Firstly, an apology for my absence last week: I went back to my College’s May Ball and proceeded to get quite exceptionally drunk, meaning that getting my hung-over arse into a cinema was a decidedly impossible endeavour. This week, I also have no current releases to discuss as I’ve put myself on a week-long abstinence: like I say, I spent a lot of money getting drunk last week and am going to spend some more on various things this week. In addition to which is the fact that the coming weeks are looking pretty busy: there’s a choice of films to see next week, and after that it’s time to see what all this Malick fuss is about.
Had I gone to the cinema this week, however, I would almost certainly have gone to see “Potiche.” This would have been out of sheer curiosity to see which was bigger: the cinema screen of Gerard Depardieu. Seriously, when did he get so huge? Anyway, what certainly looks fascinating and appealing about the film is its sense of social nostalgia and the thrusting into this of the star pairing of Gerard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve. Of course the major reason for the draw of this collaboration is in the memories of the work they’ve done together as much younger actors (such as Truffaut’s fantastic “Le Dernier Metro”), and their reputation as icons of French cinema. What strikes me about seeing these two personalities side by side, and what constitutes the central paradox of screen acting I’d like to talk about here, is the fact that although both are equally prestigious in terms of their bodies of work they are completely different animals when it comes to screen acting. Essentially, Deneuve is a film star, and Depardieu is a film actor: and there is a very important difference between the two. When you go and see Deneuve in a film, you want to see Catherine Deneuve do a riff on her basic screen persona. When you go to see Depardieu in a film, you go to see him assimilate himself into a character.
Let’s put this contrast into sharper focus by considering these actors’ performances in two of their most revered screen outings: “Belle de Jour” and “Jean de Florette.” The reason Deneuve’s performance is so remarkable in Bunuel’s film is because it is a blatantly ostentatious subversion of her star: she was certainly no stranger to sexualisation, but prior to this picture it was always carried out in a way that heightened her glamour and ethereal, almost untouchable beauty. The degrading of her sexuality and her star into something far seedier and surreal than audiences were used to is precisely the reason her performance in “Belle de Jour” stands out from a glittering and impressive career, whereas the beauty of Depardieu’s work in “Jean de Florette” is in how comprehensively he blurs the line between himself and the character. Remember that at this stage in his career, in the mid-eighties, Depardieu was still considered an attractive young leading man, yet here he is completely believable as a naïve and pitiable hunchback. The raw power of the scene when the rain fails to come near his crops, and he futilely curses God in the skies above him, is so memorable and moving because the strength of Depardieu as an actor is tempered by the omnipresence of the character’s weakness and inefficacy in manipulating the world around him. His rage is impotent, yet Depardieu’s towering, visceral emotions in, say, “Cyrano de Bergerac” are anything but. He isn’t just playing one performance off another in his career: he’s reinventing the wheel each time with a unique mimesis.
If I’m giving the impression that I prefer film actors to film stars then it must be said that, on the surface, this is completely correct. If you were to ask me off the top of my head who my favourite film actors of all time are, I’d immediately reel off a list of those method-trained, intense outsider actors of the Silver Age of Hollywood: Hoffman, Nicholson, Streep, De Niro, Pacino. However, whilst it is beyond argument that at the start of these actors’ careers they very much personified what it meant to be a naturalistic and unflinchingly truthful screen avatar for extraordinary characters, emotions and ideas, it can’t quite be said of all of them that this continued throughout their longer careers. Streep and Hoffman have stuck to this ideal best by seeking out offbeat character roles, but what of the others? Nicholson began to play off the shades-wearing, deep and smooth voiced aging lothario with the grin of a Cheshire cat from “Terms of Endearment” and has pretty much stayed in this mode since; De Niro has been gurning his way through lacklustre comedies since his last great performances in “Casino” and “Heat;” and whilst Pacino occasionally rediscovers his roots, particularly in his television work, he’s now most recognisable as the screaming behemoth of rage who has been cranking up the entertainment value of everything he’s touched since “Dick Tracy.” You might think that I’d condemn these actors for their transformations, or at least be mildly disappointed and nostalgic for their early work, but the truth is I’m not. This is partly because, in the cases of Nicholson and Pacino in particular, they are making self-conscious attempts to challenge the naturalistic conventions of screen acting they played a huge role in establishing, and are thus continuing to develop, play with and advance the craft and the art form. If they had truly sold out to the pantomimic, Nicholson wouldn’t have been able to pull of “About Schmidt,” and Pacino wouldn’t have been so electrifying in “The Insider.” I mainly still love these actors, however, because their later performances see them relaxing into the roles of movie stars: and a star performance is always compulsively watchable.
