It’s Os­cars time! Lyn­den Bar­ber dis­cusses win­ning act­ing vs act­ing that wins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THIS writer can give one firm guar­an­tee about Mon­day’s Os­car cer­e­mony. There will be no gasps of shock when Meryl Streep walks to the podium to col­lect her third best ac­tress tro­phy fol­low­ing her long-ago wins for Kramer vs Kramer and So­phie’s Choice. I can’t re­call the last time an Academy Award for act­ing was such a fore­gone con­clu­sion.

Yet the like­li­hood of Streep win­ning for play­ing Mag­gie Thatcher in The Iron Lady is not down to the per­for­mance alone. Few would deny Streep of­fers not only an un­canny im­per­son­ation of the im­pe­ri­ous Bri­tish ex-prime min­is­ter, but also brings the char­ac­ter’s in­ner con­vic­tion to life. But that’s not to deny the other fac­tors bol­ster­ing her chances like the fly­ing but­tresses on a gothic cathe­dral. Her Kramer tro­phy is now 30 years old. Streep has been so con­sis­tently ad­mired as the pre­sid­ing queen of Hol­ly­wood ac­tresses that 17 nom­i­na­tions has come to be seen as closer to an in­dig­nity than an hon­our. ‘‘ How come she keeps los­ing? It’s her time again.’’ That’s an old Academy tra­di­tion. Give one to the vet­er­ans be­fore it’s too late. We’re feel­ing guilty.

Run­ning in par­al­lel is an es­sen­tially bo­gus, un­ex­am­ined prej­u­dice that has long un­der­mined the Academy Awards’ cred­i­bil­ity: the idea that great act­ing is some­thing the viewer al­ways has to no­tice. Along with this runs the equally wrong-headed no­tion that trans­for­ma­tion is a nec­es­sary part of the process. I don’t mean char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment or ‘‘ arc’’ (to use screen­writer lingo), where the script takes char­ac­ters to a dif­fer­ent place at the end to where they’ve started from, but the kind that comes from ac­tors sub­merg­ing their own iden­tity be­neath the per­son they are play­ing.

Pre­vi­ously we had the ten­dency for ac­tors to take on a phys­i­cal or men­tal hand­i­cap but that’s been over­taken in re­cent years by an­other trans­for­ma­tional trend — ac­tors sign­ing up for real-life char­ac­ter parts, prefer­ably peo­ple still liv­ing or only re­cently de­ceased, such as Cate Blanchett as Bob Dy­lan, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. Hence join­ing Streep this year in the best ac­tress short list we have Michelle Wil­liams, up for play­ing Marilyn Mon­roe in My Week With Marilyn.

Of course all good act­ing is trans­for­ma­tional in at least some sense. There has to be some change, a recog­ni­tion that the char­ac­ter as writ­ten is not the same per­son as the ac­tor. But the pro­fes­sion­ally trans­form­ing ac­tor I’m think­ing of here tends to favour a char­ac­ter de­signed to make that process ob­vi­ous. Gen­er­ally that means ‘‘ ob­vi­ous to Blind Freddy’’.

Of­ten they jus­tify this in terms of the ir­re­sistible chal­lenge it presents. But too of­ten these me­ta­mor­phoses, even the most ac­com­plished ones, op­er­ate at the level of con­jur­ing tricks, the per­for­mances showy and sel­f­re­gard­ing — ‘‘ ooh-ah, we see what she did there, we just don’t know how she did it’’. The per­former may as well turn to the au­di­ence at the end of the film and wink be­fore tak­ing a bow.

Daniel Day-lewis is a prime per­pe­tra­tor, and I’m think­ing less of his best ac­tor­win­ning My Left Foot, which for all its ob­vi­ous­ness was a gen­uinely mov­ing and funny per­for­mance. I’m think­ing rather of his more re­cent gallery of fatu­ous grotesques: the scenery-chomp­ing Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and the ec­cen­tric oil ty­coon Daniel Plain­view in There Will be Blood, which net­ted him the most ob­scenely un­de­served act­ing Os­car in re­cent mem­ory. The vot­ers could pre­sum­ably tell this was great act­ing be­cause they could plainly see and hear the ef­fort — that bizarre ac­cent! No mind Plain­view’s lack of re­sem­blance to any­thing that might re­sem­ble an ac­tual hu­man be­ing, es­pe­cially at the film’s lu­di­crously Monty Python- ish cli­max. Say, now that’s a trans­for­ma­tion.

The trou­ble with all this is that Academy bias to­wards ac­tors’ van­ity projects has a huge in­flu­ence in de­cid­ing which films get made. Does any­one se­ri­ously doubt that if Streep had not signed up for The Iron Lady that it would have had an ici­cle’s chance in the Simp­son Desert of get­ting fi­nanced? Tilda Swin­ton, the only other ob­vi­ous can­di­date for a cred­i­ble Thatcher, is not yet at the level where her name alone can get a ma­jor film made.

For all Streep’s skill, The Iron Lady is lit­tle more than a vir­tu­oso act­ing turn wrapped around a mis­con­ceived script that didn’t de­serve the pro­duc­tion green light.

Among the women nom­i­nally com­pet­ing against Streep for best ac­tress is Glenn Close’s gen­der-bend­ing English but­ler in Al­bert Nobbs. I con­fess to be­ing un­qual­i­fied to judge this. I’ve been put off from see­ing it by its grossly un­ap­petis­ing trailer, which makes it look like an un­in­ten­tional par­ody of what has come to be known in the in­dus­try as ‘‘ an Os­car-bait’’ film; a trite movie de­signed solely to win an Academy Award. Per­haps I am be­ing un­fair. I sus­pect not.

