Yesterday’s viewing of Saving Mr. Banks reminded me once again that the lead performances that win the most applause are (a) almost always from name-brand actors and (b) those that they haven’t stretched or reached for but have relaxed into like an old shoe. We all respect and admire the effort and artistry that goes into an exotic transformational performance, but most of the time we prefer the company of “friends” whom we’ve come to know and feel comfortable with. This is what movie stars do, and why we pay to see them in films and will often praise their “performances”, when in fact they’re mainly just sharing with us in a way that we like. They’re using a little bit of vocal or body English to pass along a feeling of “performing” and that’s fine, but we’re mostly paying for an agreeable hang-out.
In short, movie stars basically play themselves, and that’s all we want them to do. The movie-star performances that win Oscars tend to be those in which the consensus is that “this is the best fit yet — the most natural and filled-out act of self-portraiture this or that actor has ever given us.”
In Banks I didn’t really believe that Tom Hanks was giving me an impersonation of Walt Disney as he actually was behind closed doors, although he may have been. What I believed for sure was that Hanks was using or allowing his own easygoing manner to seep out between the Walt-isms, and that this was relaxing and pleasurable. At the same time it was obvious that the gifted Emma Thompson was “wearing” a spinsterish personality and constricted body language as she played P.L. Travers, and frankly, for me, this felt less and less welcome as the film progressed. I felt stuck with her. I wanted a bit more humor or cleverness or perhaps an emotional downshift or turnaround, all of which I’ve come to believe are part of Thompson’s repertoire. But no — the role was the role and Thompson played it as professionally as she could. But I didn’t like or want the company of Mrs. Travers. I wanted Thompson’s company with a little Travers on the side.
The reason everyone is praising Robert Redford‘s performance in All Is Lost is that we believe (or want to believe) that this is how Redford himself would handle being stranded in a disabled, radio-less sailing ship on the Indian Ocean with sharks and typhoons and holes in the hull. The movie is basically 106 minutes of hang time with Bob, albeit under threatening, touch-and-go circumstances.
The reason I loved Morgan Freeman‘s Last Vegas performance as much as I did is that he’s more or less playing himself, or at least a jovial, what-the-hell version of the Freeman that I’ve sat and talked with a bit during four or five round-table sessions over the last fifteen years.
Brad Pitt in Moneyball? He might have been “playing” Billy Bean but top-to-bottom that was Brad Pitt portraiture except for the haircut — a “this is me eating Twinkies and breaking stuff during temper tantrums” Oakland hang-out with movie-star vibes.
I believe to this day that I’m hanging with a significant portion of the real James Dean when I watch East of Eden and Rebel Without A Cost, and this is what I want. But I don’t believe he’s Jett Rink, the white-trash wildcatter in Giant, or at the very least I don’t want to believe that he’s really “in” that guy. (Except when he slugs Rock Hudson in the gut.) One way or another I don’t much care for Rink, and that’s one reason why I’ve seen Giant maybe three times in my life but I’ve watched Rebel and East of Eden ten or fifteen times each.
The only Gregory Peck performances that are commonly judged as unsuccessful or experimental are ones in which he doesn’t play “Gregory Peck” — Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Josef Mengele in The Boys From Brazil, the lustful, emotionally unbalanced lawman in I Walk The Line.
I could go on and on and on. The bottom line is that we don’t want or value “performances” from movie stars. We want or value honesty and revelation in our relationships with them, and if we seem to get this in a nicely filled-in or especially flavorful or profound-seeming way…Oscar nomination!
This is why Blue Is The Warmest Color‘s Adele Exarchopoulos is facing an uphill struggle to even got nominated for her almost wondrously open-pored performance, and why Sandra Bullock is an all-but-certain slamdunker for playing a scientist-astronaut in Gravity. (“Aaah!…aaah!…aaah!…aaah!”) We believe in your ability to figure out which buttons to push so you can get back to earth, Sandy! Plus you’re 49 years old and starring in a groundbreaking, hugely successful big-studio flick — a major symbolic score for older female actors…yes!