Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charlize Theron

A Game of Therons

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Let’s talk about Charlize Theron. Last month, after my wife and I finally rented Young Adult, I found myself brought up short by a startling realization: Theron may be the best young actress we have. I’d always been in awe of her work in Monster, of course, which, as Roger Ebert rightly notes, is one of the great performances of all time, starting, like Andy Serkis’s Gollum, as an awesome special effect, then creeping its way back toward humanity—although the rest of the movie is strangely undeveloped, as if it simply condensed, like dew, around Theron’s portrayal. When you consider that only a couple of years later, Theron was playing the lovely Rita on Arrested Development, you realize that we’re dealing with an actress of daunting range and versatility who has often been underestimated, like Penélope Cruz, because of her beauty. Young Adult is a showcase for all her best qualities: she’s funny, devastating, and totally fearless, even if, once more, she’s often better than the movie around her.

I had to repeat these facts to myself more than once after seeing Snow White and the Huntsman, in which Theron, it pains me to say, is resplendently awful. It’s a shame, because I’d been looking forward to this performance—if not the rest of the movie—for a long time. Unfortunately, just about everything about her approach is misconceived, and it isn’t even artful enough to make for good camp. In her thorny crown and raven’s-wing robes, she looks great, and director Rupert Sanders frames her in striking ways, but when she opens her mouth, she’s betrayed both by the script and by a few basic miscalculations. She starts at a high pitch of intensity that leaves her with nowhere to go, and although she grows louder and more strident as the movie drags on, she’s never truly frightening. (Her appearance on Top Chef, in which she seemed to be trying out aspects of her Evil Queen persona for the amusement of the other guests, was much more interesting.)

Watching her, I was oddly reminded of Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which he plays my favorite of all movie villains. In his chatty memoir The View From the Bridge, director Nicholas Meyer writes of watching Montalban play the part for the first time, and notes that while the performance was skilled and professional, there was one problem: he delivered every line at the top of his lungs. Meyer’s response, when he had a chance to discuss the role with Montalban, was brilliant, and it’s one I wish Sanders had followed:

I began [with] something like this: “You know, I read Laurence Oliver say somewhere that an actor should never show an audience his top. Once you show an audience your top, they know you have nowhere else to go…”

Montalban did not jump up and toss me out but narrowed his eyes in attention. “Another thing,” I went on before I could chicken out. “The really scary thing about crazy people is you never know what they’re going to do next. They can be very quiet but that doesn’t reduce the terror because at any second they might leap—”

Montalban, to his credit, took the advice to heart—his response, according to Meyer, was “You’re going to direct me! This is wonderful!”—and it shows in his final performance, which is a marvel, for all its operatic qualities, of nuance, understatement, and deathly quiet. (Consider, for instance, how gently he whispers to Chekov, even while lifting him by the front of his spacesuit: “Why?” You can watch the moment at the 2:00 mark here.)

Just imagine how much more interesting Theron would have been, if, like Montalban, she never showed the top of her range: if she had played the queen as cold, quiet, and serenely convinced that she was the hero of her own story. (Why, really, would an Evil Queen need to rant and rave if she already holds everyone around her in thrall to her power?) Theron certainly could have delivered this performance—as Young Adult amply demonstrates, she can be a subtle, resourceful actress—but, like Montalban, she needed someone to direct her. Rupert Sanders has talent, and he delivers what is basically a calculated simulation of an epic fantasy film with considerable visual skill, but as Joseph Kosinksi demonstrated with Tron: Legacy, the fact that a director makes beautiful commercials doesn’t always mean that he knows how to tell a story. It’s too bad, because all the pieces were there. All that was missing was the magic.

Quote of the Day

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Damon Lindelof: Please welcome Charlize Theron, Oscar-winning actress…Can you talk about how you got involved [in Prometheus]?

Charlize Theron: I was offered a tremendous amount of money and I said, “Sure.”

—At the 2011 Comic-Con panel for Prometheus

Written by nevalalee

September 15, 2011 at 6:29 am

Learning from the masters: Arrested Development

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As long as we’re on the subject of ensembles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the best ensemble sitcom of the decade, and arguably the best television show of any kind: Arrested Development. Like most people, I caught up with this series long after it had been canceled, and for a while, I was reluctant to try it, mostly because it was clear to me that this was a writer’s show, with elaborate plots and storylines, which are usually deadly to comedy. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course: once I finally gave it a chance, thanks to its availability on Hulu, I discovered that this is the rare series that successfully blends comedy, farce, and surrealism into a flawless whole. And while Arrested Development remains so singular a series that it turned out to be difficult—even for its creator, Mitch Hurwitz—to apply its lessons elsewhere, it’s still tempting to ask how the show does what it does.

Granted, nothing ruins a joke like explaining it, and Arrested Development can hardly be reduced to a set of rules. Still, it’s possible to gently examine the roots of the show’s appeal. First off, it has a strong cast playing extraordinary characters, all of whom compete fiercely and successfully for the viewer’s attention. It’s worth emphasizing how unusual this is: in most ensemble shows, not every character is equally compelling, but in Arrested Development, everyone in the primary cast is ridiculously watchable, and even among the scores of recurring characters, there’s barely a dud (except perhaps Martin Short’s painfully unfunny Uncle Jack). And as the AV Club’s Steve Heisler recently pointed out, the enormous cast works, from a dramatic perspective, because each character has a clearly defined selfish agenda. (I once used The Godfather as an illustration of how large casts need to be defined by their objectives, but Arrested Development may be an even better example.)

Second, this is an incredibly organized show. One reason that Arrested Development struggled to find an audience is that it makes the viewer work, or at least pay attention, in a way that other sitcoms don’t. As David Mamet likes to point out, you can tune into a show like Friends halfway through and know, within seconds, what the story is. Arrested Development is the exception: it asks us to keep track of a huge cast, an intricate ongoing plot, and throwaway gags that often don’t become clear until after multiple viewings of an entire season. This isn’t entirely unprecedented: The Simpsons did it for many years. But it took The Simpsons at least three seasons to ramp up to its peak velocity, while Arrested Development hit the ground running. And, as in most great shows, form is inseparable from content: it was the first sitcom to use the now-popular documentary format, but so far, it’s the only one to use that form (with cutaway shots, archive footage, and above all Ron Howard’s terrific narration) to increase the density of information that the viewer can process.

Third, and perhaps most crucially, the show used its exceptional cast and innovative narrative techniques to tell strong, emotionally grounded stories. True, the emotion usually only crept in at the last minute of each episode, but as writers on The Simpsons like to point out, fifteen seconds of sentiment is often all you need, while two minutes is probably too much. Arrested Development‘s greatest achievement lies in making you care, weirdly, about the characters: Will Arnett’s work as Gob stands as a master class in turning a gloriously unsympathetic character into someone easy to love. The result was a show that, for all its frenetic pacing, was also willing to take its time when it counted—for instance, in the slow burn of Charlize Theron’s arc as Rita, Michael’s mysterious girlfriend, which took five episodes to build to an unforgettable conclusion. And for all its imitators, it stands alone. There may or may not be a movie; Mitch Hurwitz may never have a chance to make a show this good again. But he did it once. And that’s enough to ensure his immortality.

In the meantime, though, here’s some Tobias:

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