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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Oscars and actors

Oscar season is heating up, and as usual I haven't seen a single one of the nominated movies. But upon Googling the list of previous Best Picture winners, I see very few I have any desire to see again. And I actually enjoy seeing a good movie more than once (the better the movie, the more great little touches you notice for the first time on second viewing).

The Academy's biases tilt towards the well-intentioned and uplifting, meaning, movies that are a little embarrassing a few years later. Quiveringly sensitive movies may pull at the heartstrings (and pull in the votes) come Awards time, but looking back at them in the cold light of day is a little like looking at a former crush. You wonder what you were thinking.

The list of previous Best Actor winners also tend toward the histrionic (think Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, or Geoffrey Rush in Shine). Sometimes the award seems well deserved, but sometimes the choice seems downright stupid. Jack Nicholson won in 1997 for As Good As It Gets, but from what I've seen, Nicholson has never played anybody but himself no matter what his nominal role. Instead of, say, imagining himself as an astronaut, he imagines the astronaut as Jack Nicholson. If he could even do a different accent, the lowest common denominator of real acting, I'd respect that. But he can only be Jack, in all his narcissistic grandeur, trying to steal every scene he's in with that weirdly insinuating voice of his.

The Departed won Best Picture in 2007, and deservedly so, despite Nicholson's presence. Every other actor disappeared into his role, adopting (or emphasizing) a Boston accent and making you feel that he was really that character. Nicholson, on the other hand, just did his patented Jack act, chewing on every piece of scenery as if he hadn't eaten in a week. Every time he appeared he seemed to announce: I'm Jack, I'm larger than life, and I'm here! I even got the sense that he changed some of his dialogue, making it more profane to suit his own personality. (I can just imagine Martin Scorcese, confronted with one of Jack's script changes, saying "That's great Jack!" while inwardly wincing. I'm betting Nicholson will never appear in another Scorcese movie.) Every other character in The Departed rang true; but I can't imagine an underworld boss acting as self-indulgently as Nicholson. Whitey Bulger, the mass murdering sociopath whom Nicholson's character was based on, must have felt real shame for the first time in his life after seeing that portrayal.

Nicholson obviously went to the Al Pacino School of Acting, where he majored in Behaving Like a Movie Star to Disguise a Lack of Acting Ability. He must have minored in Masturbating in Front of the Camera.

In any case, the essence of good acting is to disappear into a role. The great actors tend to be chameleons, not movie stars, and especially not stars of action movies. We want our action heroes to be heroic, and masculine, and invincible. And people who fit that mold tend not to be as good in other roles. Sean Connery, one of the handsomest men ever, was perfect for most of his roles, most notably as the original Bond. But he wasn't a great actor. I would have been more impressed with his range had he ever appeared convincingly as a sniveling child molester. Of course, casting him in such a role would have been near-sacrilege, and even Hollywood isn't that cannibalistic.

Clint Eastwood, another action hero, didn't have much range either. But he, like Connery, was extraordinarily good-looking, and so he was perfect as Dirty Harry and as the hero of all those spaghetti Westerns. Surprisingly, he has turned out to be one of our greatest directors. Who knew that such a wooden actor would have the exquisite sensitivity to create Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, as well as Oscar winners Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby?

The greatest actors are those who can disappear into several different types of roles. My short list of such (most of whom are notably missing from the list of previous Best Actor winners) are: Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp, Don Cheadle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Viggo Mortensen, Robert DeNiro (formerly), and Sean Penn. I'm probably leaving a few out, but these are the best chameleons I can think of. (For brevity's sake I'm mentioning only actors here, not actresses, among whom there are also several still-active greats.)

Daniel Day-Lewis actually won an Oscar for his portrayal of paraplegic Christy Brown in My Left Foot, the type of tremulous-performance-in-an-underdog-role the Academy smiles upon. But he was also quietly -- and romantically -- heroic in Last of the Mohicans, he was desperate and out of place in In the Name of the Father, and was a bully in Gangs of New York. And he went into each of those modes convincingly. He also played refined upper class English in Room With a View. (That may have been the most boring movie of all time, but at least it was another opportunity for Day-Lewis to show his versatility.)

Johnny Depp also knows how to underplay as well as overplay a role. In Donnie Brasco, it was his ability to play conflicted so well that gave the movie its power. In Blow, he played a 1970's stoner perfectly, getting the slow, somewhat monotonic speech that typified the low grade machismo of the era. And he transitioned from that to irresponsible and strung out as his character gradually became addicted to the cocaine he dealt. In Edward Scissorhands he was weird and removed. In Finding Neverland, he played writer J.M.Barrie as repressed and diffident. Depp surprised everyone by making Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean feyly playful. If you were unfamiliar with Depp, it would be impossible to imagine the guy playing Donnie Brasco as Edward Scissorhands, or the guy playing J.M Barrie as Captain Jack. That's the definition of a good actor.

When I first saw Don Cheadle, in Out of Sight, he played a jive-talking con. He was perfect in the role, but I just assumed that he was perfect for the role (i.e., typecast) as opposed to in the role. I then saw him in Mission to Mars, where he played a scientist who had been marooned alone for years on Mars. He came across just as desperate and crazed as you would imagine someone in that situation might. In The Rat Pack he channeled Sammy Davis Jr. perfectly. In Ocean's Eleven his role did not call for great acting, but he did do a very credible Cockney accent. Likewise, in Hotel Rwanda he did an Ugandan accent well (I'm unfamiliar with Ugandan accents, but to my untutored ear it sounded good). I once heard that when Cheadle appeared on the television series Fresh Prince of Bel Air, the directors were astounded because all he ever needed to get it just right was one take -- which is unheard of.

