Holiday Edition – Best Swordfights on Screen

21 12 2012

A lighter entry for the holiday season! Hollywood Sapien is supposed to be an anthropologist’s eye on the entertainment industry. But I’ve also been a fencing coach for twenty years, and a fencer for almost twenty-five; so this week, it’s a fencer’s eye on the entertainment industry instead. Featuring a highly biased selection of the greatest swordfights on screen. There are plenty of other greats, but these are personal favorites.

Other than the first, they are presented in no particular order. Enjoy! And keep your eyes peeled for the next Sapien entry, on the amazing world of headshots.

1)The Princess Bride

PrincessBride

Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) vs. Wesley (Cary Elwes). Hands-down the greatest sword fight ever filmed (though in William Goldman’s script this is specifically called “the second greatest swordfight ever”). It used to be considered gauche to say this was the best sword duel ever filmed; it was critically assumed that you had to list a fight from a classic movie as the greatest, not one from an 80s comedy. But this one truly has it all – it’s exciting and acrobatic, has plot twists all its own, and a dynamism seen in the best screen duels: the pacing and tempo ebb and flow.

2.)Scaramouche

Scaramouche

Scaramouche/Andre Moreau (Stewart Granger) vs. de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). A classic, and deservedly so. For many years, this 8-minute long fencing match was the longest sword duel ever put to screen (and it may still be). This is a swordfight of the classic costume picture era, and it shows. Dazzling sets, sumptuous costumes, and some excellent stunt work make for a great duel. And having watched the main character practice his fencing throughout the movie, it really feels like a culmination of the story; like an epic swordfight is really the only way the movie could end.

3)Ladyhawke

Ladyhawke

Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer) vs. Marquet (Ken Hutchison). An often-overlooked film duel, this is one of the greats. It starts as a sword fight on horseback, and degenerates (realistically, for a movie) into an on-the-ground brawl, beginning with the opponents clear hatred of each other, and finishing with two exhausted fighters just swinging away with whatever they’ve got left. It’s the sword fight version of the alley brawl in They Live, and it’s great for the same reasons; two big guys smashing away at each other, getting tired but still giving it their all. (also, see note at the end about the music).

4)Robin Hood (1922 version)

RobinHood

Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks) vs. the Entire Palace Guard (lots of extras). Douglas Fairbanks was a longtime fencer, and his passion for the sword shows in this picture. Robin’s fight with roughly 20 palace guardsmen is fantastic, and originated many things that later became clichés of the genre – fighting two guys at once with a sword in each hand, fighting an entire squad of guards and singlehandedly pushing them back – it’s the best. Plus, there’s a great pre-fight with Guy of Guisborne (Paul Dickey) in which Robin opens the fight by throwing his hat in Guys’ face, then just goes to town and chokes him like a baseball bat, before breaking him over a piece of furniture. Then Robin grabs a sword and goes after the guards.

5)Rob Roy

RobRoy

Rob Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson) vs. Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). What’s particularly great about this fight is that it unfolds the way a battle between two men with these particular weapons (a Scottish broadsword and a rapier) would actually have occurred. The guy with the rapier is much quicker, and dances around his opponent, slashing him to bits. In fact, it’s only the cockiness of the villain that insures his destruction, when Rob Roy grabs the lighter blade, ignoring the pain, and delivers the kind of final stroke you can only get from a good broadsword.

And, like all good DVDs, we’ll add one special bonus, deleted scene:

6)Better Off Dead

Better-Off-Dead-Theatrical-Poster

Lane Meyer (John Cusack) vs. Ricky Smith (Daniel Schneider). You’ve just skied the infamous K-12, and beaten the stuck-up and overtly ubermensch captain of the ski team, Roy Stalin. You’ve escaped the paperboy, to whom you owe two dollars. And your dreamgirl, French foreign exchange student Monique, is on your arm. But one dastardly rogue stands in your way: skeevy neighbor Ricky, who wants the girl for himself. Ski poles are drawn; only one man can emerge the victor.

