Sunday, June 28, 2015

Acting Achtung

Oh those poor, untrained American actors.
Perhaps you've noticed an influx of Brits, Scots, Irishman and the like playing Americans on film and television, be it Colin Farrell on True Detective, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, or Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln. Is this terribly different from the 90s, when Anthony Hopkins played Richard Nixon and John Quincy Adams, or from Cate Blanchett picking up an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn the 2000s? Terrence Rafferty (formerly of The New Yorker and GQ) seems to think so, and he took to The Atlantic to write about "The Decline of the American Actor."

Rafferty writes: "...so many good American roles have been going to English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Australian, and Canadian actors." He goes on to cite Selma as a case in point, noting that "the parts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Governor George Wallace, and President Lyndon B. Johnson were all played by Brits." Furthermore, he counterpoints with a theoretical casting of a modern-day version of The Godfather with an exclusively British cast, arguing that "it isn't nearly so easy to dream up a fantasy cast of American actors":

"...you might see Daniel Day-Lewis as Don Corleone, surrounded by, say, Tom Hiddleston as Michael, Rory Kinnear as Sonny, Ben Whishaw as Fredo, Benedict Cumberbatch as Tom Hagen, Keira Knightley as Connie, and Romola Garai as Kay."

For the sake of getting to the point, let's ignore that Rafferty's exercise yields some spectacularly awful casting (gone is John Cazale's elegant inelegance and pathetic carriage, let's bring in the guy who nearly played Freddie Mercury) and that this sort of critique feels more in line with a user-posted BuzzFeed list than a venerated publication like The Atlantic. Instead, let's focus on his assertion that American actors are in trouble.

"[Training] no longer has the sort of allure for young American actors that it did in the days of Brando and Dean and Clift and, later, De Niro and Pacino...The actors of the current generation mostly started going before the camera as kids, and got their training on the job...Leonardo DiCaprio came up that way. So did Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Reese Witherspoon, Keri Russell, Michelle Williams, Emma Stone, Michael B. Jordan – practically every young American actor you want to see has the same story."

Gee, that doesn't sound good. These young whipper-snappers, foregoing years of training giving up the teachings of Meisner and Strasberg and other great acting teachers and schools!

Except, wait a minute, I seem to recall that Oscar Isaac, who recently earned comparisons to Al Pacino for his work in A Most Violent Year and praise for his playful interpretation of Dr. Moreau as a fratboy in Ex Machina, is a Juilliard graduate, and that he's about to co-headline the next Star Wars. His co-star of both Star Wars and Inside Llewyn Davis, Adam Driver, is also a Juilliard graduate, and his work in Girls is one of the best performances on television right now. Other Juilliard graduates currently gaining career traction include Nelsan Ellis (Get On Up, True Blood), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies, Halt and Catch Fire), and the grossly underrated Anthony Mackie (underused in the Marvel movies but appearing in films by John Hillcoat, Jonathan Levene and David Gordon Green this year and next). That's to say nothing of their female fellow alumni Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks (both on Orange is the New Black), and Gillian Jacobs (Community).

Juilliard isn't the only school still putting out some talented actors. In the purportedly thin field of trained male actors under 40, there's Tisch School of the Arts graduates Miles Teller, Corey Stoll, Andy Samberg and Jake Johnson (who studied writing, to be fair); Carnegie Mellon grads Zachary Quinto, Pablo Schreiber and Matt Bomer; and Brown's John Krasinski. Go a bit older, you've got Benicio Del Toro and Mark Ruffalo at Stella Adler Studio and Bradley Cooper from The Actor's Studio, to name a few.

Furthermore, some of the acclaimed Brits listed in Rafferty's piece didn't actually finish, or in some cases even start, their theater studies. Freddie Highmore learned "on the job," as Rafferty might put it. So did Keira Knightley. Hugh Dancy studied English in Oxford. Hugh Laurie took part in dramatic and comedic revues with Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry at Cambridge while studying archeology and anthropology. Actors like Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Colin Farrell dropped out of school for work. Other up-and-coming U.K. performers, from Robert Pattinson to Jack "No Relation" O'Connell, didn't attend university at all.

These aren't the only instances of Rafferty talking out of his ass. A few precious morsels:

"In fact, quite a few impeccably trained British actors could barely hold the screen next to their untutored but movie-savvier American co-stars: watch what Bette Davis does to Leslie Howard – who was no slouch – in Of Human Bondage."

That's a nice backhanded compliment for Davis, who studied theater, performed on Broadway and under George Cukor, and spent most of her life pushing to be considered a serious actress while losing patience with untrained co-stars (see her literal and figurative slaps at Errol Flynn's acting ability). I don't know, maybe Rafferty's under the impression that American film acting didn't get Truly Serious until Brando and his method mumble and brumble showed up.

