When Jack Lemon appeared on Inside The Actor’s Studio and conversation came to Glengarry Glen Ross, the actor explained how he attempted to play his character, Shelley Levine, in an unlikeable fashion. Lemmon wanted the audience to take against Levine, partly because he was so well known for playing the good guy, the lovable one, the character we all adored so much.
It didn’t work.
It could be said, I suppose, that the actor’s job is to embody the character they are playing, and to communicate the nature of this individual to the audience. The problem here, of course, is that the character is a product of the screenplay as much, and arguably more, than of any actor’s performance.
Imagine this scene: a man and a woman in are in a wintry forest clearing. The man is on his knees, tears in his eyes and begging for mercy. The woman is standing, holding a gun to the man’s head.
Will she shoot? Is she the kind of woman who will pull the trigger?
It sure as heck isn’t the actress who gets to decide (unless, of course, she’s also the screenwriter, or the scene is improvised, which makes her a de facto screenwriter).
The big decisions, the ones that really illuminate a character, come from the screenplay. They aren’t tics, or tones of delivery. They aren’t the way a character stands, or even the expression on a character’s face.
I’d argue that, any of the big performance decisions, those big enough to really alter the understanding of character, would constitute “writing”. If a character laughs at a funeral, say, that’s either something that’s come from the page or, in effect, has “rewritten” the script in translating it to the screen.
Within the bounds of what an actor can do as an actor, there in the range before it tips over into them “rewriting” the material, I’d say that the scope for swinging the audience’s understanding of a character is minimal.
I think, in fact, an actor’s job is something else entirely. I think I can break it down to two basic contributions.
The actor can provide charisma. And the actor can not screw up.
Looking at a comedy film can give you a pretty clear idea of what “not screwing up” entails. A joke requires timing, and a certain sort of emphasis. A bad line reading can ruin the joke and stop it landing with the audience. This would be what I mean by screwing up.
The actor didn’t create the joke, they just made it land. That’s what they’re there to do. If they do something “funny” that wasn’t in the script, then that’s improvisation and we’re back to “de facto scriptwriting” again.
It’s obvious with jokes, but it’s always true, even if the intent is not to raise a chuckle but some other dramatic purpose. The actor’s job is to land what is in the page, and to do it in a way that doesn’t “screw up”. A good part of this will be not smelling of BS or, to put it another way, not looking like you’re acting.
And then there’s charisma. Which is to say, the fact that we like Jack Lemmon’s characters so much will also be fuelled by the fact that we like him, or his demeanor, his general on-screen manner.
Of course, charisma can be, and most likely is, something that an actor is “doing”, something that they can put on. It is a skill, in a sense, to be attractive and watchable in that way. And I’m sure that many actors have natural charisma by the bucketload too. Either way, I can appreciate it.
Though, having said that, I believe far more in good casting than I do in good acting. Any given role could go to countless different actors, but each of these would bring themselves to it, and their particular charisma and style, and the character will inevitably read in a slightly different way to the audience because of this. Think of, for example, Tom Cruise playing The Terminator.
Directors can also spend a lot of time and energy trying to get the right combination of performers for a picture. They aren’t looking for people who can “act the best” but those who will gel the best. It’s a sensible way to go about putting a cast together. You’re minimising the whiff of BS, the potential for “screwing up.”
A good cast, well selected, can be a wonderful thing.
For example, let’s look at The Farrelly Bros.’ Hall Pass. I was sent a Blu-ray for review and, to be quite honest, I found it to be so fair, so fine-on-the-line, so so-so in most respects, that I was at risk of boring you with a report.
Yes, the editing’s okay. The sound is okay. It’s fairly well shot. It has some funny jokes and some not so funny jokes. Bits of it are a little uncomfortable, maybe sexist, whereas at other times, it seems to be a bit more fair and balanced, less chauvinist. There’s nothing for me to get too worked up about.
But the cast aren’t just mediocre. Indeed, they’re the reason to watch the film.
Somebody once told me that they’d never seen a Pixar film because that’s not what they want when they go to the cinema; they want to see real people, interacting. They want to see humans, photographed, in all their humanity.
I can understand what she meant.
What you get from a filmed actor, rather than a CG fish or a performance captured chimp, isn’t a better performance, or better characterisation. What you get is the little bits of that actor that make up their personal style and recognisable self. In Hall Pass, when you see Owen Wilson, there’s some level on which you’re watching not the character, but Wilson. And that, I think, is a real and valid pleasure in itself.
Applaud Meryl Streep all you want for her ability to transform, but there’s still some Streepness there, every time, and it’s valuable, and attractive, and a fine reason to want to see her in films in the first place. I think Streep, for example, does do great work in seeming very different in different roles, but I don’t know that a film is better because a square peg turned itself round rather than the director just tried using a round peg in the first place. Nonetheless, what Streep always brings that others can’t is her inherent, under-it-all Merylitude. If you like that, then she will deliver for you.
When I watch Jimmy Stewart films, or the young Robert Redford, or Illeana Douglas, Steve Zahn, Faye Dunaway, Lousie Brooks, Tim Roth, Katharine Hepburn or whoever, I do enjoy the actor, as well as the acting.
That is: the charisma as well as the “not screwing up”.
Nobody really screws up in Hall Pass, and that’s good, that’s a great foundation. That’s the bread. The filling is the charisma.
Owen Wilson may not seem quite so bright and irresistible as a few years ago, but I have a relationship with him now, and I like that it continues. I’ll shuffle a film up my list because it has Mr. Wilson in it.
Jason Sudeikis, I bonded with over 30 Rock and Going The Distance.
With Jenna Fischer it was The Office, though she’s a principle pleasure for me in Walk Hard. I wish she was in a lot more movies.
And while I developed my liking of Christina Applegate pretty late and Hall Pass is one of the first films in which I have been able to see her in a bigger role, I thought she was just great. Very Christina Applegatey, and I just happened to like that.
Stephen Merchant and Richard Jenkins were more than welcome too. Indeed, Jenkins is a real favourite of mine.
Now, I don’t know how much impact an actor’s charisma actually has on the quality of a film, in any real terms – as long as they don’t screw up, they’ve done their piece there, I think. But I think the charisma can make for good company, and watching Hall Pass, that’s what I was enjoying.
I don’t know that everybody would enjoy being down the pub with my circle of friends, but I do (well, mostly). I think the pleasure I took from Hall Pass wasn’t to dissimilar.
This is also one of the reasons I’ll never tire of Blazing Saddles, say, or Ocean’s 12 or countless other films. There’s a group of folks doing their thing and I can just bask in it.
Chemistry, charisma, likeability and charm won’t necessarily tell a story any better, but they can certainly put some sugar on top. Just one reason, of many, to spend some time watching movies.
Hall Pass is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK and the US now, in an Extended Edition. This amounts to a few more minutes in the pub with charming acquaintances, no promise of anything more than that.
Footnote: I know I didn’t really acknowledge the influence of editing on a performance. Another time, maybe. In this case, though, it’s possibly worth noting that editing too can provide a kind of de facto rewriting.