When Marlon Brando took on the role of Mark Antony in the 1953 film Julius Caesar, there was the usual round of derisive snorts about a film actor attempting something which was so obviously the province of properly trained classical theatre actors—and probably British ones at that. A Hollywood star—and one trained in the Method! Fancy! As it happened, Brando wasn’t half bad. And one wit nailed the all-too-predictable snobbery perfectly: if Brando was so limited and our theatrical knights so infinite in their variety, then all one had to do was try to imagine John Gielgud as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
That put it nicely in perspective. Even today however, this attitude persists: American movie stars are complimented for their nerve in trying out the West End stage, where they will then obviously gain proper acting chops and “prove” themselves (unlike in LA itself, where “doing theatre” is a throwaway euphemism for being out of work, its effectiveness based on the assumption that nobody of any importance would see you). Doing it live, regardless of the artificiality, the sheer stiltedness of the medium, is still regarded as the more worthwhile achievement. This is rubbish. I’d suggest that truthfulness, if that is what one takes as the mark of good acting, is far harder to convey under the unforgiving scrutiny of the cinematic close-up.
Certainly the two are quite different disciplines: broadly speaking, film acting takes place on the inside, theatre on the outside. But I’m not a movie critic for nothing, so will happily lay my cards down and say that what’s required for the screen calls for something basically superior to what’s required for treading the boards.
I thought of this recently when watching The Master—the Paul Thomas Anderson film which, you might remember, I sat through recently so that you wouldn’t have to. The Oscars are once again approaching and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the addled, sleazy cult-follower, which has received every breathless plaudit going, is already in with more than a shouting chance for the Best Actor award. Members of the Academy, still perhaps infected with the lingering sense that their product has to prove itself against the standards of the legitimate theatre, remain suckers for “big” theatrical performances, and in all its showy tricks and mannerisms, Phoenix’s performance has the hallmarks of the stage. We admire the technical skill, the sheer physical stamina involved, without much believing in the character.
This performance, lauded as it has been, is less impressive than much of the screen acting I’ve seen over the past year, in the cinema and for that matter on TV. It started on a high: when Meryl Streep finally hobbled out in January as the much reduced Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, one felt that some kind of new benchmark had been set. This performance wasn’t a mere imitation: alongside the recreation of Thatcher’s character there was an extraordinary authenticity about the details of her particular social attributes and Englishness. And what it wasn’t was showy. The poignancy of the quieter moments could not have existed without a camera; on stage the performance would have descended into caricature.
Some of the best acting has been in movies which for one reason or another I couldn’t cover here (the timing of press screenings plays havoc with deadlines), but which you should look out for on DVD. Ben Affleck, for years treated as the less serious one in the writing partnership with Matt Damon, has emerged as a leading man of authority and believability, as well as a director of considerable talent. Argo, his terrific account of the rescue of hostages during the 1979 siege of the American Embassy in Iran, has some great naturalistic ensemble playing—the type that makes you forget that these people are indulging in make-believe. And Skyfall, the new 007 (for those living in caves) also has its moments—the first time I can recall performances in a Bond film lingering longer in the mind than ejector seats and exploding pens.
There are some exceptional young British actors around. Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston were both compelling in the BBC’s Shakespeare season last summer, and Damian Lewis’s Old Etonian roots came as a
surprise to American audiences of the political thriller Homeland, so convincing is he as the US marine turned possible terrorist. And in HBO’s meticulous, five-hour remake of the Joan Crawford classic Mildred Pierce, Kate Winslet, who I don’t think I have seen give a poor performance, proved once again why she will undoubtedly be Dame Kate within a decade or two.
These then are a few of the stand-outs. But the truth is, it is now very rare to come across an actively bad performance. Perhaps we are living in a golden age of screen acting. Like the camera work displayed by even the most ordinary of B-movies, the general standard in acting seems to have risen. Visual sophistication has come about largely by technical innovation and a generation literate in the ins and outs of movie-making. Something similar may have happened in acting. Or—and this is not to take away from those I’ve mentioned who have scaled the heights this past year—could it be that on one level acting is just, well, easier than once it was? We are all of us so immersed in an entertainment culture, so familiar with film and television and their various decades-old conventions, that most of us could probably summon up an adequate
few lines and responses if pushed in front of a camera. The decline in privacy, the need not just to exist but to be seen to exist might also be playing a part here. One can see it in everyday social life—young people now often sound as though they are living within their own movies or TV sitcoms. Friends and Sex and the City have a lot to answer for. Great screen actors are still thrilling and special—but perhaps all of us now are a little readier for our close-up.