Friday, June 25, 2010

What Makes An Actor Great?

I’ve often wondered what makes an actor a great actor. It’s not as obvious as it may seem. Indeed, to answer the question of what makes an actor great, you need to start by asking what it is that we ask of actors? But that’s really where this whole problem begins. For it appears, that we want two contradictory things from our actors. And in the end, I think that truly great actors need to deliver both things. . . even though that sounds like a contradiction.

Looking at the films Hollywood has produced, it appears that actors generally fall into one of two categories: those who play themselves in each role and those who disappear completely into their roles.

Indeed, in the first category, you find people like Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger. No matter what role they play, they remain Tom and Arnold -- just try to name the characters they’ve played. But that’s not to denigrate them. In fact, Tom and Arnold did wonders playing themselves. They managed to put millions of rear ends into seats across the entire planet, people remember their roles and still quote their dialog, and their movies still have staying power today. But something is missing, isn’t it? There is something about Tom and Arnold that keeps us from calling them great actors.

At first, I thought this might be a problem with the category itself, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue. I say this because Robert De Niro and William Hurt, both of whom have been called “the greatest actor of our generation,” fall into this category as well. And before you try to tell me that De Niro is “versatile,” tell me when he hasn’t played an Italian mobster or an Italian cop? And do you have any doubt that what you see on screen isn’t what you would meet in person? It’s the same thing with Hurt, though it took me a lot longer to realize that he fell into this category, because the roles he chooses are so varied.

So what is the difference between Cruise/Schwarzenegger and De Niro/Hurt? Could it be as simple as De Niro and Hurt sticking with drama, whereas Tom and Arnold stick with action flicks? Perhaps. But I think there is more to it. Indeed, I can’t see Tom or Arnold playing any of the roles in The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross or L.A. Confidential even if they wanted to -- though De Niro or Hurt could do that with ease. So there must be something more missing than simply their choice of roles.

To continue, let’s leave that category for a moment. The other category includes actors who simply vanish into the roles they play. These actors so thoroughly become the characters they are playing that we all but forget they are actors. Instead, we see their characters as real people. Some of the better character actors fall into this category, as do guys like Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Shaw and Jeremy Irons.

But simply disappearing can’t be enough either. Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd disappear into their roles quite nicely, yet they aren’t considered “great actors.” And if disappearing is all it took to be considered a great actor, then shouldn’t anyone who pulled off a monster suit character be considered a great actor? Again, there must be something more to it?

I think that “something” is the ability to stand at the top of both groups. Cruise may be at the top of the first group, but he simply can’t disappear into a character. Shaw became whoever he played, but people didn’t clamor to see his movies. But when you look at someone like Johnny Depp, you suddenly see the difference.

There is no doubt that Depp’s name on a movie pulls people into theaters, just as Cruise’s name does. There is something about Depp that is simply compelling and makes you want to see him act. Part of this could be that we know from prior experience that he will bring great acting to the role, but part of it must also be that there is something we like about him personally. Indeed, the fact that his interviews pull high ratings tells us this. But Depp also gives us more than Cruise. We know that once the film starts, Depp will not be playing “Johnny Depp as the spy.” Indeed, Depp more than anyone these days disappears into his roles so believably that we no longer see Johnny Depp at all. Instead, we see the quasi-inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean or that the slimy, cowardly, and yet compelling Dean Corso of The Ninth Gate. And that, I think, is the real difference. To be a great actor, an actor must have the compelling personality that makes us want to spend time with them, but once the film begins, they need the skill to vanish into the role so that all that is left is the character. The audience can’t be left seeing “Johnny Depp the pirate.”

Another actor who fits into this category would be Gene Hackman, who is a compelling actor but also presents compelling characters. Bogart and Jimmy Stewart pulled this off as well. I would add Harrison Ford to the list, at least until the last few years. From the actress ranks, I’d offer Glenn Close.