"There's a lovely moment at the end of My Week With Marilyn [ed: blech] when Kenneth Branagh, as Olivier, watches Michelle Williams, as Marilyn Monroe, in the 1957 comedy The Prince and the Showgirl, which Olivier directed. With a bemused look on his face, he mutters, 'She's quite wonderful. No training, no craft to speak of, no guile, just pure instinct. She's astonishing.' Throughout the movie, poor Marilyn has been trying to satisfy both her director, with his brisk English-thespian professionalism...and her Actors Studio coach, Paula Strasberg, who's always murmuring Methody instructions in her beleaguered ear. Olivier is right: Monroe knows nothing about acting, except what's in her very impressive bones, and it's enough."

Hey, let's diminish another great female star with "she's got something, just not craft" bullshit. We'll take the notoriously stuffy Olivier and the odious "I slept with Marilyn Monroe, really" fantasy of My Week with Marilyn over Kevin McCarthy and Eli Wallach's praise for her studiousness at the Actor's Studio, or Lee Strasberg's opinion that Monroe was second only to Brando among his students.

Without wanting to sound like a red-faced commenter on The Atlantic's message board, Rafferty's article is spotted with inaccuracies and generalizations like this, ranging from putdowns of the TV shows pre-2000, claims that the cast of Friday Night Lights isn't doing so hot outside of Michael B. Jordan (guess Jesse Plemons' roles in Breaking Bad and The Master didn't count for much), and arguments that American actors aren't keen on playing unlikable characters until they're older (Miles Teller in Whiplash? Isaac in Ex Machina and Inside Llewyn Davis? Eisenberg in The Social Network? Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip? Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street? Paul Dano in anything?).

What, exactly, is Rafferty getting on about? It seems tied to the age-old, deeply tiresome condescension towards screen actors who haven't trained extensively in the thea-tah. It was present among certain critics and actors in the past, and it still hasn't died out completely among either (having spent some time training as an actor* before switching to writing, I've put up with countless arguments with the latter**). The dismissiveness is palpable in Rafferty's claims that "American culture is in the business of making stars, which is more a matter of people who able to be themselves...and that's okay too, up to a point." It's as if decades worth of Cary Grant and John Wayne appreciations following decades more of their being perpetually undersold by Academy voters and critics were for naught. Simply being on screen is a lesser skill, even if it's something that Daniel Day-Lewis, truly great actor that he is, couldn't do to save his life.

It's also a sign of the artificial limits of Oscar movies and blockbusters to talk about film and acting. Exciting work by younger actors (Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan), comic performers (Bill Hader, Jason Segel, Zach Woods, and yes, Seth Rogen), and actors outside of the U.K. and U.S. (Tony Leung, Peyman Moaadi, Tahar Rahim) gets ignored in favor of whatever's getting the most play on the prestige circuit. Maybe a lot of Brits are playing biopic roles because the Weinstein Company and their ilk are eager to spread a layer of superficial class over their dead-end biopics (the superb Selma should be excepted here). I'm not totally against Rafferty's claim that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's past couple of roles can't match up to the startling live wire work he did in the early 2000s, but I'm less inclined to listen when you go around and praise Benedict Cumberbatch, a talented actor whose only pantheon-level cinema performance (in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) was four years ago, and who's since wasted his time giving tediously mannered performances in awards-baiting dreck like The Imitation Game, The Fifth Estate and the desecration of August: Osage County and otherwise turning himself into a sentient Tumblr post.

Richard Brody addresses the fact that the wrong movies frequently get the most attention in a New Yorker post that's in part a response to Rafferty's article. Aside from his description of the Atlantic piece as "thoughtful and stimulating" rather than "well-trod and Jesus almighty already" and his take on Marlon Brando's method roles (go with God, man, but you're trippin'), he highlights a tendency to praise Capital-A Acting*** and impersonations at the expense of actors who can simply be, from Sterling Hayden and Humphrey Bogart to current performers like Jason Schwartzman and Adam Driver, not to mention up-and-comers like Kentucker Audley and Tyler James Williams.

Rafferty's piece isn't without its mitigating factors – his appreciation of Jake Gyllenhaal's recent work in the final graph in particular – but I can't help but lose patience when stale debates about American vs. British acting are trotted out like they're something new. I dislike fitting square pegs like Scoot McNairy and Sean William Scott (one of our finest actors and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise) into round holes, and as much as I love to see actors challenge themselves, I don't want to see Tom Hiddleston's Michael Corleone or Seth Rogen's Polonius any more than I would've liked to see Robert De Niro as Victor Von Fronk-ehn-schteen (then again, it couldn’t have gone much worse than his turn as The Monster). The same goes for whatever training it takes to get an actor to the stage or screen. There's room to to debate the merits of classical training vs. on-the-job training, but not if we're going to use one as a cudgel against the other.

*Lest ye think I'm bringing this up to bolster any opinions I might have about acting, let it be known that I am a staggeringly terrible performer and that the stage and screen (if not the print and online worlds) are better off with my having decided it wasn't for me.

**Which is not to say that this went for all or even most students and teachers I encountered, but it wasn't a terribly uncommon sentiment, either.


***To be fair, others' ingrained suspicion of Big Acting frustrates me as well, but that's A) a byproduct of terrible Oscar clip moments becoming more and more prominent in film, and B) an argument for another day.