On acting

Posted by · 10:11 am · October 2nd, 2009

Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black PearlWhat constitutes a great performance?  What makes it something that puts it head and shoulders above the rest?  What does an artist do to go to that level of art and achieve something that is both extraordinary and rare?

Does the Academy, or rather the branch that nominates the actors, look as closely at performance as critics do?  Is a performance considered great because it is an Oscar-winning piece of acting or nominated for one of the acting prizes?

An actor reads a script and likes both the character he or she is being offered and the story on the page. The actor accepts, and begins (we hope) work on the character.  A year or so later, after shooting and cutting the film, on the screen in front of us the actor’s work will be seen and judged, commented on, praised, perhaps showered with accolades or negative comments, perhaps winning an Oscar or a Razzie, maybe becoming discussed for years to come, or forgotten moments after seeing it.

I doubt, seriously, that an actor accepts a role with any of that in mind. Perhaps I am overly idealistic, but I hope actors accept roles because they are trying (always) to evolve as an artist, to discover something different in their acting and themselves, and to do something they have never done before. Of the many actors I have interviewed over the years, most of them take a role based on something that speaks to them in the screenplay.

Meryl Streep once told that me she seeks something that “touches my soul” while Robert Duvall looks for a character that is “real, something that will challenge me, but he has to be real.” Tom Cruise said he “likes to try different things each time out, and hopes he does the part justice”, while Hilary Swank looks “for something that speaks to me, as though the character were whispering to me.”

Others take the part for the challenge of playing such a role, such as Kevin Bacon in “The Woodsman,” in which he portrayed a pedophile trying to re-adjust to society again. He felt the film and the role important, and as an actor he could not deny the challenge, but as a father, he struggled with the role.  Jim Carrey wanted to play Andy Kaufman because he felt it would offer him an enormous chance to grow as an actor, to go places he had never gone before and to slip into a different skin.

What we see on screen is the creation of the actor and the director, though most directors hire actors and then back off, allowing the performer to do his or her job. Clint Eastwood is famous for hiring them and then pretty much leaving them alone. Steven Soderbergh does the same thing, stating “I hired them to do what they do.”

Atom Egoyan has an interesting take being married to an actress, Arsinee Khanjian: “They are different people than the rest of us.  They make their living being other people, becoming other people, often very different from who they are. They fascinate me. It is something I cannot do, and frankly very few people can. I love watching the process of actors creating.”

As do I.

Having studied to be an actor in another life, I have always been fascinated with the art and process of the craft. Performance has always been what I have watched first in a film, and I never tire of watching actors do their thing. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing something extraordinary from an actor.

Take Mo’Nique in “Precious,” who was simply astounding. Her character was so full of toxic rage and hate she could barely move across a room without striking out at someone. What she captured was what I most appreciate in a performance…the truth. There was absolute truth in her work, and the rest of the cast for that matter, and I emerged from that film galvanized in some way I do not yet understand.

What is the truth in a performance?  For me, it is the actor inhabiting the role in such a complete manner that we forget we are watching a film. It is every piece of dialogue being spoken as though it was being said for the first time, each reaction honest and true, the actor perfectly in sync with the movement of his or her character and connecting with the other actors in the work. It is believing that we are seeing the events in the film unfold in front of us as though we were spying on real events in life.

It is finding the absolute truth of the character, discovering for a few moments their soul and exposing that soul to us through their art. Of course, in revealing part of the character they are also revealing a part of themselves, because there is no single performance that does not contain at least a small part of the actor.

Some performances are so real we can all but smell them. The character has a previous life which we understand through the performance, and we often know how they have gotten to this point in their lives, or that is the subject of the film. They bring to their work the weight of that previous life, the pain, the joy, whatever it might be, and we believe because they do.

It is being part of the performance by seeing it, the final part of the process, when the actor is at his or her most vulnerable because this is when judgment comes. Some no longer read reviews because they find them hurtful, while others are interested in what is being said.