If I’m right, and I leave that up to you to decided and to comment upon, then the best advice we could give an actor would be to carefully hone a public persona that is irresistible to the public, but also to work hard to lose themselves in their roles.

So what do you think? Am I right? If not, what makes an actor a great actor? And tell us who you would include in that list?

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Shortchanging Actresses

Many Hollywood actresses claim that Hollywood shortchanges them. They claim the industry doesn’t take them seriously and that there are no good roles for women. You might not believe this, but I think they’re right. And I don’t think this is a good thing.

The way Hollywood selects actresses has become perverse. Forget about acting talent or being right for the part, those days are gone. Instead, Hollywood asks three questions these days: (1) are you under 35 year old, (2) do you have the dimensions of a Playboy centerfold, and (3) do you look like every other Hollywood ditz. If you can’t answer “yes” to all three, then don’t apply. This bothers me.

1. The Age Thing

What is the fascination with jamming twenty-somethings into every role? It doesn’t work. It strains credibility beyond the breaking point when they cast some silicon enhanced “young thing” to play the nuclear scientist (Denise Richards) or the head of corporation X or. . . well, any woman in a position of authority. I’ve met powerful men and women in my life, and they just don’t look or act like MTV-raised young hotties.

And stop casting these girls as the wives of old, old, old male actors. It’s ridiculous. Teri Garr and Richard Dreyfuss worked in Close Encounters because it was believable that these two would marry. Octogenarian Harrison Ford married to a Megan Fox is not believable. Not only do we have a hard time seeing them getting together in the first place, but there is no way we will see such a couple as a “normal, loving couple.” Instead, the words “gold digger” and “cradle robber” spring to mind much more so than “husband and wife.” And holy cow, stop casting “mothers” who are only a year or two older than their movie “daughters.” That just reeks of “fake movie family.”

These young girls simply don’t have the maturity or the depth to play the parts of women.

2. Ban Cloning

Another thing that really bothers me is that Hollywood is basically looking for clones when they cast modern actresses. They seem to want no trace of individuality. If you have so much as a hair out of place or a bone structure that is 1% less than optimum, then you’re gone. This just bugs me to no end.

First, this makes it impossible to cast people who look the part. Forget the nuclear scientist mentioned above, what about the average waitress or the mother of three or the nurse? In the real world, these women don’t look like Barbie. . . no one does. Heck, you can’t even cast the awkward girl next door anymore (the kind of girl who would date Jimmy Stewart or one of the Goonies), because all the actresses look like strippers now.

Secondly and most importantly, by casting clones, Hollywood guarantees that few modern actresses will be memorable. Indeed, it’s the actors and actresses who are not physically perfect that we remember. Seriously, think about it. Very few of the top male actors fall into the “pretty boy” category. Outside of a Redford, a DiCaprio, or a Cruise, few leading men look anything like male models. Bogart was a small man with a crooked face and a lisp. Stallone looks like he lost a fight with a blender. Bruce Willis beat the blender, but it took 12 rounds. Jack Nicholson is the blender. How about James Cagney, the Marx Brothers, Bill Murray, Charles Bronson, Steven McQueen, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro, Alan Rickman, Adrien Brody, Daniel Day-Lewis, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Kirk Douglas and his chin, Tommy Lee Jones, Richard Dreyfuss, etc. . . not a standard profile in the bunch. And when you get into character actors, the defects and distinctions multiply. . . Steve Buscemi anyone?

Believe it or not, the same thing has always been true with actresses as well. Indeed, the most memorable actresses can hardly be called “classic beauties”: Lauren Bacall was rather butch, as was Katharine Hepburn, and is Sigourney Weaver. Lucille Ball was hardly a looker. Sophia Loren and Julie Andrews were beautiful, but not in a standard way. Judy Garland was downright homely. Betty Davis, Barbara Eden and Angela Lansbury all looked 60 the moment they were born. Etc. Yet, these are the actresses we remember so much more than the beauty queens.

