Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"I can't deny the fact that, right now..."

In his recent post "Jack Nicholson explains the Oscars for you," Jim Emerson asked an interesting question: Have you ever been watching a movie and gotten the impression that the actor(s) are thinking more about Oscars than their characters?

Well, who hasn’t?

This point gets raised often during the awards season, and I have always had mixed feelings about it. It is not necessarily a bad thing per se – an actor’s thinking about an Oscar more than their character isn't, necessarily, tantamount to whoring, or selling out. Similarly, a bad performance(in a “weighty” film) can exist in spite of the actor’s genuine concentration in the character they’re playing, without their entertaining even the smallest thought of recognition (or validation). And then there are simply terrible performances where the actor doesn’t think about anything at all – I’m looking at you, Benigni.

For example, albeit a wonderful performance (and an even greater film), Peter Sellers’s turn as Chance in Being There fits the criteria of an actor thinking more about the Oscar than their character. From the same year, it’s always seemed to me that Sally Field, too, was more concerned with getting her hands round the golden statue than Norma Rae, the character. Whereas, what I perceive to be, Sellers’ pandering for a best actor nod does not bother me in the slightest, Sally Field’s does. Consequently, I have always been biased towards the actress – Places in the Heart doesn’t have a place in my heart, and she even spoils Mrs Doubtfire for me (as far as I’m concerned, if a film features a man in drag, then it's already done half the work). For me, this intentness on the Oscar is a relatively modern phenomenon going back to the seventies with Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were, or George Burns and Walter Matthau in The Sunshine Boys. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any examples from earlier (I’ve never seen Charly, so maybe Cliff Robertson? I don’t know).

I recently watched Gandhi for the first time in twenty years, and Ben Kingsley’s performance reeked to me of Oscar-bait. There is a Performance in every single scene with him – sometimes an actor just has to say the line, and do what he is told. As David Mamet says, the nail doesn’t have to look like a ship, it has to look like a nail. I know Stanley Kubrick argued that every single shot in every single scene of a movie had to communicate the essential truth and meaning of the film in question, but that was Kubrick. When one’s making a biography, a form not suited to drama in the first place, at times, one has to keep certain things simple. Including the acting.

The respective performances of four of the actors who made Edward Copeland's survey of Worst of the Best Actor winners also have "For Your Consideration" written all over them: Denzel Washington in Training Day, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, and AL PACINO (a name which, by law, has to be in ALL CAPS) in Scent of a Woman. In fact, it’s a given that an actor playing a drunk, disabled or plain old mental character has, on their mind, more than just the evocation of truth and beauty through their craft. They want that statuette, and they want it bad. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot is the exception that proves the rule – Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York isn’t. Robert DeNiro’s lugubrious work in Awakenings, Jack Nicholson’s hammy and histrionic turns in The Departed and Ironweed, Sean Penn's fidgety performance in I Am Sam – in each case, the actor’s preoccupation with the Oscar overshadows their performance on the screen.

Almost all modern actors have done it one time or another: Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, John Hurt in Midnight Express, Warren Beatty in Bugsy, Vanessa Redgrave in Atonement, Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce Knowles in Dreamgirls, Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, Danny DeVito in Man On The Moon (a performance I simply ADORE), Meryl Streep and Cher in Silkwood

Of course, my choices betray more about me than they do about the actors in question. Good or bad, we impose on all actors baggage that we bring along – which, admittedly, they’ve helped us pack in the first place. It’s just that sometimes that baggage pales in comparison to the actor’s lust for recognition.


Kevin J. Olson said...

I saw your post on Emerson's site and clicked on over to see what you had to say in your post. I couldn't agree with you more. Sean Penn especially in "I am Sam" and "Mystic River" just reeks of Oscar bait, as you put it.

What I always find interesting about this is that critics or fans of these kinds of showy performances think the movie is good based on the performance, but never ask, is this how this character, as we have come to know him (with whatever amount of character development there has been) act?

A lot of those performances aren't interested in answering those questions. Which, to me, is a shame, because smaller (and better) more subdued and quieter performances (like Ian McKellen in "Gods and Monsters" or Russell Crowe -- yes even Russell Crowe -- in "The Insider") are disregarded and slited for more noisy, "show me the money", type performances (like Russell Crowe in "Beautiful Mind" or "Gladiator").

Can the affect be reversed I wonder? Is Tommy Lee Jones too subdued? Is Ralph Fiennes too british and droll? I wonder if there is such a thing as underacting?

Also, I wonder if simple aping is something that is also regarded as "great" acting. I'm thinking of Robert Downey Jr as Chaplin, or Warren Beatty as Bugsy, or Laurence Fishbourne as Ike Turner, Geofrey Rush as "you know that piano player from Shine...Shiney McShinerson" (okay I couldn't remember his name, but I love that Simpson's quote), and of course the most recent of them all, Jaime Foxx as Ray Charles. I think the Academy often rewards simply mimicry over actual great acting. (Although I must admit, I enjoy a purely ham-tastic acting job like DeNiro in "Cape Fear" or Daniel Day-Lewis in "TWBB".)

Regardless, you have a great post here and I couldn't agree with you more on some of your choices for performances that care more about the Oscar than the character.

Ali Arikan said...

Hey Kevin – Thanks for your kind words.

You make a valid point regarding mimicry of a character. Now I like actors doing voices as much as the next plebian, but basing an entire performance, if not film, kind of defeats the purpose of acting, no? That is not to say that the practice is doomed from the start: where Joaquin Phoenix succeeds, Robert Downey Jr fails (and not because his accent is all over the place – though it helps).

Shiny McShine – that’s from one of the Halloween specials, no? I especially enjoy Rosie O’Donnell’s leading everyone in a rendition of The Trolley Song as their rocket hurtles inexorably towards the sun. “Clang-clang-clang-went the trolley…” Ahh, good times.

Anonymous said...

Great post and comment ...

Kevin (we're no relation, are we?), I think the difference between pure mimicry and mimicry+acting is that if the actor internalizes the character instead of just displays all the surface ticks ...

But I wouldn't categorize Warren Beatty as Bugsy in the mimicry category ... Warren Beatty is always just simply Warren Beatty.

Kevin J. Olson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin J. Olson said...

Ali -- Yes, that Simpson's quote is from the Halloween episode. And you're right, it is "McShine", not "McShinerson." D'oh! I too love that Rosie O' Donnell is singing that song and that Pauly Shore and Tom Arnold come up with the brilliant plan to make a sitcom together. I love the line where they have Tom Arnold say: "i never tied anyone down and made them watch my shows, and I could have, because I'm a big guy and I'm good with knots."

Good times indeed.

Rick -- I don't believe we are related, hehe. I don't know of any distant relatives with your name. I agree with your assessment of mimicry versus mimicry + acting. I think some of these actors choose not to worry about the internalization (even though they seem to be quite capable) and go for the showy part of it.

Some recent examples of good to great performances, based on real people are: Johnny Depp as Donnie Brasco, Russell Crowe as Jeffery Wigand, and Leonardo Dicaprio as Frank Abignale Jr.

These performances, to me, are perfect examples of that type of "internal" acting you seem to be speaking of.

Ali Arikan said...

Kevin (we're no relation, are we?)

You're not the other Olson Twins now, are you?

Jason Bellamy said...

Ari: I found your post through "Scanners," too. Emerson had me thinking, and you added to it.

It led to a post of my own, and I threw you some props and a link.

If you're interested...

Keep up the good work.