I would like to write a piece this week in praise of one of American cinema’s most naturalistic, versatile and talented actors. He’s as raw and in the moment as Leonardo DiCaprio, as transformative as Christian Bale, and as challenging and quality-conscious in his choice of material as Johnny Depp. He’s a charismatic and endearing film star, as well as a dedicated and affecting film actor. He’s shared the screen with Pacino and De Niro, and appeared in central roles for Spielberg and Scorsese. He is…Matt Damon.

Not bad for someone who at first seemed destined to be dogged by the less than flattering marionette crafted in his image in “Team America: World Police.” But seriously, I do think that Damon is one of the most intelligent and trustworthy actors working today. I also think that he doesn’t get much credit for his acting: the attention afforded him is usually more to do with him being a movie star, which is something very different. A movie star is someone whose presence in a film can sell tickets, secure studio backing/funding, and essentially use their image, clout and popularity to lift a film into major blockbuster consideration. A movie star is also someone who will pick, and in some cases alter, a film project to suit what audiences demand of them, and indeed how they demand to be perceived.

Matt Damon doesn’t do this: he doesn’t have scripts altered to suit his image or to sell himself, despite his bankability and popularity. He is always at the service of the material and looking to demonstrate his acting skills, and as such employs no small amount of scrutiny in the projects he chooses. Having Damon in a film is a badge of quality, and his desire to be associated with good material inevitably brings him into the service of great directors. He’s appeared in films made by the great directors of our time: Eastwood, the Coen Brothers, Soderbergh, Greengrass, Van Sant, Minghella, not to mention the two aforementioned giants of American cinema. There is so much commerce and media attention afforded to contemporary film stars that it’s easy to forget that classic Hollywood stars could both attract the money and the good directors, and also choose projects which showcased their acting abilities. Comparisons are rife between George Clooney and Cary Grant, but for me Damon is much more evocative of the man who, for me, was always the greatest actor amongst that pantheon of old Hollywood icons: James Stewart.

Both Stewart and Damon are incredibly likeable movie stars, both have an easy-going and endearing everyman quality, both are as competent in drama as in comedy, and both aren’t afraid to play against their image to give stirring and revelatory performances. We remember James Stewart as the “Aww shucks!” muse of Frank Capra’s small town American heroes, but in Anthony Mann’s westerns he was more often than not a tortured, conflicted and downright dodgy piece of work. And just look at the parts he played for Hitchcock: in “Rope” a professor who has implanted some seriously immoral Nietzschean ideas in his pupils, in “Rear Window” an obsessed peeping tom, and in “Vertigo” an even more obsessed borderline necrophile.

What I am suggesting is that Damon doesn’t disappoint the fans who make him and his movies profitable by choosing interesting and promising material: films which also allow him to act as opposed to be his accepted self. Even as far back as “Good Will Hunting,” (and while we’re on it how many film stars are also Oscar-winning script-writers?) Damon refuses to play Will as the stereotypical promising young man with a self-destructive streak who takes pride in his rebellion against what society expects of a man of his talents. All this is in the performance, but it’s categorised not by a gradually tamed arrogance but by a confrontation and acceptance of self-loathing. Will doesn’t particularly like himself, and Damon makes sure that we don’t always like him. Instead of playing an ordinary man with extraordinary gifts, Damon plays a pretentious snob masquerading as an everyman, knowing full well that the mask is a necessary demon: he is so socially pigeonholed that to cast off his roots is to expose himself to an elite world he cannot function within, despite his talents. This gives us a glimpse into the character’s true weakness and inadequacy; something powerfully demonstrated when Will finally weeps in the arms of Robin Williams’ therapist.

Only a couple of years later, “The Talented Mr Ripley” really showed off how wide a range Damon is capable of bringing to his roles. It is to the shame of the Academy that Jude Law’s flashier and ultimately superficial performance was recognised when Damon’s subtle, creepily intense turn was not. He plays Ripley with simultaneous naïveté and cunning, as both a cultured and intelligent individual and a blank cypher onto which any persona can be placed. His seduction of the women around him is sweetly innocent and disturbingly weird, evident when his sadly unreciprocated attraction to Gwyneth Paltrow transforms into a confrontation of her which is both sexually aggressive and genuinely malevolent. Damon is able to make the audience tangibly feel the character’s preening, sycophantic admiration of his targets even as we understand that his fascination extends only to a desire for their material lifestyle, and the homosexual undercurrent of the character is impressively marked for a heartthrob actor in a mainstream film. Damon truly crafts a performance in which a hell of lot of things are going on, and he keeps this subtext under remarkable control right up until he unleashes it upon us with fearsome dramatic effect.

