6. As You Like It: Critical Analysis of Character Acting in the Context of Film Part I

While the casual movie-goer may not see film as radical or evolutionary (they may see it, rather, as indulgent or entertaining), the competent film-connoisseur lavishes in the avant-garde innovation, the precociousness, and the unconventionality of film.  Just as the historian must give credit where credit is firmly due to Marx regardless of his or her politico-economical tendencies, so also must a film-connoisseur be more accepting than shallow, more open-minded than closed.  Excuse me for a quick diversion, but therein lies my distaste for genre-bias in film criticism.  Also, therein lies my further distaste for those critics and fans who approach film-watching with preconceived checklists.  Anyway, if radicalism is a plus in film innovation, then I see no problem in quoting the radical Lord Henry Wotton from Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray. “I love acting,” he said, “It is so much more real than life.”

How is acting more real?  Take, for example, the classic and immemorial coffee-table rhetoric: “Did you know that 93% of all conversation is nonverbal?”  If only 7% of all conversation involves our choice of words, then what other things make up our communicative ability?  The answers are relatively simple: tone of voice, body language, inflection, timing, context and cultural norms such as idiomatic phrasing among other things.  What if someone were to make such a statistic in regards to reality itself?  Like communication (certainly an important aspect of our respective realities), we may find that those aspects of reality which seem at once most blatant and obvious may play much smaller roles in our overall understanding of identity, perception, and opinion than we may at first realize.  It does not seem intellectually absurd to claim that the results of such a study would lead to new coffee-table talking points: “Did you know that 93% of reality is non-objective?  Non-visual?”

Herein lies the tie-in from my claim in my “A Slice of Cake” page, where I claimed that the role of film is to provide an escape as opposed to a representation of reality and that reality tends to hinder artistic cinema .  I was referring in that article to a form of objective reality, the school of sight and sound.  The issue with films that are encumbered with a sense of realism and weighed down by the pressures of casual movie-watchers that want a realistic scene is that they focus on the 7% that we see every day–they just radicalize it.  They ignore the more important aspects of reality, the subjective ones that make existence unique for each individual irregardless of culture…the 93%.  As an openly religious man, I believe in absolute truths, but I do not disregard the facts that are respective perception and respective understanding.  Truth may not actually lie in the eye of the beholder, but reality, as the beholder understands it, does.   I think the words of the great monastic warrior and leader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, are most satisfactory: “Luke, you will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

That took a long time to explain, but that’s what Lord Henry meant, I think.  In essence, acting is what Marlon Brando referred to as a form of psychoanalysis wherein one can come to grips with the balance between one’s perceptions, one’s senses and one’s imagination.  In essence, it’s making a slice of cake, like Alfred Hitchcock would want.  An actor has the same mission as a director.  Take something real, and make it more real by not worrying so much about objective reality and giving life instead to imagination.

Finding the balance between providing a metaphorical slice of cake (please read the second page in this blog if this “slice of cake” metaphor isn’t making any sense) and giving a piece of life even more real than reality can be difficult; but consider Shakespeare.  In his renowned comedy As You Like It, he wrote “All the world’s a stage/and all the men and women merely players/they have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts/His acts being seven ages”….

In other words: life is like the play, not the play like life.  That is the power of good movie-making, it can forever change the way you imagine things.  It changes the products you consume; it changes the career goals you have; it changes every taste from political leniency all the way to fashion sense; it can make you believe in God or reject the idea of eternity.  An actor, since he is the star, the focal point, and both the visual and auditory center of the production, becomes the pattern.  No self-respecting young boy hasn’t at some point wished he was John Wayne, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne or Luke Skywalker.  No self-respecting young girl hasn’t at some point imagined to fall in love like Juliet, Cinderella, or even Bella.

That’s why I don’t understand the stigma that has grown about and around “type-cast” actors.  Some of the criticism, I agree, is needed.  Sylvester Stallone, Will Ferrell, Nicholas Cage, even Liam Neeson sometimes can become stale or dull.  This is indirectly tied to being type cast, but it is not a direct result of it.  If it was a direct result, that would imply all type-cast actors are bad in every performance.  That’s not true.  The correlation lies in the fact that the actor can, at times, get complacent, and that’s evident in the particular role they’re playing.  But watch Sylvester Stallone in Cop Land, or Will Ferrell in Elf, or Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas or Raising Arizona.  Those are not the performances of complacent, type-cast actors.  They are the performances of engaged and passionate type-cast actors.  There’s a difference.

A lot of people despise Nicholas Cage’s acting now.  I agree, he’s gone downhill.  Somewhere around Trapped in Paradise he started slipping; which makes sense because it’s a movie with lots of ice in it.  However, let me quote Roger Ebert for a second, from his review on Adaptation (which just had to come out after Trapped in Paradise, of course): “There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson, and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air. No one else can project inner trembling so effectively…. He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.”  Roger Ebert said that.  When I hear one of my friends rip on Nicholas Cage—because that’s the popular thing to do now—I have to say to them: “you missed something…something, somewhere along the way….you missed it.”  Maybe the only Nicholas Cage movies they’ve seen are National Treasure, Ghost Rider and The Family Man.  In that case, they may be on to something, but their ignorance to other performances is quibbling them.

