Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Spacey

The will to walk onstage

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About a year ago, I picked up a copy of the book Actors at Work, which consists of interviews with fourteen stage and screen professionals by the casting director Rosemarie Tichler and the playwright Barry Jay Kaplan. It’s an engaging, informative read, openly modeled on the legendary interviews on craft conducted by The Paris Review, and its subjects include the likes of Meryl Streep, John Lithgow, and Patti LuPone. By accident, however, it ends with chapters devoted to two actors whose legacies have been profoundly changed in the intervening decade. One is Kevin Spacey, whose career seems effectively over in the aftermath of revelations about his sexual misconduct; the other is the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose partner, Mimi O’Donnell, provides an account of their life together in an autobiographical essay that appeared last week in Vogue. Spacey and Hoffman never appeared onstage or onscreen together, and they don’t seem to have spoken of each other publicly while both were alive, but they were linked in the minds of many fans. In his entry on Hoffman in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson even wrote: “Meanwhile, search him out, as you might Kevin Spacey. There is the same very dangerous talent at work—astounding, yet so pronounced it could help make its own prison.” Yet it seems clear now that they were profoundly dissimilar—and not just because Spacey was a born character actor who systematically transformed himself into a leading man, while Hoffman was manifestly a star who was pigeonholed for too long as a character actor.

There are moments in Actors at Work, in fact, when they seem to be engaging in an unintentional dialogue. Here’s Spacey speaking of his two years at Juilliard:

What I learned more than anything else—and which I am enormously, enormously grateful for—is technique. What I learned was how do you get up every night for eight weeks, or twelve weeks or fourteen weeks or six months, into a run of a play and always be alive and always be there and always have your breath and always be energetic and always be ready to respond even on those nights when it doesn’t hit you, and somehow the performance, the audience—you just feel it’s not happening. It is technique that gets you through it. It is what you can do technically even if it’s not connected emotionally on that particular night.

To be honest, I find this fascinating, but it represents a very different approach from what Hoffman describes, in which he sometimes seems to be addressing Spacey himself:

You have tools at your disposal. You have a mind that you’ve soaked up with as much information as possible, and all those things help you get inside it. But the ultimate execution of it is something that is almost ninety-five percent will…I remember an acting teacher saying, “Eventually, you gotta decide to do the play every night.” It’s one of the best pieces of teaching I ever got. If you don’t decide to do it—and sixty percent of actors don’t decide to do it—they go do it anyway. The minute you decide to do it, it’s you doing the work to create the will to walk onstage.

This philosophical contest between technique and will can also be seen in their performances that have been preserved on film. Spacey always seemed to be pretending, however brilliantly, while Hoffman had a way of disappearing into even the tiniest parts—you could rarely catch him “acting,” while much of the pleasure of watching Spacey lay in our conspiratorial sense of his choices from one minute to the next. (There’s a scene in L.A. Confidential in which he does little else except make two phone calls, in a single take, and I can never watch it without marveling at how he handles the receiver of the telephone.) You can also see it in how they planned their careers. Spacey recalls: “I did cotton to the idea that if you were as specific in your choices of what you did as you were as an actor in a role, then you might find things that were right for you, that would challenge you and be interesting to do…I had made a very clear decision ten years earlier to start focusing on film and see if I could carve out a career. I had done it. American Beauty was out, and I thought, it just doesn’t get better than this.” Hoffman, by contrast, was far more intuitive:

The next role I want to play is the next role I want to play, I guess is the answer. I don’t know what that is until I actually see it. It has to be in the moment. Life has to flow. If you don’t let life flow, it’s hard to create. You can’t control creation. The minute I try to control what I’m going to act, what parts I’m going to play, they become something that I don’t want to act. It becomes a heady thing. It becomes, if I just play that part, then I’ll play that part, and then I’d better be over there. It becomes something that’s just structure and math, not creative.

