Like fingerprints or snowflakes the best actors of any generation are always unique instruments, playing their particular music no matter what the role. Meanwhile the second-tier actors, lacking this uniqueness or particularity, tend to draw from a generic grab-bag of mannerist ticks and tendencies in favor at a given cultural moment. The tendencies of young male actors in the mid ’50s through the next 15 or 20 years were about trying to channel the sensitive anguish of Brando-Dean-Clift, etc. Every generation has its particular mode and attitude.
I’m saying this because I’m feeling more and more annoyed by second-tier GenY and younger GenX actors. I’ve been noticing behavioral similarities in their performances on cable (particularly in True Blood) and in crappy movies like Scream 4, etc. And I guess…okay, I’ll say it: they need to get off my lawn.
The ultimate acting style or manner, for me, is no acting style or manner. It’s about “being” and receptivity and constant vigilance in a quiet Zen way. Not being a sap but not shutting things out either. It means being Steve McQueen in Bullitt. It means Jean Paul Belmondo or Robert Mitchum in repose, or Meryl Streep in almost anything. It can’t get any better if you simply follow James Cagney‘s rule of “plant your feet, look the other guy in the eye and tell the truth.” Very, very few second-tier under-30 actors, it seems, try to do this. Perhaps they haven’t been told.
The common behavioral thread among young 21st Century actors performing second-rate material is a kind of cool disdain — a mannered chilliness, especially when these guys are acting with each other. Almost everything said to them except “dude, wanna party?” or “let’s go home…I want to make love with you” is an affont of some kind. It’s always about thinly veiled hostility and “oh, God…please.” Hayden Panattiere‘s behavior in Scream 4 is a perfect distillation of this.
The underling message when they speak with each other is always “you want some of my time and attention? I am so effing bored just anticipating what you might have to say! Okay, fine….what? Because before you start you need to understand you won’t be taking advantage of me. Because I will not be fucked by you…get it?” They all exude “pretend” put-on emotion by way of broadly faked feeling or their contempt for another character’s agenda or manner, and letting the other character know how, like, totally difficult it is and what a turn-off it is to even listen to what he/she has to say, much less take him or her seriously.
“Pretend” emotion, hostility, disdain, hidden emotional agendas, cynicism…they never just parcel it out straight and simply lay it on the line like St. Francis of Assisi or Charles Aznavour in Shoot The Piano Player or Oskar Werner in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. There’s always the “cover” of frosty vibes, attitude acting, “mock” feeling. “I really can’t be bothered to talk to you straight so I’m going to let you know in unmistakable terms what a drag it is to even look at or listen to you…Jesus!”
They’re terrified of emotional even-steven, openness, vulnerability, plain straight talk and behaving in an unaffected manner. They are the sworn enemies of the James Cagney way. Spencer Tracy is looking down at these guys and shaking his head and throwing up his hands.