Friday, March 10, 2006

From the Archives: Performance Anxieties

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a post about why most of the conventional wisdom about what makes good acting - especially in movies - is wrong.

Many smart people spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about movies, but hardly anyone pays much attention to the acting. Whether writing popular movie reviews or academic film criticism, most writers will spend a great deal of time dealing with the specifics of a movie’s plot, theme, script, and technique, but they’ll describe the acting only in superficial generalities (i.e., “Tom Hanks was very believable” or “Keanu Reeves was wooden” or “Russell Crowe got to the heart of the character,” etc.).

I’m tempted to explain this by saying that writing about the specifics of a performance is simply harder than writing about the specifics of a screenplay. However, I don’t think that this is precisely true, that is, I think it is harder for most writers to write about acting, but not because of any inherent difference in difficulty. Rather, writers, being writers, find it easier to treat movies as a piece of writing. They find it easier to write about the literary qualities that movies shares with other kinds of writing (plot, theme, dialogue, etc.) than it is to write about those qualities that movies share with interpretative/performing arts.

I’d argue that only a writer could have come up with something like the auteur theory, because only a writer would look at a movie as the realization of a single person’s vision. A casual moviegoer would more likely, and more rightly, see a movie as the result of collaboration between the actors and some unseen technicians.

To offer some completely anecdotal evidence: not once in my career as a cinema studies grad student did I encounter (1) a piece of writing about acting or (2) someone who was working on a piece of writing about acting or (3) someone who was interested in writing about acting. I did come across a lot of people writing about star personae, but those writers weren’t interested in acting per se but rather how a star’s image affected the reading of a movie.

However, it isn’t only writers, critics, and academics who have a blind spot when it comes to acting. Most people seem to judge performances not based on the acting but on what I like to call the ahc-ting. In one of my favorite blog posts, Michael Blowhard decries what he calls “writin’”, that is writing, which word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, calls attention to its own importance and literary greatness. Following Michael, I’d like to use the word “ahc-ting” to describe the kind of acting where ever line reading and gesture is meant to call attention to the meaning and importance of the performance. Ahc-ting doesn’t necessarily require scenery chewing or going over-the-top. It can and often does, but some of the most egregious ahc-ting is very subtle. Unfortunately, it seems that most people now judge good acting by the standards of ahc-ting. Ahc-ting is supposed to impress people, and much of it is impressive. However, even when I’ve been impressed, I haven’t much liked it. Here are a few suggestions that might help save us all from ahc-ting:

Actors should not show how hard they are working.

Every performance requires a certain amount of effort. Some require a great deal. However, I never really enjoy a performance when an actor doesn’t let me forget how much effort it’s taking.

Method actors — even very good ones — will often start showing-off their homework when they have nothing else to do. John Cassavetes’s movies are filled with very good actors who, because they’re not given any specific direction and they’re not trying to play specific characters, end up flailing around, wrestling with their inner demons for no greater purpose than to show the audience how much effort they’re putting into the whole affair.

Movie stars will often make this mistake. For example, Tom Cruise is always taking roles — Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July or Fank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia — where he has to strain and sweat and strut, in order to show that he’s a “real” ahc-tor, and not just a pretty face.

Meryl Streep does this, albeit with more class and skill than most. Streep’s performances are all very technically accomplished, but there’s usually not much more your can say about them. It’s not so much a case of her showing off how hard she’s working, but of having nothing to show the audience except the preparation she’s taken: she approaches a role as if it were an exercise in an acting class. I usually don’t mind watching Streep because, unlike Tom Cruise, for example, she is talented and she does know a lot about the nuts and bolts of acting. However, most of Streep’s performances aren’t that enjoyable.

99% of the time actors should just be themselves.

For some actors, mimicry can be a very effective technique (see Sir Laurence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis), but mimicry itself isn’t acting. However, many people seem to believe that mimicry is at the heart of acting: that actors must try to “be” someone else and that acting is a kind of self-transformation. This is an unfortunate delusion. Acting is about playing a part, which is accomplished not by a combination of physical and emotional contortions, but by saying and doing and pretending to want the same things a character is supposed to say and do and want.

In general, actors should avoid mimicry for two major reasons:

1) Most actors simply aren’t good at it. There’s nothing less compelling than someone expending a lot of effort trying to “transform” themselves into someone else when it is painfully obvious that no such transformation is possible. I like Russell Crowe in movies like L.A. Confidential and Master and Commander, but his attempt to portray John Nash in A Beautiful Mind is completely preposterous. Crowe’s performance consists entirely of flexing his fingers, stuttering, and giving off an “uncomfortable” vibe.

2) Even actors who are technically proficient mimics have a tendency to turn mimicry into a stunt. Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man is a perfect example. Hoffman does an excellent job of impersonating an autistic person, but the performance would have been just as effective if it were 5 minutes long. Jim Carrey nails the Andy Kaufman routines in Man on the Moon, but, again, so what?

The least enjoyable kind of mimicry occurs when the impersonation itself is the entire point of the performance. In these cases the audience is meant to look at the characters and say “I can’t believe that’s really so-and-so.” Once that’s been said, really, there’s usually nothing more to say about these kinds of performances. A recent example is Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster. Though Theron is a competent actor, the big draw of watching Monster wasn’t her performance, per se, but that you couldn’t believe it was her under all that make-up.

