There’s a tense restaurant scene in Kramer vs. Kramer between Ted and Joanna, the characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. This is the arc of the latter part of the scene. Ted wants to rattle Joanna, who walked out on the family unit but now wants her son back. He knows her as a meek woman, so he decides to get all caveman on her. He explodes. Being a student of the Method, Hoffman cared about performance — not just his, but also his coactor’s — to an insane degree, so this is what he did, as reported in a 2016 Vanity Fair article by Michael Schulman.
From the article: Between takes, he approached the cameraman and leaned in. “See that glass there on the table?” he said, nodding toward his white wine. “If I whack that before I leave” — he promised to be careful — “have you got it in the shot?” “Just move it a little bit to the left,” the [cameraman] said out of the corner of his mouth. In the next take, Dustin smacked the wineglass and it shattered on the restaurant wall. Meryl jumped in her chair, authentically startled. “Next time you do that, I’d appreciate you letting me know,” she said. There were shards of glass in her hair. The camera caught the whole thing.
Did Hoffman get the “truth” in the performance that Method mentor Stanislavsky taught his students to reach for? Absolutely! But where he succeeded as an actor, he failed as a human being. One, he put his co-star in danger. (What if the shards of glass had harmed her?) But more importantly, he didn’t ask for her consent. Now, this is the grey area, from Hoffman’s point of view. If you tell someone you’re going to smash a wineglass against a wall, they are going to expect it. Their reaction may not be as “authentic”. But if you don’t tell them, you are basically being a dick. You are saying your art is more important than a fellow human being.
I was reminded of this incident when I heard of Rekha’s now-viral video about what happened during the shoot of the suicide scene in Punnagai Mannan. Even when the film was released, the scene was hugely controversial — though not for the reasons it’s become controversial now. In those more conservative times, it was all about ohmygodaliptolipkiss. Rekha was asked about it constantly, and if memory serves me right, this is how the incident went. There were endless retakes and K Balachander was not seeing the passion of two lovers in their last moments. Kamal kept trying one thing after another. Finally, when he kissed Rekha, the scene clicked for the director. He said okay. Packup!
I think the story runs a little differently now, with the kiss being pre-planned. But whether it was pre-planned or improvised, it was wrong. There’s no two ways about that. What Marlon Brando and Bernardo Bertolucci did on the sets of Last Tango in Paris was wrong. What one-time Tamil filmmakers did to extract tears from their leading ladies was wrong. (They used to slap them.) This kiss was wrong, too. The reason behind the kiss isn’t wrong. This is what two young lovers would do. The way the kiss was enacted, that’s the problem.
In the Method, the actor is inside his/her character so much that he/she is in the character’s skin even before entering the stage. And once on stage, they respond freely to the environment around them — to the props, to the people. Now, I don’t know if Kamal Haasan is a Method actor, but I do believe he follows — perhaps instinctively, or maybe by reading up — some of those techniques. We’ve all seen how responsive — gesturally, emotionally, physically — he is to props and people in a scene. So at least my take on this scene in Punnagai Mannan — and you don’t have to agree — is that it was not done for some cheap, porny thrills, but to get at the “truth” of that moment.
Meryl Streep herself acknowledges this. When, in a 2018 New York Times interview, reporter Cara Buckley asked about the Kramer vs. Kramer incidents (there were many others, including one where Hoffman slapped her), the actress said, “This is tricky because when you’re an actor, you’re in a scene, you have to feel free. I’m sure that I have inadvertently hurt people in physical scenes. But there’s a certain amount of forgiveness in that. But this was my first movie, and it was my first take in my first movie, and he just slapped me. And you see it in the movie. It was overstepping. But I think those things are being corrected in this moment. And they’re not politically corrected; they’re fixed. They will be fixed, because people won’t accept it anymore.”
It’s because people aren’t accepting this anymore that the Punnagai Mannan scene has become a talking point — but this piece isn’t to demand punishments and apologies. Regarding the former, I do not think it’s fair to use today’s mores to judge what people did yesterday. (Again, your mileage may vary.) An apology, at least, would seem to make sense — it, at least, shows that the person apologising realises what he has done. But again, I don’t know if any apology, however earnest and heartfelt, can make up for years of emotional trauma suffered by the victim. I mean, if Meryl Streep is still talking about Kramer vs. Kramer in 2016…
What made me write this piece, then, is the question: How does one do this in cinema? How does one (as Streep puts it) “feel free in physical scenes”, while at the same time, be respectful of the co-actor? Here are five suggestions for filmmakers and actors.
1 Be as specific as possible in the scripting stage itself, so that the actress (it could be an actor, too, but it’s mostly women who end up shortchanged in such situations) knows what she is in for. Amala Paul knew she was being asked to go nude in Aadai. Thiagarajan Kumararaja told Samantha Akkineni, during the narration of Super Deluxe, that her character would be seen riding her ex. So at this point, if an actress is not comfortable with the situation, she can opt out right away.
2 Once the script is okayed, get ironclad contracts. Nazriya Nazim complained that the shot of Dhanush grabbing her waist in Naiyandi was done without her knowledge, by using a body double. Bring these things into the contract. Insist that every scene by (or with) the actress should have her consent. If you are using a body double, then the legalese should explicitly spell out that the actress has agreed to this and maybe even that she will approve the body double. If you are shooting a sex scene, the actress should be able to insist on who can be present on the sets. So on, so forth.
3 So now, the script has been okayed, the contract has been signed. It’s time to shoot. Now let’s say there’s the need to improvise, to do the whole “feel free in physical scenes” thing. Unless the actress says “Anything goes” (in which case, this whole article is moot), do the improvising during rehearsals and not on camera. Just hearing about a husband character groping his wife may sound okay to the actress, but the way the touching happens (during rehearsals), she may not be comfortable with. So iron out these things beforehand, as much as possible.
4 Get some neutral (but artistic-minded) people on the set. Just like PETA hauls up those who exceed limits when it comes to animals, let there be people in charge of ensuring there’s no violation of consent.
5 Now the film is all shot and done. It’s time for the edit. Again, make the actress a part of this process. If you are adding a sexy moan during the sound mix, play it back to her and make sure she is okay with the sexiness of that moan. Or even if the actress says yes to a sex scene, she may find she’s not comfortable with some angles in the footage. So give her a voice during the edit.
None of this is going to compromise the artistic process. If you get an actress as mad and Method-y as Dustin Hoffman, that may be the most ideal situation. Everyone’s committed to the process with the same amount of craziness. But if not, the actress has to have a say. The director has to give her a voice. Cinema is not greater than consent.