The actor as auteur

Posted by · 5:27 am · December 10th, 2009

Nicole Kidman in BirthOne of my current favorite film writers, Ryan Gilbey, has written an excellent New Statesman piece reflecting on the past decade in film acting. In it, he argues that the 2000s have gone some way towards blurring the definitions of ‘star’ and ‘character actor,’ and singling out the achievements of three actors in particular:

Unconsciously or otherwise, [Nicole] Kidman, [Viggo] Mortensen and [Johnny] Depp have insisted that the star can be an instrument of art rather than (or as well as) commerce, like superheroes dedicating their unearthly gifts to the service of good over evil.

This ties neatly into a piece I wrote here recently on the decade’s key actors, where I (and a number of you) suggested that Kidman’s adventurous straddling of arthouse and commercial instincts put her in the top spot — however hit-and-miss her filmography.

As much as Gilbey admires the work of Mortensen and Depp, however, he feels the decade in screen acting has been dominated by “women on the verge, or in the throes, of a nervous breakdown.” By way of illustration, he pairs up two standout performances — Kidman in “Birth” and Charlotte Rampling in “Under the Sand” — for the following observation:

Both Under the Sand and Birth end on a beach with the camera maintaining a vigil as a bereft woman heads towards a future in which nothing, other than dependence on mood-stabilising medication, is certain. Something else connects these films: the pressure on their lead actors to carry in their faces information that can’t be articulated in any other form. So, an actor expresses character through performance – big deal, right? But when Kidman, scrutinised by the camera at a Wagner concert, signals in her eyes an emotional breakthrough that is entirely interior, we are witnessing in practice Robert Altman’s theory that actors can be auteurs, too – that they can provide an authorial presence in a movie as persuasively as any director.

Aside from nodding my head in complete agreement, there’s not much I can add to that. On a side note, I’m thrilled that “Birth” — a startling film in its own right, even aside from showcasing Kidman’s finest work to date — seems increasingly to be in the process of critical rehabilitation after being so unfairly dismissed five years ago. Come back, Jonathan Glazer.

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14 responses so far

  • 1 12-10-2009 at 7:03 am

    filmy said...

    I completely agree. This is Kidman’s best work to date. When she did bad movies like The Stepford Wives, Bewitched, or Australia, I can’t hate her because she made Birth, literally. Kidman said this is her favorite film so, she has a taste.

  • 2 12-10-2009 at 7:19 am

    Ross said...

    I can’t say how happy I am that Kidman is being recognised this way at the end of the decade. Yes, she has made some astonishingly bad choices – but viewed alongside some of the excellent ones she has made (Dogville, Birth etc) you see that at least she is making choices, at least she is pushing herself out in different ways, and when you take risks you will inevitably have some failures. Her profile simply means that her failures are seen as monumentally larger than others.

    She is one of my favourite actresses for this reason, and I salute her for it. I also now want to go and rewatch Birth – I remember that scene of her in the Wagner performance as being one of the most exquisite things I have seen in a long time on film. The depth of emotion she shows without, really, moving a muscle, is extraodinary.

    Thanks for following this extended story – it’s refreshing to see people putting their necks out to support someone so often maligned.

  • 3 12-10-2009 at 7:33 am

    Andrew said...

    It’s amazing how people think that listing Birth as your own favourite performance makes you smarter or “someone with good taste”.

    I think Kidman is a great actress when she has the right part. Otherwise she’s a disaster because she needs a veteran or really smart director that can make her bring her best to the performance. Some actors can give a terrific performance in a badly- directed movie; Kidman is not one of them, unfortunately. Of course, this is how I see it so don’t get mad at me if you disagree.

    Birth had indeed a great direction and she was outstanding in it.

  • 4 12-10-2009 at 7:52 am

    JJ said...

    Then why is BIRTH considered a critical failure? So many people seem to love her in it and the movie itself, and yet, it got trashed back in 04.

  • 5 12-10-2009 at 8:19 am

    Louis said...