— Scott Frank

  • Note: it’s true, there are no lightsaber duels listed here. You know why? Lightsabers aren’t swords. It’s not that their blades are energy or anything, it’s that they have no handguards. To stop the blade from sliding down and cutting off your hand. A handguard is one of the basic parts of a sword; without one, you’re not holding a sword, you’re holding a glorified club. (and yes, the ski poles in Better Off Dead don’t really count either – but it’s one of the greatest comedies of the 80s, it gets a free pass).
  • Another note: there are no actual fencing (i.e. the sport) movies here. Good reason for that; first of all, there aren’t many, and secondly, the few that do exist are generally really, really terrible. But if you must…check out Ring of Steel (a favorite, ultra-cheesy classic) and By The Sword (Eric Roberts as a fencing master). Also, I’d be remiss to somehow skip Grace Kelly fencing in The Swan.
  • Ladyhawke takes a lot of heat from genre lovers, who particularly hate the 80s-new wave soundtrack; usually they say that 1980s music doesn’t fit the time period. They’d apparently prefer an orchestral score or classical music, which anachronistically doesn’t make much more sense – those forms of music mostly came about in the 1750s or later; the movie takes place in the 1200s. So is music 500 years out of date better than music 700 years out of date?
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How Many Actors are in New York?

13 12 2012

Following up the most popular Hollywood Sapien blog post ever (How Many Actors are in LA?), we are proud to present the sequel: How Many Actors are in New York?

The head of a company that serves New York actors recently wrote me about the LA entry, and we chatted about speculating on the number of NYC actors.  Now, I’ll once again put a big caveat on this: while I feel confident that my LA numbers are as good as anybody could reasonably calculate, my specialty has been studying the California-based entertainment industry, and since the professional culture and variables in New York are different, the NY numbers will be even more speculative than my LA ones.

NYMasks

Even the comedy and tragedy masks love NY!

One difference that was suggested to me was that while LA figures are based on the number of actors in SAG-AFTRA, because so much of New York’s acting culture is theatre-based, NYC ones should be based on Actor’s Equity membership instead, with SAG-AFTRA actors added.  Based on previous estimates that 80% of SAG-AFTRA members are in California, that makes sense, and figuring out the number of Equity Actors in NYC, while it took some digging, clearly is possible.

My calculations are based on Equity figures about the number of total members, the percentage who are stage managers vs. actors, and percentages of Equity jobs in the Eastern Region (basically the East Coast and eastern portion of the South) vs. the Central and Western regions (which cover the Midwest & western South, and West Coast & Southwest, respectively).  And so, the calculation:

Number of members of Actors Equity                    49,000

Minus 14% who are Stage Managers                        -6860

Leaves us with                                                       42,140

Adjust for 56% of Equity work in East region         23,598

 So, further estimating that 80% of the work in the Eastern Region occurs in New York, we get the final figure of Actor’s Equity actors in New York:

18,963

There are some educated assumptions here, mixed in with solidly known figures.  The number of members of Equity is known, and figures released by Equity in 2009 have the percentage that are stage managers, and the percentage of work that occurs in the Eastern Region.  I’m speculating as to what percentage of that work occurs in New York.  Still, the final figure of 18,963 makes sense; figures from the early 2000s had roughly 15,000 members of Equity in New York City, and so the figure above would include some moderate growth over the last ten years (one could expect a small but clear expansion in the numbers over a decade).

Okay, so we’ve got a good figure for the number of Actor’s Equity-based actors in New York.  But what about SAG-AFTRA actors who live there?  Previous calculations suggest that roughly 30,000 SAG-AFTRA members work predominantly outside of the LA area.  I’d say a hefty percentage of them are probably in New York, as high as 30%, or roughly 10,000 (keep in mind, those same previous calculations show that only about 20% of those people are actual working actors at any given time – so 10,000 people translates to “just” 2,000 working actors).*

If that’s true, including the SAG-AFTRA members brings the figure to:

 28,963

While I’m very comfortable with the 18,963 Equity figure, there are some serious issues with the second (SAG-AFTRA inclusive) one.  Among them, 1)What is the percentage of SAG-AFTRA members in New York?  (I speculate, but without any actual data to help) and 2)What is the number of crossover actors, who are members of both SAG-AFTRA and Actor’s Equity?  (this isn’t even taken into account in the figure above).  Also, while I have a good educated guess of the % of SAG-AFTRA members who are working at any given time, I have almost none for Equity actors…so those aren’t even taken into consideration here (a sizeable problem for me, but – it can’t be helped).

So, there you have it.  People more familiar with the New York acting world, please – I invite you to chime in with suggestions, thoughts, and ideas on how to refine these calculations.

— Scott Frank

  • The percentage of SAG-AFTRA actors in NY (here calculated at 30% of the total outside of California) was probably much higher in the past: likely 50% or more.  But the success of entertainment industry productions in Louisiana, Canada, North Carolina, Georgia, etc., has significantly impacted that figure.
  • The Equity calculation above uses the estimated figure that 80% of Equity work in the Eastern Region is done in New York; I have a vague feeling that is probably high, but have no way of verifying it.




