“The paradox of extraordinary acting is that it necessarily calls attention to itself: “Brando was so believable,” we gush. But if a performance is indistinguishable from the real thing, we shouldn’t be able to see it, right?”
Cinema’s most iconic performances have been as those mentioned above, those which have “called attention” to themselves. From Brando’s tour de force as the brutish Stanley in a Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to James Dean’s eruption of raw emotion in Giant (1956) to Jennifer Lawrance’s indomitable “Tiffany” in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). Audiences identify with the powerful emotional performance. We respond to character’s who defy convention and express their emotions freely. It is often more difficult for an actor to contain emotion within a performance. If Lawrance’s Tiffany is the exemplification of unfiltered emotion Celia Johnson’s Laura in the classic Brief Encounter (1945) masterfully epitomizes repressed emotion.
In the Noel Coward production Johnson plays Laura, the suburban housewife accidently caught up in a would-be love affair with married doctor Alec. It is an exceptional example of passion felt yet kept unseen. Aided by the tools of voiceover and the films score, Johnson’s portrayal of inner torment is witnessed in her internal monologues. Her cries of “this misery can’t last” reflect ‘her dignified but torn middle class aspirations’. Acting as a confessional to her husband (and the audience) he monologue’s contrast with her notable silence in several of the films key scenes. The protestations of love come from Alec. Even when given the opportunity to express her true feelings she relents. Her steely outward performance her true torment.
Lawrence finds herself in a not dissimilar predicament to Johnson in Silver Linings Playbook; a woman in love with a married man, afraid to express her true feelings. Without the aid of voiceover Lawrence’s emotions are be conveyed in every scene by her powerful physical performance. She is loud, confrontational and dramatic to a point that her true feelings for Bradley Cooper’s Pat are obvious to all but him. The two contrasting performances of emotion both admirable but Johnson’s subtle anguish, which does not necessarily call attention to itself holds more impact.
“Merely to have had these feelings, and then to have renounced them, confers upon… Laura a romantic even tragic, grandeur.” Johnson’s performance remains a classic example of a performance of unexpressed emotion leaving a powerful impact on audiences.