Stalag 17

Stalag 17

(May 29th, 2010)

Not long ago I showed my film “Walkaways” to a friend who kept going back and forth on the performance of Chris Wood. I had cast him as the hapless Pete, the brunt of many a joke in this group of friends that the film examines. I knew Chris through college, and he is an avid stage actor, constantly at work on his latest character for many stages big and small around the state of CT. I never talked to him much about it, but based on the fact that his stage appearances far outweigh his time onscreen, I think it is the immediacy of the stage he prefers.

It is also a different style of acting. Stage acting never knew a close up shot or a zoom lens. As cinema entered the realm of make believe, actions were allowed to be smaller; subtler. Stage acting often is easy to spot in film. It seems larger-than life; perhaps too playful.

In the case of Pete in “Walkaways,” we did work to bring down the actions. What fault there is in his performance, I must take equal responsibility. As the sometimes-buffoon of the group, we decided that Pete would often times be “playing.” My friend didn’t entirely buy this. It’s not that she didn’t like the performance, but rather it stood out. It made notice of itself. Chris Wood was ACTING, while the other characters seemed to exist maybe. I can see her point. I still like the performance.

I bring this up not only to defend myself as a director and Chris Wood as a performer, but to also discuss Billy Wilder’s screen adaptation of the stageplay, “Stalag 17.” For the film adaptation, Wilder kept many of the stage cast, and then cast William Holden (a big STAR) for the lead.

Billy Wilder is a great director. He is Lee/Jeremy’s favorite. And his film suffers the same fate! And if Billy Wilder was okay with it, then Pete and I certainly are! The film has such resonance and implications, as well as such a tight plot it could be probably acted by stick figures and still keep you on the edge of your seat. However, it does not. It has William Holden’s subdued, laconic, brooding fifties cinematic male. He is quiet when he is not being overly bombastic and he keeps his emotions close to the heart. We contrast that with a character such as Robert Strauss’ Animal. Here is a performer if ever there was one. Every emotion is big, embellished. There is nothing real about this performance. One always senses he is aware we are watching him.

Then again, they are always being watched. They are in a POW camp after all.

That Wilder concocted a mash of two particular acting styles might not be entirely on purpose. It is well known that Wilder wanted a star for the lead. Holden turned down the role, and in turn Wilder had the role beefed up so that he would reconsider. He did. Good thing, he won an Oscar for his performance.

Can Billy Wilder direct a movie? He made “The Fortune Cookie,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “The Apartment” to name a few. Does that answer your question? So why did he let the stage actors act like they were on stage? I am not completely sure. I can say that they did. I can say that surely Wilder noticed this. I noticed it. But I didn’t mind. Much of what these POW prisoners are doing is putting on a show: Cooperating while plotting escape; pretending to have lives; pretending there is no comfort in being outside of the fight;  acting as if they have rights.

In fact, the only one that doesn’t have this pretense is William Holden’s J.J. Sefton. He is the most accomplished and well adjusted prisoner there. And maybe that is that. Maybe Wilder was trying to say something.

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