The director Woody Allen has his favourites. Photo: Getty
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Why do some directors repeatedly use the same actors in their films?

Looking behind the preferred casts of directors throughout the history of cinema who always use the same actors.

A painting discovered in a basement at Yale University a few years back caught the attention of curator John Marciari, who suspected it might be an unattributed work of Diego Velázquez and not, as was previously thought, one of his studio or of his Spanish contemporaries.

After a long process of authentication, Marciari affirmed that The Education of the Virgin (a variation on a theme also treated by Georges de la Tour and Delacroix, among many others) was indeed painted by Velázquez and the picture is currently touring the world.

Among the references used to verify its authenticity was the appearance of an elderly bearded gentleman, who had already appeared in several other Velázquez tableaux. Like many painters throughout the ages, the Sevillian master made regular use of the same models – perhaps most famously in Man with a Wine Glass and Democritus, where Pablo de Valladolid, a famous jester (and actor) at Philip IV’s court and subject of a third famous Velázquez painting, morphs from bon vivant in the former, earlier painting to a more pious embodiment of civic spirit in the latter.

His expression is largely the same in each, yet, in what amounts to a sort of forerunner of the Kuleshov Effect, the paintings tell us very different things. As well as the obvious mastery of his craft, Velázquez had an inimitable control of his subjects. The shared model of the two paintings make it easy for either to be identified as a Velázquez but so does the way in which they are each different

One might imagine a scenario several hundred years in the future, however improbable, where cinema, long fallen out of fashion and the various formats for viewing it obsolete, is a distant footnote of art history. Say most of the DVDs, mp4s, Betamaxes, VHS and film reels that existed have withered away to nothing in basements or landfill, unnoticed by all but a tiny handful of humanity.

Imagine Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa or Hitchcock being known only to a select few, who cherish the half-a-dozen or so extant films by each of those cineastes and who pine for the lost classics they know only by name, in much the same way as cinephiles today regret the lost films of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

And imagine one day a few minutes of film reel are discovered, shorn of opening credits or other contextual information, but which looks familiar to the trained eye.

From today’s vantage point, detecting the style of most of the great filmmakers of the 20th century might appear to be a simple matter for someone in the know, but the passing of time may have greatly complicated that facility for our descendants.

Maybe a Martin Scorsese film will be identifiable not by a long steadicam shot, a scattershot voiceover or the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack but by the presence of some vaguely recognisable face – Robert de Niro, Leonardo di Caprio, or maybe even Joe Pesci or Frank Vincent.

Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in Raging Bull (1980)

The repetition of actors in films by certain directors is often noticeable but can also go unremarked even by more attentive viewers. They also, with every repeat appearance, add another layer of texture, of meaning, of biographical nuance to the film.

An actor throughout their career is a constantly updated palimpsest of his or herself; when reappearing in the films of the same director, they become part of the fabric, weft in the film’s tapestry, an echo of earlier work that binds the world of the film together. 

One needn’t wonder why directors use the same actors again and again – the comfort of working with people you know is evident. Most great directors have had their acteurs fétiches – Toshiro Mifune for Kurosawa, Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara for Ozu, Klaus Kinski for Herzog, Monica Vitti for Antonioni, De Niro and now DiCaprio for Scorsese.

Other directors have doggedly stood by one actor and filmed their evolution over time – Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 and Lee Kang-Sheng in practically all of Tsai Ming-Liang’s films. A rarer privilege for filmmakers is getting to use a group of their favourite actors repeatedly, though some have managed it.

In the Hollywood studio era, actors did the bidding of the studio so troupes of this sort were rare enough – John Ford was one of the few to have a regular gaggle of actors to hand: John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen were almost ever-present in Ford films for a decade or more and formed a reactionary clique around the backlots (Bond once famously goaded a young Orson Welles in a restaurant and cut off his tie).

Elsewhere, troupes of actors associated with directors emerged from theatrical troupes, as with Ingmar Bergman, who established himself as a stage director in Sweden before gaining international renown. Numerous actors made ten or more films with him: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand.

The tightness of the group gave an extra heft and tension to Bergman’s family dramas but there were also films that directly replicated the travelling troupe, such as The Virgin SpringThe Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel. It was as if Bergman was mining the offstage dynamics of his circle for fictional ends.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Other directors whose work has straddled stage and screen have operated in a similar vein with their groups of actors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and work blurred almost imperceptibly into one another, to such an extent that he directed an astounding 42 films (and numerous stage productions) in the 14 years before his death at the age of 37.

