Eight great silent performances, from Duck Soup to The Piano.

Eight Great Silent Performances From the Sound Era

Eight Great Silent Performances From the Sound Era

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Feb. 22 2012 12:15 PM

How To Win an Oscar Without Saying a Word

Eight great silent performances from the sound era.

Duck Soup.
Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx and Zeppo Marx in Duck Soup.

© 1933 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

If Oscar prognosticators are right, then Jean Dujardin has a good chance of beating out George Clooney for best actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Dujardin is excellent in The Artist, capturing the insouciant charisma and tragic vanity of a past-prime matinee idol. Yet Dujardin is the frontrunner for a very simple reason: He acts without speaking. Every actor in every film made before 1929 performed without dialogue, but since then it’s become an excellent way to receive attention during awards season. In fact, Dujardin isn’t the only nonspeaker to receive an Oscar nomination this year: Max von Sydow is up for best supporting actor thanks to his work in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. He’s the best thing about the film, bestowing equipoise and ambiguity upon an otherwise cloying tear-Hooverer—but again, it’s likely because he was so good without speaking that the 82-year-old Swedish workhorse received his first nomination in 23 years (only another-82 year-old workhorse, Christopher Plummer, stands in his way).

In the sound era, silence serves as a tension-creating counterpoint to what’s familiar, either because a performer is working in an anachronistically silent mode (Dujardin), or staying mute in a sound picture (von Sydow). Dialogue-free silents like The Artist have continued in a limited capacity since 1929 (Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is our most prolific living practitioner), but far more common is the trope of the isolated mute, which has proven reliably efficacious in screen storytelling from Boo Radley to Silent Bob.


What goes into a silent performance? How does an actor create a character without the benefit of dialogue? One of the reasons silence so often draws critical acclaim (and willing performers) is that what would seem like a handicap can actually highlight an actor’s nonverbal strengths (such as Dujardin’s 10-mile smile, and von Sydow’s wearily attentive eyes). Silent acting isn’t just a matter of miming—the grammar of film, with its intimate two-shots and close-ups, tends to reward subtlety over overripe ham-handed gestures. Silent performances can change the moment-to-moment math of a scene, drawing our attention to a character’s atypical stillness, to minute facial and physical expressions, or inversely causing us to scrutinize a nonsilent character’s verbosity. Some performances seduce with silence, while others torture us with it—making us feel a mute character’s frustration, or wish we knew his or her secret. Below are eight different ways of approaching silent film acting in the sound era (courtesy of eight great performances), spanning drama and comedy, mutes and monsters.

Silence as Suspense

Ray Milland in The Thief (1952)

Ever since talkies took over Hollywood in the late 1920s, traditionally silent films became extremely rare save for legacy types like Ozu and Chaplin (who didn’t fully contend with sound until The Great Dictator in 1940), and ‘60s experimentalists like Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. But in 1952 director Russell Rouse put silence to ingenious use in The Thief, a tense Cold War spy thriller. Ray Milland plays a nuclear physicist working for the Atomic Energy Commission who smuggles secrets to the enemy until the FBI grows wise. With its shadowy figures, trench coats, and secret rendezvous, few genres lend themselves as readily to silence as espionage. Rouse fills the soundtrack with naturalistic noises—footsteps, a ticking clock—but spoken words never break the tension. Milland spends the entirety of the film in a state of unease, stiff and sweaty and with his lips slightly parted as if he’s ever on the verge of unburdening himself. His emphatic exhale at the conclusion of this particularly anxious sequence speaks volumes.


Silence as Slapstick

Marty Feldman in Silent Movie (1976)

Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie hasn’t aged particularly well—beyond its odious adolescent homophobia, there’s not much there there, beyond the intermittently appealing stunt of its conceit. Nevertheless, the film allows Brooks to pay homage to some classic comedic gags, as well as to give British actor Marty Feldman an opportunity to demonstrate how he was born to work in silent comedy. Not only did he have alarmingly prominent and protruding eyes (a byproduct of Graves’ disease), he managed them like a worthy heir to Buster Keaton, turning from blitheness to consternation to terror on a well-timed dime. Carrying on rather than referencing a tradition, his is the only performance that isn’t satirizing itself in the film—he’s just funny. Watch how oddly he inspects James Caan’s back in this scene, insinuating untold things about the famous actor through a few small but suggestive gestures. From the periphery, and with nary a word, he turns a few throwaway seconds into a memorably inventive bit.


