No more Method acting!

No more Method acting! (photo)

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With everyone so busy doing year-end and decade-end round-ups of The Way We Live Now, it’s inevitable that someone would come along and try to define what Acting Looks Like Now. And that someone is film critic David Thomson, a specialist in the parlor game of presenting his own readings and interpretations as general truth.

His article, in the Wall Street Journal, is on “the Death of Method Acting.” There are generalizations about how method acting was about trying to locate “emotional truth” (by which Thomson seems to mean overt self-seriousness and agony). And there are more generalizations about the emergence of a “new style,” which — helpfully for us — “has no studio, no text and little public understanding.” According to Thomson, its exponents include George Clooney, John Malkovich, Robert Downey Jr. and Kevin Spacey.

These “new style” actors are (mostly, and not always in the past) comfortable with providing micro-variations on the same part over and over, with carefully differentiated nuances keeping each performance fresh. Two things attractive about this (heh) “method”: It indicates comfort with your personality, which is always nice: self-confidence, as the relationship experts tell us, is sexy. And these actors are all essentially comic, which makes sense — if your persona depended upon constant brooding and self-seriousness, you wouldn’t get very far, because it’s just not much fun. Luckily for them, the comedy doesn’t have to be in the lines themselves, more in the delivery, an inherently non-self-serious approach to acting.

Anyone who watches a lot of movies (and Thomson certainly does) is lying when they claim an actor “disappears” into a performance. That implies there’s something to hide — i.e., a well-known persona — which, for any name actor, is obvious.

No one really disappears. Daniel Day-Lewis may have gotten more plaudits than anyone this decade, and Daniel Plainview is a ferocious creation, but who seriously forgets who they’re watching in “There Will Be Blood”? Not to mention that, whatever thespy strain he went through, part of that role’s popularity is that Plainview’s rapaciousness and violence are frightening, but also very, very funny, a walking caricature you wouldn’t mock to his face. It’s an Oscar performance the same way, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote was, but it’s got a range for fun that playing a historical figure usually precludes.

Elsewhere in the pages of the WSJ, James Franco has the good sense to recognize this while explaining at least part of what he’s been doing on “General Hospital”: “I disrupted the audience’s suspension of disbelief, because no matter how far I got into the character, I was going to be perceived as something that doesn’t belong to the incredibly stylized world of soap operas.” And that goes for pretty much everyone with a name.

There’s no real point in trying to figure out who’s a “method actor” and who’s, uh, “reveling in performance” or whatever Thomson wants to call it. We respect and appreciate it more these days when actors cruise through, relaxing in themselves without getting lazy. The awards may still go to the big impersonators and showboats, but people (especially critics) rarely fall into the “oh, he’s just playing himself” trap these days. Once you’re famous, you’ll never truly fool anyone; you might as well get comfortable and make the rest of us the same.

[Photos: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Warner Bros. Pictures, 1951; “There Will Be Blood,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Carsey-Werner Company

When life gets you down, just ask yourself: what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.

15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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Seven prominent soap opera guest stars.

Seven prominent soap opera guest stars. (photo)

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It’s strange that people don’t seem that interested in the fact that James Franco is in the middle of a two-month guest star arc on the soap “General Hospital,” now 45 years long and still going strong. Whatever Franco’s reasons, it’s hard to blame him for the move — if I were a uniquely talented comic actor who kept getting cast as glowering and moody (blame “Spider-Man”), I’d want to take that image to its logical extreme as well.

But Franco’s hardly the first prominent guest star to grace “GH” or the soap opera world in general. Stretching the definition of “prominent” a bit, here’s seven great moments in soap opera guestage. (Sadly, Sammy Davis Jr.’s turn as “Chip Warren” on “One Life to Live” wasn’t available for YouTube perusal.)

