' ' Cinema Romantico: Acting! (or: a semi-philosophical rumination on some clickbait)

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Acting! (or: a semi-philosophical rumination on some clickbait)

Last week one of the old guards of Internet trolling, Jezebel, arose to incite a social media riot by way of a post called, simply, Actors Who Are Bad at Acting. The ensuing list of actors was just that – a list of actors. It was a list of twenty actors by name with no evidence cited as to precisely what makes them bad at their chosen profession. The defining criteria was this: “This is a list of actors who are not really good actors, contrary to what you might think. These are people who make you stop and wonder, Hm, are they good?” Ah yes, of course. “Contrary to what you might think.” This would seem to suggest their self-evident badness stems from others – that is, you, reader, or skimmer, since there isn’t, really, much to read – thinking they are good. And if you think they are good then they must, per the rule of contrarianism, be bad. Classic! What’s more, the lack of evidence allows the writer in question can to adopt any post-listicle stance she wishes. The list speaks for itself! The list is ironic! The list is meant to spawn a conversation! Don’t take the list so seriously, man! And while this is the point where I am supposed to indicate I will not provide a link to said list because it’s clickbait and they want you to click, well, as a blog that proudly asks for no clicks and will happily scrub your click from our stats if you’re not satisfied, everyone here is an adult and can decide to click or not to click as she or he wishes. So, here it is.

The responses to this, ahem, piece, whether in the comments, on the Twitters, or places in-between, were predictable. Oscars and Oscar nominations were cited as rebuttals in and of themselves, evoking Movie Stars being declared simply on the strength of box office or, ye gods, literally just starring in a movie, receipts and un-critical literalization taken to their inane extreme. Many responses were as vague as the initial list itself with one commenter incisively remarking “Brie Larson, Amy Adams and Emma Watson can totally act, the rest of the list is correct” leading another commenter to insightfully parry “Most of the list is incorrect, but Watson is not good.” Glad we cleared that up!

There were many, many GIFs and YouTube clips provided as standalone ripostes, particularly where Nicolas Cage is concerned, because Nicolas Cage’s infamous bouts of frenzy are ripe for such memeability. Here the person who typed up names for the, ahem, piece seemed to convey her in-on-the-joke bonafides by posting her own Cage clip with the trendy uncapitalized, unpunctuated addendum “i love him he’s great at screaming.” Whether Cage, who has given his share of subtle, tamped down performances, is making a conscious actorly decision to brighten trash by going berserk is apparently beside the point; make a funny and go viral instead!

GIFs and clips speak to the old line about knowing it when you see it, which Jeanine Basinger referenced in her excellent book about what makes a movie star. That’s why I thought about posting, God, I dunno, take your pick, a clip of Michael B. Jordan playing the perfect scene partner to Phylicia Rashad in “Creed II’s” best scene by knowing his character thinks the moment all about him even though he, the actor, knows it’s all about her, or Jennifer Lawrence commanding the whole room in the pivotal scene of “Silver Linings Playbook” not by running roughshod over everyone but playing it cool and letting everyone be gradually drawn into her scruffy orbit, or Sienna Miller evincing grief that her husband’s gone and contentment that he went on his own terms in the last scene of  “The Lost City of Z”, or Mark Wahlberg’s astonishing innocence in that scene on the dance floor in “Boogie Nights” where he blathers about his special edition limited silk print Italian nylon shirt, or even just ChloĆ« Grace Moretz on “30 Rock” exclaiming “Damn you, Donaghy” which I sometimes say aloud to myself because thinking of that line reading can hearten even the most miserable days.

Then again, these are isolated bits of acting wonder that don’t necessarily get to the deeper question of whether these are good actors and what the hell that even means. One commenter chimed in: “I’d agree that a lot of the actors on that list are fairly limited, and don’t have much range. I wouldn’t call most of them bad though.” That, in its way, is interesting! That’s interesting in so much as suggesting that being a good actor directly connects to having range. Says who?!

Is the famed range of Daniel Day-Lewis what makes him a great actor? Was it a similar ability in Philip Seymour Hoffman that made him one too? Is it Dame Meryl’s virtuosity with accents that elevates her? If you can’t change identities are you automatically bad? Because, I mean, hasn’t Amy Adams, who was on the list, proven that she has range? If range constitutes Good acting, why would she be Bad? But then, what constitutes range? Does range mean, as one commenter said, that Adams was in both “The Muppets” and “The Master” within a year of each other? Does range mean going from the feigned innocence of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for the Day” to the genuine yet compromised innocence of “Junebug?” Does range mean intentionally giving a ho-hum performance in “American Hustle” as an ersatz English lady while, as that same ersatz English lady, you are conveying the earnest arousal from playing make-believe? Or does range simply mean making more convincing, ahem, “animal noises” than Will Ferrell in “Talladega Nights”? What about Kevin Costner, who was on the list, and is often saddled with the label of Everyman? Does being Everyman mean he is incapable of doing anything else, or is their significant value in how Costner almost aways know each and every one of his Everymen and their respective idiosyncracies inside and out?

Tom Cruise did not make the Actors Who Are Not Good at Acting list – he must be Good at Acting! – but a tussle broke out in the comments anyway about his acting quality, with someone citing his inability to create a character out his recurring “Mission: Impossible” protagonist Ethan Hunt as indicating his flaw as a lack of range, that when you see Ethan Hunt you just see Tom Cruise. But, this is bad? The brilliant “M:I – Rogue Nation” harnesses much of its adrenalized je ne sais quoi from Cruise as Cruise, making his personal sense of, to quote the movie itself, manifest destiny the whole point. That mirrors Angelina Jolie, who was on the list, who is best and the best movie star period when her character is sculpted in her own movie star image.

Of course, utilizing your onscreen aura to do the heavy lifting veers perilously close to the Sergei Eisenstein idea of an actor’s deliberately neutral expression being manipulated by the camera, which another commenter astutely cited, suggesting a good performance is the product of a director and an editor, not the actor at all. I do frequently suspect Scarlett Johansson, who was on the list, got by in the otherwise ace “Under the Skin” with such assistance, though I am adamant that Brie Larson, who was first on the list, in “Captain Marvel”, did not, sharing telepathy with the camera, deliberately wielding her neutral expression so as to precisely modulate it when necessary for supreme effect.

If I’m merely offering counterpoints here to the list, which is precisely what K. Austin Collins argued against in his own Tweet saying he “would rather know what people think great acting even is .............. much more interesting/productive than a bunch of counterpoints to a list that we’re all saying doesn’t even matter lol”, I’m only doing so in some sort of slapdash way of trying to get to the first part of his Tweet, to think about what truly defines great acting. It’s something I think about a lot, and something that can’t be summarized in a sentence, or a paragraph, or a whole blog post, but movie by movie, performance by performance, examining and dissecting what each one is doing. I try to do that in my reviews, which makes me think of Matt Zoller Seitz saying at some point in some piece or Tweet I can’t source about how critics have an obligation to always address a movie’s visuals in their reviews.

I’m leery of placing any mandatory criteria on reviews, but I take Seitz’s larger point anyway, that describing what we see should be paramount. But what we see also involves an actor’s performance, which we are dutybound to discuss too, whenever possible, eternally wrestling with what makes an actor’s performance good (or bad) rather than simply issuing piffling decrees about who is Good and who is Bad.

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