Fassbinder and his actors were often inseparable, plaguing international film festivals with their bad behaviour and making films on the fly, like the 1971 Western Whity, filmed in Spain in a week and financed using the producer’s credit card.

Fassbinder cast his Moroccan lover El Hedi ben Salem in several of his films, particularly Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Many of his associates went on to international fame, such as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and actors Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa, but they have always appeared exiled in other people’s films, so indelibly linked to Fassbinder were they.

In Fox and his Friends (1975), the titular Fox, played by the director himself, is exploited and ultimately ruined by his circle of friends after he wins the lottery. The knowledge that those friends were played by people who were not only regulars in his films but people he hung out with in real life only sharpens the discomfort you feel watching the film.

Fox and his Friends (1975)

Mike Leigh has made regular use of the same group of actors, such as Timothy Spall, Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, the late Katrin Cartlidge, Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins, not to mention a few lesser known names.

As a director who is famous for his intense and thorough workshopped rehearsals, it is not surprising he calls upon the same people time and time again. Like Bergman and Fassbinder, Leigh’s films are often ensemble dramas that call for a finely calibrated pitch and tone.

The actor’s familiarity with one another facilitates this in much the same way as a central midfielder might instinctively place a pass onto the right wing knowing his full-back will be there to charge forward with the ball.

Leigh has seldom covered theatre in his films, the notable exception being Topsy Turvy (1999), his biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan. The scenes in the film in which the cast members of The Mikado rehearse for the show’s opening night are a reflection of the long rehearsals Leigh puts his actors through, raising the intriguing question of how one rehearses actors to perform a rehearsal.

Topsy Turvy (1999)

For directors that use their preferred actors whenever they can (sometimes they are stymied by availability) the actors are as indelibly part of the directorial "brand" or look as they themselves are. A John Cassavetes film without any of Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara or Seymour Cassel would look incomplete. Arnaud Desplechin hardly ever makes a film without Mathieu Amalric or the Dardenne brothers without Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione; almost every film by Jia Zhangke features his wife Zhao Tao.

There sometimes come breaks between actors and director: Alison Steadman disappeared from Mike Leigh’s films and Mia Farrow from Woody Allen’s after their respective relationships ended. Martin Scorsese has not used Robert de Niro for two decades, presumably because the cultural weight of their earlier collaborations would risk unbalancing a film. Werner Herzog’s films are very different since Klaus Kinski’s death (indeed he has almost entirely devoted himself to documentary since then).

One of the most moving instances of a collaboration cut short was the sudden death of Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää in 1995. Pellonpää had appeared in most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films until then (as well as those by Kaurismäki’s brother Mika). For his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, Kaurismäki ensured his old friend would be present, in the shape of a smiling childhood portrait, sitting on the dresser in the apartment belonging to unemployed couple Illona and Lauri. There is no reference to a child in the film but it is implied the couple, played by Kati Outinen and Kari Vänäänen (themselves regular Kaurismäki players) once had a son. It’s a subtle but fond farewell for a man whose absence from Kaurismäki’s films has been palpable.

Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen in Drifting Clouds (1996)

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

Photo: Getty
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That's the Way It Crumbles: Matthew Engel explores Americanisms

The author is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”.

Perhaps, with the ascension of Ruth Davidson to political superstardom and the glorification of Sir Walter Scott on current Scottish banknotes (south of the border, we’re going for Jane Austen on our tenners), we will all revisit Ivanhoe. The story, you’ll recall, is set during the reign of the Lionheart King, who is away on crusade business, killing Muslims by the thousand. Like the good Christian monarch he is.

Scott’s narrative has a prelude. A Saxon swineherd, Gurth, is sitting on a decayed Druid stone as his pigs root in the dirt. Along comes his mate Wamba, a jester. The two serfs chat. How is it, Gurth wonders, that “swine” when it reaches the high tables of their masters is “pork” (Fr porc); cow ­becomes “beef” (Fr boeuf); and sheep turns into “mutton” (Fr mouton)?

The reason, Wamba explains (no fool he), is 1066. Four generations have passed but the Normans are still running things. They have normanised English – and they eat high on the hog. How did pig become pork? In the same way as “minced beef sandwich”, in my day, became Big Mac.