There are few things I find more annoying than listening to someone criticize an actor because he (or she) always plays himself (or herself). As far as I am concerned “playing yourself” is neither good nor bad. What matters is how interesting and enjoyable the performance is, not its novelty. Moreover, it makes sense to cast actors in roles that fit them. In other words, it makes sense to cast actors within their range, and we shouldn’t care how great an actor’s range is if he (or she) is always good within it.

The “playing himself” criticism is also bogus because many actors manage to play many different characters, while always “playing themselves.” James Stewart, for example, is perfectly believable as an uptight, oversensitive urban clerk (The Shop Around the Corner), a small town man at the end of his rope (It’s a Wonderful Life), an aw-shucks farm boy in the big city (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), an ornery cattle driving outlaw (The Far Country), and an obsessive whack-job (Vertigo, but also, with more subtlety, The Man Who Knew Too Much). Yet, though all these characters are certainly different, in each performance Stewart is just as certainly “himself.” Or, rather, Stewart manages to play a wide variety of characters by emphasizing different aspects of his "self" as appropriate.

Rather than thinking of good actors as people who can convincingly “be someone else,” I’d argue that good actors are people who can convincingly find themselves in the roles they play.

It’s just a method.

Now, I don’t want to dump on method acting alone. My beef is with any kind of “one-true-way” kind of acting criticism. For example, my reply to Olivier’s anti-method quip to Dustin Hoffman, who was going a little overboard in his method-y preparations for Marathon Man — “Why don’t you try acting?” — would be to suggest that what Hoffman was doing was part of the acting process, it just wasn’t the same process Olivier had been taught. (As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it is perhaps useful to point out that neither man’s preparations did them much good in Marathon Man: Olivier comes across as a constipated B-movie Nazi and Hoffman is a passive, uninteresting slug. The movie would have been better with Christopher Lee and Richard Dreyfuss, but that might have thwarted John Schlesinger’s plan of making a thoroughly miserable film.)

Unfortunately, when most people think of “good acting” they are thinking of only one or two things: a serious Method performance (Sean Penn in Mystic River) and/or a serious British Classical performance (Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs). These two styles use different techniques, but they share the same goal: naturalistic performance. Truth be told, both styles do a pretty good job of achieving naturalism on a regular basis, but that still leaves the question of whether “naturalism” itself should be the goal of a performance.

Of course, I don’t think it should be. Nowadays, audiences and critics tend to look down on overt theatricality, which is a real shame, as many of the greatest actors of the first half of the 20th Century gave theatrical-style performances: Orson Welles, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart (in The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, for example), James Cagney, Ida Lupino, etc. Gary Oldman is one of the few genuine hams who gets any respect from contemporary critics.

Almost everything is forgivable if (a) the actor is having fun and (b) the audience is having fun.

A lot of people complain about actors who “chew the scenery.” Now, this can be a legitimate complaint, but a lot of the time, I find over-the-top hamming extremely enjoyable. However, this is dependent on tone and context. For example, I got a real kick out of Al Pacino’s shenanigans in The Devil’s Advocate, where he gets so angry he catches on fire but couldn’t stand them in Scent of a Woman, when we’re meant to take them seriously. Likewise, I thought that Sir Anthony Hopkins was a hoot in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that his scenery chewing in The Silence of the Lambs was preposterous. His Hannibal Lecter was far too actor-y to fit into a movie that is trying to be a realistic psychological thriller. (Compare Hopkins’s performance in Lambs to Brian Cox’s understated, but much creepier, take on Lecter in Manhunter).

And I could go on and on…

I guess I’ll stop here for now, but I could certainly add a few more, like: line reading isn’t everything (too many people overlook the physical side of a performance), beautiful people can be fine actors (and they shouldn’t need to make themselves ugly to prove it), range isn’t everything (the Christopher Walken Rule)…

Though this post was basically an excuse to air some pet peeves, I hope that it will inspire you to question the conventional wisdom about good acting and be more willing to stand up for performances that you actually find enjoyable—not just the ones you’re supposed to find impressive.


Tegan O'Neil said...

You do a fine job of coalescing a number of thoughts I - and I think a lot of other fine people - have had on the subject without really finding the time to write them down. I do DVD reviews now and again for sites and I am consistently hampered by the lack of any real, meangingful vocabulary for discussing film acting, and its very frustrating to try and describe why a certain performance is "good" (Jack Lemmon in "Save The Tiger", Robert DeNiro in "The Deer Hunter") and why certain performances are "bad" (pretty much any Russel Crowe or Reese Witherspoon movie I've seen, and both of them have essentially won Oscars on the strength of their "talents" for mimicry / impersonation). I'm looking forward to getting the Library of America's new Film Anthology even if I suspect that it will be filled with critics mostly engaging with films as "texts", which works as well as any other approach except for when it's the only approach anyone tries.

Jon Hastings said...


Thanks for the kind words:

I'm really an amateur when it comes to writing about acting. But I'm a big fan of Steve Vineberg's book Method Actors: he really knows how to write specifically about performances. (Full disclosure, Steve is a friend of mine). Also, I'm a big fan of online critic Alan Dale, who has a very sharp eye for casting and writes especially well about comic actors.


Steve Sailer said...

Thanks. That's most helpful and informative.

Gerard Beirne said...

Been writing about film in my writing blog in an on and off way - Wenders, Mamet etc. and their film vision is extremely helpful in understanding the 'big picture' for all of us involved in the arts -

I have only read this quickly and need to come back to it - but I found it very enlightening. I will return!