Yet when you look at their filmographies, you can see the difference at once. Hoffman almost never took on a role that wasn’t fascinating, while the last fifteen years of Spacey’s career consisted largely of a series of dead ends. So much of an actor’s career is out of his hands that instinct often counts for more than cleverness.

But while it’s tempting to read Hoffman’s struggle with drug addiction as a reflection of the trauma that he repeatedly underwent as an actor, while Spacey held it at arm’s length, the truth seems to have been utterly different. As O’Donnell writes in Vogue: “I hesitate to ascribe Phil’s relapse after two decades to any one thing, or even to a series of things, because the stressors—or, in the parlance, triggers—that preceded it didn’t cause him to start using again, any more than being a child of divorce did. Lots of people go through difficult life events. Only addicts start taking drugs to blunt the pain of them.” And she deliberately rejects the notion that acting may have been to blame:

Phil went into rehearsal for Mike Nichols’s production of Death of a Salesman, and he threw himself into it with his usual intensity. Willy Loman is one of the great tragic roles of twentieth-century theater, and Phil gave one of the rawest and most honest performances of his career. It asked a lot of him and it exhausted him, but it had nothing to do with his relapse. If anything, doing seven shows a week kept him from using, because it would have been impossible to do that on drugs. Though he continued to drink after evening shows, he was otherwise clean, and as the days left in the show’s limited run wound down, I began to dread what would happen when it was over.

This couldn’t be less like Spacey, who was engaging in predatory behavior even while serving as the artistic director of the Old Vic, during the busiest period of his creative life. Acting saved Hoffman, until it didn’t, while Spacey appears to have used it as coldly as he did anything else. David Thomson wrote of Spacey years ago: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.” We don’t need to accept this. But we also need to recognize that even the will to walk onstage may not always be enough.

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

Guilty pleasures and other travesties

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Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea

I’ve occasionally written on this blog about the music that I like, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever admitted that the song from the last decade that I’ve probably played the most is Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It’s as close to indefensible as I can imagine without being actively offensive: it’s a sonic trifle that gains its appeal entirely from a hefty sample from Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a legitimately good song to which “Whatcha Say” attaches itself like a remora. Take away that load-bearing sample, and the rest of it would fall apart. Yet that’s part of the reason I like it. Derulo—who wasn’t even twenty years old at the time—and his collaborators saw something in the original track, with a big assist from a famous scene from The OC and its even more famous parody by the Lonely Island, and rode it to the top of the Billboard charts. I’m not even mad; I’m impressed. “Whatcha Say” wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for a moment of opportunistic ingenuity that took Heap’s moody vocoder vocal and remixed it into the core of a mercenary radio hit. And as much as it pains me to say it, I like it better than “Hide and Seek.” It isn’t as lugubrious or self-important; it’s about nothing except for itself, and I could listen to it forever. I could conceivably use it as a case study in the power of sampling, and I’ve occasionally thought about writing a post on the subject, if only to have an excuse to talk about it. But I can’t really defend it to anyone.

In other words, it’s the definition of a guilty pleasure. I think it’s best to start with a purely legalistic reading of the word “guilty,” which hinges on the idea that you’re a free agent who can choose between right and wrong, and you deliberately chose wrong. A guilty pleasure should be a violation of your own high standards, not those of society at large. You might not like, say, Stephen King’s It, which is my favorite American novel published in my lifetime, but that doesn’t make it a guilty pleasure for me: I think it’s legitimately great in a way that “Whatcha Say” isn’t. A guilty pleasure is also something different from a flawed masterpiece. When I put together my alternative canon of movies last month, I deliberately avoided guilty pleasures: I wanted to write about films that I think everyone should see. A true guilty pleasure is inherently autobiographical and personal: it resonates with you in particular in a way that it might not for anybody else. A list of my guilty pleasures may not tell you more about me than a ranking of my favorite movies or books, but it’s a crucial part of the picture. And it provides an indispensable sort of balance to my inner life, as the critic Christopher Morley once observed:

There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

Jason Derulo

So what are my guilty pleasures? Aside from “Whatcha Say,” they include the first season of the MTV reality series The Hills, which I can watch for hours on end with the same detached contentment that I once felt with the screensaver on my old desktop Mac; Kevin Spacey’s directorial debut Beyond the Sea, in which he channels the late singer Bobby Darin in a performance that goes beyond impersonation into something like demonic possession; the movie of Angels & Demons, but not the book; the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon; true crime books like Fatal Vision or Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, as long as they’re at least five hundred pages long; the airplane novels of Arthur Hailey; the video for Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams.” None falls into the category of “It’s so bad, it’s good,” except maybe for Lost Horizon. Most are professional pieces of work, at least within the limits that they’ve set for themselves, and even the ones that fall short of their own standards, like Beyond the Sea, make me feel oddly protective, almost paternal: I can’t condescend to them, because I understand them. I know what Spacey was trying to do, and I respect him for it, even if the result is less a good movie than an ode to the genial fakery that he brings to even his best roles. Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen. I love Beyond the Sea because it’s literally about nothing else. But that doesn’t mean you will.

Another factor that many of these works have in common is that they’re travesties—imitations, remakes, or derivations of earlier, obviously superior efforts. Kevin Spacey is a travesty of Bobby Darin, no matter if he sings as well or better; Lost Horizon is a travesty of the novel and classic movie; “Whatcha Say” is nothing if not a travesty of “Hide and Seek.” This means that they dramatize, in particularly stark terms, something fundamental about the guilty pleasure: the idea that we’re choosing to indulge in something bad, instead of a world of better options. That’s where the guilt comes in. It operates under the assumption that our lives as readers, viewers, and listeners amount to a zero-sum game, and that every minute we spend on junk is a minute that we can’t devote to something more worthwhile. This might be technically correct, but it misses the larger point. There may not be world enough or time for us to take in every great work of art, but we can experience pretty much all of it, if we’re so inclined, and it leaves us ample room for the mediocre, or worse. You could even argue that works that leave us unchanged, and that do nothing more than fill a pleasant five minutes or an hour, are part of a balanced diet, as Morley noted. The nice thing about “Whatcha Say” or The Hills is that it doesn’t get in the way of anything else, and it satisfies me in uncomplicated ways that leave me available later for more complex pleasures. And at the end of my life, if you ask me if I’m happy with how I spent my time, I’ll gladly quote Imogen Heap: I only meant well. Well, of course I did. And it’s all for the best.

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2016 at 8:37 am

The double awareness

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Laurence Olivier

Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.

—William Blake

Earlier this week, I picked up a copy of Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, a collection of transcribed lessons from the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg, who is best known to viewers today for his role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II. (I was watching it again recently, and I was newly amazed at how great Strasberg is—you can’t take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen.) The book is loaded with insights from one of method acting’s foremost theorists and practitioners, but the part that caught my eye was what Strasberg says about Laurence Olivier:

When we see certain performances of Olivier we sometimes tend to say, “Well, it’s a little superficial.” Why are they superficial? There is great imagination in them, more imagination than in a lot of performances which are more organic because Olivier is giving of himself more completely at each moment. Is it that his idea of the part and the play is not clear? On the contrary, it is marvelously clear. You know exactly why he is doing each little detail. In his performance you watch an actor’s mind, fantastic in its scope and greatness, working and understanding the needs of the scene. He understands the character better than I ever will. I don’t even want to understand the character as much as he does, because I think it is his understanding that almost stops him from the completeness of the response.

