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Why Criticism: Writing about Acting and Performance in 2016

Bette Davis in 'The Little Foxes' (1941) Photo: Doctormacro.com

Bette Davis in ‘The Little Foxes’ (1941)

Even the best writers seem to fall into cliches when writing about acting. By treating the art of performance as an afterthought, too often acting is written about as “over the top,” “nuanced” or “transformative.” What do these terms really mean? And how do they lend an understanding of what that performance looks and sounds like? Too often actors are treated as slabs of marble that great directors refine, shape and bring to life. The autonomy and craft of the actor is reduced to platitudes and symptoms of an auteur’s vision.

Should film critics be forced to make films or to act before they write about the technical aspects of either filmmaking or performance? Not necessarily, but the closed mindedness of refusing to study what you write about should be a red flag for any informed reader. Acting doesn’t just “happen,” as actors rarely just show up on the set and let things unfold. It’s a process, involved and practiced, that requires more than just an understanding of a particular role, but a theoretical and practical background.

If you’ve never acted, you might not be aware of the emotional considerations either, as laying yourself in front of a camera can be unforgiving. Acting requires a certain wearing down of barriers, revealing vulnerabilities that performers keep locked up, even in their private lives. The cult of adoration that surrounds certain actors becomes built around this shared intimacy, as if in watching every Bette Davis film, one can build a private relationship with her. Actors like Davis can feed one’s addiction to intimacy, revealing and dispelling painful relationships with our own loneliness.

Writing about acting in 2016 is faced with a series of problems, one of them being the supremacy of valuing actors who alter, transform or challenge themselves physically for a film. Actors like Christian Bale or Leonardo DiCaprio are measured by the amount of weight lost, or how much pain they are willing to endure for their role. Like a smokescreen, when it comes to discussing the performance on screen, writers fall back onto the physical transformations and challenges, ignoring what comes up on the screen. This applies in equal measure to those who are quick to dismiss such performances, the focus lies not on what appears onscreen, but the fanfare that surrounds them. Whether or not you appreciate a performance with a particularly gruelling process, the PR turn of focusing on sacrifice (and not the final result) overwhelms the discussion and gives little room for honest appreciation or dissent in the discussion of the given performance. 

Allowing too much of the focus to shift towards the gruelling sacrifices of the actor similarly creates a realm of dishonesty, where we measure performances by the extent of an actor’s physical sacrifice. It also favors male actors and upholds the supremacy of The Method in American filmmaking, leaving little room for either women or actors who work outside the box of acting as a series of superficial transformations.

Commenting on the issue in her piece on Keanu Reeves, Angelica Jade Bastien wrote:

“Critics and audiences alike have a warped view of the history of acting, as if ‘true’ cinematic acting began with the deification of Marlon Brando, followed by the 1970s glory days of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Each of these actors pronouncedly transform themselves from role to role. They take on various accents with panache, layer on idiosyncrasies, whittle their bodies down or bulk themselves up. A character is a costume to put on and never take off until the last camera rolls. It isn’t a coincidence that Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey’s recent renaissances and newfound respect both involved dramatic weight loss. Keanu is one of the few high-profile modern actors to not go for willful physical transformation or uglify himself for gravitas. If you’re not ‘transforming’ as an actor, there is a belief that you’re doing something wrong. This line of thinking harkens back to the idea that we must suffer for our art. But Keanu is more powerful than actors who rely on physical transformation as shorthand for depth, because he taps into something much more primal and elusive: the truth.”

That isn’t to say these actors are not great, more that, these performances are rarely judged by their virtue in relation to the text. It also negates great actors, like Keanu Reeves, who might not work within those confines.

Acting in 2016 encompasses far more than just the actor and the camera. Digital technologies have altered the way we understand performance — through motion capture technology but also digital retouching. Acting also reflects the work of costume, makeup, sound and casting — similarly neglected elements of filmmaking — as well as the work of the director, editor and cinematographer. An actor fundamentally represents the integrity of cinema as a collaborative medium, while also somehow being apart from it. The actor often becomes a mirror to the work behind the camera, and the window in which audiences let themselves into a cinematic universe.

