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Why Acting Matters

In Why Acting Matters, respected and insightful writers on movies and theater David Thomson examines the allure of the performing arts for both the artist and the audience member while addressing the paradoxes inherent in acting itself.  Thomson reflects on on-stage versus film acting, and on the cult of celebrity. He scrupulously appraises the art and considerable craft of such gifted artists as Meryl Streep, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Daniel Day-Lewis, and others, as are notions of “good” and “bad” acting. He argues that acting not only “matters” but is essential and inescapable, as well as dangerous, chronic, transformative, and exhilarating, be it on the theatrical stage, on the movie screen, or as part of our everyday lives. The following is comprised of excerpts from Why Acting Matters.


acting_matters2Acting is an escape from reality, as well as an exultation or despair over it. I warn you that the more strenuously real a play or a movie claims to be, the quicker I become bored. The only honorable reality is that of pretending, but that is sufficient reason why acting matters beyond all differences in style, pay grade, or how “good” the process is.

The enthusiasm for acting that has intensified in the past five hundred years, or two thousand, whichever size blink you prefer, has come about because we have been drawn to pretense or avoidance beyond any hope for reality. As a rule, we make a mess of reality, whether it is our own and Uncle Arthur’s lives or the Fate of the Earth. As it becomes clearer that the evolution of weather may overwhelm us, drown us, dry us out like bones in the desert, so we love the fertile fictional places more and more—Shakespeare’s Arden, Beckett’s desolate country road, John Ford’s Monument Valley, or the Paris of the French New Wave. Acting and the space in which acting occurs matter because they are the material of a ritual to be beheld while we give up our ghost. This evasion or experiment can exist on stage or screen, at the opera, at the ballet, or at a soccer match where a player tries to be himself, or even when a tipsy Uncle Arthur strives to say what life is about. Only the passage of time has to be filled, and when we are fearful of our time being suddenly stopped, we love the dream that we can control it by taking creative charge and replacing uncertainty with performance.

Even so, acting has surely come to matter much more in the past hundred years as media arrived that could make it available for everyone. And more or less, in that new age most of us have looked at acting. We have been thrilled and amused, and we have taken actors and actresses into our private imaginary worlds. We have even thought that we wouldn’t mind being like that—or if barred from the thing itself, by looks, elocution, or talent, well, we could pretend to be actors (or audience).


Why X Matters is a series of books that present a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea by featuring intriguing pairings of authors with subjects.

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