After my recent subtext post I came across a couple of humorous references to subtext which I though I'd share and talk about to hopefully help clarify what it is and how it applies to acting for anyone still unsure.
The first clip is from The Trip, a recent BBC comedy series in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play lose versions of themselves. It's a largely improvised sitcom which follows them on a tour of expensive restaurants in the North of England. The two performers are both actors and impressionists and my favourite parts of the programme are thier impressions and analysis of famous actors their varying techniques. At the end of the following clip Steve Coogan points out an acting technique used by Richard Gere.
"Richard Gere does a very interesting technique he does in a lot of his films, not a lot of people pick him up on it. What he does is he'll listen to what someone says and then he'll smile enigmatically. He'll look away into the middle distance as if remembering something from the past, laugh about it and then return to the dialogue."
He then acts this out -
Looking away, smiling enigmatically ...
... then returning to the dialogue.
He also embellishes this further by adding a head shake and a shrug.
"See? The little look. They thought, ooh, there's a little story, a little subtext there we didn't know about. What's going on there? Why did he look over there? What was that memory?"
Although this is a caricature, it's interesting to study and makes it clear how actors use subtext. It is important to note that the action - the look away and smile before the dialogue is not the subtext, but this implies a subtext. Often the subtext of the dialogue is clear but in this instance the subtext is left purposely unclear. This creates a sense of mystery about the character, we feel like he's not letting on what he's thinking, this potentially will tantalise and engage the audience and want them to find out more about the character.
By the way does anyone know of a scene in a film where Richard Gere does this? I would love to find an example.
This next example is a sound file from a comedy show called The Stand by the British comedian Daniel Kitson, here he talks about the lack of subtext in the film Top Gun (caution swearing!).
"My favourite films of that ilk though really is Top Gun and I'll tell you why .... The reason Top Gun's a great film is because the character in Top Gun who's a bit of a loose cannon, who plays by his own rules, who's a law unto himself, he's actually called Maverick. And his enemy who's a bit cold, a bit stand off-ish, not quite human, he's called called Iceman. There's actually a scene where Iceman says to Maverick "I don't like you because you're dangerous", and Maverick goes "Yeah, that's right, I am dangerous". It's almost like the writers decided to make a whole film without any subtext whatsoever."
This is again an exaggeration of what happens in the film but he makes an interesting point to have your characters named after their personality type - 'Maverick' and 'Iceman' and also having them say exactly what they think with no attempt at subtext would make a rather obvious and uninteresting scene.
So after listening to this I decided to try and find the scene on youtube. What I discovered is what the Top Gun script appears to lack in subtext the actors have made up for with their performance. Although I don't think it's the greatest acting, Tom Cruise's delivery of "That's right, Ice Man, I am Dangerous" has a clear subtext.
Tom Cruise snaps into anger at the start of the line, then stops, smiles and pretends to brush down Iceman's uniform - a friendly and familiar gesture. It's open to interpretation but this is how I read the subtext - The initial snap into anger is false, he's testing Iceman, trying to scare him, like jumping out and someone and shouting "Boo!". Then the subtext of the rest of the line is "I'm not going to let you get to me" and again it's interesting to note that the acting choices have little to do with the text - "That's right, Ice Man, I am Dangerous".
Anger at the start of the line ...
... then he stops, smiles and pretends to brush down Iceman's uniform.
Clearly in this scene the two characters are sizing each other up and testing each other's nerve, it's interesting to see that after this line Val Kilmer bites at Maverick - another pretend attack done in the hope of making him flinch. However, the later part of Maverick's line combines the two differing ideas of argumentative and provocative words said in a restrained and disarming way. This definitely shows that Maverick is not going to shy away from confrontation but also that he will not be so easily provoked. This makes the performance more engaging and Maverick a deeper and more interesting character than if he had just snapped and shouted the line at Iceman.