As I’ve noted before, nothing gives me a greater rush as a critic than seeing a startling performance, something that transcends everything the actor has previously done, or that comes from a place deep inside them to astonish and surprise us: Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” Drew Barrymore in “Grey Gardens,” etc.  Barrymore, by the way, lost the Emmy last week, which was shameful, but is now regarded with a different eye as an actress.

The giants of acting — Brando, Fonda, Nicholson, Hackman, Streep, Hoffman, De Niro, Pacino, Hoffman, Freeman, Hanks and so many others — do great work often because they throw themselves into their work and create art because they love doing it. They take risks, that sometimes pay off, and other times do not.

Jack Nicholson gave a wildly courageous performance in “The Departed” that I loved, others did not, but in true artist form it was different than anything he had done before and worked for the film. Streep actually runs into trouble sometimes because she is never less than brilliant it seems each time out. She puts so much time and thought into her work, and then disappears in front of our eyes. The trick is of course never letting the work be seen, for it to appear effortless, and that is what a great artist does.

They say that great actors are born in the theater, which I think is utter rubbish. Film acting is done out of sequence, making the actor’s job doubly difficult.  One must know the character inside out, or look like a fool.

It was once believed that Sir Laurence Olivier was the greatest actor in movies, which I always believed to be a load of bunk. If anything, Olivier was the most over-appreciated and over-praised actor working in movies. You could always see the technique, the actor at work, there was little that was natural in his work. His best screen performances was in “Marathon Man,” in which he portrayed a vicious Nazi dentist, and “The Entertainer,” as a vain, obnoxious song and dance man, but little else of his screen work is worth seeing.

The emergence of Marlon Brando and realist acting ended all that. It was long believed in theater circles that to act Shakespeare was to be among the elite, but the role of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” of Blanche Du Bois in “A Streectcar Named Desire” offer an actor an equal challenge of anything written by Shakespeare. Mastering the language can be difficult but once into the rhythms and the understanding of what is being said, much of the challenge is gone.

When Johnny Depp received the screenplay for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” there was nothing in the work that stated he would portray Captain Jack Sparrow in the goofy, extreme manner that he did. That was all Depp, and it was all art. It was brilliant because he found the truth of his character in a screenplay that was hardly “Chinatown.” Depp found something wildly original in his character and the director had the courage to allow him to go for it. The performance is one of the best of Depp’s career.

At the end of the day, great acting allows us to see life unfolding on the screen as though it were happening in front of us. If there is a hint of performance, it is not top tier.  For the most part through the history of the Academy, the nominated performances have been excellent choices, with some genuine surprises that deserved nominations we did not think were forthcoming.

I remember jumping for joy when Edward Norton was nominated for “American History X” as he had not been on the radar, and equally shocked when Art Carney won the award in 1974.
Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice,” Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights,” all are great performances because they are real.  Each actor found his or her character’s soul.

What is great acting to you?

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45 responses so far

  • 1 10-02-2009 at 10:27 am

    head_wizard said...

    Great acting to me depends on the performance, what is trying to be accomplished on screen and how well it gets across that vision. It is very subjective and changes depending on the film. Unfairly it also depends on the role itself that makes a performance and with each film it changes. Sometimes it is realism in a performance another time it is just the way of entertaining and engaging the audience.

  • 2 10-02-2009 at 10:31 am

    Me. said...

    Brilliant article. Acting is such an amazing art!

    I agree, Johnny Depp gave his best performance ever in “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Great pick.

    I can’t believe you didn’t talk about Heath Ledger. Ennis del Mar and The Joker are completely opposite characters and he made both of them feel real. That’s a huge accomplishment for an actor.

    Bruno Ganz was also astounding as Adolph Hitler in “Downfall”. He made Hitler’s emotions feel real, which is more than a challenge for an actor.

    I also have to give a huge shout out to Marion Cotillard. She dissapeared on screen. For me, it was impossible to believe that Marion was playing Edith Piaf. I saw Edith Piaf during the entire film.

