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]