Leonardo DiCaprio first gained fame as a teen idol after Titanic, but was actually able to surmount that early barrier to great acting. (Please, name another teen idol who became a truly great actor.) He first showed his talent in This Boy's Life, as the abused son of Robert DeNiro. In Catch Me If You Can he played a pathological liar and master of impersonation with just the right tone of glib insouciance. In The Aviator he played Howard Hughes with the appropriate mix of intelligence and paranoia. In The Departed he was one of the ensemble of excellent actors who managed to save the movie from Nicholson's excesses. DiCaprio convincingly showed how tortured a deep undercover cop must feel. (Then again, DiCaprio's seemingly tortured state may just have been a genuine reaction to Nicholson's scene stealing, in which case you can't really give DiCaprio credit.)

It's easy to think that Viggo Mortensen has enjoyed success in the movies just because of his bone structure, and undoubtedly that has a lot to do with it. But he's also an excellent actor. When I first saw him in sitting in a wheelchair in Carlito's Way, playing a sleazy ex-drug dealer, I didn't really notice him. When I saw him in Crimson Tide I thought, nice-looking guy. (He has the kind of Ed Harris-like bone structure that casting directors like their military men to have.) When I saw him in Lord of the Rings, I thought, yep, there's that noble bone structure again -- and he underplayed his role nicely. When I saw him in A History of Violence, I again thought he was just right for the role, although it didn't seem to call for any great acting. It was only when I saw him in Eastern Promises that I fully appreciated what an actor he is. His every movement, his every facial expression, and his Russian accent all exuded Slavic gangster. He evidently traveled to Russia and hung out with some real gangsters to soak up their personalities in preparation for the role. Whenever one hears of an actor who does something like this (Daniel Day-Lewis evidently refuses to leave character while on the set) it's easy to think, what a pretentious idiot. But sometimes it actually seems to work.

Robert DeNiro played deranged in Taxi Driver, an upper class fop in 1900, a gangster with no dignity in Mean Streets, and a gangster with tremendous dignity in Godfather II. He was angry and stressed out in Casino, bullying in The Untouchables, and creepy in Cape Fear. He probably got too much credit for gaining that weight for Raging Bull, his one Oscar win (if getting fat merits an Oscar, there are millions of very deserving but unrecognized Americans out there). But he probably has not gotten enough credit for his versatility. He appears to have slept-walked his way through many of his roles in the past fifteen years (he's mostly turned into a self-parodying Professional Italian). But he was great in his day.

Sean Penn is likewise incredibly versatile. He became famous for his great impersonation of a stoner in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. His portrayal of a treacherous cocaine-addicted Jewish lawyer in Carlito's Way was astonishingly good. I was less impressed with his turn as a mentally handicapped man in I Am Sam, a role which seems easier to play. (Some actors seem to consider their resumes incomplete until they've played a retard onscreen; others must feel their off-screen antics suffice.) I've only seen the trailers for Milk, but in the short clips I've seen Penn is pitch perfect as a man who's unmistakeably -- but unflamboyantly -- gay. Every straight guy at some point in his life jokingly vamps it up while acting gay, and they all overdo it. Most professional actors tend to overplay homosexuality. Even Carson Kressley, of Queer Eye For The Straight Guy fame, didn't seem to know how to act gay without overdoing it. (Kressley is the gay Stepin Fetchit.) But Penn, as usual, is great. He actually got an Oscar for Mystic River, one of his more histrionic (and to my mind, less impressive) turns. Speaking of histrionic, Penn gets as much publicity for his off screen life as he does for his acting. But unlike all the false moves he makes in real life, in front of the camera he's near perfect.

The Academy should take back the Oscars from Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe (who has always pretty much been Maximus) and Michael Douglas (who is almost always some version of Gordon Gekko). Then they should give them to the guys mentioned above who haven't won one yet.

It's really a very simple principle: You shouldn't get a Best Actor nomination, let alone the award, for merely acting like yourself. You should only get one for acting like someone else.


Anonymous said...


What about Rock Hudson. Totally out of his element, he should be classified by your standards as the greatest of all time. I had to mention this because my wife adored him, and to this day still can't admit he was gay.

Actually my favorite of all time is Paul Newman. See you at the pool.


John Craig said...

Stu --

Hadn't heard from you recently, had been missing you.

Are you saying that Hudson was a great actor because he semi-successfully pretended to be straight? It takes a little more range than that to be classified as great.

Newman is one of my all-time favorites too, but I have to put him in the Connery-Eastwood category. He was always pretty much Paul Newman, hero, so much so that even when he was cast as the cold-blooded villain in "Hud" in 1963, audiences didn't realize this and perceived him as the hero of the movie.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you about Russell Crowe and Michael Douglas but Al Pacino I think is gret. He is one of my favorites.
Kevin Spacey is an interesting one as well.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for the comment. My problem with Pacino is that he plays the same role over and over again: the guy who is about to blow his stack, and at some point in the movie, does. (When has he played a role differently in the past twenty years?) The accent is always the same, the affect is always the same, the facial expressions are always the same. He underplayed his role in Godfather II nicely, but that was back in 1974.