    Other great performances include Adrien Brody in “The Pianist”, Javier Bardem in “The Sea Inside” and “No Country for Old Men”, Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow in anything directed by Ingmar Bergman and of course, the Tramp played by Charles Chaplin.

  • 3 10-02-2009 at 10:50 am

    Harmonica said...

    Such an incredible coincidence that I’ve been watching constantly “Pirates of the Caribbean” for this past week. Each time, Johnny Depp’s performance continues to astound me. Should’ve won that Best Actor Oscar in 2003.

  • 4 10-02-2009 at 11:01 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Ummm talking about the greats are you referring to Jane or Henry Fonda? And why isn’t Katharine Hepburn on the list?

  • 5 10-02-2009 at 11:10 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Just so we are clear — there are space issues here and everyoneI would like to write about, I simply cannot — Jane Fonda was one of the greats of the seventies, and her dad Henry was exceptionally natural, see “The Grapes of Wrath” — of course I appreciate Katherine Hepburn, I mean come on…

  • 6 10-02-2009 at 11:17 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Although I loooooooooove Jane Fonda I guess Henry is the better actor. Great acting off the top of my head would be Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

    Ironically both lost the Oscar to their female leads.

    PS. Just pulling your leg about Kate.

  • 7 10-02-2009 at 11:20 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    “…in true artist form it was different than anything he had done before and worked for the film.”

    I can’t agree with this. With the possible exception of About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson has been putting his screen persona on autopilot for some time now, and The Departed is no exception.

    Not that having one is a bad thing. I rather like it when actors use their on-screen strengths to fit into a role like a hand-made suit, i.e. Danny Glover’s old-timey charm in To Sleep with Anger, Michelle Pfeiffer’s dangerous allure in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jack Nicholson’s manic energy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Judi Dench’s steely imperiousness in Notes on a Scandal, and Steve Martin’s incredible physicality in All of Me, to name a few. Going back to The Departed, Mark Wahlberg’s flippant cool fit the character of Dignam perfectly and had a much more memorable presence than showboating Nicholson. Ditto for De Niro and Pacino in almost all of their work of the last decade.

  • 8 10-02-2009 at 11:31 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    I am truly impressed with Sharlton Copley from District 9. His performance really moved me, no matter the clichéd dialogues. He’s a true revelation and one of the things that bothers me. “Action-actors” get too little credit. Take Daniel Craig and Matt Damon as more recent examples of films that were critically praised but ended up too much “fun” to be seriously concidered main awards players, even though their actors gave everything and truly lifted the film. Downey Jr. is another example. Usually it’s just the outreageous supporting roles that score a bit better here I feel.

    Great acting to me is the total conviction and also moving portrayal that can fit and blend in or totally owning it. Or both (Day Lewis!). I for one am a sucker for the big gesture so the “quiet” ones don’t really draw me but the big ones that do attract your eye in everything can delight me so much.

  • 9 10-02-2009 at 11:38 am

    SHAAAARK said...

    For me, the greatest acting is bringing to life a complex, human character, a person who feels reel. I can also appreciate cartoonish acting, but humanistic acting is on a level beyond anything else. At their best, actors evoke complex emotions in the viewers, and invest them in the struggles of the character, or, if necessary, repulse them. Takashi Shimura’s performance in Ikiru left me emotionally devastated, and furious, and jubilant all at once. You could see it in his face, in his eyes, the eyes of a man broken down by the system, finally realizing how worthless his life had been, and how little his son thinks of him.
    For that reason, it will be a serious travesty when the Oscar nominations are announced, and Tilda Swinton’s performance in Julia is not mentioned. I can’t see any performance this year matching hers in maturity, intensity, and difficulty.
    I also think actors should be recognized for “level of difficulty” roles. Some roles require unfathomable resources of cruelty, desperation, or hope, or a quality that only one actor could ever hope to achieve.

  • 10 10-02-2009 at 11:39 am

    Zac said...

    To me, a great piece of acting is when a actor disappears into their role to the point where you can’t imagine anyone else in it.

    You mentioned Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore, but I think there is another female performance that blows those two out of the water:

    Charlize Theron in Monster.