Headshot Archaeology, Part I

5 12 2012

The thesis of Hollywood Sapien is that Hollywood has a culture, and all cultures produce artifacts – man-made objects that, when analyzed, tell us something about the culture in which they were produced.  In anthropology, we call these studies “material culture” and in fact, for many archaeologists, it’s the only way to learn about the culture of vanished civilizations.*

The entertainment industry produces lots of artifacts: every film, TV show, and YouTube video is itself a cultural artifact, but there are many other artifacts in use in Hollywood that can tell us about its culture. Here we’ll consider one of the most ubiquitous ones: the headshot.  While some entertainment industry artifacts (like Avid systems and matte paintings) are relatively few and far between, you find headshots all over the place in Southern California – not just in casting directors’ offices, but on the walls of seemingly every dry cleaner and auto repair shop in L.A.

artifacts

That’s right, I’m comparing actor headshots to these ancient artifacts.

Headshots have both a totemic function (to people not working in the entertainment industry) and a commercial one (to people who are).  The totemic function comes across on that dry cleaner’s wall – along with the car stereo stores, hairdressers, coffee shops, and everyplace else that has rows of headshots hanging, touting their celebrity clients.  Like other tribal totems, these headshots are meant to summon some of the power (the fame, image, and cachet) of those celebrities to the shop where they hang.   And by frequenting the shops where they appear, people get to bask – just a little – in the reflected glow of stars.

Figure2

Headshots as totems at a shoe repair shop. If you live in L.A., you probably see walls like this all over the place.

Artifacts are created for many reasons: some for ritual or religious use, some for entertainment, or as tools.  One of the most important things to note about headshots as artifacts is that they are objects produced for commercial use.  While commercial photography itself is very common, that’s not usually the case for portraits, which even when commercial in origin are mostly intended to have a personal use (like the picture of your friend’s baby taken at the Sears photo studio hanging on your fridge).  Headshots, on the other hand, are commercial images, but not personal ones; I’ve never seen one hanging in an actors’ home, in the way that personal snapshots and other photos do.

When I worked on a Roman archaeological site many years ago, one of the things we couldn’t believe is just how many damn pots those Romans made.  Similarly, another remarkable thing about headshot artifacts in the sheer number of them in circulation – every actor has two or three at any given time, and gets new shots made roughly every three or four years.  Even with the conservative estimate of a little over 21,000 working actors in Hollywood at any given time (see https://hollywoodsapien.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/how-many-actors-are-in-l-a/entry), that means well over 100,000 headshots in existence. 

The number involved directly in the casting process are also amazing: one casting director told me that for a minor guest star role on a network TV show, there will be between 1,500-3,000 actors vying for each spot; a typical sitcom episode might have one or two guest stars a week, an hourlong drama three to seven.  So for any given hour of television, a casting professional might have to look at 15,000 headshots – EVERY WEEK.  Of course, people doing the casting often don’t even see the full headshot; most of the time, they see just a tiny thumbnail, which they scroll past on a computer screen, like these:

Figure4

Thumbnail page from a casting site. You can see 12 images here, so for a single week’s episode of a network TV show, a casting director might have to look at over 1200 pages just like this one.  Yikes.

Which makes you feel bad sometimes for all the skill of the photographers who took the shots, and the actors who anxiously pore over details of the images: the way their hair looks, the tilt of the head, the crinkle of the smile, etc.  Small details don’t even come through the vast majority of the time their headshots will be seen by casting directors.*

You can learn a lot about a society from it’s material culture, and we’ve only scratched the surface of what headshots as artifacts can tell us about Hollywood.  There are plenty of topic for the next Sapien entry: how headshots reflect social and technological trends, the way they exhibit a something called polysemy (when people view the same object in different ways), and how, like many cultural artifacts, a history that can be traced in how they are made and what they look like. Until then…

— Scott Frank

  • Fear not, actors and photographers; obviously the time and energy you put into taking, editing, and selecting headshots isn’t really wasted: casting directors do see the details when they click on thumbnails or receive a copy of an actors physical headshot.
  • The impetus for this entry is an academic article I wrote on headshots that just got published in a scholarly journal – for which I interviewed a number of actors, headshot photographers, and casting professionals.  If you’re interested in that version, in all it’s dense academic-ese glory, the full citation is “Ready for Your Closeup? Polyvalent Identity and the Hollywood Headshot” in Visual Anthropology Review, volume 28 number 2, pages 180-189 (coming soon to a university library near you).
  • To my anthropologist and archeological colleagues – yes, I understand the distinction between how archaeological and material studies work; but for the lay audience, the relationship seems key.