What We Talk About When We Talk About Good Acting, Or, Curse You Young Oscar

The recent death of Dennis Farina led me to watch Michael Mann’s Manhunter for the first time in years, and from thence Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.  Thanks to time, tide, and certain mores of the Internet Age, the former is now often trumpeted as the truly great Hannibal Lecter film, and while it would be the height of absurdity to call the latter underrated, it has lost much of the luster that made it one of the most celebrated films in American history in the 1990s.  Demme’s picture held up considerably better than I’d remembered; its virtues, not only as a work of surprising visual skill and a powerfully effective thriller, but as a subversively feminist work that not only went against the tenor of its times but also could scarcely be made today, are much clearer now that the time for movies of that sort is largely over.

I didn’t want to write about Silence, though, for the sole reason that a thousand other people have already done so, plenty of them more effectively than I ever could.  But there is one aspect of the movie that I did give a considerable amount of thought, and I wanted to write about it here, however discursively.  Justly celebrated by many critics as an expertly acted movie, The Silence of the Lambs is largely remembered now for the Oscar-winning performance of Anthony Hopkins in the role of Hannibal Lecter.  Although widely praised, the win caught a number of people by surprise, because he nabbed Best Actor for a film in which he was on screen for less than twenty minutes.  (I’d also argue, as further evidence of the female-centered nature of Demme’s film, that not only was Hopkins essentially playing a supporting role, but that there was, in fact, no male lead whatsoever.)  It’s even more curious when you consider some of the rest of the performances in Silence; Demme is especially generous in fleshing out smaller roles and giving what would otherwise be bit parts a great deal of professionalism, character and emotional depth, including the turnkey Barney, the police commander Sgt. Tate, or FBI trainee Ardelia Mapp.  And, of course, Jodie Foster is terrific as Clarice Starling, vulnerable and tenuous but also bright, focused and filled with great inner reserves.  Demme uses a powerful test on his actors, shooting them in strong close-up at critical moments, giving them nothing to hide behind in their performances and forcing them to convey the emotional weight of a scene on their faces alone; in this way, he is able to coax exceptional performances out of superstars and bit players alike.

But when we say that Foster is or is not superior to Hopkins in the film, what do we really mean?  What common ground do we cover when we explore the vital necessity of good acting to a movie?  Thousands of books have been written on the subject, but it’s a bit flustering to discover how little we are able to come to an agreement about what, exactly, we mean by a good on-screen performance.  Part of this is that we all have different expectations, of course; part of it is that actors themselves are prone to muddying the waters with self-aggrandizing definitions of their “craft” (which acting is not, or at least not just; like most creative endeavors, it is part art, part skill, part craft, and part trade, but calling it a craft merely is to both reduce it and to overvalue it).  It is a long time now since we realized that there are vast gulfs of difference between acting for the screen and acting for the stage, and we are finally coming to terms with the idea that there are different standards of acting that should be applied to different kinds of films.  This is part of what acting coaches and teachers mean when they talk about the emotional truth of a scene; just as a singer must always be heard to believe in the truth, however banal, of the words that she sings, an actor must always convey to the audience that she believes what she is feeling and accepts the situation she is in, and the requirements of that conveyance can fluctuate wildly from a horror film to an action epic to an intimate drama.

Consider this, though:  we cannot define good acting by a consistent approach to a role, nor can we establish a method of exacting truth out of a role that applies equally to all aspects of acting.  But even more thorny is the fact that we cannot really even define what good acting is unless we have a rather complex framework in which to do so.  One commonly accepted definition of good acting, and the one from whence we derive the name of ‘art’, is the ability to convincingly portray a specific character to an audience.  This is where a great deal of craft comes in as well, as many actors develop little tricks to help them remain more vivid and memorable in our minds, as did Hopkins, who made a great effort not to blink whenever the camera was on him in The Silence of the Lambs.  This was a neat little tic, as it reinforced the idea of Lecter as a clear-eyed, hyper-intense ghoul, always observing his prey for a sign of weakness; it is part of why those 18 minutes he is in screen are so electrifying.  The problem is, it’s completely constructed.  No one behaves in such a way in the real world.  It required an entirely different approach to the art of acting than did the scenes in which Foster gasps in blind terror as she is stalked through darkness by Jame Gumb, or nearly weeps in frustration as Lecter teases out a little more of her personal life as Catherine Martin’s life slowly ticks away.

This brings us to another definition of acting:  the ability to seem utterly real.  Acting is not real, of course; it is pure façade.  Except, of course, when it isn’t.  There are dozens of amazing films (though many of them are not in the English language) in which actors of limited experience, amateurs, children, even non-actors deliver staggeringly good performances, often because they are playing themselves; other times because they rapidly and cleverly assess the nature of the character and are able to realistically inhabit it; and sometimes simply because they have a face, a body, or a voice that is simply perfectly natural for the kind of character that they are playing.  There is a tradition, particularly in New Wave and neo-realist cinema, of using non-actors; what they are dong cannot be considered acting in any meaningful sense of the word — and yet because what they are doing is all art and no craft, they often give astounding performances, the likes of which could never be duplicated by even the most hardworking Hollywood star.

If Hopkins, on the one end, embodies the extreme of the ‘stunt’ actor, employing a panoply of gimmicks, trucs, and calculated moves that have not even a hint of real truth to them but which somehow come together with such skill and force as to make the portrayal of a character unthinkable by anyone else; and if Foster represents the idealized middle, with the actor as both serious artist, drawing on reserves of inner emotion and personal feeling to create an outward impression, and a dedicated craftsperson, learning verbal and physical techniques to conjure realness out of falsehood, the other extreme might be this children of Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies.  Using a cast of age-appropriate children, most of whom had limited or no acting ability and improvised much of their dialogue and behavior (they had not read the book, and had to have each scene explained to them), Brook made a film that, while highly praised, is often singled out for the shaky acting.  Brook had huge difficulties working with the kids, and on screen, they come off awfully spotty, like a pack of wild animals more interested in jackassing around than…well, you get the idea:  Brooks’ cast are criticized to this day for portraying their characters with impossible fidelity.  They all act exactly like a bunch of school kids their age would act in a similar situation; they literally could not be doing a better job at being actors.  And yet we attack them for being, in essence, insufficiently actorly.

When Joe Queenan wrote about bad accents in movies over a decade ago, he noted that what made a movie accent bad wasn’t whether or not it was unrealistic or affected or incompetent.  Discussing one actresses’ impenetrable dialect, he admitted that he had no idea whether or not it was a ‘bad’ German accent; “How would I know?” he asked.  “I don’t speak German.”  What made it bad is that it ate up the whole movie; it called so much attention to itself that it was impossible to think about anything else.  This is a risk with many great actors; Hopkins skates right up to the edge of it in Silence, and many legendary performances careen right over into the abyss where all we can talk about, for good or ill, is their attention-grabbing role.   We overvalue such performances (many of the commonly checked ‘greatest performances of all time’ are just such over-the-top nonsense) just as much as we undervalue quiet, naturalistic performances that are so believably unspectacular that they practically disappear.  It may be as impossible to define good acting as it is to identify pornography; we know it when we see it, and we are often looking at it accompanied by bad acting in the very same film — even by the very same actor.  If there is one commonality in it all, it is that the good actor convinces us that he is what he is trying to be at all times he is present, even when what he is trying to be is nothing.

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