The Players' Journal


Subtle Change


I was watching Rushmore with my family the other night.  It’s one of our favorites, from Wes Anderson’s direction to the wonderful performances by a stellar cast.  But one moment in particular struck me and prompted this post.

Towards the end of the film, the character played by Bill Murray (Herman) meets the father of the character played by Jason Schwartzman (Max). It’s a simple moment, really, but it is truly one of the most beautiful moments of acting I have seen.  And it exemplifies performing subtle change.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, Max is a 15-year old oddball/wunderkind who is more interested in extra curricular than curricular matters at the posh private school he attends on scholarship.  Throughout the movie, he makes various claims that may or may not be true, one of which is that his father is a neurosurgeon. We learn soon that this is not true, but Herman does not until this crucial moment.  He and Max are rivals of a sort for the character played by Olivia Wilde (in a marvelous understated performance), and play an increasingly absurd game of tit-for-tat that destroys Herman’s marriage and gets Max expelled.  At the turning point in the movie, Max decides to make amends and invites Herman to his father’s place of work–a barbershop.

The scene is beautifully constructed.  Herman waits for Max outside the shop in the rain, not knowing why he is there and what Max wants.  Max arrives, apologizes for his behavior and invites him in to “meet someone.”  The moment occurs in a tight three-shot, Murray on the left, Schwartzman in the middle, and the fantastic Seymour Cassel (as Max’s father, Bert) on the right.  Herman clearly doesn’t know why he’s being introduced to a barber, until Max says, “Herman, this my dad, Bert.”  Murray registers this in a remarkable way, all in about three seconds.  First is confusion, followed by realization, followed by understanding, followed by sadness, followed by acceptance, and forgiveness.  The first moment is, “wait, I thought Max’s dad was a neurosurgeon.”  The next thought is, “oh, this is Max’s dad.”  The next, “Max’s dad is a barber–he lied to me.”  Then, “Max thought he had to lie about his dad being a barber.”  The penultimate thought is, “oh, that dear boy–not so unlike me–someone who doesn’t belong at the party for rich people.”  And finally, “all is forgiven.”  This happens, as I said, in just a few seconds, and culminates in a simple, unadorned, but fully realized, “nice to meet you.”

From a technical point of view, this is superb, economical acting.  Murray allows in the information–the words as well as the felt content of the moment coming from all the actors.  The information travels through him, registering primarily in tiny little behaviors that play across his face.  Then he turns that energy outward, redirecting it to vocalization and physicalization, as well as containing a well of feeling just so, so that we, the audience, feel it more than he shows.  Perfection.

From an artistic point of view, it strikes me that a tremendous amount of compassion is required to play that moment so effectively.  A lesser actor, perhaps a less compassionate person, might easily over-play that moment, adding a take, or mugging a bit–to signal to the audience what we’re supposed to understand, rather than trusting that we will.

I wonder if Murray recalls that moment and whether or not he was aware of all that was going on.  His performance throughout this film suggests to me that he was well aware and, in fact, used this movie to re-define himself as a performer.

I wonder how many takes it took to get that one, and what other shot set-ups Anderson tried.

Murray’s lessons for actors, as I see them:  1. Trust yourself and the audience.  2.  Allow energy in, through, and out.  3. Nurture compassion.

These strike me as subtle, but important lessons to which we as actors and teachers of acting must return again and again.


The Players’ Journal will soon be hosted at a new home–Northern Illinois University.  Deep appreciation and thanks to SUNY New Paltz, which server has hosted TPJ since it’s online inception.  The change will be subtle–unnoticeable, in fact.  But it will allow TPJ to continue and, hopefully and with your help, flourish.