I was rewatching The Cocoanuts, and something struck me—do you think one of the reasons people assumed Margaret Dumont had no sense of humour had to do with the fact that she was able to do all those scenes with Groucho Marx at the height of his abilities and not break? There are lines I laugh at every time. The film turns ninety this year, and I’ve seen it half a dozen times. But I can’t even think about Groucho’s convincing the staff that it’s wages that turn you into wage slaves and therefore they’re better off without them without smiling. How did Margaret Dumont manage?
But how did the staff manage? Think about that. Some crowd scenes involve literally dozens of extras, and they all have to listen to those lines and not break. It’s highly improbable that literally none of them had a sense of humour; I’ve known one person in my life who I’m certain didn’t, and that was my own grandfather. I suppose they could have just had a different sense of humour. Or not spoken English? It seems improbable, especially since there are also all those other characters who interact with them. They can’t all have learned their lines phonetically.
Some movies require more of their extras than others. For a lot of them, all you have to do is be somewhere. Many movies with crowd scenes are probably boring for the extras to make but nothing particularly interesting other than that. Depending on what they’re filming, the movie may even use preexisting crowd footage in their location, I suppose. Certainly I’m not trying to claim that being an extra is the most demanding of the generally uncelebrated jobs in the industry; the stunt people would insist on a word with me if I did that. And an Oscar for Best Extra would be frankly ludicrous. Still, it’s worth thinking about.
Possibly the two most difficult parts for an extra are the ones where you have to fail to react to something in front of you and the ones where you have to react to something that isn’t. Imagine now not being an extra on Animal Crackers or similar but being an extra in an MCU movie. Sure, Ant-Man used a ton of practical effects, but there are bits of MCU movies that literally can’t be anything but CGI, not to mention all the movies that aren’t Ant-Man. So something big and exciting is happening, you guess, probably, and you’re supposed to react appropriately and in the right direction. I have a family picture where we are all unsuccessfully looking at the camera, and it was right in front of us and there were five of us. Imagine trying to get a hundred or two people all looking at the giant alien ship that isn’t actually there.
The Academy is taking a lot of heat this week, and rightfully so, for the idea that cinematography and editing are unimportant awards that can be handed out during commercial breaks with no one’s really caring about them. Certainly those are the biggest, most important categories to be concerned about when they’re ignored; treating them as unimportant basically fails to understand what makes movies what they are. But the fascinating thing about movies to me is how many things have to work together to make a movie truly outstanding, and many of those bits are less flashy than editing or stunts. Just consider that even the extras in movies like Wyatt Earp, part of which was filmed in Port Angeles, Washington—hardly full of people who are in movies every day—are failing to look repeatedly at the camera and crew and are just pretending to be ordinary people in an ordinary situation. It’s something you only notice when it goes wrong, and you seldom notice it.
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