    I had been a fan of Charlize since Two Days in the Valley thanks to her extraordinary beauty. She was a good actress, but it never seemed like she got a chance to show how good she was. With Monster, she got the chance and she came through with flying colors. I still remember watching Monster with my jaw wide open. I was absolutely floored at the lengths she went in portraying a woman who lost the lottery at just about every aspect of life: looks, jobs, relationships, social connecting (remember the job interviews?), etc. Charlize shows a woman who doesn’t have much of anything, seems to get her life straightened out, watches it fall apart completely and decides to follow that path to the dark and twisted end.

    Her performance is one that I would put alongside Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and DeNiro in Raging Bull.

  • 11 10-02-2009 at 11:42 am

    snowballa said...

    Jack Nicholson has played the same character since Cuckoo’s Nest.

    I remember seeing “Philadelphia” for the first time because I was surprised that Tom Hanks wasn’t the slow-witted man from “Forrest Gump”. Same thing with Denzel being morally corrupt in “Training Day” a far cry from “Malcolm X”.

    However, as I got older, I found fewer recent performances that wowed me. I’ve been watching a lot of recommended movies and the performances that blow me away include Pacino in “Dog Day Afternoon”, the entire cast of “All About Eve”, the entire cast of “Chinatown”, Kidman in “To Die For”, etc. The similarities between all those movies? Excellent scripts.

    I once had a convo with Ed Limato’s reader and he told me why he believed that Denzel deserved his Oscar for “Training Day” over Russell Crowe. He had read all the scripts and the characters for all the other nominees were more or less written for them. Not for Denzel, who more or less, made the character we know on the screen today. THAT’S great acting. Adding sheen to the mediocre.

  • 12 10-02-2009 at 11:57 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    Good point on the Denzel/Crowe debate, snowballa, though I would also add that Crowe was terrible in A Beautiful Mind and the performance’s throng of fans only confirmed my suspicion that general filmgoers are just as susceptible to Oscar-bait performances (overbearing ticks, mental illness, based on a real person, old age makeup) as AMPAS members.

  • 13 10-02-2009 at 12:30 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    To add to the Denzel/ Crowe debate — Gene Hackman gave the performance of his career that year (2001) in “The Royal Tanenbaums” but somehow, SOMEHOW Oscar missed it….Hackan should have won the damned thing and Denzel should have won years earlier for “Malcolm X” — and I am sorry but Nicholson is not the same in every film sinch “Cuckoo’s Nest”…my next article is entirely on Jack because of that single, wrong headed comment.

  • 14 10-02-2009 at 12:41 pm

    interstellar said...

    Great acting: when a friend tells you the synopsis of a movie and rememebers/uses the name of the character instead of the actor’s. (“…and so Gilda goes to the ballroom…”)

    I don’t know a single person that remembers that Cruise’s character in Mission:Impossible is Ethan Hunt (“..so..Tom Cruise jumps on the wall and…”) .
    ..I remember it because I loved the original TV series :)

    It’s curious: these last 2 days I’ve been watching a lot of “Inside The Actors Studio” interviews, that I never watched before. The one with johhny depp, too.

  • 15 10-02-2009 at 1:10 pm

    Markku said...

    Great acting comes in many forms. I can appreciate the overblown, baroque gestures of Nicholson and Day-Lewis just as much as I can marvel at Duvall and von Sydow’s subtle interpretations. Gena Rowlands’ method theatrics find emotional truths just as effectively as the instinctual moods of Liv Ullman. Similarly, a great comedic performance can consist of a silent dead-pan efforts of Buster Keaton, just as it can consist of Katherine Hepburn’s machine-gun delivery in Bringing Up Baby. It’s all about the context, in the end.

    Regarding the Denzel/Crowe situation: Tom Wilkinson’s minimalist, shattering work in In the Bedroom appealed to me more than either performance, although I will say I enjoyed Denzel’s against-the-type villainy far more than Crowe’s shameless Oscar-baiting.

  • 16 10-02-2009 at 1:24 pm

    Joe W said...

