truly are a window to the soul. Or the character, or even to getting
the audition. I’ve named the style of film acting I teach"Les
Yeux"because of the emphasis on the eyes in expressing
a "beat (an emotional intent; a specific attitude). When you
act on stage, the entire body can be used to express how you feel.
But the film actor is confined to what is captured by the camera
lens – usually the face – and the focus of the face, of course,
is the eyes.
All stories are told from someone’s point of view,
or the way someone sees something. We have to see clearly how characters
act or react to something by looking at their eyes. Famous directors
like Frank Capra have said the secret to becoming a star is the
actor’s ability to communicate through his or her eyes. Think of
modem film actors like Jane Fonda inKlute,Danny Glover inThe
Color Purple,Jodie Foster inSilence of the Lambs,Anthony
Hopkins in anything, Whoopi Goldberg inGhostand Tom Hanks
inForrest Gump.Their eye work distinguishes their screen
On the big screen, a single tear slowly moving down
a distraught face might convey anguish more effectively than screaming
and flailing, which can be more appropriate for a stage performance.
Silent films feature overdramatized eye work. Features likeOrphans
of the Stormstill hold up, however, because the story is told
through the eyes of characters superbly portrayed by Lillian and
One actress who made the
transition from silent to sound films and who continued to modify
the emphasis on eyes was Greta Garbo. Casting directors understand
the significance of the eyes. One casting agent tells me when she
looks at a head shot, she coversall but the eyesof the photo
to determine whom she recommends for a part. Film animators know
this secret. Eyes are always drawn disproportionately large in animated
characters from Mickey Mouse to the Lion King, because they convey
the character’s feelings.
Stage plays are full of words. Screenplays are full
of action, with an emphasis on facial expression. Once we determine
what the action is physically (wide shots), the usual practice is
to move in for close-ups. Close-ups show what the characters are
feeling – whether the emotion is emanating from the gut, the groin
or the heart. Even in action films, no one would care about allthose
explosions if they didn’t see the reactions of the characters they
care about. Is our hero afraid? Confident? Overconfident? Hurt?
Happy? Is the captured villain delighted – or vengeful?
It’s important to understand that the eyes only reflect
the degree to which the entire body is engrossed in thought, feeling
and expression. Your eyes only reveal the degree to which you are
concentrating. Actress and director Melanie Mayron ("Melissa"
in TV’sThirty Something)says it’s more important to concentrate
on the thought than the eyes.
"If you’re thinking and feeling," she says, "it’s
going to be seen in your eyes as well as every part of you. The
camera may only capture your eyes, but your entire body must be
included in the thought."
During the filming of the featureMissing,director Constantine
CostaGavras instructed the young actress Mayron, "Remember,
you are saying, ‘They are taking him away! Help! Help me!"’
So she began to memorize the words until he added, "But of
course, it’s all in the eyes."
"I realized he only wanted to see the thought,
not hear the lines!" she said.
As for her own directing technique she says, "I rely
on the craft of trained actors. If I’m not getting what I want,
I find out what they’re thinking and feeling, to make sure we’re
going in the same direction." She is currently directing a
remakeofFreaky Fridaywith Shelly Long, to air next February
How important is it. to speak with your eyes on film?Hollywood
has consistently rewarded voiceless parts with Academy Awards. Jane
Wyman(Johnny Belinda – 1948), Marlee Marlin(Children of
a Lesser God – 1987)andHolly Hunter(The Piano – 1993)all
received the Oscar for playing mute women.
The point is not to overemphasize the eyes. It’s to be aware
of their power so that you don’t neglect an important weapon in
your film acting arsenal.