Type-cast actors are a profound aspect of cinema.  Without them, that hero-figure (James Bond, Indiana Jones or Rocky Balboa) would not exist.  It’s the patterns and the aspirations that such actors are willing to create that so greatly empower movies.  Take for example, three famous–and I mean famous famous–actors that are famously considered as “type-cast.”

First off, we have Humphrey Bogart, who the American Film Institute named the Greatest Movie Star of all time; then Marilyn Monroe, who Lee Strasberg called the second best actor he’d ever worked with; and then John Wayne.  I will try to be brief, and will go in backwards order.

John Wayne. 

Notice that earlier I made a list of great figures from film that young boys have at once aspired to be: John Wayne, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne and Luke Skywalker.  All of them are fictional characters, except John Wayne.   No one knows him by any of his character’s names (except Davy Crockett and Rooster Cogburn), they just say “John Wayne.”  That level of continuity reeks to the core of “type-cast” acting.  “He’s the same guy in every movie,” I’ve heard.  “He never acted a day in his life, he was just playing himself,” I’ve also heard.  Watch his anguish and his pain and his quiet, unspoken, and internal moral dilemma in The Searchers.  Watch his depression and his nostalgia and his defeated, willing self-sacrifice in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  Watch his romantic defeat and his friendly banter and his wizened perception in The Shootist.  I agree that he is type-cast.  I can only imagine the casting meetings for every Western that was mande from 1935 onward: “So…we need a cowboy….let’s try Wayne.”  I agree that he had strains of continuity from one film to another.  But those strains of continuity are only manifest in the aforementioned (and metaphorical) 7% of the reality he was putting forth.  He was a superb actor and a magician in the history of film.

Marilyn Monroe.

Earlier, I said Marilyn Monroe was considered by Lee Strasberg to be the second best actor he’d ever worked with, behind Marlon Brando.  Lee Strasberg was and still is considered the greatest acting coach in the history of cinema.  He worked with hundreds of people, including Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Paul Newman, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro.  He invented method acting, which forever revolutionized the way actors act, and therefore, the way directors direct.  (If you keep reading, I’ll get to method acting and the historical development of cinematographic acting later).  His opinion must be important.   Monroe, somewhat limited by typecasting in the studios, dominated in Bus Stop, a direct attempt at branching out of her niche.  This goes to show how versatile an actress she really was.  But her versatility was not as outstanding as her subtlety and deception.  She was a fantastic student at UCLA and Strasberg’s Acting Studio.  She was calculated and precise.  Look at her dancing in and singing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and compare it with the performances in Bus Stop.  She was intentional and smart.  The dumb blond typecast led her to dominate Hollywood, and anyone who knew her knew it was a complete act.  Her entire life was an act.  That is a good actor.

Humphrey Bogart. 

Humphrey Bogart was typecast as a film-noir style villain his entire career until Casablanca was released and he all of a sudden became a hero.  Either way, he was film-noir typecast number one.  Joseph Cotton, Dana Andrews and others were merely runners-up to the star of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.  But, amid all that typecasting, he was stellar.  He dominated the screen and demonstrated a form of romance that varied from performance to performance.  Instead of drastically altering personalities from film to film a la Johnny Depp, he allowed only single variations which gave unique life to his characters, which were unfortunately shadowed by his own grand mystique.  To give life to characters when you yourself are the most well-known persona in Hollywood is a difficult thing, because people come to see you, not the character you’re portraying.  His finest performances are in The Treasure of thSierra Madre and Casablanca.  The first, because it his boldest and most unique.  The second, because it defines him as a typecast actor.  That role is full of the classic Bogart-enigma, callousness amid a conflicting backdrop of romance.  Fantastic, really.

In conclusion to this first part, I will sum up my basic conclusions.  The job of the actor is much like the job of the director: to provide a realistic portrayal of character as a springboard and then use that springboard to provide a depth of character that objectivism can’t perceive.  The actor makes film more poignant and real by contributing to his or her role those aspects of life that cannot be shown through mere recitation of script.  While this seems an overly Romantic expectation all of us have seen it come to fruition in the emergence of true character to the screen.  The actor, by doing this, shows the productive power of movies in creating new perceptions and aspirations in the mind of the viewer.  While typecasting certainly can limit the artistic abilities of a talented actor, it should not be used as evidence to their lack of ability, because the great actors can still shine even when they are typecast.  If anything, typecasting is a sign that movies are performing according to their prescribed purpose: they are creating patterns and types that attract viewers, spark their memories and encourage closer attention.

I have decided to this entry in two parts, since I have a tendency to get way too wordy.  The second part will talk about other aspects of acting, including method acting, the history of acting, and what we now call “character acting.”

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