Saturday, August 7, 2010

Is It Live or Is It Memorex? The Actor’s Paradox

       Things are seldom what they seem
       Skim milk masquerades as cream
                --W.S. Gilbert, from H.M.S. Pinafore

We all have a “mask” that we present to the outside world which may or may not reflect the way we are really feeling inside. In fact, we have several. Obviously, we act very differently when we are in the presence of just our spouse, our children, our buddies, our colleagues at work, and our bosses. We seldom reveal our true opinions about everything to anyone for fear of creating offense or getting ourselves into hot water.

How many times do we hear a news story in which the neighbors of someone who has committed some horrible crime, say a workplace mass murder, all say, “But he seemed so nice! Everyone loved him! He was so kind to the neighborhood kids. I never imagined that he would ever do something like that!”

We all have aspects of ourselves that we do not like and try to hide at one time or another. Sometimes we even try to hide them from ourselves. Additionally, we often need to mask our true feelings because we feel we must deceive other people in order to get what we need or what we want from them. Primate studies have shown that the ability to deceive fellow members of one’s species has powerful survival value, and would therefore be a trait that is selected for by the forces of evolution.

We really admire people who are the most adept at fooling us, because fooling others is a skill we practice every day. Why are about 95% of trained stage and screen actors unemployed most of the time, barely scraping out a living, while the other 5% are paid millions? We may have seen DeNiro or Streep in scores of different roles, yet we forget who they really are and accept them to be the characters they play. The best actors command an incredible fee.

In order to be effective actors, individuals must pretend that they really are the characters that they are portraying. They must pretend that they really feel and are experiencing all the different ways that their character is supposed to be feeling in the different scenes. This is a fundamental tenet of what is called method acting. Of course, this creates a paradox. At some level even great actors still know who they really are and the way they really feel while they are playing someone else. Yet they are somehow able to forget about this and to “lose themselves in the character.”

A great example of method acting was seen in a film clip that was taken of Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams interacting while they were between takes of a movie called Awakenings. Even though they were not filming a scene at the time, DeNiro remained in his movie character. Williams was trying to get him to come out of character by trying to get him to crack up. He could not do it. Robin Williams, for heaven’s sake! If he could not get DeNiro to come out of character that way, who could?

Sometimes, the mask that people wear in their daily lives is more pervasive. It is one that they never ever take off in public. In psychological terms, people who have psychological problems often present with what is called a false self. Jung termed this the persona. They play a role within their social system which is, in a sense, fake. They act as if their opinions and desires are other than what they really believe and want inside. The opinions and desires they do express are instead those they think others in their social system believe and want. They do this compulsively so as not to slip up and give themselves away to the others. Because of the actor’s paradox, this false self feels real to them, while their true self feels phony.

They often give themselves away to therapists, however, precisely because their behavior is so polarized – they act as if they absolutely must act a certain way all the time even when external circumstances would seem to require a bit more flexibility. Old time psychoanalysts referred to this defense mechanism as reaction formation. The behavior exactly opposite to the way they behave in public is often the true inclination that they are trying to hide. Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart preached loudly against the sins of the flesh while in secret he was cruising for prostitutes. Lay people are aware of this sort of dynamic, as evidenced by the Shakespearian line, “Methinks he protests too much.”

On my blog post of July 27, Mad, Bad, Blind or Stupid, I brought up a discussion that I had been engaged in on another blog over the nature of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). People with this disorder act as if they are superior to everyone else and are always entitled to special treatment over everybody. They appear to have no empathy for others, and often bully people to get what they want. The constantly seek admiration, particularly from people they consider valuable.

An old debate came up in the other blog that I did not describe in the post. I had pointed out that people with NPD, while acting as if they have a superiority complex, actually have hidden low self esteem. Why else would they be starved for admiration? Not only that, but sometimes they may be making themselves appear to be the bad guy in their relationships when in fact they are really trying to take care of their mate but feel helpless to do so.

Someone else replied that some professionals now think that NPD’s really do have high rather than low self esteem, and that they in truth are just obnoxious bullies. I have seen this argument alluded to in professional publications.

My take is that the reason this is a bone of contention in the first place is because of the actor’s paradox. NPD’s are so good at acting like obnoxious bullies with an inflated sense of self importance that we cannot really know for certain what they really feel about themselves inside. In the previous post, I mentioned some of the evidence that things may not be what they seem.

No comments:

Post a Comment