Compare those names to today’s actresses, who all look alike. Heck, when I say names like Hudson, Winslet, McAdams and Blanchett, I’m not even sure I could identify them from photographs, even though I’ve seen their films. Indeed, they are so interchangeable these days that I sometimes wonder if anyone would notice if you swapped a couple out in the middle of the film?

Moreover, consider this difference: Which of the modern names couldn't take over Megan Fox’s role in Transformers or Kate Hudson’s role in. . . well, anything? Now ask yourself, who could have taken over for Bacall in To Have and Have Not or Hepburn in The African Queen?

That’s the reason this difference is important. Just as no pretty boy could have taken over for Jack Nicholson in The Shining, no bland, blond hottie could have taken over for any real actress in any of their definitive roles. But today’s actresses are so forgettable, so interchangeable, that any of them can play any role. They simply don’t stand out.

3. Strong Roles Need Strong Actresses

And that relates to the last issue that always arises: “there are no strong roles for women today.” You hear this all the time, and I actually think it's true. And I think this is a consequence of modern casting because there are almost no actresses left in Hollywood today who could even handle a “strong” role. Ask yourself, if you were going to replace any of the guys in Glengarry Glen Ross with a modern actress, who could possible fill one of those roles? Hepburn could have. Hudson sure as heck can’t. What if you wanted to replace Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada? Could Garner or Fox do it? Could any of the current crop? No, they don’t have the gravitas to play that strong of a personality.

That's why I think it’s no surprise that when Hollywood needs a strong woman, they hire a British actress like Judy Dench or Helen Mirren, because the Brits don’t seem to throw their actresses out once they hit the onset of middle age. If you've ever watched the new Doctor Whos or anything else from the BBC lately, you've seen a ton of impressive middle-aged, not-hot actresses. You just don't see that in Hollywood anymore.

I think this is horrible for films. Not only does it strain the credibility of films, as noted above, which makes it harder to believe what you are seeing on film, but it makes it that much harder to produce memorable roles for female characters. Memorable roles are what make movies interesting and what give them longevity. But you can't produce memorable roles if you don't have actresses who can play those roles. Thus, by repeatedly casting pointless fluff and should-be-strippers instead of talented actresses, Hollywood has made it all the harder to give us films that stay with us, i.e. great films.

And that stinks.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

Dear Hollywood, Stop The CGI Madness!

This one may seem like a no “duh” kind of post, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to get it. So I’ll say it. I’m a big science fiction fan and I love good special effects. Indeed, there is nothing quite like losing yourself in the grandeur of another world or seeing “the future” in ways we haven’t imagined before. But I’m really coming to hate CGI because Hollywood abuses it.

1. Now You’ve Gone Too Far:

The first problem with CGI is that directors routinely go too far with it. Indeed, while they think they are making their movies cooler, they really are only making them less realistic.

Consider the new penchant for massively overdoing the numbers of combatants in action films. The Mummy Returns, for example, was a reasonably good film, until the evil army meets the assembled army of the Magi. This is a secret order, right? Yet, suddenly, you are presented with the image of somewhere near half a million Arabs on horses -- more guys than the Ottoman Turks fielded in World War I. Ditto Pirates of the Caribbean III, where the two assembled navies number around 10,000 ships each -- as far as you can see to the horizons. Is that realistic or stupid? There were only 71 ships at Trafalgar (the biggest naval battle of the era). Ditto The Lord of the Rings where the Riders of Rohan, who brought 6,000 riders in the book, managed to bring around 2.3 million in the film.

None of this improved these movies and it didn’t improve the action. To the contrary, it just made these scenes into impossible, unrealistic messes. Not only was the quantity of the action simply unbelievable, but the massive quantity obscured the quality. . . if there was any. Also, this mass quantity of combatants cheapens the stories because it takes away the challenge of being outnumbered by the bad guys. It substitutes a stupid video game for drama. So stop trying to fill the screen!

