How far should performers be willing to go for the sake of their art?

I was recently watching Stanley Kubrik’s iconic horror The Shining (1980) with my friends (who were watching it for the first time).

While watching, my friends talked about how impressed they were with the performances by Jack Nicolson and Danny Loyd.

I felt it necessary then to point out how spectacular Shelly Duval’s performance was as Wendy, a meek housewife whose life slowly begins to spiral out of control during her stay at the Overlook Hotel. Her performance is haunting as her apprehension, anxiety  and fear feels realistic. 

When I think of horror movie victims I think of Shelly Duval’s performance, a sentiment that many share with me.

However, I then remembered why that performance was so brilliant. Kubrik is perhaps known as the auteur to end all auteurs.

Many would describe him as a perfectionist, as he would often micromanage every last detail of his films, do hundreds of takes of the same scene and on occasions such as this one, deliberately manipulate the psyche of his actors in order to get the performance he desired.

The reason Duval’s tears felt so real was because they were real. There was take after take for hours of Duval doing the same thing repeatedly and with Kubrik hurling intentionally harsh criticism until her debilitating emotions reflected in Shelly’s character portrayal.

So, we are faced with a dilemma. Is taking that much abuse on-set worth it if it means you’ll turn in some of the best acting performances of all time? Well, this isn’t the only time actors have been put through intense mental strain in order to give a more memorable performance.

On the set of Man on the Moon (1999), Jim Carrey’s method acting was so intense that he became convinced that the spirit of Andy Kaufman (the real-life comedian he was portraying in the film) inhabited his own body. There’s even a documentary about it for those interested called Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond (2017). 

Heath Ledger put himself through severe mental strain in order to portray the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. He delivered what many consider to be one of the best performances in cinematic history — but this may have been at a cost. Shortly after filming, Ledger died of a drug overdose that many believed were influenced by the intensity of his method acting. 

In general, people seem more comfortable with method acting if for no other reason than the suffering of the actor being a choice of their own.

While that’s easy to say, some could argue that this dismissal is ill-advised. In Duval’s case, there is little doubt that she was mistreated on-set but she did recover from the emotional trauma.

It may surprise some to learn that despite her mistreatment being widely known, she has never publicly scolded Kubrik for it.

She has said he was a difficult man to work with (a statement nearly every Kubrick actor has made one time or another) but has also praised his genius.

She seems to believe that he acted the way he did purely to enhance her character. Many can and perhaps should say that the treatment was immoral or wrong, but at the end of the day, Duvall is physically, and by all accounts mentally okay.

Contrast this with Ledger’s performance. While it may have been his own choice and he may have set the benchmark for all future cinematic villains, it could have also played a role in his death. 
There is a belief  that many artists explore: Attempting to be someone willing to sacrifice everything in the name of art. While this belief is often more parodied than taken seriously, there are some real-life examples.

The Italian 17th century painter Caravaggio was eccentric and ruthless in his pursuit of painting what he wished to paint.

Yuri Norstein and Francheska Yarbusova have been working on the animated film The Overcoat for 40 years, intentionally refusing help as it seems it would taint the process. For these people, their art is their life and what they’ll always be remembered for.

The artist in me wants to define these people as the truest form of artist. However, the human inside me can’t seem to wrap my head around why people should do this to themselves.

To any artist their art is important, but it isn’t the only important thing.

There are so many things life has to offer that even the wide reaches of art cannot attain.

It is in my humble opinion that no painting, film, performance, or any other spectacle is worth your life. I can accept Duval’s treatment much more easily seeing how she came out on the other side. I hope this is because Kubrik knew her limits.
However, as has been proven, it’s not difficult for abuse like that (be it from someone else or self-inflicted) to spiral out of control.

While many should be praised for their boldness in the arts, perhaps it would be best that sometimes we proceed with caution.

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