After all that puffing and panting, do you remember the character or the sweat-stained actor?
The appraising of actors isn't all that difficult when the acting touches you, when you feel what you're supposed to be feeling (or, sometimes, when you feel something else altogether), as the actors hit their marks. But, how do you evaluate the performances of, say, Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, the most widely-acclaimed actors of our time, and whose exertions on screen — almost always — have left me confused about how to respond?
It isn't that they haven't given great performances — or, at least, performances that I rate as great — in “The Godfather Part II” and “The French Lieutenant's Woman”. But more often, I am aware of their acting, and how do you account for that? Do you marvel at the weight gain and the mastery of the Lithuanian accent and the precise angle with which the elbow is raised in proportion to the torso, or do you sigh that this is ‘acting' but not acting in the sense of sublimating the actor in service of the character?
Too often, I've found myself in the minority with respect to these actors — respectful of their talents, their efforts, but unmoved by the totality of the performance — and I was gratified to run across this observation from Francis Ford Coppola in his director's commentary for “Apocalypse Now”, where, at first, Harvey Keitel had been cast in the part that Martin Sheen finally played. “I always admired Harvey as an actor and I do to this day — although I always felt that his style of acting, even at the time we cast him, was a very active style that really commands you to look at him. My instinct was to have an actor, rather, who did the looking at things rather than demanded you to look at him.”
This gave some clarity to what I have always felt, for, according to Coppola, there's active acting and there's passive acting, and my reservations were — are — with the affectations of active acting. Then there's what Pauline Kael, singularly unconcerned about the opinions of the Academy, said about Meryl Streep in “Sophie's Choice”. “I felt more sympathy for Meryl Streep, the actress trying to put over these ultimate-horror scenes, than I could for Sophie herself”.
But talk about acting — and especially when actors talk about acting — and you'll see how Streep and De Niro are universally venerated, and I think it's because they are so skilled at showcasing their efforts, their pains, their research, their commitment. They make acting look like hard work, and every bit of that hard work is on the surface, above the character, waiting for us to absorb and applaud. And, as impressive as they are, I prefer to watch actors who do not let us catch them acting, actors who no doubt are equally committed, but let us see only the character.
Two such actors who come to mind are William H. Macy and John C. Reilly, who do such regular, such excellent work in independent cinema. Older performers had a healthy disdain for vein-popping actors who treated their craft like a day's worth of bench-pressing. The most famous put-down may be Laurence Olivier's, who told Dustin Hoffman: “Dear boy, why don't you just try acting?” But Spencer Tracy's definition of acting is far funnier. The great invisible actor had just this to say to practitioners of his craft: Just remember your lines, and don't bump into the furniture.
(Lights, Camera, Conversation... is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films)