His range is not just evident in one film, but across his career: one need only compare his performances in the two big franchises he has appeared in. To call Jason Bourne the thinking man’s action hero is to do a gross injustice to the character that Damon is actually playing: a persona which is inextricably bound up with what political filmmakers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass are doing with the material. Bourne represents not a monomaniac, physically elite all-action hero on a quest of discovery, but rather a psychologically damaged remnant of an unfeeling political system. Damon as Bourne ultimately doesn’t discover his true identity, but instead comes face to face with the nature of evil as embodied in himself: his life has been destroyed since the moment he chose to be trained to kill for dubious political reasons, and the actor never shies away from the uncomfortable truth that his character once accepted a terrible call to arms and all the horrors that go with it. Fundamentally, though, it’s a strong and tough performance, one which stands in stark contrast to his character in the “Oceans” films. Here, Damon encapsulates the comic absurdity of a conman who consistently exists as the butt of his team’s jokes, and as a cocky young pretender who constantly jeopardises the crew’s schemes. Damon is happy not to compete with the starry charisma of Clooney and Pitt even though he potentially could: instead scooping all the laughs as an unattractive but far more believable character.

In “The Departed,” we again see the showier performance of another actor, in this case DiCaprio, threaten to eclipse the more nuanced and internalised performance of Damon. Don’t get me wrong: DiCaprio is very effective in the film, and I suppose he’s allowed a bit more license to play it up as a psychologically unhinged good man in the company of villains. In honesty, though, DiCaprio’s very irascibility and conscience constantly threatens to expose him. In Damon’s case, he is not only completely credible as a cop with intelligence and integrity, and as a man struggling to suppress the inherent conflict within himself, but also employs a natural charm and apparent loyalty which enables him to fool not only an entire department full of detectives, but also his live-in girlfriend who’s a criminal psychologist! And the audience is also completely convinced by his deception, because we actually come to quite like the character.

Finally, go and see “The Good Shepherd.” This was a seriously under-appreciated, epic spy thriller directed by Robert De Niro, and the subtlety, power and attention to detail the actor brings to his best performances is very evident in his direction of a magnificent screenplay. It’s the best film De Niro was involved with in the last decade and is very worthy of attention, and it’s also the final word in how utterly transfixing, subtle and naturalistic an actor Damon is. He ages from a college student to a middle-aged world-weary man effortlessly and convincingly, he crafts a character that is simultaneously an emotionless cypher and a grandstanding study in behavioural repression, and throughout the film we can see how the many terrible events that have accumulated in his life have made him a dubious man with a haunted and tortured soul.

So, Matt Damon, I salute your choices and your performances. It would be hard for any actor to follow a lead role in a Clint Eastwood film and a supporting part for the Coen Brothers, but with “The Adjustment Bureau” Damon has done just that. It’s a film with some weighty ideas which nonetheless doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Damon carries it with the ease and excellence I have certainly come to expect from him.

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4 Responses

  1. David Brook

    Yes, Damon is an actor who I have a lot of respect for. He rarely blows me away on screen, but I think it’s largely down to his underplayed ‘everyman’ approach you mention. I’ve never thought of the James Stewart connection, but you’ve got an excellent point.

    I’ve always had a lot of time for DiCaprio too, mainly due to his varied and solid choices of roles. Both actors could have gone down the pretty boy blockbuster route (although neither of them have aged well in the looks department), but both rose above such temptations. I’ve been more disappointed in Depp recently though who you briefly mentioned. He began his career with interesting, quirky roles but now spends too much of his time in glossy trash like the Pirates films, The Tourist and Alice in Wonderland (sorry Burton fans, but I hated this movie).

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  2. Adam Hollingworth

    Yes, I’m similarly very fond of DiCaprio, again there’s a really easy naturalism to what he does, and him being in a film more often than not means the film is good: both actors tend to be fairly reliable when it comes to selecting projects. I do prefer Damon of the two purely on the versatility front: DiCaprio is great, but he has of late tended to play his roles in quite a similar way, which is fine because what he does is really great, but he’s clearly got more to offer which is a potential I think Damon is better at tapping into. Another good example of an actor who started out as a “pretty boy” and has deliberately graduated away from that is Brad Pitt, who’s doing some really good character acting of late.

    I’m in complete agreement about Depp, though I must say even the early stuff failed to really impress me. He’s had his moments, particularly Ed Wood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but because he gravitates towards parts, projects and directors that showcase his really interesting physical acting the danger is becoming cartoonish, which I fear he has become. Its great that he can do these really out-there and imaginative performances, but he’s sort of lost the ability to do anything else, and because the Burton especially is making really bad films at the moment Depp’s performances are getting similarly indulgent and irrelevant.

    Oh, and in response to last week, I havent seen High and Low, I’ll have to check it out…it’s been on my to do list for a while.

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  3. David Brook

    Oh yeah I forgot about Brad Pitt. He’s definitely an actor I have a lot of respect for these days because of his career choices and versatility.

    Back to Depp, yes I agree. I tried to choose the right words (“interesting” and “quirky”) rather than “decent”, because yes his early roles were varied and often from leftfield, but not always entirely successful.

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