This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

They Learned by Doing

            Ernest Borgnine died earlier this week at the age of 95 after a six-decade career that included an Oscar for his starring role in Marty, a hit TV series, McHale’s Navy, and more TV and movie credits than you could shake a stick at.
            In reading the long Associated Press obituary, the line that jumped out at me was that his sole formal training, for a profession in which he was manifestly successful, consisted of four months’ study at the Hartford Academy in Connecticut in the late 1940s. The Times obituary elaborated on his technique with the following quote from a 1973 interview:
            “No Stanislavsky. I don’t chart out the life histories of the people I play. If I did, I’d be in trouble. I work with my heart and my head, and naturally emotions follow.”

How The Duke and Cary Grant Did It

            Once upon a time in Hollywood, just about all the actors learned the business like that. John Wayne, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper had little or no formal training to speak of. What they had was a stage presence, or perhaps more accurately, a camera presence — great faces, an ability to relax in front of the cameras, and a sense of delivery.
            After that first wave, the business became more and more the province of actors who had formally studied their craft in classes and with teachers. Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman come to mind as examples, and now just about all the big names have been through some sort of extensive formal training. We’ve gone from stars who were actors to actors who might become stars. It’s hard to make comparisons because the styles are so different, though the good ones of each style are all good.
            Pauline Kael remarked on the difference in her famous article on the making of the movie The Group, shot in the mid-1960s when the shift had taken place. She noted that the actresses were all trying to build their characters by extrapolating from the script. The great actresses of the 1930s — Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Miriam Hopkins — would have been more likely to try to project something of themselves into the roles instead, she said.

It Isn’t Just Hollywood

            Relying on formal education, rather than learning by doing, has become pervasive. There is no documentary evidence that Mark Twain or Ernest Hemingway ever got a degree in creative writing or attended a fiction writers’ conference. Quite a few of the current crop of novelists do those things. I’m skeptical. It no doubt works for some people, but talent (like judgment) can’t be taught and will usually develop itself given the opportunity.
            In the business world it used to be unsurprising to see someone who started with a company in a stockroom, fresh out of high school, and worked his way up to be president. (It was always a he back then). If you don’t have at least an MBA these days, your only hope of running the company is to start it — the way Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did.
            My old business, journalism, has undergone the same transformation. When I left it 20 years ago, it was unusual to see a job applicant without a journalism degree; two decades earlier I got hired quickly without one. When I took my first journalism class in ninth grade, I asked the teacher, Mr. McDonald, how to write a news story.
            “Read the front page of the Los Angeles Times every day and do what they do,” he replied.
            That was how I learned, and others could do the same. In today’s world, though, they’re not likely to get the chance.