Acting out

Posted by · 8:48 am · May 6th, 2009

Meryl StreepThe Guardian’s Ryan Gilbey offers an interesting piece today about screen acting, and the narrow criteria by which many of us judge it. He is writing principally in response to a recently released British film, “Helen,” a rigidly stylised meta-film in which actors play actors participating in a police reconstruction, which has attracted divisive reviews for the deliberately stilted performances of its cast.

Complaining that many audiences place too much stock in “realism” in acting — using the deification of intensely studied, precise performers likes of Meryl Streep (“a walking manual on acting”) as an example — Gilbey argues the following:

David Mamet writes that “We confuse ‘I like it’ with ‘It is very realistic.’ If we like it we say, ‘Yes, that’s very true.'” So truth becomes our alibi, our defence for that which pleases us.

Given our myriad ideas of truth, it is no wonder we turn to the awards ceremonies to clarify and ratify. But while Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman or Meryl Streep win prizes, and their acting may feel true or right, it is detrimental to the craft to hold up as ideal only those performances that work as audition pieces, or as 30-second excerpts on Oscar night. The actors in Bresson’s Mouchette or Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus are but one component of those films’ defining philosophy and meaning; removed from that context, their performances have no meaning.

I tend to agree with him, though I’d broaden his discussion slightly. It is no new gripe that voting bodies like the Academy have a blind spot for certain varieties of performance — comedy routinely heading the list. But as their habitual preference for biopics of late indicates, it is performances reliant on stylisation or artifice that can have the hardest time getting recognised.

Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill,” Naomi Watts in “Mulholland Drive,” the ensembles of “8 Women” or “I Heart Huckabee’s” — all are examples of performances whose affectations or polarities don’t make a great deal of sense outside of the very particular story world that has been created to house them. They are no less brilliant for it, but they can be alienating to middlebrow sensibilities of Academy voters. (It wasn’t always the case: 30 years ago, the Academy was nominating such spectacularly off-kilter work as Ann-Margret in “Tommy,” while the same collective mindset that resulted in a nod for Diane Ladd in “Wild at Heart” in 1990 might have been kinder to Watts.)

Of course, Gilbey isn’t even talking about work that is that accomplished or expressive — he’s referring to the kind of calculatedly passive style that has critics debating the merits of, say, Sasha Grey’s performance in “The Girlfriend Experience.”

It puts me in mind of something critic Peter Matthews once wrote about Julianne Moore’s career-best (to my mind) turn in Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” an indisputably great performance, but one in which her character is so unnervingly muted as to be disorienting: “It’s as if the actress and the filmmaker have entered into a sadomasochistic contract whereby he binds her head and foot while she derives a perverse pleasure from being so bound.”  The Academy may have honoured some fine performances in recent years, but I can’t recall any that inspired an analogy like that.

OK, so I lost the thread a bit there. Still, food for thought. Read the rest of Gilbey’s piece here.

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3 responses so far

  • 1 5-06-2009 at 10:47 am

    chad said...

    Nice post Guy

  • 2 5-06-2009 at 2:33 pm

    chad said...

    Should have mentioned Deadpool and you might have gotten more comments.

  • 3 5-06-2009 at 2:36 pm

    Bryan said...

    I remember watching Mulholland Dr. for the first time and being so confused by Watts’s performance, until the end when I was confused by everything. But after seeing it several times, I understood how brilliant her performance was. Best of the year.