Does this suggest a paradox present in my instinctive preference for acting over star performances, and is my snobbery concerning the latter in fact made redundant by the fact that at the end of the day what we really want to see from a film actor is not a ground-breaking piece of transformation, but a recognisable and charismatic star turn? It’s a question that is even more resonant today when we consider how technology has drastically altered the status of the actor in cinema. The reason actors are the highest paid talents involved with a film is because they are the human presence on-screen with whom the audience forges its most immediate and strongest bond: therefore, a good actor or a popular star used to be the key ingredient in marketing a film, to the mass market a far more lucrative audience draw than privileging the director’s name on the poster (Hitchcock maybe being the exception that proves this rule). Now, however, it’s technology that sells a film, or the established identity of the presented narrative given the abundance of sequels and films based on pre-existing material. If a trailer and poster can show enough CGI explosions, can be suitably loud and bright, and can boast 3D presentation, this is the best way of ensuring bums on seats, in spite of both the quality of the film and of the actors involved. Take the “Transformers” franchise as an example. Shia LeBoeuf is the worst actor in the world (except Keanu Reeves obviously) and the films are crass, stupid, leering monstrosities of disposable garbage: yet the first two are amongst the highest grossing pictures of the decade, and part trois will not doubt follow suit. This is the cinematic equivalent of jangling shiny keys in front of a child to make it smile: the smile is cheap, but once it’s smiled all else is irrelevant. Once people have paid for these tickets, lured in by exciting trailers and the comfort of familiarity, the ball is already moving too fast to stop it.
So where does this leave both the movie star and the movie actor? In the case of the former, the answer would appear to be up shit creek. If movie stars can no longer sell films, how can they hope to compete against the truly fantastic screen actors who are working on the worthier projects which I like to go and see? Well, for one thing, they can take a leaf out of Humphrey Bogart’s book. Bogart was unquestionably a movie star, and people went to see his films to see Bogart being Bogart: the coolly detached, world-weary, anti-heroic tough with both seething anger and vulnerability running just below the surface at all times. Then you see him in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “The African Queen,” where he isn’t Bogart at all: he’s playing the characters in these two films very faithfully, without excess or indulgence, and we see that he would have survived as a character actor had his star never taken off: it’s just that he knew what his audience wanted, and gave them that. Two of the greatest movie stars of the modern era, Harrison Ford and George Clooney, have exactly the same power. As an audience we demand of Ford that he be the dashingly heroic, handsomely charismatic action hero with a welcome element of humanity and ordinariness about him, and we demand of Clooney that he be a smooth operator, a charmingly handsome devil, and a coffee salesman. Yet when Ford is completely unlikeable and menacingly obsessive in “The Mosquito Coast,” and when Clooney is a complete fucking idiot in his films with the Coen Brothers, we admire them as stars even more because behind the glamour and the persona are two truly great actors carefully selecting opportunities to do great work as performers, not by subverting their stars but by disowning them. The problem is that these actors are getting on a bit, and although Hollywood elevates many younger actors to the level of stardom the question remains as to whether they have the acting chops to survive as film personalities. DiCaprio does, and going back to a point I made a few months ago Matt Damon does, but I struggle to think of others.
Not that it’s too late to learn if an actor does wake up to discover themselves as a popular movie star whose apparent absence of real acting chops threatens to unmask them as frauds riding an unstable wave of audience approval. In the past and the present, actors who began as movie stars evolved into character actors of such assured quality that jumped classification, and are now recognised as screen actors more than they ever were as film stars. James Stewart is another favourite actor of mine, but I’m not so keen on most of his pre-war work when he was the screwball comedy go-to man for a youthful and idealistic “aww-shucks” defender of small town American values: rather give me the dark and bitter war veteran who mined the depths of his own deep-rooted obsessions in his work for Hitchcock, and threatened to cast himself into the abyss of despair before his ultimate redemption in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Stewart didn’t subvert his star persona after his WW2 service: he desecrated and destroyed it, and emerged a far more complex and searing film actor. Another great favourite of mine, Michael Caine, has done the same thing. As a star that epitomised the cool of swinging Sixties London he was never less than magnetic, yet his later performances have seen him go to great lengths to stretch himself and test his versatility. Now he’s one of the world’s finest character actors, and is even more beloved for it. Brad Pitt is in the midst of pulling off the same trick: he’s probably not going to play the beautiful male lead any more now that he can pick and choose his projects, with his turns in “Inglourious Basterds” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” evidencing this, and according to all reports the best is yet to come with “The Tree of Life.”
If you ask me to list my favourite actors presently working in their prime, I’d reel off the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Tom Hardy, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and Michael Fassbender, and the reason I’d give you is that they’re all film actors as opposed to film stars, and are advancing the art form that is screen performance. Yet each of them also has undeniable star quality, and this is a necessary aspect to their success: the star and the actor are not as distanced from each other as I first though, to the extent that they are in fact inextricably linked. However, film acting is still in jeopardy: whilst there will always be actors like those listed above who also boast considerable star power, I’m not sure whether mainstream cinema will again be able to discover stars who are also fine actors.