Elizabeth Taylor, “General Hospital” (1981)
Princess Diana got more than 750 million viewers worldwide for her nuptials, but 1981’s second most successful television wedding — between Luke and Laura — got a decent 30 million, and Diana herself sent some champagne along. It remains a cultural touchstone, one of the few references non-soap viewers like me get. Less remembered are two things: Elizabeth Taylor also came by shortly after the wedding (as “Helena Cassadine”), and apparently the plotline that season included a sinister weather machine that started a blizzard in the summer. Taylor plays at the level of the show, no better or worse than anyone; you just have to remember who she is to make it special. La Liz knows tumultuous marriages, yes she does.

Carol Burnett, “All My Children” (on and off from 1976-2005)
Even while “The Carol Burnett Show” was going strong, Burnett was a huge enough fan of “All My Children” to guest in 1976 as a hospital patient. Then she got her own character starting in 1983 and returned in 1995 and 2005. And, one of those times, guess who she ran into? Elizabeth Taylor, natch.

Jerry Springer, “Days of Our Lives” (2007)
It’s only natural that daytime talk shows’ trashiest purveyor of “real-life” soap operatics would also be found appearing on the (only marginally more acting-heavy) dramatic equivalent. He’s been on “Passions” and “Sunset Beach,” but his highest-profile stint was on longtime survivor “Days of Our Lives,” where he delivered a remarkably unconvincing turn as “Pete,” gambler extraordinaire. Sure, he can handle being kissed by two blonde casino slatterns, but for some reason he can’t do a convincing drunken reel. You’d think he’d have it down by now.

James Franco, “General Hospital” (2009)
Like Elizabeth Taylor, Franco plays it straight, neither altering the tone to fit his personality nor screwing up royally. As Movieline‘s Julie Miller notes, Franco’s been admirably game with the hectic shooting pace of soap operas, but they still had to cut down from two takes per scene to one to accommodate him. He barely makes it through this take, but considering he’s an amateur at this, it’s impressive. Oh yeah, this is a really silly plotline about a painter who murders people. Or something.

Snoop Dogg, “One Life To Live” (2008)
Yes, Snoop’s got over 40 acting credits not as “himself.” Granted, most of those roles have names like “Huggy Bear” and “Captain Mack.” He also has at least a little range — check his surprisingly effective turn in “Training Day” for proof — but he’s mostly called upon to be his genial self, whether in character or not. Here he’s Snoop Dogg, performing some lesser latter-day material, making the middle-aged white folks feel comfortable and at ease (he tutors one woman on how to flow like him) and buying drinks for everyone.

Bronson Pinchot, “The Young and the Restless” (2008)
For six episodes, the sharp-tongued Bronson Pinchot was Patrick the publicist. Publicists can be unctuous and annoying; Pinchot puts a self-satisfied topspin on it, confident in himself and seemingly without any kind of personal center whatsoever. He’s way above and beyond what’s going on around him.

Roseanne and Tom Arnold, “General Hospital,” 1994
I’ve saved the best for last. For one deranged episode of “General Hospital,” Roseanne and Tom Arnold guested as a couple with documents Luke and Laura needed to blackmail someone. The year of their divorce, they’re on-screen as a deeply unhappy married pair: she runs the casino, he tries to pick up women in it. Channeling the same crazed intensity he brought to “True Lies,” Tom Arnold tries to jump all over Laura by telling her “I want to take you on a magic carpet ride.” Meanwhile, Roseanne starts making out with long-lost love Luke on the couch after the following exchange:

Destiny's fickle, Jen.


Arnold enters at about 2:50 below; it’s essential viewing, marital disintegration as comic psychodrama. I’m not the biggest expert on soaps, but I’m pretty sure this is a rarity: if they were always this deranged, some sharp Douglas Sirk scholar would’ve picked up on it by now. This video may be the best thing you watch this week — it’s definitely mine.

[Photo: James Franco on “General Hospital,” ABC, 2009]

The gloves come off on Heath Ledger.

