In Praise of Non-Award-Winning Acting

Sunday, January 9, 2011

“With his naturalistic delivery and relaxed animal physicality Mr. Wahlberg doesn’t seem to be acting, while a twitchy, jumpy Mr. Bale all but pinwheels off the screen. Mr. Wahlberg’s acting seems more a matter of being, while Mr. Bale’s appears self-consciously performed.”
                                  --Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Mark WahlbergBy what  criteria do we judge the best acting?

Is it something we describe with words like bold, inventive, brazen, adventurous, commanding, fearless , and tour-de-force? Or…

If we are taken out of our immersion in the story by a conscious awareness that “this is a great, Academy Award worthy performance,” is anything lost?

What is the purpose of acting? If we notice ACTING, is it gone? I don’t know the answer to this, and maybe there isn’t one. But it’s a question worth exploring.

I have often wondered what would happen if all the critics, non-acting members of the film industry, all the evaluators of who is worthy of praise, and prognosticators of who should win prizes, if all these people took some acting classes. Would they see things any differently?

Ever notice how there is often a “surprise” nominee or winner of one of the acting Academy Awards? Someone that was barely recognized or even ignored by the critics and the award-giving groups? These appraisals come from the illustrious and very tiny list of actors who are in the Academy, not the 93,000 voting members of the Screen Actors Guild.  What yardsticks do these very special people use when they judge acting?

Obviously, big budget movies need movie stars, and movie stars are weighted down by our memories of their previous performances and our knowledge of their private lives. It’s very hard for them to truly disappear into a role, and you certainly can’t blame them for that.

Likewise some very good stories are gigantic ones, as over-sized, featuring multi-layered characters facing extraordinary circumstances. Very few actors have what it takes to play characters like this, and for this, we give praise and awards.

But how big an achievement is it to look like you’re not doing anything? If you succeed, you’re fooling everyone, not an easy thing to do, and not a way to get noticed. If you’re one of the rare people who can do it, you bring something enormous to the power of the film…but no prize for you!

You could say, “I know all about Mark Wahlberg’s life and he is that guy in ‘The Fighter.’ He’s just playing himself.” I would ask you to go in front of a camera and say lines and play someone who is “just like yourself.” Good luck. It’s not as easy as it looks.

Could Wahlberg have played Bale’s part? Obviously he would pull the twitch factor down many notches, but I think he would have been sensational—absolutely real, just in a less theatrical way. And he might have gotten a nomination, as he did for “The Departed.” But could Bale play Wahlberg’s part? I don’t think so. That role requires a quietude that I don’t think a baroque actor like Bale can muster.

Jeon Do-yeon & Song Kang-ho in "Secret Sunshine" With a few exceptions, I love and admire the 2010 movie performances that are being touted for awards. My favorite is Jeon Do-yeon in Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine.” It’s a whopper of a role and she is astounding. But unlike all the other great performances I saw last year, hers is in my favorite movie. And I think it’s because of Song Kang-ho, who has a not terribly exciting role. He plays kind of a shlub, not too bright, nothing special about him at all. But without Song’s performance, the movie would be unbearable.

If you see this film knowing nothing about Korean cinema, I doubt you would guess that Song is a superstar, somebody whose name on a film guarantees an audience, the star of such films as “Joint Security Area,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Memories of Murder,” “The Host,” “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” and “Thirst.” But at the height of his career, he takes this supporting role of a shmo and he plays him like a shmo. Perfectly. And the blend of his ordinariness with Jeon’s intensity makes for a masterpiece.

Unlike Lee’s previous films “Peppermint Candy,” and “Oasis” (maybe too culture-bound), I think this movie could easily be remade in the U.S. But if that happened, it’s unlikely that an American star on Song’s level would accept this role. And if they did, I doubt they would have the capacity to do it as modestly.

So… what’s my point? I certainly don’t want to disparage the actors who hit the ball out of the park this year, and gave me such movie-going pleasure. I’m just paying homage to the actors who made me forget there was a thing called acting. They tricked me, and I am very grateful to them for doing that.

I’d like to end with a quote from the exquisite Jeon Do-yeon, that I found in IMDb:

"I enjoy acting so much that I have no need or desire to be called a great actor. This is partly my personality, but also the fact that I get so absorbed in acting, to where I can't see or think of anything else. I can't tell you what great acting is, but for me, it is to give everything you have with honesty, sincerity and persistence.