Ivanhoe should be the Brexiteers’ bible. Its message is that throwing off the Norman Yoke is necessary before Britain can be Britain again. What’s the difference between Normandy and Europa? Just 900 or so years. Scott makes a larger point. Common language, closely examined, reflects where real power lies. More than that, it enforces that power – softly but subversively, often in ways we don’t notice. That’s what makes it dangerous.

We’ve thrown off the Norman Yoke – but it remains, faintly throbbing, in the archaeology of our language. Why do we call the place “parliament” and not “speak house”? Is Gordon Ramsay a chef or a cook? Do the words evoke different kinds of society?

Matthew Engel is a journalist at the end of four decades of deadline-driven, high-quality writing. He is now at that stage of life when one thinks about it all – in his case, the millions of words he has tapped out. What historical meaning was ingrained in those words? It is, he concludes, not the European Union but America that we should be fearful of.

The first half of his book is a survey of the historical ebbs and flows of national dialect across the Atlantic. In the 18th century the linguistic tide flowed west from the UK to the US. When the 20th century turned, it was the age of “Mid-Atlantic”. Now, it’s all one-way. We talk, think and probably dream American. It’s semantic colonialism. The blurb (manifestly written by Engel himself) makes the point succinctly:

Are we tired of being asked to take the elevator, sick of being offered fries and told about the latest movie? Yeah. Have we noticed the sly interpolation of Americanisms into our everyday speech? It’s a no-brainer.

One of the charms of this book is Engel hunting down his prey like a linguistic witchfinder-general. He is especially vexed by the barbarous locution “wake-up call”. The first use he finds is “in an ice hockey ­report in the New York Times in 1975”. Horribile dictu. “By the first four years of the 21st century the Guardian was reporting wake-up calls – some real, most metaphorical – two and a half times a week.” The Guardian! What more proof were needed that there is something rotten in the state of the English language?

Another bee in Engel’s bonnet is the compound “from the get-go”. He tracks it down to a 1958 Hank Mobley tune called “Git-Go Blues”. And where is that putrid locution now? Michael Gove, then Britain’s education secretary, used it in a 2010 interview on Radio 4. Unclean! Unclean!

Having completed his historical survey, and compiled a voluminous dictionary of Americanisms, Engel gets down to business. What does (Americanism alert!) the takeover mean?

Is it simply that we are scooping up loan words, as the English language always has done? We love Babel; revel in it. Ponder a recent headline in the online Independent: “Has Scandi-noir become too hygge for its own good?” The wonderful thing about the English language is its sponge-like ability to absorb, use and discard un-English verbiage and still be vitally itself. Or is this Americanisation what Orwell describes in Nineteen Eighty-Four as “Newspeak”? Totalitarian powers routinely control independent thinking – and resistance to their power – by programmatic impoverishment of language. Engel has come round to believing the latter. Big time.

In its last pages, the book gets mad as hell on the subject. Forget Europe. Britain, and young Britain in particular, has handed over “control of its culture and vocabulary to Washington, New York and Los Angeles”. It is, Engel argues, “self-imposed serfdom”:

A country that outsources the development of its language – the language it developed over hundreds of years – is a nation that has lost the will to live.

Britain in 2017AD is, to borrow an Americanism, “brainwashed”, and doesn’t know it or, worse, doesn’t care. How was American slavery enforced? Not only with the whip and chain but by taking away the slaves’ native language. It works.

Recall the front-page headlines of 9 June. “Theresa on ropes”, shouted the Daily Mail. She was “hung out to dry”, said the London Evening Standard. “Stormin’ Corbyn”, proclaimed the Metro. These are manifest Americanisms, from the metaphor “hanging out to dry” to the use of “Stormin’” – the epithet applied to Norman Schwarzkopf, the victorious US Gulf War commander of Operation Desert Storm.

These headlines on Theresa May’s failure fit the bill. Her campaign was framed, by others, as American presidential, not English prime ministerial. But the lady herself is pure Jane Austen: a vicar’s daughter whose naughtiest act was to run through a field of wheat. She simply couldn’t do the “hail to the chief” stuff. Boris, the bookies’ odds predict, will show her how that presidential “stuff” should be “strut”. He was, of course, born American.

Engel’s book, short-tempered but consistently witty, does a useful thing. It makes us listen to what is coming out of our mouths and think seriously about it. Have a nice day.

John Sutherland’s “How Good Is Your Grammar?” is published by Short Books

That’s the Way It Crumbles: the American Conquest of English
Matthew Engel
Profile Books, 279pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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