The Playgoer: Acting: Brits vs Americans / Stage vs. Film

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Acting: Brits vs Americans / Stage vs. Film

I suppose this might be considered unpatriotic on "Presidents' Day" but I can't resist sharing this shot across the bow from Charles McNulty at the LA Times. While filed under "Oscar Preview" it is actually a subversive assertion of not just the values of "British acting" vs American (as if there were just something in the water there) but an implicit defense of the continuing importance of stage acting (and stage training) as part of a good film actor's makeup.

Now this is an old argument and one subject to continuous ongoing debate. But one canard that I hope can be laid to rest is some simple swipe at British actors (or indeed all stage actors) being too "big" or hammy for film. McNulty takes as his cue the fact this year's Oscar nom's--like so many in recent years--have favored so many Brit-performances that were hardly over the top; Helen Mirren and Judy Dench being this year's self-effacing examples that he dwells on most.

I like that McNulty also dares to take on the issue of intelligence in acting. Not that the Yanks are dumber. But that so much less is expected of actors in the US--that they are treated as dumber.

Artists enlarge our world, and art is an inescapable part of the landscape. Painting, poetry, music should be as real to our actors as the range of emotions they're so careful to catalog. When [Judi] Dench's Barbara [in "Notes on a Scandal"], a human-scale villain with Shakespearean cunning, mordantly describes the pupils in her school as "proles," one assumes that not only has this fearsome history teacher read George Orwell, but the actress herself is conversant with the author — and knows how to italicize a cultural marker for maximum effect. The same is true for Winslet in "Little Children," who, in playing a passionate woman trapped in a suburban New England version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," conveys a fine-grained literary understanding of her situation that's appropriate to her overeducated character.

One doesn't get this sort of intellectual frisson from, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, not because he doesn't read (I'm sure he had plenty of Joseph Conrad to dip into on the set of "Blood Diamond") but because the kinds of roles that often come with his level of stardom have little interest in these, shall we say, more delicate values. Action films don't have time to revel in the inner life, never mind the color, nuance and literary rumblings of words. Distracted by irony for too long, an adventure hero could easily find himself with a bullet in his brain.

It's important to understand this point beyond a "they're smart/we're dumb" schematic. The difference is between two cultures. I suppose, for instance, that growing up in Britain where Shakespeare and his language is more prevalent would make his plays easier to internalize. But also think of the complex verbal and intellectual skills that are instilled from years at drama school and rep. Performing not only Shakespeare, but other word-dense Elizabethans, Jacobeans, and Edwardians week after week. All with complicated imagery and rhetorical knots to be surmounted in performance.

The difference is not just UK vs US, but specifically London vs Hollywood, too. It helps to have a film industry not entirely (and proudly) cut off from the nation's more high-art centers as a balance.

McNulty also identifies a notable phenomenon that puts this ancient rivalry into new perspective: the continuing success of old stodgy British actors in not only British cinema, but hip US (and Canadian) indie film, as well.

Notice how popular actors like Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley and Tom Wilkinson are with the current indie directors. Then look at the contributions of younger English stage-trained thespians to our better cinema--Ralph Fiennes, Jude Law, Cate Blanchett (ok, an Aussie), Emily Watson, Rachel Griffiths.

Again, material matters, as McNulty reiterates is the case with these films:
[M]aybe the difference has as much to do with the types of independent films British actors are likely to be starring in as it does with the refreshing qualities the best of them bring to their work. There's something mutually reinforcing about this scene, which is of course nourished by a long-standing and still vibrant theatrical tradition that accepts aging and doesn't need to prettify everything for a big phony close-up.

Yes, "mutually reinforcing." These filmmakers and these actors have found a suitable partnership. Putting aside all possible accusations of persisting Brit-snobbery, is it possible that the indie directors really value actors with highly honed technique? Who can internalize the kinds of complicated Indie scripts based on Russell Banks or Andre Dubus novels without extra rehearsals or "coaches"?

Random examples: if you've seen them, think of the eerily restrained performances Atom Egoyan got from Holm in "Sweet Hereafter" and Hoskins in "Felicia's Journey."

As for "Notes on a Scandal," it's no fine masterpiece. Tawdry, in fact. But definitely a case where a performance--Dench's--almost elevates the material to the level of classical tragedy through its multilayered and unpredictable shifts and textures. (As an all-Brit production essentially, it should have been more of an art film. So I blame producer Scott Rudin and his composer of choice, Philip Glass, for souping up the "Fatal Attraction" factor.)

So--does an actor have to be a great stage actor to also be great on film? Of course not! To pick just two venerated male movie stars, and two personal faves, Nicholson and DeNiro are camera animals completely. (Anyone remember DeNiro's one stage turn, "Cuba and his Teddy Bear"? Didn't lead to more command performances, I recall.) And, from recent evidence, Julia Roberts and Julianne Moore may be similarly blessed/afflicted with a connection to the camera so intense that their presence shrinks without it. Far be it from me to take anything away from their undeniable talents. But also think how many of the great "movie stars" did prove their chops on stage--Brando, Burton, Bette Davis, even Bogart. And don't forget Ms. Streep, of course.

But to look at the formidable work being done in film now--good films--by actors who might previously have been written off as "stagey" does throw new light onto this question and remind us that good acting does require technique, skills, and, yes, maybe some culture and intelligence to boot. At the end of the day, good acting may just be good acting, in whatever medium. And, dare I say it, good acting is theatrical acting.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Here, here! Brilliantly said!

Mark said...

Rachel Griffiths is Australian too.

Anonymous said...

Also, it must be said that our film industry does not look for up and coming actors to fill in the smaller roles on the screen. How many times have we seen up and coming film stars that are no more than puffed up movies stars that have little to no training, as they are only looking for stardom. I think you really hit on the cultural aspect of this difference.

Playgoer said...

Just a couple more pieces of "evidence" that occur to me:

- Three of the British films McNulty highlights are also written by PLAYWRIGHTS--Peter Morgan (The Queen), Patrick Marber (Notes on Scandal) and Hanef Kareshi (Venus), who I guess is more famous in Britain for interesting tv and screenplays (Beautiful Laundrette, Buddha of Suburbia, The Mother) but definitely started at the Royal Court under Max Staffor Clark's tutelage... My point simply is, that in all 3 of these cases theatrical writing + theatrical acting has apparently produced by and large satisfying results.

- Anyone notice how many interesting theatre actors show up in Clint Eastwood films? I'm thinking of Bryan F. O'Byrne and John Slattery off the top of my head, but I know there are more....Man must do his casting out of New York. Smart.

Anonymous said...

I like the way Brits approach story telling vs. American story telling. In America, we'll get up in arms because people decided to redo the A-team.

The UK's done Pride and Prejudice so many times I've lost count, but people don't get tired of it. I think it's the way brits approach story-telling. There's always another angle. There's always another approach.

Secondly, I noticed Brits seem more level-headed about acting. It's make believe. It's just a role you play in one story. They're willing to suspend disbelief and go along with it.

It seems in America there's a need to outlast, outdo, outplay and out shine. It's our competitive nature, but it can get in the way of telling a good story. We need to get back to our roots and tell a story as a story, not live up to some iconic image.

It also doesn't help when American media and American talk shows ask the same silly, flat superficial questions of stars.

Plus, I'm tired of every new investigative show where every person is an expert on the crime scene. Why can't the forensic expert be a forensic expert? Does the state prosecutor, the judge, the detective, the neighbor and the extra have to be an expert, too?