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Four Directors Who Torture Their Actors, from Hitch to Trier (CLIPS)

Features
by Ryan Lattanzio
March 25, 2014 5:13 PM
14 Comments
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Lars von Trier
Lars von Trier

It's no secret that Lars von Trier pushes his actresses to the edge-- and sometimes all the way over. A director's commitment to wringing the most out of their actors dates back to another vainglorious Von: Eric von Stroheim ("Greed") was notorious for using offscreen acrimony to get what he wanted onscreen, while the lengths Abdellatif Kechiche took to achieve the three-hour intimacies of "Blue is the Warmest Color" made Léa Seydoux and newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos the first actors to share the Palme d'Or with their writer-director.

Here are four directors who stop at nothing to wring performances from their actors. 

1. Lars von Trier

From enslaving Nicole Kidman in "Dogville," taking the scissors to Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist" or fashioning Emily Watson the patron saint of selfless S&M in "Breaking the Waves," the dastardly Dane asks a lot of his women. But that's because they're actually playing him, or some abstract version of his twisted Id. Women in von Trier psychodramas are the keepers of his gloomy worldview.

His latest film "Nymphomaniac" is no exception to the rule. Von Trier shoots Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who're both playing detached sex addict Joe at various stages in her lusty life, from all angles: naked, shabby, bleeding, whipped, screwed, choked, what-have-you. But like all his female characters, the women have more agency than they're given credit for. How could you argue that by the apocalyptic end of "Dogville," for example, Nicole Kidman's Grace isn't calling the shots? 

Antichrist

Aside from an appearance here or there in her partner Matthew Barney's experimental films, singer Bjork famously called it quits from acting after completing "Dancer in the Dark," where she was known to disappear from the set and, according to von Trier himself, tell him every day when she got to work in the morning how much she hated him and spit at him. She reportedly ate a sweater out of frustration.

But the film won both the Palme d'Or and Best Actress at Cannes -- as von Trier's leads often do at the French fest (Gainsbourg for "Antichrist," Kirsten Dunst for "Melancholia"). And it would appear that von Trier has softened a bit, since Gainsbourg has thrice now been up to the task of embodying his misanthropic characters. Clearly she loves the work. In a recent New York Magazine profile, Gainsbourg seems worried about whether he will direct her again or not.

2. Darren Aronofsky

Quite a bit of actor/director sadomasochism also goes down on the set of Aronofsky films and you don't have to read a New Yorker profile to get it. Aronofsky, who swings back and forth between indie maverick and studio auteur, also demanded much from Ellen Burstyn ("Requiem for a Dream"), Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan"). Clearly the filmmaking was hard on their bodies, which become more emaciated, battered and bloodied as the films progress. The abuse shows, but the actors delivered. All three went on to Oscar nominations, and a win for Portman.

Aronofsky's bravura camera, by operating tightly in eye-level close-ups and handheld tracking shots, is in its own way a kind of torture, capturing the emotional topography of his subjects down to the microlevel of the facial cue. Similarly, Lars von Trier shoots off the hip as in the largely handheld "Melancholia," holding the camera off its axis and unflatteringly close to leads Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. When shots are that in-your-face, and when your director is that demanding of you, the methods of madness are torturous.

Details of onset actor-wrangling are well-documented in Tad Friend's much passed-around profile of Aronofsky and the making of "Noah." Stars of the diluvian epic were practically waterlogged onset. Explosives were used in close proximity to actors by Aronofsky and his crew without practice and with cavalier carelessness. In an Aronofsky film, what you're seeing is real, because even in the distorted fairyland of "Black Swan" or the Biblical bombast of "Noah," it's always realism that he wants to achieve. In worlds as allegorical as those posed by von Trier and Aronofsky, where violent emotion is the bedrock, such tactile believability is, shall I say, paramount, in winning the audience.

Hitchcock

3. Alfred Hitchcock

Amid their widely known feud, Tippi Hedren has Alfred Hitchcock to thank for starting, and then more or less killing, her career. In 1961, Hitch spotted the blonde beauty in a beverage commercial and immediately signed her on for a seven-year contract that yielded two psychosexual thrillers: "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964).

Hitchcock made a hell of Hedren's life on the set of "The Birds." She has called him obsessive and a stalker, as dramatized in HBO's dour "The Girl." For the film's climactic scene, where Hedren heads, for reasons unknown, to the second story of the film's Bodega Bay homestead, Hitchcock had his crew hurl live birds at the actress rather than the fake ones they'd been using all along. The cuts and scratches on her face? All real. Her raw terror throughout? That's all real, too.

In "Marnie," Hedren plays a compulsive klepto and habitual liar who gets tossed around like an object from one manhandler to the next. And brewing below the surface is her character's history of rape and other sexual traumas. The film, now a cult oddity in Hitch's filmography, flopped and though it didn't do much for Hedren's career, she regards the performance as her personal favorite.

Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in "The Shining"
Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd in "The Shining"

4. Stanley Kubrick

Another legendarily antagonistic director was Stanley Kubrick, whose exacting methods many critics and viewers confuse for cold obsessiveness when, in fact, they are the labors of love. But his love was for the work, and not his actors. Watch his daughter Vivian Kubrick's "Making of 'The Shining'" and you'll get an intimate sense of her father's productions -- long hours on locations that more or less became the actors' homes, seemingly endless takes and verbal abuse from behind the camera. 

Shelley Duvall, for one, was not happy. In Vivian's documentary, you can see what a mess "The Shining" made of the actress, who plays the wife of a crazed, on-and-off-the-wagon murderer. Behind the scenes, Duvall's hair is falling out, a crumbled tissue is stuffed in her nose, and she's screaming mad at Kubrick. And for all her efforts, Duvall was slapped with a Razzie nomination and only a handful of editorial accolades. A pity, because she's brilliant. The performance manifests all the fear, exhaustion and misery that was going on.

When such torturous professional relationships exist for the sake of a shimmering work of art, and when in the end the actress gives the greatest performance in her life -- as many of these actors have admitted after the fact -- maybe torture has its purpose.

14 Comments

  • Jen Lackland | April 29, 2014 1:05 AMReply

    Navel to Neck is a great song.

  • pepek | April 27, 2014 1:45 AMReply

    eek

  • Shitface | April 25, 2014 2:23 AMReply

    You fckers!! helllo from school !

  • Dannie | March 31, 2014 1:19 AMReply

    Alfred Hitchcock was in love with Hedren.

  • cadavra | March 28, 2014 3:09 PMReply

    James Cameron, Michael Bay, Michael Mann (reportedly over 100 people quit or were fired on the MIAMI VICE feature) and William Friedkin are also well-known to treat their casts and crews like crap. Going back to the old days, people like Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Michael Curtiz and Sam Peckinpah were legendary tyrants.

    On the other hand, the Hitchcock/Hedren thing is a bit of an anomaly. The likes of Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck would not have worked with him repeatedly if he were that awful, regardless of how successful he was.

  • PM | April 3, 2014 2:15 PM

    I agree with you on the Hitchcock thing, but couldn't the same be said about James Cameron. Michael Biehn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Paxton, and although they're not actors James Horner and Stan Winston have all worked with him multiple times.

  • tyler4all | March 27, 2014 11:10 AMReply

    Now compare the work of these directors with that of actor-directors like Robert Duvall and Clint Eastwood, seasoned actors who know what it takes to get a good performance out of an actor They don't berate or torture their actors. They don't do 100 takes. They simply create an atmosphere in which an actor can work freely. blah, I'm over everyone's adulation for the obsessive, control-freak directors mentioned in this article. Torturing someone in real life and then capturing their misery is not acting or directing. Getting inside a character's head, imagining a life wholly unlike your own and embodying that, now that's real storytelling.

  • salvador | March 26, 2014 9:04 PMReply

    stanley kubrick es un director sobrevalorado defectuoso y aprovechador del talento ajeno

  • Beryl | March 26, 2014 2:18 PMReply

    FOUR!? That's all you could come up with? You need to get out more.

    Now how about a piece called, "Four Critics Who Torture The General Public"?

  • Barney | March 27, 2014 1:43 PM

    Dozens more Ryan- could you list just a few as you know dozens more to prove that is not bullshit. Also, could you name any female directors who torture their actors. PS point to consider when you glibly suggest the torture helped the work- those actresses may have turned in those performances DESPITE what they had to put up with from the director. Just sayin'

  • Ryan Lattanzio | March 26, 2014 2:40 PM

    Yes, there are dozens more. But I am but one writer, thus I chose four directors I especially love and know well.

  • Brian | March 26, 2014 11:38 AMReply

    I don't think any finished work justifies this kind of behavior from a director. If you can't get the performance you want from the actor voluntarily and in completely safe conditions, then either you or the actor don't belong there. In the case of von Trier and Aronofsky, I can certainly do without their films. In the case of Kubrick and THE SHINING, he certainly could have gotten an actress of stature who could have done that part the way he wanted without being subjected to verbal abuse and the movie wouldn't have suffered. (Not that it's such a great movie, either.) Certainly, THE BIRDS is not a better movie because of the abuse heaped on Miss Hedren. What I don't understand in that case is why the crew didn't rebel and simply refuse to use the live birds. They would have been well within their rights and their union would have backed them up.

  • SK | March 26, 2014 5:18 AMReply

    If you think the Stanley Kubrick from "Making of The Shining" was anything more than a character he wanted you to see, you're fooling yourself

  • Dan | March 25, 2014 9:19 PMReply

    Hey Ryan, thanks for the read. Oh, the life of an actor. Since you write about films, I'd love your feedback on an iPhone app I've just had built. The plan is to evolve it but i'm trying to validate the idea. Would really appreciate you taking a look. i can't add a link because it's considered spam but it's called BooksFilmsBands (iPhone only). Thanks!

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