The magic of cinema is that it can make you FEEL. Audiences WANT to feel something when they see a film. How many times have you heard someone give a negative review to a film they thought they would love? They like the director, the actors, the story, etc… but for some reason, the film let them down. They go into the theater expecting to love some new movie, and come out two hours later scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. Many times people can’t put their finger on why they didn’t respond to a film, but the fact remains that they weren’t moved. All the elements were in place, but for some reason they simply didn’t FEEL anything.
The actor is a surrogate for the viewer. It’s basic Film Theory 101 that audiences project themselves into a film and experience the action as if they are a part of it. When they look at the lead actors, they see idealized versions of themselves experiencing fantastic adventures. They “identify” with the actor as if looking into a mirror. (I didn’t make this stuff up…I’m just remembering it from film school…hopefully not mis-remembering.)
There are basically two ways to execute an emotionally-charged scene: (1) so that the AUDIENCE experiences the emotion, or (2) so that the audience watches SOMEONE ELSE experiencing the emotion. If the audience watches someone TRYING NOT to break down, trying not to cry, FIGHTING the emotion, trying not to lose their composure (but doing so anyway), then the audience will FEEL the emotion that the character appears to be fighting. On the other hand, if the audience watches someone GIVING IN WILLINGLY to an emotion, falling (or diving) head first into an emotional state, complete with tears, sobbing, etc., the audience will not be able to so easily FEEL the same thing. Why should they? It’s being felt FOR them. It has what I call the “lean back effect”…if I’m watching a film and I see an actor just sobbing their eyes out, after a few seconds I start to lean back from the screen, wanting the scene to end as quickly as possible…and I am not entertained. I don’t WANT to identify with this person putting on this display. However, if an actor appears to be fighting an emotional breakdown, I’m captivated and moved. As a director (or an actor), I’d rather put the emotion into the audience’s mind rather than just parade it around in front of them.
If you’re not actually feeling the emotion of a scene, it’s doubtful that FORCING an emotional display will have the desired result. You’re better off giving less rather than more. But if you ARE feeling the emotion of a scene, you will not be able to resist the emotion welling up inside of you, and will find yourself fighting not to completely lose control. This ALWAYS looks real to me, and I am always moved by it.