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Acting with a Capital "A"
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
After watching Joaquin Phoenix single-handedly try to ruin every scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012), I was reminded of an old Pauline Kael review of the 1956 movie Teahouse of the August Moon. Of star Glenn Ford’s performance in Teahouse, Kael wrote: "As the American captain who tries to turn the Okinawan village into a well-scrubbed American community and then is converted by the natives, Glenn Ford grimaces, twitches galvanically, and stutters foolishly. It's the kind of role and the kind of performance that makes you hate an actor." 60 years later, I know exactly what she means.
In The Master, Phoenix does the kind of acting that not only makes you hate Joaquin Phoenix, it makes you hate every single actor you have ever seen; it makes you hate the concept of "acting." It makes you hate the Greeks for coming up with the art form known as "dramatic theatre." Phoenix's performance is chock-full of those actorly tics and affected bits that theatre grad students can't get enough of but everyone else finds annoying as hell. I'm certain that Phoenix believes he's accurately representing some part of the human condition, though I'm at a loss to exactly guess what that part might be. In The Master, Phoenix doesn't seem like the confused, abrasive loner at the center of the movie; no, he seems precisely like a preposterous, over-committed mega-actor who can't speak one casual line of dialogue without having an epileptic fit.
Maybe it was the time period of the movie, the early 50s, that got Joaquin all het up — that era delivered us the first modern screen method actors and perhaps Phoenix felt he needed to pay tribute to his antecedents by out-Brandoing Marlon and out-Deaning James and out-Clifting Montgomery in every scene. Whatever the reason, the end result is nearly unwatchable, and that's a real shame, because much of The Master is prime PT Anderson — beguiling, fascinating, frustrating. The movie ultimately succeeds on many levels and is quite affecting, despite the malignant lump at the center of the story.
Of course, as Paul Simon once put it, one man's ceiling is another man's floor, so it's probably not surprising that a lot of people loved Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, including Oscar voters, who nominated him for "Best Actor" last year. Maybe it's the case that voters simply mistook the category — perhaps they thought it was "Most" Acting, not "Best" Acting, in the same way that the "Best Costume" category invariably gets awarded to the period piece with the most elaborate costumes, regardless of their taste or execution.
It's interesting to note that the reverse of the "bad role + bad performance = hatred of actor" equation exists as well — there are some movies that are so surprising and charming that you'll root for the film's actors in any future endeavor. Ryan Gosling has left me cold in virtually every movie he's made since 2007, yet I have such fond feelings for him from Lars and the Real Girl that I keep suffering through every zombie-like, joyless performance he's given since, hoping that he'll show some of that disarming skill he displayed in the movie about the guy in love with an inflatable doll. Lars and the Real Girl is a small miracle of a movie--a genial, benevolent parable about looking out for the oddballs in life; what could be a crass, raunchy sex farce (due to the machinations of the story) instead become a sweet, generous-hearted character study that celebrates the virtues of simple decency and compassion. Because of it I will still say that I "like" Ryan Gosling even though I've no patience for his recent work. (In fact, all of the actors in "Lars and the Real Girl" are so eminently likable that I actively look out for their next roles, even though they're character actors — Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, and John Schneider all do such simple, graceful acting in Lars that I'll check out any project that they have even the slightest of roles in.)
For guys my age, High Fidelity (2000) remains one of the key movies of the last decade, and one of the main reasons it still delivers pleasures on re-viewing is that same "likability" thing — the actors are so right, so dead-on that it's a welcoming feeling to be in their presence again. John Cusack, Todd Louiso, Iben Hjejle, even movie stars like Tim Robbins and Catherine Zeta-Jones do such fine work that you keep hoping to run into them in the future. And Jack Black became a movie star because of the movie, which is unusual, because High Fidelity wasn't a huge commercial hit and Black only had a supporting role. But he engendered such positive feelings from the role of the loudmouth Barry that he was able to parlay his success into leading-man roles. (And it's safe to say that he's disappointed pretty heavily as a lead — School of Rock was fine, but there's also Nacho Libre, Year One, and Gulliver's Travels, which are all, all but unwatchable.)
Of course, as someone who once wrote 1200 words about his love for Nic Cage, I'm hardly a reliable source when it comes to determining who's "likable." And while I admit that I occasionally like to see a no-holds barred performance that rattles the roof and shakes the floors, I'm usually more interested in unfussy actors who hold the bars and give something subtle and nuanced. Guys like Robet Mitchum, who still is responsible for the greatest two-word response ever given about the mysteries and intricacies of the acting profession. "Beats workin'," he said.