Strasberg goes on to conclude: “If we criticize Larry Olivier’s performance, it is only because it seems to us the outline of a performance. It is not a performance. Olivier has a fine talent, but you get from him all of the actor’s thought and a lot of his skill and none of the actual talent that he has.” And while I don’t intend to wade into a comparison of the method and classical approaches to acting, which I don’t have the technical background to properly discuss, Strasberg’s comments strike me as intuitively correct. We’ve all had the experience of watching an artist and becoming more preoccupied by his or her thought process than in the organic meaning of the work itself. I’ve said that David Mamet’s movies play like fantastic first drafts in which we’re a little too aware of the logic behind each decision, and it’s almost impossible for me to watch Kevin Spacey, for instance, without being aware of the cleverness of his choices, rather than losing myself in the story he’s telling. Sometimes that sheer meretriciousness can be delightful in itself, and it’s just about the only thing that kept me watching the third season of House of Cards. As David Thomson said: “[Spacey] can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But there’s a deeper truth here, which is that under ideal conditions, our consciousness of an artist’s choices can lead to a kind of double awareness: it activates our experience of both the technique and the story, and it culminates in something more compelling than either could be on its own. And Olivier himself might agree. He once said of his own approach to acting:

I’ve frequently observed things, and thank God, if I haven’t got a very good memory for anything else, I’ve got a memory for little details. I’ve had things in the back of my mind for as long as eighteen years before I’ve used them. And it works sometimes that, out of one little thing that you’ve seen somebody do, something causes you to store it up. In the years that follow you wonder what it was that made them do it, and, ultimately, you find in that the illuminating key to a whole bit of characterization…And so, with one or two extraneous externals, I [begin] to build up a character, a characterization. I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.

When we watch the resulting performance, we’re both caught up in the moment and aware of the massive reserves of intelligence and craft that the actor has brought to bear on it over an extended period of time—which, paradoxically, can heighten the emotional truth of the scene, as we view it with some of the same intensity of thought that Olivier himself did.

And one of the most profound things that any actor can do is to move us while simultaneously making us aware of the tools he’s using. There’s no greater example than Marlon Brando, who, at his best, was both the ultimate master of the method technique and a genius at this kind of trickery who transcended even Olivier. When he puts on Eva Marie Saint’s glove in On the Waterfront or cradles the cat in his arms in The Godfather, we’re both struck by the irrational rightness of the image and conscious of the train of thought behind it. (Olivier himself was once up for the role of Don Corleone, which feels like a hinge moment in the history of movies, even if I suspect that both he and Brando would have fallen back on many of the same tactics.) And Brando’s work in Last Tango in Paris is both agonizingly intimate and exposed—it ruined him for serious work for the rest of his career—and an anthology of good tricks derived from a lifetime of acting. I think it’s the greatest male performance in the history of movies, and it works precisely because of the double awareness that it creates, in which we’re watching both Brando himself and the character of Paul, who is a kind of failed Brando. This superimposition of actor over character couldn’t exist if some of those choices weren’t obvious or transparent, and it changes the way it lives in our imagination. As Pauline Kael said in the most famous movie review ever written: “We are watching Brando throughout this movie, with all the feedback that that implies…If Brando knows this hell, why should we pretend we don’t?”

Forget about your House of Cards

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Kevin Spacey on House of Cards

Forget about your house of cards
And I’ll do mine
And fall under the table, get swept under
Denial, denial…

—Radiohead, “House of Cards”

Note: Major spoilers follow for the third season of House of Cards.

Watching the season finale of House of Cards, I found myself reflecting on the curious career of director James Foley, who has helmed many of the show’s most memorable episodes. Foley is the quintessential journeyman, a filmmaker responsible for one movie, Glengarry Glen Ross, that I’ll probably revisit at least once a decade for the rest of my life, and a lot of weird, inexplicable filler, from The Corruptor to Perfect Stranger. It’s a messy body of work that still earned him a coveted entry in The Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which David Thomson writes: “You could put together a montage of scenes by Foley that might convince anyone that he was—and is—a very hot director.” And that’s equally true of House of Cards, which would allow you to cut together enough striking scenes and images to convince you that it was the hottest show on television. I’ve noted before that I’ve never seen a series in which every technical element was brought to such a consistent pitch of intensity: the cinematography, art direction, sound design, editing, and music are among the best I’ve ever seen. Foley’s handling of the finale is masterful. And yet it’s only a sad coda to a deeply disappointing, often outright frustrating show, which in its most recent season pulled off the neat trick of being both totally implausible and grindingly boring.

