In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Acting

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Special Journal Issues
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Glossaries
  • Early Writing on Film Acting
  • Method Acting, Stanislavsky, and Modern Acting
  • Acting and Film Stars: Monographs
  • Acting and Film Stars: Anthologies
  • Acting, Physicality, and Representation
  • Acting and Silent Cinema
  • Acting and Sound/Contemporary Cinema
  • Acting and Television
  • Acting and Digital Media
  • Theories and Histories of Stage Acting
  • Performance Studies
  • Prague Structuralism
  • Human Movement Analysis
  • Actors, Labor, and Politics

Cinema and Media Studies Acting
Cynthia Baron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0001


Perceptions about screen acting have been remarkably polarized: when people give priority to the now-mythical experiment by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov that is supposed to have shown that editing creates film and other mediated performances, it appears there is no real acting in film; when they reckon with the importance of stars and the star system, it seems clear that understanding films necessarily involves an appreciation of screen performances. In the era before cinema was superseded to some degree by television and digital entertainment, distinctions between acting on stage and acting in film seemed paramount. In fact, the film actor’s absence from the physical space occupied by the spectators led theorists to believe that responses to the connotatively rich details of screen performances must be related to other factors. Cine-semiotics proposed, for example, that audience responses to shot-reverse-shot sequences featuring over-the-shoulder medium close-ups of the changing, evocative expressions on actors’ faces were not related to the legible human expressions but were grounded instead in films’ correspondence to psychic experience—specifically, the way seamless continuity editing mirrors the process by which subjectivity arises as an effect of being sutured into language and culture. However, as happenings, installation art, and other unscripted performance art pieces increasingly challenged the logic and legitimacy of traditional theatrical productions, and film acting became one of many types of mediated performance, the parallels between stage and screen acting grew more visible. Observers could see that, in the same way stage performances reflect the diversity of theater practice over time and across the globe, film performances are best understood when considered in light of conventions specific to different time periods, genres, aesthetic movements, production regimes, and national cinemas. Scholars attentive to acting manuals and interviews recognized that performance details in film acquire dramatic significance the same way they do on stage: through their interrelationships with other formal elements in the production, the dramatic facts established by previous scenes, and audiences’ extra-textual associations. Taking the lead from early theorists like Sergei Eisenstein, film scholars have long understood that audience interpretations are based in part on the selection and combination of filmic elements. Today, it is more widely recognized that performance details are elements in that selection and combination process, and that audiences encounter film/media details and the connotatively rich gestures that belong to an actor’s “performance montage” as interrelated components of sign–complexes.

General Overviews

The overviews in this section represent the delimited but remarkably coherent body of writing that has aimed to provide comprehensive analyses of acting in the cinema. It begins with work by the Prague School, in particular Mukařovský 1978 (originally published 1931), which used examples from Chaplin’s performances to illustrate a set of considerations that have proved vital to analyses of acting. Naremore 1988 and Baron and Carnicke 2008 are both grounded at least in part on work by Prague School theorists, with Baron and Carnicke 2008 proposing that the lucid formulations of Prague theorists make it possible to see, among other things, how performance details extend, support, and counterbalance impressions suggested by surrounding filmic choices. Barthes 1977 picks up a thread from the work of the Prague School by calling attention to the way gestures and expressions on stage and screen have meaning insofar as they mobilize connotations bound into recognizable social gestures. Heath 1981 draws out yet another, as it builds on the Prague School’s distinctions among character, actor, and performance details. Tomlinson 1986 tacitly takes up another line of Prague School inquiry in a comparative analysis of directors’ different uses of acting and filmic choices. McDonald 1998 carries forward the Prague School emphasis on performance details as the crucial and often overlooked component of stage and screen acting. Maltby 2003 echoes the Prague School insight that cinema makes varied use of performances. Like the other overviews, Maltby is not concerned with evaluating performances, but instead seeks to identify terms and concepts that clarify how acting choices figure into audience interpretations. These overviews generally seek to analyze a few central issues: actors’ expressivity (the degree to which players do or do not project characters’ thoughts and feelings); the way choices about editing, lighting, and so on are orchestrated to work in concert with filmic gestures and expressions; how acting choices, conceptions of character, directors’ visions, and aesthetic traditions are related; and ways that interpretations of performances are shaped by factors ranging from publicity to people’s cultural and personal experiences.

  • Baron, Cynthia, and Sharon Marie Carnicke. Reframing Screen Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

    The book examines performances in light of Prague semiotics, filmic conventions, Laban Movement Analysis, and script analysis terms. It discusses acting in relation to different genres, cross-cultural aesthetic traditions, and directors’ choices. It reflects on views that have led people to believe there is no acting in film.

  • Barthes, Roland. “Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein.” In Image-Music-Text. Translated by Stephen Heath, 69–78. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

    Like the Prague theorists, Barthes sees meaning in theater and film as something conveyed by the “mutual correspondence” of visual and aural elements in a “series of pregnant moments,” with actors’ performance of recognizable social gestures crucial components of those “epic” moments.

  • Heath, Stephen. “Body, Voice.” In Questions of Cinema. By Stephen Heath, 176–193. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

    Heath’s seminal essay outlines distinctions between agents and characters in the story and actors who perform roles. He discusses different types of star images and casting choices that carry social commentary. He also argues that observable gestures and audible expressions in films are distinct from both characters and actors.

  • Maltby, Richard. “Performance 1.” In Hollywood Cinema. 2d ed. By Richard Maltby, 368–392. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    Maltby’s discussion clarifies that any moment in a performance exists somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from those that invisibly convey character and are integrated into narratives to those that feature skill, beauty, display, etc., and thus provide a pleasure independent of the narrative.

  • McDonald, Paul. “Film Acting.” In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, 30–35. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    The succinct overview concludes with a call for work that considers the importance of the material elements of actors’ performances, things such as vocal intonation, gesture, facial expression, posture, and so on.

  • Mukařovský, Jan. “An Attempt at a Structural Analysis of a Dramatic Figure (1931).” In Structure, Sign, and Function: Selected Essays by Jan Mukařovský. Translated and edited by John Burbank and Peter Steiner, 171–177. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978.

    Using examples from Chaplin’s film performances, Mukařovský’s groundbreaking essay outlines the fundamental distinctions among actor, character, and observable performance details (vocal components, expressions, gestures, and movements); it also outlines the way individual gestures (gesture-expressions) function in relation to recognizable social gestures (gesture-signs).

  • Naremore, James. Acting in the Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

    Part 1 illustrates formal considerations that facilitate analysis of performance. Part 2 examines performances by Gish, Chaplin, Dietrich, Cagney, Hepburn, Brando, and Grant using ideas clarified in Part 1. Part 3 analyzes acting tasks and types of performances in Rear Window and The King of Comedy.

  • Tomlinson, Doug. “Studies in the Use and Visualization of Film Performance: Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir.” PhD diss., New York University, 1986.

    Tomlinson shows that films incorporate performance in a variety of ways: while in Bresson’s films, actors suppress physical and vocal expression of emotion, and performance details are simply one of many mise-en-scène elements, in Renoir’s films, filmic choices are designed to enhance audience access to actors’ expressive gestures and expressions.

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