Styles of Performance

From the 1950s onwards, Hollywood screen acting was influenced by the approach established by Constantin Stanislavski (developed further by Lee Strasberg) know as “the Method”. This approach to performance involved the actor drawing upon their own emotional memory to embody the truth of their performed character. In comparison, another approach, developed by Bertolt Brecht, emphasised the way an actor demonstrated a character from the outside, rather than embody the character completely.

The Stanislavskian and Brechtian approaches relate to the forms of performance outlined by film theorist, James Naremore. One of Naremore’s forms was representational, where the actor would appear to be behaving in the manner in which they believed the character would behave. The other form was presentational, which encompassed a more thespian approach to performance. In this case, the actor was seen as a performer rather than a character. The majority of actors in Hollywood musicals adopt a presentational style of performance as this relates to the traditional theatrical presentations of musicals.

The actors in Singin’ in the Rain perform in a presentational manner that was representative of the Hollywood studio style, or Broadway repertory style, from the 1920s. In comparison, in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), the performers represent a modernised form or presentational performance by engaging in an imaginative environment rather than a theatrical, stage-like environment.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka

In a world where Wonka chocolate is regarded as the purest indulgence, the magical creator, Willy Wonka, hides five golden tickets in his candy bars that enable the winners to enter his mysterious and secretive chocolate factory. By using a more presentational or Brechtian style of performance, Gene Wilder’s, Willy Wonka. acts as a mystical ringleader guiding the winners through his chocolate sanctuary.

At times, Wilder gives a calm and subdued performance. This makes it difficult for audiences to engage with the inner thoughts of his character. The reasoning behind Wonka’s secretive nature becomes apparent in the final scene however, where he reveals that the five children were actually competing in a test of honesty and commitment.

In order to analyse the significance of performance, John O. Thompson, used a method known as the “commutation test”. This test involved the critical comparison of a performance by hypothetically substituting the performer. Although the commutation test could be applied to a number of imaginative substitutions, remakes of films have enabled more defined comparisons.

Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka

Thompson’s commutation test can be applied to compare Gene Wilder’s 1970s, Willy Wonka, with Johnny Depp’s, 2000s version. Both actors represent the mysterious characteristics of Wonka’s persona, but in two marginally different manners. While Wilder’s unnatural calmness contributed to Wonka’s mystifying character, Depp used a distinctively unnatural intonation in his voice and eclectic mannerisms in his movements to create an eccentric performance.

It is important to note how the futuristic mise-en-scene, the advanced camera technologies and the overt costuming inevitably contribute to Depp’s enhanced performance. However, it is Depp’s performing skills that offer a unique insight into the world of Wonka.

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