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Actors without methods
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I had every intention of going to see "Black Mass," the new Johnny Depp/Whitey Bolger gangster film, but then I took one look at the trailer and knew that for two hours I'd just be wondering what the hell the filmmakers did to Johnny Depp's head. Obviously I recognize the importance of trying to make everything look as authentic as possible, especially in a prestige, Oscar-hunting film like this, but man oh man, watching Johnny Depp cram his beautiful features into that Whitey Bolger mask is just too painful to contemplate. And while I've been assured by friends that the movie is a winner and that Depp is just fine, I can't do it; instead of getting lost in the story and pondering the moral turpitude of overzealous FBI agents and their criminal informants, I'd just be thinking about the hours spent in that make-up chair.
Depp's a great actor and Black Mass looks destined to pick up at least a few Oscar nominations, including a certain "Best Actor" nod, but sometimes those big, showy, prestige roles make the audience-goer feel just a tiny bit alienated; sometimes you feel that all you can see is an actor Acting. And that feeling is compounded when the role calls for some heavy-duty prosthetic jobs and wildly distorting make-up work. You appreciate the commitment and the tenacity and you applaud the technique and the sheer professionalism, but often these "chameleon" actors--actors like Depp, Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, et. al., actors that inhabit their roles so completely that they seem to lose their personal identity--sometimes, when they get hold of a killer role, their virtuosity is just a tad too much to take. You're constantly aware that you're witnessing a Great Performance, and something vital gets lost, some personal connection or rapport with the audience. Often it's the thing that makes audiences love an actor, what gets lost, as opposed to just appreciating an actor.
It's fun to contrast the Actorly Actors with actors who don't even attempt to play anything but themselves in film after film. In Love and Mercy, John Cusack plays the middle-aged Beach Boy Brian Wilson (Paul Dano plays the younger version), but because it's Cusack, Wilson comes across like an aging adolescent Chicago guy who perhaps owns his own second-hand record store. It always kills me when Cusack portrays a real-life person in a film; it doesn't matter if it's supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller, Edgar Allan Poe, or Brian Wilson, the characters always sound exactly like John Cusack. This is not a slam, by the way: Cusack's an alert presence on film and I like watching him and it's kind of a relief to know that he's not going to herniate himself with some ridiculous accent or dyed hair job or prosthetic thingamabob. I'm sure after his signs the contract for his latest movie, he looks in the mirror and says, out loud to himself, "Okay, I'm Brian Wilson," or "I'm Nelson Rockefeller," and then does nothing else. No haircut, no wardrobe change. Just shows up on the set.
To be honest, a lot of my favorite actors are performers who are most successful when they don't try too hard. It becomes part of their appeal. Bill Murray has been playing a variation of "Bill Murray" for about thirty-five years now and it's a performance that I never get tired of. Every once in a while, though, he'll feel the need to "stretch" as an actor and show his range and it's never nearly as fun; his performance in last year's St. Vincent, for example, felt like a violation: Bill Murray is doing an accent here? Nobody wants to see Bill Murray's acting chops; we don't want to hear the authentic, growly, Brooklyn thing that he pulls off. We want to see him be flip and smart and deadpan and smug, we want to see him be Bill Murray.
I know there's a lot more that goes into it, that it takes skill and technique to project that image of yourself seven-stories high, that it's not merely as simple as "playing yourself." But that's the thing: I know it's hard, but I want it to look easy. It's what makes certain actors so much fun to watch, that "Look, Ma, no hands!" kind of acting. I know George Clooney has worked decades at his craft, that he cut his teeth in that meat-grinder TV show schedule, that he's serious about what he does, etc, but none of that dilutes the singular pleasure of seeing him play the same, suave, effortlessly controlled and handsome smoothie in movie after movie. Sometimes he plays an emotionally-or-morally conflicted smoothie, but even then, the characters still seem cool, unflappable; they may be tormented, but they're tormented in an extremely handsome and pleasant way. I have a lot of friends who can't stand him, who think he's too smug, but I've always found his effortlessness effortlessly enjoyable; he reminds me more of a mid-70s Burt Reynolds, another actor who seemed to thrive by making it look easy.
Plus, he always seems like the adult in the room; in the Ocean's Eleven movies, he shared the screen with other big-deal movie starts, like Brad Pitt and Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, yet Clooney was the one everybody deferred to. And it wasn't just the machinations of the plot and that Clooney was the main character; it was the gravitas of cool. (By the way, it took a while for George Clooney to become "George Clooney": in a feature in the New Yorker, the actor talked about some good advice he got from Steven Spielberg: you'll never be a big movie star, the director said, until you learn to quit moving your head so much. It's advice the actor took to heart — if you watch some of Clooney's early movies, he never stops bobbing and weaving. It's only after he learned how to be still that the "cool guy" persona really took off.)
It's interesting to note that the most popular movie star in the world (in terms of box office) has basically been playing a hipster version of himself for about a decade. Robert Downey, Junior, has always been a talented actor, but his massive success in the Marvel and Sherlock Holmes movies can greatly be attributed to his wise-cracking and live-wire persona. Without the improvisational flip that Downey gives to his lines, the movies would be leaded and clunky and somewhat joyless. Amazing, that the movies with such huge budgets and special effects need the charge of an actor who is willing to act like he's winging it as he goes. Sometimes the best actor is the one who seems like he’s doing no acting at all.