    I don’t think you can talk about great performances without recalling Russell Crowe in “The Insider”. The best of his career and one of my favorites of all time.

  • 17 10-02-2009 at 1:29 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ John: Looking forward to it, John, especially since that’s one of our biggest sticking points (you’re one of the few people I’ve met who *mostly* sees eye-to-eye with me on who should win Best Actor, 2008 excepted).

    Just to clarify, though, I do not agree with snowballa that Nicholson’s last great or unique performance was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. To me, he started petering out around 1988, just before he played “Crazy Jack in clown makeup” in Batman…but that’s a future debate.

  • 18 10-02-2009 at 1:29 pm

    Lance said...

    Great acting in film? Many of us shouldn’t be judging. Do you really know if that was how that accent is really supposed to sound? Do you really know how a person with that disability acts? Did you see all the terrible takes that actor did before the got it right? Did that actor’s creative choices come from the actor or the director?

    I think we can say “that was my favorite performance of the year” (however it came to be) but to say someone did a great job – many times it’s impossible to say.

  • 19 10-02-2009 at 1:30 pm

    Jim T said...

    Dench did a lot more than what she usually does in Notes on a Scandal. She showed weakness, desperation, disappointment and rage. It was a remarkable performance.

    I keep reading about Nicholson playing the same role. Doesn’t DeNiro do the same? At least Nicholson has one movie where he tried to ACT and it WORKED.

  • 20 10-02-2009 at 1:48 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    OK Robert but I think he’s done some great work since then, “The Pledge”, “The Crossing Guard” and A’bout Schmidt” just a trio of great performances from him — though I don’t thimk he should have won the Oscar for A”As Good As It Gets” it is still a fine performance — interesting that we see eye to eye so often — look forward to your comments next week on Jack.

    And Jim T? Bless you, I think De Niro has been cruisin’ on his name since “Cape Fear”…but Jack does indeed attempt it and usually hits it outt the park.

  • 21 10-02-2009 at 1:50 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    @ Lance: I think we can get an generally good idea if an actor does a “great” performance. If one has or knew someone with an accent, or have family members with disabilities, or lived through the same experiences as the protagonist, they can provide good perspective. And with the amount of bonus material and “inside sources” on how a movie is made, we can also get a good idea of the last two concerns you raised. But even beyond that, if a performance provides that necessary “cred” to make the audience believe in them, it doesn’t really matter how spot-on their portrayal of an accent or mental disabilities are. Probably the best on-screen performance of Richard Nixon is contained in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, mainly because Philip Baker Hall didn’t concern himself with looking or sounding like the disgraced president so much as fooling his audience that they were seeing Tricky Dick himself in that movie.

    Jim T: Oh, I’m putting De Niro’s feet to the fire, as well. Many veteran actors these days seem to be content coasting along on their established names and popular personas. It’s a blanket assertion, I know, and there are exceptions, as John pointed out earlier with Jack, but we all can name a few who fit my description.

  • 22 10-02-2009 at 2:13 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Notes on A Scandal features two of the greatest actresses and that whole movie is such a tour de force of both ladies.

  • 23 10-02-2009 at 2:18 pm

    Troy said...

    Eyes play a huge part in how I judge performances, and is why I rate Pitt in Babel, and Brody in the Pianist so highly.

  • 24 10-02-2009 at 2:41 pm

    Casey Fiore said...

    Thanks John for mentioning Gene Hackman’s turn as Royal Tenenbaum. One of my top 10 favorite lead male performances ever. The way he slipped into Royal’s perspective on life was truly astounding.

    He’s spent an entire life doing things in neglect of the people he truly does care about and has no qualms about making quick rationalizations to excuse his actions. One of the defining moments of that performance for me was when Angelica Huston, in a fine performance herself as Royal’s ex, says to Royal that she’s been questioning the job she’s done as a mother as her grown children fall deeper into depression. Royal immediately disputes her statement and takes the blame himself, then quickly changes his mind to “… or for that matter it’s no one’s fault.” The way Hackman delivers this quick, seemingly meaningless line and effortlessly excuses his character of parental guilt shows the depth to which he understood Royal Tenenbaum. He then nails the most important scene in the film, when Royal’s lie about his illness is exposed to his family. When he admits that the time he’s spent with his family was the best of his life, and realizes it was in fact, not a lie, Royal realizes his mistakes and knows what he’s done to his family. You can see it all over Hackman’s face.

