Critics in Conversation by Manuela Lazic and Adam Nayman

Critics in Conversation: The Critic and the Actor

Note: This conversation is a continuation of “First Cinematic Loves, Current Inspirations and Finding Your Voice.”

Manuela: Speaking of humans and of self-awareness, I think the latter is especially useful when writing about how the former is utilised in films: writing about actors is especially perilous. The craft of acting is all about truthful behaviour, which means that the best performances are invisible — they look like people just existing! How can you write interestingly about something that, at its best, is seamless and true-to-life? That simplicity is a form of magic because it constitutes the immersion of reality in an imaginary world, and — in my experience — the actor’s work is what determines whether or not I will have any interest in a given film. Perhaps that’s because I have a particular interest in acting myself, but I truly believe that good acting is underrated — even as star actors are constantly celebrated with awards and magazine covers. Film critics even have contempt for performers at times, probably because they are used as storefronts to sell films and because, in our social-media crazed times, they often have no reason for being in films besides their internet following. I wish film writers worked harder at trying to discuss the merits of performances, however, as well as how a specific role fits into an actor’s filmography. The mutual relationship between a part and a body of work always fascinates me because each enriches a spectator’s experience of the other, and from a wider perspective, an actor’s image — as shaped by his resume and press coverage — always says something about the industry, the country and the time in which he or she works. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Bilge Ebiri is brilliant at analysing this system, and you and I have had great conversations about actors, too. We both love John Hurt, for instance, and I just wrote a piece about one of his films, The Naked Civil Servant, which our discussions definitely informed. I know you care a great deal about acting, but how do you go about analysing it in your writing? How do you go beyond simple, boring descriptions to reach a level of true analysis? And do you find it useful to be a completist when it comes to actors — or as some people have described it, are you a believer of acteur-auteurism?

Adam: The idea of “actor completism” is pretty rare, at least among my friends and colleagues, and I think that one of the reasons that critics, myself included, gravitate towards the myth of the director — and maybe especially the writer-director — is because what they do, in theory, is easier to reconcile in literary-analytical terms. Talking about Auteur X and how he or she “uses the frame,” or generates meaning through blocking, staging, colour or sound (leaving aside that those things are all the result of collaborations with all kinds of other people) has a detached, removed quality, whereas talking about acting is more intimate and revealing. The director has control, in theory, and so the critic, who also is trying to exert control — over the meaning of a text, or its reception, or its appreciation — identifies with that same hovering, supreme position. Actors have control too, but within the system of appreciation, that puts the director at the top. They’re part of what’s being controlled, whether it’s Alfred Hitchcock talking about actors being “cattle,” Werner Herzog hypnotizing the cast of Heart of Glass, or Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher or whomever doing hundreds of takes. There are ways for a certain kind of filmmaker to show that he or she is in charge (though with this mentality, it’s usually a “he”). The directors famed for “loving” or “indulging” actors are usually docked a few notches on the auteur totem pole as a result, or else only discussed insofar as how their films are acted (Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, etc). The logic is that because actors are being used — or indulged, or encouraged, all under the aegis of having been cast — that their autonomy is minimal. So actor-completism seems more trivial and incidental from this point of view — like, it’s nice to watch every movie an actor appears in, but what does it signify beyond personal interest or affection for that actor? It’s harder to make a “case” that an actor is the unifying creative or intellectual or emotional force behind an otherwise disparate body of films, which doesn’t mean that the case can’t be made or that it isn’t valid.

As for analyzing acting, I think most of us are either bad at it or have been trained, via the more conceptual frameworks privileged in film studies courses or practiced in most film criticism, to downplay it; beyond engaging in sensuous physical description of bodies and gestures, making extra-textual “connections” between what we know about actors’ private lives and aspects of the characters they’re playing or applying adjectives as needed. We don’t always have a language to accurately describe what an actor is doing — or the knowledge to say with any certainty how much of a “strong,” “consistent,” “plausible” performance is really just a triumph of editing. When I write about acting — and actors I love, like John Hurt, our mutual favourite — I’m sure that I’m confusing technique with accident all the time, but I’d also like to think that I’m generally responding to what they’re putting out there.

A fun game we could play is this: which actor have we each never really written about in detail but would like to try? Mine is Montgomery Clift, who inspires tender, protective feelings in me that may or may not transcend what I know about him biographically. Your turn!

Manuela: Your explanation of why critics don’t respect and study actors as much as they do directors makes perfect sense, but I also find it deeply frustrating! Certainly, it is difficult to write about acting because it is so elusive, and that elusiveness together with classic auteurism explains why we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about acting — yet! I think as we’re moving slowly away, or redefining, the idea of the director as master creator of a film, we should start looking at actors more closely as part of the creative team, and develop the appropriate vocabulary to do so, through trial and error. And that change would include rethinking the idea that a performance may seem good by a happy accident in the editing room. I don’t believe that a truly great performance, one that you notice and that truly moves you, can be simply a construction of the editor made out of pieces of an average performance. Moreover, I think, conversely, that great acting comes through even the dodgiest and harshest editing, and through even the most uninteresting scenes, because a great actor doesn’t show his greatness with “big” scenes — he or she demonstrates talent at every second, because great acting is all about behaving naturally and truthfully, always.

