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.