Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances

Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances


notion of an actor “playing him/herself” is slippery. When expressed, it
implies that we really know the performer when we probably don’t; we just know
their often-employed stage or screen persona. But also, it suggests that there
is something easy, automatic and unskilled about an actor’s “being him/herself”
when, in fact, being one’s self in an artificial and contrived situation or
scenario really isn’t a cakewalk.

when we say that an actor “just plays him/herself,” what we mean to say is that
an actor has grown (perhaps too) comfortable in their craft. And under this
description fall many renowned older actors: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack
Nicholson, Christopher Walken, and, not least of these, Alan Arkin. Yet what’s
interesting in Arkin’s case is that, unlike those other stars, he seems largely
exempt from being criticized or lampooned for “playing himself,” probably
because many do not mind him doing so (including myself). When he won an Oscar
for his supporting turn in 2006’s Little
Miss Sunshine
—in which he was part of an ensemble cast and not on screen
that much—it was as though he was receiving one of the highest rewards in his
profession for doing what only he can do best: play “Alan Arkin,” and as a
flawed yet lovable grandpa to boot.
And when he was Oscar-nominated for his supporting part in Argo, it was as though he was being recognized for playing “Alan
Arkin” as a gruff, scheming, yet noble movie producer (thereby giving the
archetype of the Hollywood insider– something that many AMPAS members must be—a
somewhat positive spin).

what’s also interesting is that, like some of the other actors mentioned, Arkin
broke through by giving screen performances that, to various degrees, required
him to be characters that he clearly wasn’t. As evidenced in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are
Wait Until Dark; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, he was once
a chameleon-like new screen talent and not just “himself.”


his first major screen role in The
Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!
(1966, dir. Norman Jewison),
Arkin had been an early member of the improvisational theater troupe Second
City and acted in Broadway shows like Enter
and Luv. But while he
has experience with, for lack of a better term, traditional acting, he
considers himself to be an “improvisatory actor” and
his performance in TRACTRAC is indicative
of that tendency. As Rozanov—a Russian lieutenant who has to lead a “covert”
emergency landing party into a coastal New England town after his captain runs
their submarine vessel aground (which then leads to a panicked community, which
in turn leads to hijinks)—Arkin’s controlled, well-timed and humorous spontaneity
stands out and conveys the character’s professionalism as well as his beleaguered
state (something that would become a hallmark of his general screen persona).
And because much of the Rozanov role is spoken in non-subtitled Russian, the
performance often relies on effective yet subtle facial expressions, gesticulation
and vocal inflections. These acting choices render Rozanov a believable person
as well as a source of comedy.

warmly received upon its release by critics and audiences for humanizing and
relativizing the Cold War conflict during a period of Red Scare fatigue, TRACTRAC has become a product of its era
since the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. As a consequence, its flaws are more
apparent. Intended as both a satire and a farce, many of the other performances
come across as only farcical and are reminiscent of the brazen It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, thereby
making the overall work of the cast somewhat uneven. And while well meaning,
the resolution to a climatic and literal stand off between Russian soldiers and
American townfolk is like something out of D.W. Griffith’s early work. Yet, by
first portraying Rozanov as a relatable and aggrieved man caught in a tough
situation, Arkin’s work in the film preserves some of its universal and
non-jingoistic message. Also, it demonstrates a quality of his acting style that
is evident elsewhere in his early work and that has been attributed to others
who have had similar improvisational training: even as he gets your attention,
he still functions as a team player within an ensemble. Remarkably but
deservedly, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for this
debut performance.


next major role after TRACTRAC was
something more sinister. As the psychotic criminal Harry Roat, the big bad in
the screen adaptation of the Frederick Knott play Wait Until Dark (1967, dir. Terence Young), Arkin is almost
unrecognizable: wearing dark teashade sunglasses, a short bowl-cut and a
leather coat, and speaking “hip” in a creepy staccato, he is an original
nightmare hipster.    

WUD was shot as Arkin was becoming a
known quantity, and retroactively knowing that it’s him only gives the
performance an uncanny quality. Yet
Roat is so awry and menacing that it’s easy to overlook that he is a huge source
of exposition. For instance: while entrapping
two con men (Richard Crenna, Jack Weston) into helping him to retrieve a
heroin-filled doll from an apartment in which an innocent and blind housewife
Susy (Audrey Hepburn) lives, Roat explains the story’s set-up in the film’s
first sustained scene. When casting such a part, a wise course of action is to
hire a talented actor who is able to make a contrived, unreal situation feel
believable to an audience, and the complicated set-up in WUD is one that could have seemed more incredible when translated
from the stage to screen. But Arkin makes it work, and with panache.

