Monday, January 7, 2013

Actors and Movie Stars: Notes on Recent Performances, Part I (The Men)

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher
Fans of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher mystery novels have been irate over the casting of Tom Cruise as Child’s 6’3” brick wall of a shamus – a character a friend of mine who recommended the books to me described as “Sherlock Holmes plus brawn.” But the problem with Cruise in Jack Reacher isn’t that he’s wrong for the part; it’s that after three decades as a movie star, he still isn’t an actor. In middle age he’s less narcissistic on camera than he used to be: somewhere along the way he figured out how to listen to the other actors in a scene rather than interacting with some invisible mirror reflection of himself. But he still doesn’t play anything – an action, an objective; he’s nothing but attitude, and the attitude is always pretty much the same (brash, assertive, bullheaded). He can get by in certain kinds of action thrillers when the director is clever enough to use his physical fitness wittily, as Brian De Palma and Brad Bird did in the first and most recent entries in the Mission: Impossible series; De Palma even managed to get a degree of emotion out of him. But Cruise almost always seems miscast because he doesn’t fill in his characters, so you don’t believe in what Stanislavski called the “given circumstances” – that he is the people he professes to be. Reacher is a fiercely independent one-time army investigator with an instinctual sense of justice from which he’s incapable of straying. Watching Cruise in the part I didn’t buy any one of those descriptives, even though they completely inform the plot.

Good-looking men who become stars before they’ve had a chance to learn how to act generally work it out after they’ve appeared in enough movies – even if they aren’t as serious about acting as, say, Paul Newman, whose gifts, which turned out to be astonishing, were hidden beneath a mesmerizing physical beauty. Eventually age scrapes the pretty-boy patina off them, and as they acquire a more rugged, plausible, lived-in handsomeness they learn how to seed some life experience into their performances. It happened to Robert Redford and – dramatically – to Richard Gere (who turned into a superb actor about a dozen years ago); it happened to Brad Pitt, who gives another of his recent subtle performances in Killing Them Softly. These men have matured past any concern they once had with how they look on camera; they’ve become character actors.

James Gandolfini in Killing Them Softly
Killing Them Softly, which was culled by writer-director Andrew Dominik from one of George V. Higgins’s Boston-based novels, Cogan’s Trade, has an unconvincing contemporary socioeconomic overlay, and the direction is self-conscious to the point of pretentiousness. But the virtually all-male cast is terrific, and two of them – James Gandolfini as an alcoholic hit man and a young actor named Scoot McNairy I’d never noticed before – are standouts. McNairy plays one of two thieves hired to knock over a poker game; they’re cocky enough to think they can get away with it. We get to see what happens to him when he realizes how far out of his league he is. On behalf of the money men to whom the game’s supervisor (Ray Liotta) answers, Cogan (Pitt) tracks him down and frightens him into giving up his boss. (The movie is one of those ironic cautionary fables in which the fates of petty crooks are inexorable, but its real subject is who pulls the strings.) In both McNairy’s and Gandolfini’s performances, psychic disintegration, caused by booze in one case, abject terror in the other, is the whole show, and it’s a hell of a spectacle. These two actors execute on a small scale what Damian Lewis has been illustrating on a large scale on the TV series Homeland as the prisoner of war turned enemy agent turned CIA mole.

Damian Lewis in Homeland
Lewis is a superlative actor with that English chameleon’s talent for slipping into an American skin; there isn’t a scene in Homeland – as there wasn’t in Band of Brothers – when you think you’re watching a Brit impersonating a Yank. The British trademark is the self-effacement of his acting. But I’ve always thought that the quickness with which you recognize an American actor as opposed to an English one is an overstated limitation. Take Bill Murray as FDR in the poky Christmas release Hyde Park on Hudson, for example. No one would ever say that Murray is swallowed up by the role; you can’t not know you’re watching Bill Murray. The marvel of the performance is in how he adapts his unmistakable personality to the character. Damian Lewis is a marvelous actor but not a star; Murray’s FDR is a star performance of tremendous charm and wit and authority. He isn’t getting the attention for it that he deserves, I suspect, because many critics aren’t willing to believe that a personality performer like Murray might be a good enough actor to pull off a historical figure like Roosevelt, even though they had no trouble accepting him in Lost in Translation, where he played an actor in professional and marital crisis. He was good in Lost in Translation, but I’d say he’s better in Hyde Park on Hudson: it’s a more expansive piece of acting, and he extends himself with no apparent effort, and without ever falling into caricature, to a character from another era who’s still so etched on the public imagination that we all think we know him. This is sleight of hand: he fills the role with his own personality yet it’s FDR’s personality at the same time.

Bill Murray as FDR
Frankly I have a lot more trouble with Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, even though I admire him for not chewing the scenery the way he did in There Will Be Blood and before that in Gangs of New York. He turns out the kind of highly controlled piece of work I feared he’d forgotten how to turn out. It’s a relief that he doesn’t feel he has to proclaim in every scene that he’s acting; weirdly, though, he doesn’t make enough of an imprint – he erases himself, so there’s not much left under the wig and the facial hair and the stovepipe hat. He almost seems to be playing Lincoln’s ghost.

Among the most talented male American movie stars, perhaps the one who has been the most blighted by his stardom – and by his charisma – is Denzel Washington. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love to watch Washington, but he can be a shockingly lazy actor, gliding through his movies like a guest star on one of those old TV variety specials. Relaxation is usually a virtue for an actor, but it’s often been a self-imposed restriction for Washington: when you can act like Henry Fonda, you shouldn’t be satisfied to be Dean Martin. That’s why it was such a pleasure to see him give a committed performance as the train engineer in the gripping Tony Scott action picture Unstoppable. Washington’s work in the movie – like the movie itself – was so modest that it was easy to underrate, but when he’s at his best, here and in Glory and in the unjustly neglected mid-nineties detective noir Devil in a Blue Dress, he may be the most convincing proletarian actor since Fonda.

Denzel Washington in Flight

I wanted to love him as the pilot in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight, and he’s terrific in his best scenes, especially when his character, Whip Whitaker, is drawing on all his resources to bring his plane to ground after it’s started to fall apart in the air. The problem is that goddamn John Gatins script, which is simultaneously trite and grandstanding. Flight only pretends to be about what the trailers made it look like it was about – the heroism that comes from being able to do a job remarkably well under brutally tough circumstances (which would have placed it in the same category as Unstoppable). Instead it turns out to be just another movie about a substance abuser who can’t save himself until he’s hit rock bottom and admitted he has a problem. (It still amazes me that anyone would think that a movie that preaches that same old message of personal responsibility and spiritual uplift is somehow inherently important, but you can’t fight city hall.) And since Washington’s talent is for authenticity, not imagination, he can’t transcend the material, the way Michael Keaton was able to do in his addiction melodrama, Clean and Sober. I believe that you can do great work as an actor without a great imagination. (Montgomery Clift did, and in fact the more he had to use his imagination, the more strained his acting became.) But the script has to be on your side. When Whitaker struggles to hug his estranged son while the boy screams repeatedly at him to get the fuck out of his house, or when he breaks down in front of an NTSB committee investigating the crash and confesses that he’s a drunk, the script is working against him, and he’s got nothing to rely on but star power. That may be enough to keep us watching, but it’s not enough to remind us what can be so special about Denzel Washington.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Great essay, thanks. But re: Day-Lewis, I wonder if any actor could triumph over that Lincoln beard and hat? At least when photographed as somberly he is here--always isolated in the frame, in deep shadow? Visually, he's ready to be minted on a coin. Not many actors could break through that.