Can Dogs Act?

There has been a lot of talk about whether Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who stars with Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist should get an Oscar. A campaign to make this happen has already begun. He has been awarded the palme dog by a group of journalists at the Cannes film festival and BAFTA, the British film academy, felt the need to remind their members that all votes must go to a human candidate. It got me thinking.

At first it seems a ridiculous idea. Surely the Oscar should go to the dog’s trainer, or perhaps to the actor who has to build up a close relationship with the dog on screen or stage, rather than the dog? Isn’t the “performance” just the result of the audience projecting their own feelings onto the animal and seeing what they want to see? The old actor’s adage “never work with children or animals” grew up for a reason. Any time that you put a dog in front of an audience half of those watching will already be on its side before it has done anything at all. As soon as it actually does something their hearts will be going out to it. Dog acts have always been popular whether on stage or screen. Dogs were stars of music hall and variety and heroes of early silent films and they love to work with people. A well trained dog, doing things which come naturally to it, loves to work and give pleasure to its trainer and that pleasure is infectious and crosses over to the audience. The dog may be enjoying being the centre of attention but it is not acting.

Or is it? Set aside the obvious fact that a dog is not capable of playing a character for a moment and think again. Many a human star has made a great career out of playing themselves in every role that they are given. Some have been great actors and won Oscars for it. This fragile skill gave Cary Grant and James Stewart, just to name two examples, great careers and they were much loved and admired for it. Nobody would dream of suggesting that they can’t act. Being able to play yourself in a relaxed, natural, truthful way requires great skill. I have been on stage with many amateur actors who were utterly unable to achieve this and even watched quite a few professionals who struggle. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is at the heart of great acting. It is more important than any assumed accent, walk or character make up, however clever and convincing they may be. Some dogs, only a very few admittedly, have the confidence and personality to be able to do this without any trouble at all. If they are made to understand what it is that they have to do and they are around people who they trust they will do it wholeheartedly without any embarrassment or second thoughts. If they are one of the well trained minority who have the talent that is……….. One of the best times I have ever had in a theatre was watching an RSC production of Two Gentlemen of Verona during which Richard Moore, playing Launce, gave his dog Crab his dinner. It was a blissfully funny and perfectly timed double act and on the day I saw it Crab looked straight at his master and yawned on cue when he was told that he was the most disreputable dog in creation. It stopped the show. Most of that timing came from a wonderful actor of course, but it wouldn’t have worked with just any dog. Wooly the lurcher who played Crab was special and the RSC has recognised that by placing his picture at the very top of the stairs up the observation tower in the new main theatre at Stratford.

Here is the trailer from the film Bombon El Perro with Juan Villegas and his co star Cha Cha, a dogo argentino. Have a look and see what you think.

Notice the shared glance in the van. That dog is secure in his own skin. He is playing himself to perfection and he has been put in a situation where he can relax with the actor sitting next to him and a whole relationship is suddenly there on screen. They are an odd couple, summing each other up. When they get to know each other things will start to happen and we want to be there to watch. The plot is being set up and it is going to be one which explores character rather than relying on events. Both of them have been through hard times and already we are on their side. Cha Cha also has tremendous physical presence, something which Olivier was much admired and praised for, and this is another aspect of a performance which is by no means trivial.

More often of course dogs have been action heroes, asked to use their physical skills to rescue or help. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie were the most famous examples of this type of canine Errol Flynn character, and they are much loved and and still remembered. When I owned a rough collie I got used to life having a constant soundtrack of “Ahhhh! Lassie” when we were out and about together. This was usually from children but by no means always. An early example of this kind of stardom was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s American pit bull terrier Luke who starred with his master in a series of silent films, displaying great confidence and physical courage. Here is a montage of some of his greatest moments.

And that brings me back to Uggie. If I was writing his Oscar citation I would want to point out how he never takes his eyes off his screen master Jean Dujardin, lesser dog actors can often be seen sneaking a glance at their off stage trainer or even staring at them fixedly waiting to be told what to do next. His concentration is absolute. Actors spend years at drama school doing exercises to get them to that point. It’s difficult, much more difficult than it looks. I would want to show the scene where he is careering down a crowded street on a rescue mission, alert and full of purpose. He had obviously been trained to run down that road but nobody could have put that kind of commitment into his head. He had to feel it for himself. The timing which Uggie and Jean Dujardin display throughout in their scenes is delightful. Try doing that kind of acting with someone who isn’t up to it, as I have after knowing what it is like to be on stage with someone who has talent, and you will fall flat on your face. It takes two, and on this occasion one of them happened to be a dog.

Here is the trailer for The Artist. Look out for him.

So does Uggie deserve an Oscar? Maybe, maybe not. He is probably above such things, as he should be.The academy has never recognised a performance by a dog before, and there have been many. He is a very good skateboarder though, and I would love to see him skateboarding across the stage on Oscar night carrying an Oscar for Jean Dujardin.