And it didn’t have to be this way. As infuriating as House of Cards often was, there was an undeniable charge, in the very last shot of the second season, when Underwood walked into the Oval Office and rapped his hand against the desk. We seemed primed to embark on a spectacular run of stories, with a scheming, murderous, Machiavellian psychopath positioned to move onto a grander stage. What we got, instead, was an Underwood who seemed oddly hapless and neutered. He’s still a hypocrite, but with no coherent plans for domination, and hardly any sense of what he wants to accomplish with the power he sought for so long. If the show were actively working to subvert our expectations, that would be one thing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case: for most of the season, it seemed as adrift as its protagonist, who starts off with poor approval ratings, a nonexistent mandate, and no ability to advance his agenda, whatever the hell it might be. In the abstract, I can understand the narrative reasoning: you want to open with your hero at a low point to give him somewhere to go. But if you can imagine, instead, a scenario in which Underwood starts out as popular and powerful, only to fight ruthlessly in secret against a scandal, old or new, that threatens to undermine it all, you start to glimpse the kind of drama that might have been possible.

House of Cards

And what’s really dispiriting is that all the right pieces were there, only to be systematically squandered. In Petrov, a thinly veiled surrogate for Putin, the show gave Underwood his first truly formidable antagonist, but instead of a global game of chess being played between two superb manipulators, we’re treated to the sight of Underwood rolling over time and time again. The one really shrewd plot point—in which Petrov extorts Underwood into forcing Claire to resign as UN ambassador—would have been much more effective if Claire had been any good at her job, which she manifestly isn’t. The interminable subplot about the America Works bill would have been fine if it had all been a blind for Underwood to consolidate his power, but it’s not: he just wants to give people jobs, and his attempts at extraconstitutional maneuvering seem like a means to an end, when they should have been the end in themselves. We keep waiting for Underwood, our ultimate villain, to do something evil, inspired, or even interesting, but he never does. And the show’s one great act of evil, in the form of Rachel’s fate, feels like a cynical cheat, because the show hasn’t done the hard work, as Breaking Bad repeatedly did, of earning the right to coldly dispose of one of its few sympathetic characters. (As it stands, there’s a touch of misogyny here, in which an appealing female player is reintroduced and killed simply to further the journey of a white male antihero in a supporting role.)

Yet House of Cards remains fascinating to think about, if not to watch, because so many talented people—David Fincher, Eric Roth, Tony Gilroy—have allowed it to drift off the rails. I’ve spoken at length before, most notably in Salon, about the dangers inherent in delivering a television series a full season at a time: without the intense scrutiny and feedback that comes from airing week to week, a show is likely to grow complacent, or to push deeper into a narrative dead end. In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff argues that this season can best be understood as a reaction to the show’s critics, a failed attempt to make a hard turn into a character drama, which only proves that it isn’t enough to plot a course correction once per season. And there’s a larger blindness here, perhaps one enabled by the show’s superficial gorgeousness. Is what Frank Underwood does interesting because he’s Underwood, or is he interesting because he does interesting things? I’d argue that it’s the latter, and that the echo chamber the Netflix model creates has lulled the show into thinking that we’ll follow its protagonist anywhere, when it has yet to honestly earn that level of trust. (In a way, it feels like a reflection of its leading man: Kevin Spacey may be the most intelligent actor alive when it comes to the small decisions he makes from moment to moment, but he’s been frequently misguided in his choice of star parts.) House of Cards is still a fun show to dissect; if I were teaching a course on television, it’s the first case study I’d assign. But that doesn’t mean I need to give it any more of my time.