How do you become better at writing about acting? Like anything, practice and reading. If you’re really interested in understanding how an actor’s process works, taking an acting or an improv class will be revealing. Talking to actors will be a big help as well, whether you have acting friends (who have probably been dying for you to ask them about the fundamentals of Greek Tragedy), and if you have the opportunity to interview an actor, take a moment to ask them about the craft: you’d be surprised how rarely interviewers ask about their process in developing a role and a performance.

And read until you can’t read anymore. Learn about the history of acting and the different cultural expectations of performance. Read books that actors use, read books on actors and read writers who excel at writing about performance. Understand that different genres have different expectations, and subtlety or realism are not always appropriate measures of quality.

In the meantime, I’ve put together a small crash course in the best writing on acting of 2016. Some of these are included for descriptors, the art of putting together words to capture a performance, whereas others explore the considerations of acting as a craft, in particular through a changing technological world. There are many other great writers and pieces of writing not included here, so I urge you to add to the comments some other essential pieces. 

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“The Dark Mirror” (1946)

Best Writing about Acting and Performance in 2016

Because, as I’ve stated before, Bette Davis is every woman (and some men) wrapped into one: ugly and beautiful, sweet and biting, honest and deceitful, classy and vulgar. There isn’t a side of Bette that every woman (and perhaps men) doesn’t see in herself. Her face — those buggy eyes flickering with near-homeliness and yet an odd, sometimes exquisite beauty (never forget how uniquely gorgeous Bette was as a young starlet), sadness, insanity, malevolence, rage and finally, strength. And her little body — coiled up and ready to strike (as in Another Man’s Poison) or sloppy and cruelly casual (like in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?: “Here’s your lunch” she announces to Joan before promptly serving her a rat) or lovely and wary (as in All This, and Heaven Too) or brassy and swishy (as in Jezebel) or an elegant liar (as in The Letter) or mousy turned gorgeous (as in Now, Voyager) or just plain gloriously melodramatic, then vulnerable (as in All About Eve) or bitchy, vain and heart-breaking, so desperate (as in The Star).

The film frames Wick as mythic. His face moves from mournful to vengeful at a clip. His eyes lock with a man just as he stabs him in the gut until he dies, while lights the color of cotton candy blue and magenta shift the architecture of his face to something fearsome. Keanu tells Wick’s story through his body—the way he wears a suit and his wedding ring, the cool determination in his eyes, the flash of warmth in a brief scene with Addy (Bridget Regan), the slackness in his face when he sees Daisy dead. This is a man who has nothing to lose, who carries the weight of his history with each step—and “his” history here is both Wick’s and Keanu’s. Stars like Keanu bring a certain baggage with them—the roles we’ve loved, the bitter taste of when they’ve failed us, half-remembered gossip. This context informs “John Wick.”

And the forehead could tell you almost as much as those immortal, hyper-prominent eyes. Look at Charlotte Vale, nagged into a nervous wreck at the beginning of Now, Voyager. Berated by mother Gladys Cooper or mocked by bitchy niece Bonita Granville, Davis’s forehead stays smooth, as though flattened by the effort to ignore the daily abuse. And when she finally lets fly—“Go on, make fun of me! You think it’s fun making fun of me!”—the forehead wrinkles to meet those centipede eyebrows as though she’s trying to make her whole brain smaller and crowd out all the pain. Later, when Charlotte has emerged as a beauty with the courage to confront her dragon mother, we know her courage won’t desert her because the brow remains smooth, determined, unflinching. The chin never drops.

Alan Rickman didn’t just speak: he chewed words, he rolled them around in his mouth before letting them go, he relished them. He drew out syllables, he held onto consonants (who can hold onto a “t”? Or an “n”? Alan Rickman could and did). His impeccable vocal style, so unique to him, was a mark of his theatre training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as well as his years performing in theatre, his first love. Perhaps the sinewy sensuousness of his voice, made so startling when mixed with the clipped or elongated consonants, was why he was seen as so perfect for villains and sneering manipulators. But some of his best work was when playing men who ache with warmth, men with depths of tenderness. In those contexts, Rickman became a classical Leading Man, and the distinctive voice sounded instead like molten lava, exploding through the hard crust of his exterior. Rickman could be heartbreaking. He could fit in in a fantasy context, a real context, a 19th century context, a 20th/21st century context. His access to himself, to all aspects of himself, the cruel, the tender, his humor, his sexuality (or its repression), is why his career lasted 40 years, and why he was never out of work from the day he began.