critics at the time of WUD’s release
considered Arkin’s performance as Roat to be too much: Roger Ebert wrote that
it’s “not particularly convincing”
and Bosley Crowther went as far to compare it to a Jerry Lewis caricature.
This point of view is fair if WUD is
understood as something approximating realism. But if WUD is understood as something akin to an Alfred Hitchcock thriller,
then the performance—which also uses the actor’s skill of spontaneity not to
get laughs but to unnerve—succeeds: Roat is a big movie villain who would feel
at home in a Tarantino film due to his theatrical, idiosyncratic nature.
Also, the jump-scare in WUD’s climax—which
actually involves both a jump and a scare—must be mentioned; it is one of the
all-time best in film, and the crooked and swift physicality of Arkin’s animalistic
leap during the moment is much of what makes it effective.


on the eponymous Carson McCullers novel, The
Heart is a Lonely Hunter
(1968, dir. Robert Ellis Miller) stars Arkin as
John Singer, a deaf mute who relocates to Jefferson, Georgia to be closer to his developmentally
disabled and committed friend Spiros (Chuck McCann). As a result, he helps and
befriends a small group of people, including music loving teenager Mick (Sandra
Loche), a resident of the house where he rents a room.

While different from its source material in some ways, THIALH is a straightforward adaptation that is bolstered by a
well-modulated and sensitive dramatic tone. For the most part, the work of the
ensemble cast is solid, but—to sound like a broken record—Arkin’s truly
understated performance is the standout, and it stands out despite the risk of
becoming elusive. Relying on a realistic pantomime as well as sign language and
body language, the performance’s subtlety exemplifies and extends the story’s
theme of how the hardships, tragedies, kindnesses and kismets of life tend to
happen in discrete ways. Singer is a selfless, decent and almost imperceptible
altruist who changes lives for the better, but his natural inconspicuousness
makes others oblivious to his problems and loneliness, which ultimately causes him
misfortune. In other words, Arkin’s heartfelt work in THIALH personifies its title: it earned him another Academy Award
nomination for Best Actor.

Arkin’s performance is notable for creating and sustaining Singer’s early life.
Yet upon a close examination, it’s clear that the performance isn’t great
because he is physically convincing as mute or because he expresses things in a
contained yet clear manner; it’s great because you can tell that he’s genuinely
listening to and observing others. Actors will often say that one of, if not the most essential thing to master when
you’re learning the craft, is listening to your scene partner or partners. That
may seem simple enough, but if you’ve tried acting, you’ve probably realized
that really listening to others as
you say your lines and hit your marks is a true skill. And if you master it,
then you can react to others authentically, which is what goes into most great
acting, and which is evident in all three of Arkin’s performances in TRACTRAC, WUD and THIALH.


his 2011 memoir An Improvised Life,
Arkin wrote that “from the beginning I always thought of myself as a character
actor—someone who transfers himself into other people. I had no interest in
being myself onstage. In fact, because I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have a
clue. I only knew myself as other people.” Yet,
as he describes in the book, when his film career ebbed after that initial
he had a spiritual shift that was a result of studying Eastern philosophy and practicing
meditation. His consciousness and self-knowledge changed,
which required him to alter his approach to acting.
By his own account, it became more public and vulnerable
and, as a result of applying the Zen Buddhist concept of Shoshin or “beginner’s
mind” to his work,
less self-controlled and even more spontaneous. In other words, Arkin’s acting
style changed due to a period of self-actualization and, incidentally, his
screen persona became more identifiable and unique to his actual self, and
different from his performances in TRACTRAC,

suggests an interesting notion: maybe, as a result of maturing and becoming more
comfortable with their own selves, some great actors no longer feel a need to “hide
behind a mask” within their work. If such is the case, then whenever a DeNiro,
Pacino, Nicholson or Walken give a mediocre performance while seeming to be
“DeNiro”, “Pacino”, “Nicholson” or “Walken”, they’re probably just coasting and
failing to meet their earlier, better standard (i.e. Raging Bull, Dog Day Afternoon, Five Easy Pieces, The Deer Hunter)

Arkin’s case, however, he has remained an interesting and compelling screen
presence even if the movie he’s in might be nothing to write home about. As he
writes, this consistent quality is deliberate: “for me, every activity I engage
in has to contain the possibility of internal growth; otherwise it ends up as
either ‘making a living’ or ‘passing the time’—two ways of going through life
that feel to me like a living death. I want to know with every passing moment
that I am alive, that I am conscious, that with every breath I take there will
be some possibility of growth, of surprise, and of complete spontaneity.”

long live Alan Arkin, as well as “Alan Arkin.”

degrees in Film and Digital Media studies and Moving Image Archive
Studies, Lincoln Flynn lives in Los Angeles and writes about film on a sporadic
basis at His Twitter handle is @Lincoln_Flynn.

2 thoughts on “Not As “Himself”: Three Early Alan Arkin Screen Performances”

  1. Don't forget his cameo in the brilliant "Little Murders" (1971), which Arkin of course also directed.


  2. I love the way Arkin says, "I cannot negotiate in an atmosphere of distrust" in WUD. It's chilling — the most memorable line in the film. I try to work it into conversations at the office whenever I can.

    I would add The Seven-Per-Cent Solution as a fourth. Letting Nicol Williamson to chew the scenery while he remained calm and reassuring served the role perfectly.


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