While watching movies over the long weekend, something I hadn’t thought about in a long time came rushing back.  For all the emphasis I put on cinematography, directing, editing and so on, there’s one thing above all that determines whether or not a movie will succeed with an audience.

            You can count on its effect as surely as the sun will rise in the morning.  It can turn a lousy script into something memorable, a so-so one into a hit and a good one into a classic.  Just the same, its absence will do the opposite.  It has nothing to do with craftsmanship, nor is it budget-dependent.  It has nothing to do with marketing or promotion.  And though it’s deeply connected to actors, it has nothing to do with the art of acting.

            What hit me like a runaway train – though I should’ve been more conscious of it at the time – was charisma.  It’s given that performers must have a certain look and be able to deliver a credible version of the script.  But if they don’t also possess this innate, mesmerizing quality, nothing else will matter much.

            It would be facile to call charisma indefinable; there’s nowhere to buy it, no way to develop it and no way to fake it.  Someone has it or they don’t, obviously in varying degrees.  What jumped out in these films was how this mysterious attribute both blessed and damned efforts at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Even if you don’t care for the material, the biggest stars bring an undeniable gravitas to what they do.  They make you want to watch them, or at least not feel diminished by doing so.  The flip side of that is seen in the otherwise honorable efforts of first-timers forced to cast from a pool of less-than-ideal candidates.  The lack of that magic in their actors dooms them from the start.

            I’ve had the pleasure of being present on several occasions when Clint Eastwood appeared to introduce a film.  Even in his 90’s, it’s no exaggeration to say that his entrance changed the atmospheric pressure of the room.  As he walked up the aisle to the podium I couldn’t help thinking, “Now, that’s a movie star!”  The funny thing is that it all came from within him, effortlessly.  While this notion has become watered down in recent times, there’s no mistaking it when you’re up close.  Its presence makes you aware of something bigger than yourself that can’t be controlled.  It’s exciting, it’s interesting…and might even be a little bit scary.  That’s what keeps us coming back for more.

            If cinematographers were judged by this aspect of our persona, most of us would be on a bread line.  As the last guy anyone would imagine as starstruck, I consider myself fortunate to rub shoulders with the genuine item from time to time.  It makes me step up my game and focus on being at my best.

            It also reminds me that what we’re doing is supposed to be fun.  If charisma is widely recognized as a gift, that alone is consolation enough.


4 thoughts on “THE SECRET SAUCE”

  1. Richard. I would like to have a conversation with you about super dark “lighting” on many of todays TV shows. Great article about charisma. Totally agree. Have you seen Maverick? The very definition of Major Movie Charisma.

  2. Russ – that’s an enthusiastic yes on a talk about dark “lighting” on so many shows today. I know that we all tend to prefer the more obscure stuff, but a lot of it has gotten out of hand. “Muddy” and “murky” would be a better description in many cases.

  3. Some years ago I was visiting Pierce Brothers Memorial Park in
    Westwood with some family members. We were curious about this place
    as most are. We noticed an event taking place in the small chapel within
    the park. People were filing in as if for a church service and we decided
    to go on in. Slowly we came to realize that it was the annual celebration
    for Marilyn Monroe on the date of her death August 4th. We took
    some seats in the back of the chapel as the place quickly filled up.
    I noticed a striking elderly gentleman enter the main rear doors and then stop to
    sign his name in the guest book. He was wearing a beautifully tailored
    gray suit with matching tie and the swankiest of shoes. I had no idea
    who he was but he had incredible presence and charisma. He looked
    like someone who walked right out of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
    As the memorial service began I learned that his name was A.C. Lyles,
    legendary producer for Paramount Pictures. He gave an eloquent
    talk of his memories of Marilyn Monroe. I spoke with him afterwards
    and he told me of having lunch with Kirk Douglas and his wife Anne,
    being friends with Ronald Reagan and James Cagney. Most of the
    notables that spoke that day have since passed. They were open to
    conversations when the event ended. Some of those in attendance included
    Sylvia Barnhart (Marilyn’s hairdresser), George Barris (Photographer),
    John Gilmore (Author), Kathleen Hughes, Diana Herbert (actress and
    daughter of F. Hugh Herbert, playwright, screenwriter, director), and
    Audrey Franklyn ( Promoter) who I believe just passed away
    on July 2nd. There were others and each gave moving speeches.
    Before I knew it, the event was over and A.C. Lyles was driving
    off in his silver Thunderbird waving to all the onlookers.

  4. Ken – A.C. Lyles was THE most amazing man! In addition to his many other accomplishments, he was the longest serving employee of Paramount Pictures – well over 50 years. I once had an encounter with him in the executive commissary on the lot. He told me tales about knocking around Hollywood with Ronald Reagan back in the day. Dapper, tanned and elegantly attired in a beautifully cut blue suit, he also showed me his Presidential cufflinks…gifts from The Gipper himself! Sadly, that sort of class and style has passed, not just from Hollywood but from the world. Nonetheless, he once again proved that longevity and vitality are a state of mind!

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