa to boot. And when he was Oscar-nominated for his supporting part in Argo, it was as though he was being recognized for playing “Alan Arkin” as a gruff, scheming, yet noble movie producer (thereby giving the archetype of the Hollywood insider-- something that many AMPAS members must be—a somewhat positive spin).

Yet what’s also interesting is that, like some of the other actors mentioned, Arkin broke through by giving screen performances that, to various degrees, required him to be characters that he clearly wasn’t. As evidenced in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming; Wait Until Dark; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, he was once a chameleon-like new screen talent and not just “himself.”

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Before his first major screen role in The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! (1966, dir. Norman Jewison), Arkin had been an early member of the improvisational theater troupe Second City and acted in Broadway shows like Enter Laughing and Luv. But while he has experience with, for lack of a better term, traditional acting, he considers himself to be an “improvisatory actor” and his performance in TRACTRAC is indicative of that tendency. As Rozanov—a Russian lieutenant who has to lead a “covert” emergency landing party into a coastal New England town after his captain runs their submarine vessel aground (which then leads to a panicked community, which in turn leads to hijinks)—Arkin’s controlled, well-timed and humorous spontaneity stands out and conveys the character’s professionalism as well as his beleaguered state (something that would become a hallmark of his general screen persona). And because much of the Rozanov role is spoken in non-subtitled Russian, the performance often relies on effective yet subtle facial expressions, gesticulation and vocal inflections. These acting choices render Rozanov a believable person as well as a source of comedy.

While warmly received upon its release by critics and audiences for humanizing and relativizing the Cold War conflict during a period of Red Scare fatigue, TRACTRAC has become a product of its era since the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. As a consequence, its flaws are more apparent. Intended as both a satire and a farce, many of the other performances come across as only farcical and are reminiscent of the brazen It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, thereby making the overall work of the cast somewhat uneven. And while well meaning, the resolution to a climatic and literal stand off between Russian soldiers and American townfolk is like something out of D.W. Griffith’s early work. Yet, by first portraying Rozanov as a relatable and aggrieved man caught in a tough situation, Arkin’s work in the film preserves some of its universal and non-jingoistic message. Also, it demonstrates a quality of his acting style that is evident elsewhere in his early work and that has been attributed to others who have had similar improvisational training: even as he gets your attention, he still functions as a team player within an ensemble. Remarkably but deservedly, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for this debut performance.

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His next major role after TRACTRAC was something more sinister. As the psychotic criminal Harry Roat, the big bad in the screen adaptation of the Frederick Knott play Wait Until Dark (1967, dir. Terence Young), Arkin is almost unrecognizable: wearing dark teashade sunglasses, a short bowl-cut and a leather coat, and speaking “hip” in a creepy staccato, he is an original nightmare hipster.    

WUD was shot as Arkin was becoming a known quantity, and retroactively knowing that it’s him only gives the performance an uncanny quality. Yet Roat is so awry and menacing that it’s easy to overlook that he is a huge source of exposition. For instance: while entrapping two con men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) into helping him to retrieve a heroin-filled doll from an apartment in which an innocent and blind housewife Susy (Audrey Hepburn) lives, Roat explains the story’s set-up in the film’s first sustained scene. When casting such a part, a wise course of action is to hire a talented actor who is able to make a contrived, unreal situation feel believable to an audience, and the complicated set-up in WUD is one that could have seemed more incredible when translated from the stage to screen. But Arkin makes it work, and with panache.

Some critics at the time of WUD’s release considered Arkin’s performance as Roat to be too much: Roger Ebert wrote that it’s “not particularly convincing” and Bosley Crowther went as far to compare it to a Jerry Lewis caricature. This point of view is fair if WUD is understood as something approximating realism. But if WUD is understood as something akin to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, then the performance—which also uses the actor’s skill of spontaneity not to get laughs but to unnerve—succeeds: Roat is a big movie villain who would feel at home in a Tarantino film due to his theatrical, idiosyncratic nature. Also, the jump-scare in WUD’s climax—which actually involves both a jump and a scare—must be mentioned; it is one of the all-time best in film, and the crooked and swift physicality of Arkin’s animalistic leap during the moment is much of what makes it effective.



