When Morgan Freeman visited Inside The Actors Studio, he had to know what to expect. James Lipton, the host with a near lascivious glint in his eyes, would roll through the actor’s career turning The Electric Company into Gone With The Wind and Kiss The Girls into Citizen Kane, and so on. Praise would never be faint. And it wasn’t. And by the time the film-by-film gushing reached 1995’s The Shawshank Redemption, the audience stepped in, delivering an ovation that declared, “That’s our favorite performance!” This, too, was predictable, and Freeman had his reaction ready. A few claps and hollers into the applause, Freeman turned to quiet the crowd. “Now remember,” he said, “I didn’t write it.”
It was the reaction of a humble man, certainly. But in my mind it was also the sign of something else: embarrassment. Freeman reacted to the film like Ben Franklin might have reacted to misapplied praise for “inventing” electricity: “Uh, well, I didn’t create it. I just had an idea and tied a key to a kite and …” On Lipton’s stage, Freeman seemed uncomfortable with the idea that his portrayal of Red was so highly admired, as if all he’d done was show up and read can’t-miss lines from Frank Darabont’s screenplay, adapted from a short story by Stephen King. It was as if Freeman felt his skill wasn’t the thing audiences should be praising. Not in that case.
Freeman’s appearance on Inside The Actors Studio came to mind for me after stumbling upon a recent post at Ali Arikan’s blog “Cerebral Mastication,” which was written in response to a post on Jim Emerson’s “Scanners” blog. The gist of both articles goes something like this: some roles seem like Oscar contenders from the very start, and in those roles actors sometimes appear more focused on playing for an Academy Award than playing their character.
Arikan identifies Freeman’s Shawshank performance as one in which the actor has his eyes on the prize, but he doesn’t necessarily vilify it. Of the phenomenon as a whole, Arikan writes:
An actor’s thinking about an Oscar more than their character isn't, necessarily, tantamount to whoring, or selling out. Similarly, a bad performance (in a “weighty” film) can exist in spite of the actor’s genuine concentration in the character they’re playing, without their entertaining even the smallest thought of recognition (or validation). And then there are simply terrible performances where the actor doesn’t think about anything at all – I’m looking at you, Benigni.
With that, I agree. Later though, writing of actors who “want the statuette and want it bad,” Arikan argues: “Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot is the exception that proves the rule – Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York isn’t.” And about that I’m not so sure. I do agree that there’s a difference in Day-Lewis’ approaches to Christy Brown and Bill the Butcher, but I contend that the stories around those characters are different, as well. My Left Foot strives for emotional realism. Gangs Of New York aims at showmanship. And on the face of it, one of those designs isn’t necessarily better than the other. Personally, I tend to be drawn to subtlety more than sensationalism, especially when it comes to appreciating an actor’s craft: I enjoy Bill the Butcher, while I’m more impressed by Christy Brown. Day-Lewis’ recent Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood falls somewhere in between.
All of which brings us to the concept of stunt acting. In Edward Copeland’s recent poll to name the worst of the Best Actor winners, Roberto Benigni’s almost unclassifiable goofiness in Life Is Beautiful was the top vote-getter, but the next three picks belonged to performances that could be easily defined as self-aware, over-the-top stunt acting: Al Pacino in Scent Of A Woman, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. But I wonder if that’s fair.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing with the sentiment behind the votes in Copeland’s poll: Contending that stunt performances don’t make for the best performances in a given year is different than saying stunt performances are entirely worthless. And whether you agree with the end result or not, Oscar does have an annoying habit of valuing an actor’s transformation over the end result. Oscar likes pretty actresses who get ugly (Charlize Theron in Monster, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Halle Barry in Monster’s Ball) and performances that imitate (Forest Whitaker in The Last King Of Scotland, Helen Mirren in The Queen, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Reese Witherspoon in Walk The Line, just in the past two years). Combine those trends, and can Cate Blanchett possibly avoid winning Best Supporting Actress for her riff on Bob Dylan in I’m Not There? I doubt it.
Still, whatever his intent, Freeman was on to something when he alluded to the strong dialogue that makes Red such a memorable character. Freeman didn’t write the part, nor the parts around it. He didn’t edit the film. He didn’t shoot it. He didn’t market it. He didn’t come up with the concept. Shawshank is an all-around strong film. But that doesn’t detract – and shouldn’t – from Freeman’s brilliance. Close your eyes and imagine some other actors in the role. With a casting change, the film might have worked, but it could easily have gone in the tank. Regardless, Freeman made it special. He becomes Red.
But let’s use that previous logic in reverse. When people dismiss Hoffman’s Rain Man performance, are they dismissing the acting itself or the movie around it? Day-Lewis’ My Left Foot portrayal placed fifth in Copeland’s “Best of the Best Actors” poll, but how would that exact same performance work within lesser film, say Rain Man? And when people dismiss Pacino’s Scent Of A Woman performance, are they dismissing the way he portrays the character (certainly possible) or do they take offense at the mere concept and implementation of the character, as designed by the screenplay?
It’s a conundrum. With so many elements overlapping, it’s frequently hard to tell where to apply the blame (or praise). That’s why, in my book, the acting that unequivocally offends belongs in the category where Arikan places Benigni: performances in which the actors seem to be thinking of nothing at all – a recent trademark example being Jack Nicholson’s turn in The Departed. Because worse than an actor not investing himself in the character is an actor investing himself as the character. In those moments, nobody wins.