The gloves come off on Heath Ledger. (photo)

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It had to happen eventually. The reverential haze surrounding the late Heath Ledger was bound to dispel. And it’s David Thomson, critic, film historian and actor-crazed obsessive who once wrote a whole book about Nicole Kidman in which he gasped over her “gingery pubic hair,” who’s stepped up to bat first.

Thomson takes actors and their iconography very seriously indeed (in quasi-Penthouse style if they’re female), and — on the occasion of the British release of “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which features Ledger’s last role — he expresses some skepticism about how good the Australian actor actually was.

Thomson digs the Joker more than Ennis del Mar, because during “Brokeback Mountain” he “never lost some feeling… of watching an actor attempting a very tricky role” But what he really wonders about is what would’ve happened if Ledger had lived on, comparing him to other once-bright stars who shot out of the gate fast, only to wind up playing themselves over and over: Mickey Rourke doing his comeback as “Mickey Rourke,” Brad Pitt “overwhelmed by spurious celebrity and dreadful star parts,” Pacino, De Niro and Nicholson now “pastiches of what they once were.”

It’s true that, for whatever reason, Hollywood tends to give actors about ten years before they’ve created too many recognizable tics to step outside of. Think of Robert Downey Jr., once up for the stunt part of a flawless Chaplin and somehow making it fresh, now noted primarily for playing many amusing variations on “Robert Downey Jr.”: wisecracking, ahead of the comic beat by two seconds, justifiably self-regarding.

But those are the breaks. Thomson’s right that Ledger, like everyone else, probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with giving completely different performances in every movie. But that’s hardly tragic: the ability to create a persona and mine it for subtle nuances leads to reliable pleasures.

The difference between the “tragedy” of Brando (if you want to think of that way) and actors like Downey, Pitt, and so on is that they’ve gotten a reliably amusing schtick down that’s always fun and rewarding even when it’s not surprising. Would Ledger have ended up in that purgatory? Impossible to say — he hadn’t yet made two straight films in which he was the same guy, but even if he had, he’d still have had a decade to himself. If you’re going to be A Star, that’s how it is. If you want to be An Actor, you can be Gary Oldman, which surely has its own rewards, but is not the same thing.

[Photo: “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2009]

Failure to Connect

Failure to Connect (photo)

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As the stars walked the red carpet for the Toronto premiere of “Jennifer’s Body,” there were fans screaming “Megan!” and “Adam!” and one, just off to the side, holding up a picture of screenwriter Diablo Cody affixed to a piece of cardboard and illuminated like a medieval manuscript. Even during this conclave of international cineastes, you’d have a hard time finding someone who could pick the average screenwriter out of a crowd, let alone find a picture of him or her to decorate. But with only a single produced script to her credit, Cody has managed to make herself the first brand-name screenwriter since Paddy Chayefsky, a celebrity in an industry whose disregard for the written word is practically axiomatic.

“Jennifer’s Body,” Cody’s Opus No. 2, is a horror movie — or, more precisely, a riff on one, since at no point does the film even attempt to tap the subconscious fears that make the genre tick. Megan Fox, lit and made up to suggest a cross between a brunette Barbie and a surgically modified porn star, plays Jennifer, a high school hottie who’s transformed into a bloodthirsty demon with a taste for nubile boyflesh. Amanda Seyfried, her nerd-girl status telegraphed by a pair of standard-issue hornrims, plays Needy (née Anita), Jennifer’s childhood best friend and eventual nemesis.


Blowing the Whistle on Whistleblower Movies

Blowing the Whistle on Whistleblower Movies (photo)

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The covert meetings in hallways and parking garages, the warning threats, the for-the-role weight gain, the righteous speechifying — Steven Soderbergh mocks all of these standbys of the whistleblower movie in his new comedy “The Informant!” Inspired, on this week’s IFC News podcast we take a closer look at some of those clichés and the films that best embody them, from “The Insider” to Soderbergh’s own “Erin Brockovich.”

Download: MP3, 40:31 minutes, 37.1 MB

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