The truth is that great act­ing most of­ten takes place at the ex­act op­po­site end of the spec­trum to the trans­for­ma­tional style favoured by the Os­cars. Of­ten it goes un­recog­nised and un­der-praised for the sim­ple rea­son it doesn’t look like act­ing at all. The per­former so thor­oughly in­car­nates a com­plex hu­man be­ing that it never oc­curs to most view­ers to even no­tice there is some­thing mag­i­cal go­ing on. They just ac­cept the role as nat­u­ral, some­how given — ‘‘ that per­son is just be­ing them­selves; that’s not real act­ing!’’ That’s if they think about the act­ing at all.

The cruel irony is that the bril­liance of the mod­est yet vir­tu­osi­cally be­liev­able per­for­mance is to blame for the thor­ough­ness of the il­lu­sion it cre­ates. You can’t blame most view­ers for that (though you can blame Os­car vot­ers, who are meant to be ex­perts in film). The ac­tors have suc­ceeded so thor­oughly in bring­ing their role to life that they are bound to be un­thanked for it.

There are many ex­am­ples of this nat­u­ral­is­tic style but it seems to be es­pe­cially beloved by French di­rec­tors work­ing with en­sem­ble casts, such as Xavier Beau­vois. His Of Gods and Men, about French monks faced by a vi­o­lent Is­lamist in­sur­gency in the re­gion sur­round­ing their Al­ge­rian monastery, was one of last year’s high­lights. If ever a group of ac­tors de­served to be of­fi­cially praised, it was this one. Ev­ery look on ev­ery face told a tale of in­ter­nal strug­gle be­tween vul­ner­a­bil­ity and for­ti­tude; of hu­man fears of im­mi­nent death and grace un­der pres­sure. Yet de­spite Cotil­lard’s win as cabaret leg­end Edith Piaf in 2008, clear­ing a path for French films at the Os­cars, Beau­vois’s film has been ig­nored. (By con­trast it did garner a best sup­port­ing ac­tor tro­phy for Michael Lons­dale in the French Ce­sar awards.)

The other un­der­rated cat­e­gory of act­ing is as­so­ci­ated with ac­com­plished movie stars. Ge­orge Clooney is a great ex­am­ple, and if he wins best ac­tor this year for play­ing a strug­gling Hawai­ian lawyer hus­band to a co­matose wife in The De­scen­dants, it will be a sign the Os­cars can still make sane choices.

Stars need not be good ac­tors but when they do have thes­pian skills the re­sults can be pow­er­ful. Ac­tors such as Clooney bring con­sid­er­able charisma to their roles in a way that, in con­trast to the nat­u­ral­is­tic school, is ob­vi­ous and un­miss­able, yet nonethe­less sub­tle. Their per­for­mances are con­sis­tently not only com­pelling but be­liev­able.

While trans­for­ma­tional ac­tors mould them­selves to the role, work­ing to twist them­selves out of shape, the star per­former does the op­po­site, mould­ing the char­ac­ter to them­selves. Of course there are al­ways sub­tle dif­fer­ences in the way they ap­proach char­ac­ters from film to film, but at heart they have con­fi­dence not to try too hard. The Academy there­fore as­sumes they’re just be­ing them­selves, not act­ing. But there’s no ‘‘ just’’ about it. Be­ing re­laxed enough in front of the lens to give the im­pres­sion there is no cam­era is a rare and ex­tremely valu­able skill.

Comic ac­tors — who are usu­ally stars of some kind — are no­to­ri­ously prone to hav­ing their skills tossed to one side by the Academy’s mid­dle-brow snobs. Watch­ing Kris­ten Wiig in Brides­maids was one of only two oc­ca­sions last year where I sat up and asked my­self, ‘‘ who is this bril­liant per­former?’’ (Ob­vi­ously I don’t watch Satur­day Night Live). She’s been left out of the Os­car lists, though at least her orig­i­nal screen­play re­ceived a nod, while co-star Melissa Mccarthy made the sup­port­ing ac­tress short list.

The other time I rubbed my eyes in pleas­ant dis­be­lief came while watch­ing Jean Du­jardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist. De­spite be­ing lit­tle known out­side France and ap­pear­ing in a com­edy — a silent one at that — they man­aged to make it into the Academy Awards’ male ac­tor and sup­port­ing ac­tress cat­e­gories. The amaz­ing thing about their per­for­mances is that they seem like au­then­tic ones from the silent era they’re in­car­nat­ing (the film is set in the Hol­ly­wood of the late 1920s). At the same time they don’t sub­mit to the over-ex­ag­ger­a­tion that can look ridicu­lous to mod­ern au­di­ences. The se­cret: di­rec­tor Michel Hazanavi­cius pre­pared his cast by show­ing them F.W. Mur­nau’s clas­sic Hol­ly­wood silent Sunrise, renowned for many rea­sons in­clud­ing its (mostly) nat­u­ral­is­tic act­ing. That was a stroke of ge­nius. And per­haps as a re­sult, the Os­cars will be slightly less pre­dictable this year than they might have been. Lyn­den Bar­ber eval­u­ates this year’s Os­cars at theaus­ thearts.

Daniel Day-lewis won an Os­car in 2008 for There Will Be Blood

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