A life in random roles

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Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day

Slowly but surely, with one wonderful piece after another, the Random Roles interviews that Will Harris does for The A.V. Club have turned into one of my favorite things on the Internet. The premise is simple: Harris sits down with an actor, usually one best known for character parts, to discuss an assortment of the movies and television shows in which he or she has appeared—except that the subjects don’t know in advance what roles he’s going to bring up. It results in a kind of Inside the Actors Studio for actors who might have trouble filling an auditorium, even as their faces and voices constitute an essential piece of our lives as viewers and moviegoers. I’m talking about the likes of Stephen Tobolowsky, Kurtwood Smith, and Ted Levine, actors whose names we often don’t know, even as their presence sends a charge through the screen whenever they appear. We’d recognize them on the street, but if we did, we might think they sold us a car or that we knew them in college, when in fact they’ve been insinuating themselves into our consciousness in tiny increments, a line or two at a time.

Occasionally, you’ll see a bigger name pop up—Harris has spoken with Morgan Freeman, Don Johnson, and Timothy Dalton, all in the last few months—but the most engaging interviews tend to be with actors who have thrived for decades in small parts, or who spent years in the wilderness before or after their shot at the big time. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the working artist who puts as much life as possible into a few seconds of screen time on the way to the next paycheck, and not surprisingly, these interviews are all repositories of craft, knowledge, and great stories. In today’s installment, for instance, Harris talks to Kurt Fuller, who is practically the embodiment of “Hey, it’s that guy!” Here he is talking about his first onscreen appearance, as an unnamed cameraman on Knight Rider:

And my line was, “The car talks. The car talks!” And I said it just about that badly. I remember the director said to me—and this has been said to me by that director, but also by Ivan Reitman during Ghostbusters 2, which was very early on as well, when I was petrified—”Do less than you ever thought it was possible to do.” And that’s been very good advice. The more I take it, the better I feel. I can overact in two seconds.

Kurt Fuller on Supernatural

If these pieces are invariably more interesting and insightful than what usually comes out of the press junkets we get from more recognizable stars, that’s largely thanks to Harris, who seems to prepare for each interview by watching everything the subject has ever done, but it’s also due to the peculiar position of the character actor. To endure for forty years in Hollywood on one scene at a time requires enormous professionalism, versatility, and talent, and your indispensability relies on the fact that you can be taken for granted. There’s no opportunity to sulk in your trailer or fight with your director: you’re there solely to make each scene, and your fellow performers, just a little bit better. This requires considerable depth of experience, as well as an underlying pragmatism and lack of ego that comes less from natural modesty than a recognition of how best to get things done. (For an unforgettable illustration of the contrast between the life of a character actor and that of a star, check out Tobolowsky’s story of working with Steven Seagal in The Glimmer Man.)

Occasionally, you’ll see a performer with a character actor’s soul launched unexpectedly into the ranks of leading men, and it’s always worth paying attention to the result, which serves almost as a referendum on how much trickery we’re willing to tolerate. (What David Thomson says of Kevin Spacey applies strongly here: “He can be our best actor, but only if we accept that acting is a bag of tricks that leaves scant room for being a real and considerate human being.”) It’s possible that movies and television shows work best in the way Renaissance painting did, with a singular, inexplicable presence at the center—the mystery of stardom—surrounded by figures at the edges, rendered with unobtrusive craft, that serve to bring out the main subject. These anonymous putti and cherubim don’t often have a chance to tell their stories, and they’ve long since learned to be content with being passed over at a glance, but when they do talk, we’re reminded of how crucial they can be. As Jeffrey Tambor says to Harris: “The great thing about acting is that you kind of do what’s there and do it the best you can.” And when you’re done, you cash your check, call your agent, and move on to your next small moment of vividness.

Written by nevalalee

September 30, 2014 at 9:40 am

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