    That, to me, is what acting is

  • 25 10-02-2009 at 2:51 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    And Lance, I have forever heard that argument about “takes” and which ones are used and how long it might have taken to get there…great argument for stage actors who insist their performance is more organic, though they often have weeks to get to performance level (which to me equals a take) — there is so much to consider, you are right about that, but something like Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” is infinitely superior to say Keanu Reeves in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” — I so disagree that it is impossible to say when someone has given a great performance and frankly that comment trivializes the art of acting, and the enormous dedication many of these artists put into their craft to create —

  • 26 10-02-2009 at 2:59 pm

    Lance said...

    I think if you truly want to judge a performance with complete objectivity you have to strip away all those factors that cloud our judgment. One of the biggest ones is that often we are reacting to the script and story more than the acting.

    For example, an actor can do an outstanding job of portraying someone devastated by loosing their career in modeling. That same actor can do an outstanding job of portraying someone devastated by loosing their husband in the holocaust. The actor could have put the same identical emotions, characterization and creativity into both performances and obviously we are going rave about the grieving wife performance over the modeling performance. Both scenes involve a loss and certainly a person could bring up the same core emotions for both and it would be very valid. Should we give more credit to one actor over another just because of the material they were given? This is sort of an extreme example but hopefully you get my basic point.

  • 27 10-02-2009 at 3:07 pm

    Josh said...

    Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl. Also any performance in Three Burials. All of them were so great.

  • 28 10-02-2009 at 3:13 pm

    Lance said...

    John – Wow, I think that was a little harsh but maybe I didn’t express my point well. I actually love and respect actors and I actually believe that we should put more time into the judging of their performances. We should really spend some time analyzing it. I mean, if acting is an art than none of these actors should be competing against each other. But, if they are, then we should put more time into it. We should make sure that got that accent right. We should listen to the director’s commentary. We should dissect their scenes more and talk about specific choices they made in their performances.

  • 29 10-02-2009 at 3:39 pm

    Kokushi said...

    De Niro since Cape Fear: A Bronx Tale (good), Casino (very good), Heat (great), Sleepers (good) , Wag the Dog (very good), Jackie Brown (very good), What Just Happened (good), not all of them are oscar worthy but all of them are worth watching but this decade have been bad for De Niro.

  • 30 10-02-2009 at 4:20 pm

    Jesse said...

    Saying Jack Nicholson is playing the same character since Cuckoo’s Nest is ridiculous. About Schmidt? C’mon. John, great article, and I’m looking forward to your next piece so you can highlight a legend.

  • 31 10-02-2009 at 4:58 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    *groan* As I stated three times on this thread alone, About Schmidt IS a notable exception. Geez louise…

  • 32 10-02-2009 at 5:57 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Rest assured Robert Hamer…I read it.

  • 33 10-02-2009 at 9:07 pm

    Douglas said...

    Great article John.

    Well I don’t think they get more ‘real’ than Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” but I won’t go on about that cause we all know how brilliant it is.

    But seriously, some of the most real acting I have seen comes from one of my favourite films “Little Miss Sunshine”. Yes yes Alan Arkin won Best Supporting Actor but the real gem of the film was Greg Kinnear.

    Some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen. It’s heartfelt, it’s hilarious and it’s so awkward which I love. If you don’t agree with me I urge you to watch the film again and just focus on Greg Kinnear. Every facial expression is priceless and every line is delivered with so much conviction and dedication to his character.

    In some way I’m kinda glad he didn’t get nominated that year because his performance didn’t need a gold statue to reassure his acting skills. It was simply ‘real’ acting at its finest. However, Greg Kinnear deserves the recognition of you and me; the people upon which he shaped his role – ‘real’ people.