“I had an actress who looked afraid as she was screaming,” Braga says, “so I had them reconstruct her eyebrows and turn that scream of fear into a scream of rage.” In a YouTube demonstration of the Oscar-winning software Mocha, you can watch as instructor Mary Poplin sizes up footage of an actress blinking and looking off-camera, then seamlessly replaces her eyes with ones that don’t blink and stare directly into the lens. Then she enlarges the eyes to make them more sympathetic and reconfigures the mouth “to change her smile so it looks a little more genuine.” That’s right: CG can make your actress’s Frankensteinian stitched smile more genuine.

Sethi filmed all his scenes against green screens; small pieces of the set would be created if he had to interact with something (like a log, a rocky outcropping, or a slick, muddy field). This approach was pioneered by filmmakers like George Lucas, but to mostly deleterious effect. His Star Wars prequels, which featured real actors interacting with virtual sets and CGI creatures, had a clunky, airless feel to them. The challenges of conjuring realistic performances in such an artificial environment aren’t small, especially when coupled with numerous technical demands. Details audiences wouldn’t think to look for—like realistic lighting and having CGI characters cast accurate shadows—are hugely important for making a primarily virtual movie work.

Critics can like or dislike these movies and her work in them, but to survey them in toto and perceive uniformity feels like a willful refusal to see her at all, an insistence that the difference between her various performances matters less than the sameness of her strange determination to continue to be Melissa McCarthy while starring in movies. Is it because she looks so different than other movie stars that some people have convinced themselves she’s always the same?

While the clamor over the film ebbed — mostly because it’s taken so long to be released — it erupted again after the trailer was released in March. On Jezebel, Kara Brown wrote, “One of the most harmful products of anti-black racism is the notion that our proximity to whiteness increases our beauty and desirability, not just to white people, but also to each other. By simply existing, Nina Simone confronted this lie.” In The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “There is something deeply shameful — and hurtful — in the fact that even today a young Nina Simone would have a hard time being cast in her own biopic. In this sense, the creation of Nina is not a neutral act. It is part of the problem.”

Like stunt doubles or digital retouching, voice matching — also known as “voice double” or “soundalike” — is a tool the movie business uses to conjure the fantasy we imagine in our heads. It’s a process in which voiceover artists are hired in postproduction to come in and double for the voice of a star. And if the voice match is done right, you’ll never know that a line of dialogue actually came from someone other than the actor you see on-screen.

When directing his second film, “In This Our Life” (1942), John Huston saw something “elemental” in Bette. It was as if “she had a demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody. The studio confused it with overacting. Over their objections, I let the demon go.” Bette made an art out of finding the humanity in complex, unlikable, even outright evil women. In William Wyler’s “The Letter” (1941), she stars as Leslie Crosbie, the wife of a British plantation manager who kills her lover in cold blood at the start of the film and creates a disturbing fiction to cover up what is essentially murder. Leslie is a tricky role to pull off. She’s undoubtedly a femme fatale with cold-hearted ambition and little sense of morality. In lesser hands, she could easily be a shrill, anti-feminist creation. But one of Bette’s greatest strengths is in seeing the woman behind the monster. She’s most known for an anger dripping with braggadocio—loud, vulgar, crackling like fresh fire. This is seen in her set of identifiable acting flourishes—hand-wringing, using her cigarette to punctuate sentences or communicate mood, sharp strides across the screen as if marching into battle—that are easy to get hung up on and even confuse for overacting. In this way, Bette can be construed as a camp punchline, the flattened image of a monstress much like what our culture has done to Medusa. But in doing so you lose the ability to see the way she can subvert our expectations communicating the texture of anger through arguably the best tool in a cinematic actors arsenal: stillness.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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