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Based on the eponymous Carson McCullers novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968, dir. Robert Ellis Miller) stars Arkin as John Singer, a deaf mute who relocates to Jefferson, Georgia to be closer to his developmentally disabled and committed friend Spiros (Chuck McCann). As a result, he helps and befriends a small group of people, including music loving teenager Mick (Sandra Loche), a resident of the house where he rents a room.

While different from its source material in some ways, THIALH is a straightforward adaptation that is bolstered by a well-modulated and sensitive dramatic tone. For the most part, the work of the ensemble cast is solid, but—to sound like a broken record—Arkin’s truly understated performance is the standout, and it stands out despite the risk of becoming elusive. Relying on a realistic pantomime as well as sign language and body language, the performance’s subtlety exemplifies and extends the story’s theme of how the hardships, tragedies, kindnesses and kismets of life tend to happen in discrete ways. Singer is a selfless, decent and almost imperceptible altruist who changes lives for the better, but his natural inconspicuousness makes others oblivious to his problems and loneliness, which ultimately causes him misfortune. In other words, Arkin’s heartfelt work in THIALH personifies its title: it earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Ostensibly, Arkin’s performance is notable for creating and sustaining Singer’s early life. Yet upon a close examination, it’s clear that the performance isn’t great because he is physically convincing as mute or because he expresses things in a contained yet clear manner; it’s great because you can tell that he’s genuinely listening to and observing others. Actors will often say that one of, if not the most essential thing to master when you’re learning the craft, is listening to your scene partner or partners. That may seem simple enough, but if you’ve tried acting, you’ve probably realized that really listening to others as you say your lines and hit your marks is a true skill. And if you master it, then you can react to others authentically, which is what goes into most great acting, and which is evident in all three of Arkin’s performances in TRACTRAC, WUD and THIALH.


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In his 2011 memoir An Improvised Life, Arkin wrote that “from the beginning I always thought of myself as a character actor—someone who transfers himself into other people. I had no interest in being myself onstage. In fact, because I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have a clue. I only knew myself as other people.” Yet, as he describes in the book, when his film career ebbed after that initial breakthrough, he had a spiritual shift that was a result of studying Eastern philosophy and practicing meditation. His consciousness and self-knowledge changed, which required him to alter his approach to acting. By his own account, it became more public and vulnerable and, as a result of applying the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin or “beginner’s mind” to his work, less self-controlled and even more spontaneous. In other words, Arkin’s acting style changed due to a period of self-actualization and, incidentally, his screen persona became more identifiable and unique to his actual self, and different from his performances in TRACTRAC, WUD and THIALH.

This suggests an interesting notion: maybe, as a result of maturing and becoming more comfortable with their own selves, some great actors no longer feel a need to “hide behind a mask” within their work. If such is the case, then whenever a DeNiro, Pacino, Nicholson or Walken give a mediocre performance while seeming to be “DeNiro”, “Pacino”, “Nicholson” or “Walken”, they’re probably just coasting and failing to meet their earlier, better standard (i.e. Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, The Deer Hunter)

In Arkin’s case, however, he has remained an interesting and compelling screen presence even if the movie he’s in might be nothing to write home about. As he writes, this consistent quality is deliberate: “for me, every activity I engage in has to contain the possibility of internal growth; otherwise it ends up as either ‘making a living’ or ‘passing the time’—two ways of going through life that feel to me like a living death. I want to know with every passing moment that I am alive, that I am conscious, that with every breath I take there will be some possibility of growth, of surprise, and of complete spontaneity.”

So long live Alan Arkin, as well as “Alan Arkin.”


Holding degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic basis at
http://invisibleworkfilmwritings.tumblr.com. His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.



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3 Comments

  • A D Jameson | August 6, 2013 2:22 AMReply

    Don't forget his cameo in the brilliant "Little Murders" (1971), which Arkin of course also directed.

  • NanksH | June 14, 2013 1:49 PMReply

    I love the way Arkin says, "I cannot negotiate in an atmosphere of distrust" in WUD. It's chilling -- the most memorable line in the film. I try to work it into conversations at the office whenever I can.

    I would add The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a fourth. Letting Nicol Williamson to chew the scenery while he remained calm and reassuring served the role perfectly.

  • Lincoln Flynn | June 14, 2013 2:00 PM

    Nanksh: I also love the Roat line, "may we have weapons on the table?" (And while I want to, it will be harder to work that one into everyday conversation.)

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