And this is becoming a bigger and bigger problem every year. Seriously, what action movie these days doesn’t put far too many creatures onto the screen. . . enough to fill every little terrifying, empty space of film. It’s like modern director have been told horror stories about directors who were eaten alive by monsters that crawled out of the empty spaces on films they shot.

Also, while we’re at it, stop trying to turn fires into firestorms, and stop making all explosions into nuclear explosions, and stop turning car wrecks into supercollider collisions. When two cars meet, even at high speeds, they don’t obliterate each other. And semis don’t blast 100 feet up into the air. And you sure as heck can’t “duck” under it to avoid it when it comes rolling down the road.

Get some sense of proportion people.

2. Stop The Video Game, I Want To Get Off:

Another way CGI goes too far is in stunts. There is something about real stunts that just can’t be duplicated with CGI. Actually. . . let me rephrase that: I’m not sure if real stunts can be duplicated or not with CGI, because no one tries. Instead, they get digital actors doing things that aren’t physically possible. They move in ways that physics doesn’t allow. Sometimes, they even move in ways that cartoon characters wouldn’t dare try. Yet we’re supposed to “ooh” and “ah” as some actor bends themselves in half, backwards as they summersault their body underneath a flaming, rolling semi, only to escape untouched.

And I’m not even talking about movies like The Matrix or Wanted which used the ability to do impossible things as plot points. I’m talking about regular movies with supposedly regular characters. It’s no coincidence that people continue to rate the car chase in Bullit as the best ever, because it was real and it was gripping because we’ve all been there when a car gets pushed a little too far. Nothing similar can be said of modern films -- no one on earth has experienced the kinds of action we are shown now.

Further, much of this has hit the level of story-ruining ridiculousness. When I see Tom Cruise wire fighting on top of a speeding bullet train as a helicopter flies faster than it can so that the pilot can somehow keep its rotating blades inches from Cruise’s neck, I don’t cheer. . . I don’t marvel at the “genius” of the director or the computer guys. No, I laugh and I wonder what kind of idiot thought this wouldn’t ruin a movie that had otherwise been pretty well done.

Ditto again with Pirates of the Caribbean III, which had a pretty decent movie going, if you exclude the director’s obsessive compulsive need to add a moment of slapstick at the end of each scene. But just as I was about to drop a little praise on the film, the director apparently went home for the night, leaving the following instruction to the CGI nerds: “Go nuts for about 20 minutes, then roll the credits. But remember, ‘nuts.’ Nothing believable. Nothing possible. Nothing that makes sense.”

Stop ruining films by telling your CGI guys to “run wild” with the endings. If the stunt people say it can’t be done, then don’t try to fake it with CGI. And when you get that little voice in your head that says, “you know what would be really cool. . .” -- ignore that voice, you’ll make a much better film.

3. It’s The Story Stupid:

Special effects should enhance a story. They should assist an already exciting plot or interesting characters. They should not be used to make a story. But too often these days, you see movies like Transformers II or the third Matrix film, which rely almost entirely on special effects to carry the movie. In fact, sometimes it’s so bad that I imagine the screenplay was written on a cocktail napkin, with a few lines of dialog surrounded by the words “CGI guys to fill in.” CGI is not a substitute for good characters and interesting plots, and Hollywood needs to stop using it that way.

4. You Couldn’t Act Your Way Out Of A Virtual Bag

Finally, the last problem with CGI is that too many actors simply don’t have the skill to act in front of blue screens. For every Matrix that you get, with its seamless interweaving of actors and effects, you get a dozen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, with Gwyneth Paltrow staring blankly in the wrong directions. And you get a dozen movies like the most recent Star Wars films where nothing on the screen seems real because no one can touch anything.

Come on people, this isn’t hard. Just stop trying to do too much.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Making Books Into Movies

It may be obvious to say this, but books and movies are different. And turning books into movies is a tricky thing. You’ve got the problem of meeting expectations. You’ve got the problem of converting a written text into a spoken product. And then you have the question of how closely you should follow the book? That’s the one that has me bothered.

