BUT CAN SHE ACT?
By William Franklin
Back in the days of black and white TV, when it and I were young, I would hear my parents during a Playhouse 90 presentation (or something of the sort) exclaim, “Boy, can she act.” Or they would say, “Boy, can he act.” And I, being quite small, could not figure out why a perfectly good actor or actress should merit such attention from my mom and dad. I figured that there was acting and then there was really good acting and it was time I learned the difference. So I would ask my parents during just about every show since, “Can Lucy act. Can Matt Dillon act? Can Jack Webb act? Can Dennis the Menace act?”
And a funny thing would happen—my parents would start to wince whenever the question came up. It seems I always followed that question with a why or why not and, I will be damned, my folks didn’t have the slightest idea why someone could act or not. After 7000 questions and disappointing living room interviews, my parents couldn’t tell me what that thing was that made a good actor good or a bad actor bad. They and I didn’t have a clue. And another funny thing happened, their TV viewing comfort level started to fade. They started watching TV defensively, refraining from any pronouncements about a star’s ability and I knew then that I had taken some of the exuberance out of their previously confident TV viewing.
And another funny thing happened—my parents started enforcing my bedtime time, which previously was dependent on if I was sleepy, and now, before Naked City or Perry Mason even, I was supposed to go to bed. So I really have not liked good actors ever since.
But this is not what I wanted to talk to you about. I just wanted to raise the question of how do you know when something is good (watch out) or bad, and if it is, should anyone dare mention it. So in order to avoid my parent’s syndrome of not having the slightest idea why they liked something, I thought it would behoove us to come up with criteria for the goodness of certain things.
Take harmonica playing for example. I think for a harmonica player to be good he should know how to play “Shenandoah.” And he should make you feel a little wistful while you are listening, and make you feel that rollin’ river. I surmise that if you are not feeling that rollin’ river and at least making some attempt to long to see it, emotionally at least, then that particular harmonica player does not merit a “Boy, can she play” or “Boy, can he play.” Or if the harmonica player is playing some jig and you find yourself still seated and not have one foot in the air high kicking like you’ve never high kicked before, then probably, no not probably, certainly, that’s not the kind of player we have in mind.
Or let’s say someone gets stupid and writes a novel. There is only one thing that can save a novel from two hundred pages of tedium. And that is if the villain is the most evil, dreadful, repulsive and mean-spirited jerk around. To be reader-worthy, think Stalin on his worst day, torturing his buddy’s wife and then making his buddy bring him some coffee, or something pissy like that. Or, for example, have some working class Lothario seduce the rich, beautiful, innocent, generous-to-a-fault but crippled lady and steal all her money and then turn her out for some trashy thing that can walk. These are the kinds of things that make the reader crave turning pages until goodness triumphs and the reader can finally exclaim, “Boy, can she write” or “Boy, can he write.”
Then there is yo-yo playing. That is more obvious, even a playground child knows the art behind the yo-yo. If the expert can walk the dog, go around the world (and not knock anyone unconscious) and hold the string in two fingers like it’s a loom and he is doing some threading, then you have a yo-yo player.
So that is the concept. When evaluating something as abstract as acting or music or novel-making, the idea is to have some criteria that goes one step beyond mere endorsement. And be prepared to explain it to some kid.