The Mute Jester

Harpo Marx in Duck Soup (1933)

The Marx Brothers had been a stage act since the beginning of the century, but it took the advent of sound to make them movie stars. Not only was sound crucial to their rapid-fire symphony of double-entendres, but it set the table for the mute hijinks of Harpo. Harpo never says a word, but his whole act is a mockery of speech. He uses an arsenal of silly horns, bells, and whistles to imitate the human voice, and impishly spreads mayhem whenever a character runs on at the mouth. There’s never any explanation for his muteness, or for any of the Marx Brothers’ theatrical attributes for that matter; it’s just an aggressively assaultive fact. It’s telling how often his silence overtakes his costars (talk gives way to delirious slapstick in this scene from Duck Soup), leveling the playing field so that his physical gifts win every comedic parry and steal every scene.


The Silent Killer

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)

One of the most iconic iterations of cinematic muteness is that of the unspeaking monster. Time and again, when Hollywood dreams up a horrifying bogeyman he’s someone who speaks nothing and carries a big stick—or axe, or chainsaw. Yet long before there were Leatherface, Jason, or Michael Myers, there was the Frankenstein monster. Mary Shelley’s novel had been adapted several times during the silent era, but it’s only with James Whale’s early talkie that the beast becomes an existentially doomed (and audibly dumb) anti-hero. Over 80 years later, Boris Karloff’s fiercely sensitive portrayal—a master class in bewilderment and paranoia—remains unmatched in the history of horror. Caught between dormant sentiments and uncontrollable impulses, inner anger and external fear, Karloff’s monster is really an everyman. 


Trapped in Silence

Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962)

If Jane Wyman broke the soundless barrier with her Oscar-winning turn as a mute farmer girl who learns sign language in Johnny Belinda, then Patty Duke went to Mach 3 with Arthur Penn’s exhausting and exhilarating story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, The Miracle Worker. Just 15 years old when the film was shot, Duke plays the deaf, mute, and blind Keller as a flying-fisted, flailing-armed, tantrum-throwing creature of pure physicality. She’s so persuasive as a child trapped in silence—particularly in the real-time set-pieces that pit her against co-star Anne Bancroft in a body-bruising battle of wills—that it’s hard to accept hers as just a performance. When Keller finally starts to learn words in the film’s final minutes, Penn permits Duke her first close-up, completing a portrait that started with wild gestures and ends with a face triumphantly smiling; in-between is nothing but desperate, brute force.


Quiet Understatement

Alan Arkin in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968)

These days Alan Arkin is best known for his wry comedic work in films like The In-Laws, Grosse Point Blank, and Little Miss Sunshine. But 38 years before he took home a best supporting actor Oscar for the last film, Arkin received a best actor nomination for his heartbreaking portrayal of deaf-mute John Singer in the underappreciated big screen adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. From its largely silent cold opening to quiet nights of chess in a rented room, the film manages to express Singer’s point of view without stooping to gimmickry or obscuring the experiences of the hearing-abled world. Without speaking or so much as externalizing a strong emotion, Arkin reveals enough quiet charisma to remain the focal point of every scene that he’s in. His underplaying is so finely calibrated that when this set piece rolls around, a tiny flip of the fingers can express a lifetime of loneliness.

The Silent Witness

Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

One of the most common speechless roles is that of the mute witness. Everything from Kieslowski’s Decalogue to Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (for which Sir John Mills won a best supporting actor Oscar) employs a character that is more observer than participant, saddled with knowledge that can’t be verbally communicated. Playing a black-skinned, interplanetary interloper in mid-‘80s Harlem, Joe Morten puts a unique spin on the trope in John Sayles’ The Brother From Another Planet. Taking in New York through alien eyes and ears—he’s incapable of human speech—he lacks both earthly prejudices and defenses. With eyes wide and lips locked, Morton underplays to the point of placidity. Everything is so strange that he doesn’t even know what merits a reaction; he’s not dumb so much as permanently dumbfounded. Actors fill the air around him with familiar language that starts to sound abstract and strange when confronted by Morton’s naïvely blank stare. He’s a cipher without forgoing character, a mirror for others who absorbs all that he encounters.

Silence as Metaphor

Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993)

Look at her poise: at how she carries the story of herself in her upright but defiant posture, her frightened but unblinking eyes, her half-gloved but unmistakably sensuous fingers. Holly Hunter never makes a peep on camera (she provides a voiceover for the film’s prologue and epilogue), but if a silent body has ever managed to communicate, hers delivers a clamor. Ada McGrath’s muteness is a metaphor, to be sure, of women’s subjugation, of powerlessness exercised as power, of the struggle for control over oneself and one’s destiny, even at the cost of full expression; but it’s also a physical fact, informing what Hunter does with her mouth, how she listens, what parts of herself will be marshaled to speak. Hunter does more than transcend Jane Campion’s metaphors—she makes them live, and shows how silence, in all its meanings and derivations, is really second nature.