    I think that is when the magic happens in acting. When an actor can create their own ‘human being’. When I see actors such as Sean Penn accepting awards for in a way ‘copying’ the character traits of a ‘real’ person that already exists, I have to admit I consider it 2nd hand acting. I have nothing against Sean Penn’s performance in “Milk” (which I thought was brilliant) but I’m just using him as an example. Greg Kinnear, like Johnny Depp in “Pirates” didn’t have any established material to work with. They had to do what I think is the most genuine part of acting, create their own ‘real’ human being; one that doesn’t already exist or has existed.

    So that’s my opinion and I’d love to hear your thoughts John, or anyone else’s, on Greg Kinnear’s performance.

  • 34 10-02-2009 at 10:24 pm

    Silencio said...

    In short, I’ll say the biggest sign of great acting to me is detail. No matter what kind of character/performance, big or small, realistic or heightened, give me a few details that speak what the script can’t. Then I’m a most happy film-goer.

    F. Murray Abraham has a couple moments in Amadeus that get me every single time. Tiny things that the actor knows at least one person will notice and love.

  • 35 10-02-2009 at 11:19 pm

    Leighton said...

    Such a great article! You hit it exactly! Reading this reminded me of a quote Julianne Moore spoke a while back that says, “The audience doesn’t come to see you, they come to see themselves.” And yet, you are right, the actor has to bring part of themselves with the performance. That two-fold connection, between the actor and the audience, when it hits, is like a light-bulb coming on, a small revelation of “yes, this is right, this is exactly right.” It’s a grip on the soul, a handshake that fits perfectly, a metaphysical hug.

    The first time I ever noticed this “truth” was watching Tom Hanks in Cast Away (being only 13 at the time, I hadn’t seen much “good film”). I remember sitting in the theater and just being blown away because it felt so real, hilarious; awkward; touching; and humanly odd, but real. I couldn’t picture being stranded any other way for the longest time. It’s still a movie, and a role, that holds a special place for me (and one that should’ve won the Oscar…!).

  • 36 10-02-2009 at 11:33 pm

    lovespike said...

    To me great acting is when i forget the person is the moviestar when that “actor” title disappears for a period of time and i am looking at a real person dysfunctional or normal. One performance that i thought was extroardinary but i guess nobody else did was jamie foxx in the soloist. I saw no trace of foxx in the performance he was great. I thought his portrayal of nathaniel ayers was powerful despite some of the problems i had with the film. I grew up thinking Denzel Washington was Malcolm X. Also anything that Jeffrey Wright does is crazy. From Colin Powell to Peoples Hernandez he has played every character with every range of emotion with amazing believability.

  • 37 10-02-2009 at 11:51 pm

    Barry said...

    I agree that great acting comes from the performances that feel real.

    Ellen Burstyn immediately comes to my mind in “Requiem for a Dream”. It is probably the best performance I have ever seen on screen. She made Sara Goldfarb palbably human and everything Sara went through, we felt like a punch to the stomach.

  • 38 10-03-2009 at 12:08 am

    snowballa said...

    @barry: yes! ellen burstyn and jennifer connelly in requiem was another one of the great performances of the last 15 years.

  • 39 10-03-2009 at 3:53 am

    Eunice said...

    I agree with Jim T and Jonathan Spuij. ‘Notes on a Scandal’ is a tour de force, thanks to both Dench and Blanchett. I remember being blown away by it, seeing it only in 2008. That’s the reason why I believe that the Oscar could and should’ve gone to either Streep or Dench.

    Great piece, John.

    I always maintain that great acting comes from performances that never strike a false note. If they can slip into someone else’s skin well enough to make me believe in their stories and want to be a part of the action, then as a viewer, I’m not only satisfied, but I’m also impressed. Performances that have done that for me include Heath Ledger’s in both “The Dark Knight” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Meryl Streep in “Adaptation,” and Paul Newman’s in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

    Just a suggestion, regarding the space issues thing: Might you write an article (or maybe a series) about what you think are examples of ‘great acting’ from the last 10-15 years?