It is virtually impossible to be 100% faithful to a book when making a movie. For example, books and films work at a different pace. Books can be much more contemplative. They can be far less linear. They can delve into in-depth discussions, motivations, backgrounds, and even the thoughts of the characters, something that is very difficult for films. Indeed converting a book into a screenplay takes a specialized skill that requires the writer to force narrative into dialog.

And even when it is possible to stay entirely faithful to a book, it is still impossible to meet everyone’s expectations. Books rely on written descriptions, whereas films present complete imagery. Thus, while every reader of a book may see a particular image differently, film goers are all given the same image. Therefore, it is impossible to produce the same images that each of the readers expects.

However, before the filmmakers even face any of these problems, they face the question of how faithful they intend to remain to the book. Some films, like the first Harry Potter or Presumed Innocent or L.A. Confidential stayed fairly faithful to the books. But others don’t. For example, The Ninth Gate had almost nothing to do with the book Club Dumas, upon which it is based. Or you have Blade Runner which, thankfully, took almost nothing from Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In fact, these films were so different from the books that you might not even know they were based on these books if they didn’t make this claim in the credits.

And “based on” is the key here. Blade Runner didn’t call itself Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and proclaim that it was turning the book into the film. It was upfront about taking only a few ideas from Electric Sheep and creating its own derivative work. Thus, nobody went to the theater expecting to see Electric Sheep and instead finding some bastardized, barely-recognizable version.

Other films are not so honest. I’ve been a life-long fan of The Lord of the Ring and I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I’ve read those books. So when I heard that they were making LOTR, I cringed. I didn’t know what indignity they would do to this masterpiece, but I was prepared for almost anything. Then they sent out their actors, producers and directors to swear to us that they were going to be faithful to the book. A couple of them even claimed, “we all had copies of the book on set and whenever there was a question of how the book went, we looked it up.” That got my hopes up. But they were lying. “Faithful” in this case meant jamming a love-story into the book and discarding the one already in there, converting one character to comic relief, and other Hollywood gimmicks.

And LOTR is far from alone and it’s far from the worst. If you’re going to make a book into a movie, if you’re making “Book: The Movie,” shouldn't you do your best to remain faithful to the material? Fans of the book want to see it brought to life, they don't want to see it torn apart, twisted and recreated as something new. Don’t change the characters, don’t play with the motivations, don’t insert Hollywood gimmicks, and don’t add or remove plot points. If you just can’t help yourself and you feel hopelessly compelled to slap the book around, then stop claiming that you’re making the book into a movie. Give it a new title and tell us it's “based on” the book.

There is plenty of room for both kinds of films, those that try to faithfully bring the book to life and those that look to use the book as a base and create derivative work. But claiming that you are being faithful when you aren’t is misleading. . . it’s false advertising. It's also asinine. People loved the book for a reason. Who is the filmmaker to try to change the book? By all means, shoot it as creatively as possible, but stop trying to turn these things into something else and then pretending to the world that you stayed faithful.

It's time to stop abusing original material. If you don't love the book, then don't try to turn it into a movie. Leave that to someone who actually enjoyed the book. And stop listening to that whole industry of people who do nothing but look down upon any faithful recreation, i.e. most film reviewers. They claim that staying faithful is not "artistic." But that's just the weak thinking of a small mind. A film can be artistic whether it follows a book or not. The real challenge is bringing the book to life, which is incredibly difficult. Indeed, tinkering with a book does not make a film artistic. Artistic is writing the book in the first place, or bringing it to life on film, or using it as a starting point for something greater. But tinkering, as these small minds advocate, is not art. That's hackwork. It's the equivalent of putting a hat on the Mona Lisa rather than rendering her in 3D or taking da Vinci's style and creating a new masterpiece. . . that's art. Stuff your hat.

That’s my thinking on this.

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