Sunday, February 26, 2006

How do we know great acting?

I have a great deal of respect for the Washington Post's fine critic Ann Hornaday (her "idolspize" piece was a real gem), but found myself disagreeing a bit with today's Imitation Flavored article about what distinguishes performing from impersonating.

She puts Reese Witherspoon in "Walk the Line" and Jamie Foxx in "Ray" into the second category. Okay, I liked both very much but that's just a difference of opinion and taste. Samw with her (widely shared) admiration for Amy Adams in "Junebug," which I thought added little to the exquisite work she did in "Catch Me if You Can." For me, "Junebug's" standouts were the always brilliant Celia Weston and the always-intriguing Alessandro Nivola. The scene where he sings a hymn a capella is the highlight of the movie for me.

I agree with her completely that what makes a performance great is when it is "about people and their lives, rathr than mere characters and a plot" and that we love to see performances where we can't catch them acting.

We disagree, though, on how to find that. Hornaday has a great quote from acting coach Larry Moss: "a performance that has enormous technique, filled to the brim with what I call emotional justification" (so far, so good). But then he explains where it comes from: "that's the private work the actor does to identify within himself the emotional cost of a character's desires." That's a good description of the "method" style of acting. But I don't think that's the only way to achieve a great performance and I am pretty sure that there's no way to tell from the outside whether an actor is plumbing his own emotional depths to create the character from the outside in or using some other technique. I saw a discussion on PBS some years ago between Helen Hayes, a traditional outside-in performer, and Maureen Stapleton, a method actor. Their gracious good manners and considerable acting chops did not quite disguise the way each was disturbed by the other's description of how she prepared for a role. But I've seen both perform, on stage and on screen, and whatever they did to get there is fine with me. If you can get past the obsequious self-regard of James Lipton's notecard questions, you can get a wonderful sense of the range of techniques and approaches of different actors on "Inside the Actors Studio." Sally Fields was especially thoughtful and candid on this point.

I don't think our readers care much about how actors find their characters. Such a focus is a distraction from the main work of art, like walking around behind the magician to see how the trick is performed, rather than focusing on the impact of the illusion. You can't say that both aren't equally valid (or you'll come across as bossy) but you can say that her approach is better suited for mechanical engineers who want to analyze how the trick was performed than for an audience of thrill seekers who want to be charmed and regaled.

Critics and paying audience members should look for performances that make use think -- make us know -- that the character has a life that goes beyond the scene and beyond the edges of the screen. We want to know that this character buys groceries and goes to the dentist and is wondering whether he remembered to lock the door, even as he's cross-examining a witness or shooting at the bad guys. The actors who show us a real person instead of star power and wisecracks are the ones we should treasure. With any luck, they will keep us so absorbed that we won't have time to wonder whether they got there from dredging up childhood traumas or picking up mannerisms from someone they saw in the street.

An article that influenced me a great deal described the "movie magic" of certain classic performances created by editing an actor's takes, as when Hitchcock reoriented the action around Montgomery Clift's eccentric head jerks to make it appear that he was turning his head to look at something happening off screen. The result was what appeared to be an unusually focused "performance." Whether that performance was Clift's or Hitchcock's should not matter to the audience or to the critic.

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