  • 40 10-03-2009 at 7:53 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Great idea Eunice, a series about great performances from the last fifteen or so years — indeed — let me run it by the boss.

  • 41 10-03-2009 at 8:13 am

    El Rocho said...

    I’m glad you made those comments on Olivier. Granted, he has given us some amazing performances, but I agree he is over-appreciated. Few people/cinephiles want to admit that, but it’s true. We all know it. We just try to look past it. And don’t let it go belly up.

    Speaking of acting, the greatest performance I have ever seen was never on the screen. It was on stage in Stratford, Ontario and I had front row tickets for ‘King Lear’, in which Christopher Plummer played Lear. So much power, anger, emotion with the performance. Plummer WAS Lear, and it was an astonishing thing to see. Never, on stageor screen, have I ever seen a performance it’s equal.

  • 42 10-03-2009 at 2:19 pm

    Chris said...

    ‘Something that transcends everything the actor has previously done, or that comes from a place deep inside them to astonish and surprise us.’

    What I find amusing about this article is that many of the examples given of this level of acting are ones that I would consider to be the complete opposite of this statement.

    Jack Nicholson’s part in ‘The Departed’ was more of wild Jack being wild Jack; part ‘Witches of Eastwick,’ part ‘Batman.’ Hardly a moment where he isn’t hamming it up or devilishly grinning his way through a scene.

    Julia Roberts in ‘Erin Brockavich’ was the same sassy, strong-willed character she played in everything else, only this time with a push-up bra.

    Johnny Depp in ‘Pirates’ was him having fun with what he knew was a crappy script/crappy movie. It wasn’t great acting it was silliness that managed to be the most entertaining part of a mediocre movie. He was ‘Ed Wood’ in a pirate costume.

    I’m not saying these are bad performances, I just find them to be reminiscent of their previous work.

  • 43 10-03-2009 at 4:03 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Chris — please, please, please tell me where Depp did anything like Captain Jack vefore 2003, seriously, because I missed it — and Nicholson, when did he ever portray such a bloodlusting character before? I don’t recall the Joker with blood on his hands or invoking such terror — and Roberts, well, your statement is just silly…sorry man, you missed the point entirely. Noweher is Depp showing us any of Ed Wood in his performance as Jack…no where.

  • 44 10-05-2009 at 10:20 am

    Ivan said...

    Great performances from this decade

    Laura Linney/You Can Count on Me
    Jamie Bell/Billy Elliot
    Naomi Watts/Mulholland Drive
    John Cameron Mitchell/Hedwig and the Angry Inch
    Isabelle Huppert/The Piano Teacher
    Daniel Day Lewis/Gangs of New York
    Barry Pepper/25th Hour
    Javier Camara/Talk to Her
    Uma Thurman/Kill Bill vol. 1 & 2
    Peter Sarsgaard/Shattered Glass
    Nicole Kidman/Birth
    Jeff Bridges/The Door in the Floor
    Kate Winslet/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
    Clive Owen/Closer
    Javier Bardem/Sea Inside

    Viggo Mortensen/A History of Violence
    Rachel Weisz/The Constant Gardener
    Amy Adams/Junebug
    Jeff Daniels/The Squid and the Whale
    Ryan Gosling/Half Nelson
    Maggie Gyllenhaal/Sherrybaby
    Penelope Cruz/Volver
    Leonardo DiCaprio/The Departed
    Judi Dench/Notes on a Scandal
    Emile Hirsch/Into the Wild
    Marion Cotillard/La Vie en Rose
    Casey Affleck/The Assassination of Jesse James
    Sally Hakwins/Happy Go-Lucky
    Heath Ledger/The Dark Knight
    Mickey Rourke/The Wrestler

  • 45 10-06-2009 at 8:44 am

    Jameson said...

    So basically we’re in agreement with AMPAS that acting in a comedy isn’t acting? (Or maybe it is, once or twice a decade…)