    Didn’t part of that trashing derive from general discomfort with the bathtub scene?

    Love her, love so many of her performances. My favorite is still probably Eyes Wide Shut, despite a decade’s worth of new choices. Love her in Birth, Margot at the Wedding, Dogville, and yes, The Hours…so much more than just a prosthetic nose.

  • 6 12-10-2009 at 8:32 am

    Ivan said...

    Birth is growing so well, this film is in any list I had read about the best of this decade and Kidman´s performance is subtle perfection. The chemistry with Cameron Bright is devastating. Please Jonathan Glazer direct a new film as soon as posible.

  • 7 12-10-2009 at 8:41 am

    Michael said...

    Here Here! Birth is genius and was unfairly dismissed. Kidman is incredible in the film (and in so many other films as well) and I would love nothing more for Jonathan Glazer to come back to film!

  • 8 12-10-2009 at 8:46 am

    the other mike said...

    Days Of Thunder was Kidmans best film. In seriousness though, To Die For was her best. Whats with the anti-americansim in all these lists, hardly any americans are getting recognised. all Australians and Brits.

  • 9 12-10-2009 at 10:22 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    The Other Mike: It’s not a list, it’s one guy’s musings. And Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen are American, last time I checked. So are Julianne Moore and Melissa Leo, both of whom get name-checked in Gilbey’s article.

    In any case, we all know better than to assume cultural prejudice in such matters.

  • 10 12-10-2009 at 10:56 am

    Maxim said...

    “Charlotte Gainsbourg bared her heart in I’m Not There (2007), a couple of years before baring her body in Antichrist.”

    For a supposedly good film writer this guy sure knows how to lay an egg. This has got to be one of the most pretentious sentences I’ve read in a while.

    In any case, I agree that Kidman is one of the most interesting female actresses working today.

    However, as much as I liked Depp (and still do) I think that in the last 5 years or so he has gotten A LOT less interesting than he used to be. I don’t know what it is but something’s changed about him and I don’t derive as much pleasure of watching him on screen anymore (the emphasis he is on “as much” – I still like the guy). This could just be me or course.

  • 11 12-10-2009 at 11:27 am

    Andrew said...

    Actually, Birth got awful reviews in 2004, with an average score of 50% on Metacritic. I liked it, but I know it is a trend within the critics circles to hate Kidman to death in pretty much everything. I don’t understand that! She’s not that bad.

    Same with Dogville. Terrible reviews [58%]. I don’t think Birth or Dogville are masterpieces or “art films” at all either but I also think those scores are really low… or unfair.


  • 12 12-10-2009 at 2:08 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    I thought she was brilliant in “Birth” a really unsettling and alarming film — when she is on her game, she’s one of the very best working.

  • 13 12-10-2009 at 3:08 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***This has got to be one of the most pretentious sentences I’ve read in a while.***

    How in the world does that sentence have anything to do with pretension? Do you eve KNOW what that means?

  • 14 12-11-2009 at 6:51 am

    Glenn said...

    “Birth” was struck just as the Nicole Kidman backlash was beginning. “Cold Mountain” had started it in at the end of 2003 and then this and “Dogville” in 2004 made people think she was deliberately making movies people wouldn’t like or see and people don’t like actors to make movies they don’t want to see. The rest is history.

    Add in people getting hysterical over the bath tub sequence and you’ve got yourself a recipe for critical failure. Y’all should go and watch the Ebert and Roeper review (it’s on YouTube somewhere) where Roeper actually criticises the Opera sequence(!!!), which shows a complete and utter lack of love for cinema right there.

    I’m glad more people are vocal about their love for “Birth” (and that glorious Golden Globe nod at the time was, strangely, seen as “star fucking” – you don’t starfuck with a movie like “Birth” for crying out loud!) but it’s still nowhere near enough.

    I just hope that Kidman continues to make those sort of daring decisions and in, say, 20 years time her acting counterparts will agree that it’s something to be cherished and will throw awards at her like they should have done for movies like “Dogville”, “Birth” and “Margot at the Wedding”.