Perhaps I should make one point clearer: the performance of any kind of activity, however absurd, abject or nonsensical, can be truthful; this is how you get good performances in horror films or heightened dramas, for example. To go back to John Hurt, his turn in the rather average Rob Roy as the hateful and arrogant Montrose is excellent because he makes this man’s horrendous words and actions seem honest. His co-star Liam Neeson, on the other hand, makes moral righteousness look not logical, but completely silly, which kills the film.

There are so many actors that I want to write about, but the first one that comes to mind is Marcello Mastroianni. I have been fascinated by him ever since I first saw 8 ½, but even more so once I watched the far superior Fellini/Mastroianni collaboration, La Dolce Vita. First of all, and I want to address this first because it can be a tricky aspect of writing about actors, I find Mastroianni very attractive — and I think that’s definitely worth talking about, especially so in his case. Putting a face on screen means you are showing it off to an audience, and most often than not, you want spectators to want to look at that face. Beauty can therefore work as a hook, a bait to catch people’s attention. The problem with a lot of movies –and perhaps more so now than ever, because of social media and our image-based society — is that they suppose that a beautiful face is enough to carry an entire film. But to me, Mastroianni wasn’t simply a beautiful face, and — in his best films — his charm was used more intelligently than that. It was commented on, criticised and analysed to paint the picture of his character’s environment, and by extrapolation, of his time and the culture at large. Fellini’s camera at once celebrated his face and looked for the darkness within it; the shrug and sad eyes that Mastroianni’s character shows to the little girl on the beach near the end of La Dolce Vita reveal the insignificance that beauty and a sweet life ultimately have for a man who doesn’t know what he’s living for. That gesture also shows that Mastroianni had the acting capabilities to himself take the audience underneath the surface of his good looks, and to reveal an immense tenderness and sadness that felt just as genuine and indisputably real as his beauty.

In Ettore Scola’s 1977 film Una Giornata Particolare, his co-star Sophia Loren, confused by his kind gestures and his beauty, half-accidentally and half-selfishly — and desperately — chooses to read them in such a way that she becomes attracted to him. Mastroianni’s performance as a gay man trying to reach out for help without revealing his identity is indeed full of ambiguity, and works well as a commentary on Mastroianni’s image of the latin lover as well. Throughout his career, he’s tried to both use and distance himself from this image of a seductive Italian man. I think the example of Mastroianni also makes clear that studying an actor’s filmography is valuable: it can reveal a lot about how society views people, and how films at once collaborate to society’s prejudices and confront, or even modify, them. Mastroianni’s earlier image of the latin lover was essential to Italian cinema and to his early career, and his approach to it through numerous films worked to complexify it. His biography, too, informs his work in interesting ways: his relationship with Catherine Deneuve led to various career choices that again changed his persona.

I find myself thinking of another actor that I would love to study, for almost opposite reasons: Jennifer Lawrence. Her feminine everyday-ness makes her an unlikely star and one that says a lot about our culture. I didn’t expect to write this sort-of Mastroianni profile, but I hope it proves that talking about acting has value and can be done!

Adam: As for Lawrence, I think that “feminine everyday-ness” is what made her an interesting casting choice for Darren Aronofsky in mother!. For that film, he needed somebody with the gravitational pull — the star quality, we’d say — to hold the camera, (and, on the industrial side, attract an audience to a film that would otherwise seem too weird or out there.) She needs to be “beautiful” enough to be believable as a capital-M Muse but also plausible as an embodiment of domesticity — a strategically retrograde archetype that the film exploits. This all might be worth talking about as an entry point into a Unified Theory of J-Law if mother! wasn’t almost totally terrible.

So: more interesting to think about is what you’ve said about Mastroianni, especially the idea that such an iconic star, who worked so often in a national context and was revered and adored by that constituency, could be used to help map a history outside the frame as well as within it. I know that one of your instructors in university was Richard Dyer, whose book Star is one of the most invaluable texts on actors — maybe not in terms of analyzing technique but certainly in arguing for the importance of a rigorous system to study actors. Given your interests, I wonder if you’d say there’s a difference between “stars” and “actors,” or if you think that talking about Dyer, whose emphasis is always on ideology — as created/embodied/projected by super-famous performers — takes us away from reckoning with what you think most criticism elides, which is a careful consideration of what actors are actually doing (something I know you strive for in your writing).

But, I think it’s telling that the biggest difference between the bulk of moviegoers around the world — let’s call it the “mass audience,” even if it’s always broken up into infinitely diverse configurations of paying and non-paying customers in different countries and cultures — and the exponentially smaller community of movie critics is that the former is drawn in by stars/actors and the latter has, in the last 50 years, rallied around directors. These are big, simplistic dichotomies, but — like a lot of cliches — they’re rooted in truth. When I talk to my friends who aren’t movie critics about movies, we usually discuss actors; when I’m on Twitter, or having drinks at TIFF, or texting with colleagues, it’s usually more in the spirit of auteurism. Maybe you want to talk about Dyer more, or change the subject, but wherever we go from here, are you with me that mother! sucks?

Manuela: I do agree that mother! is atrocious, but I don’t think that should prevent us from using it as a key text to discuss a Unified Theory of J-Law! When I introduced her as an example, I actually had in mind her role in The Hunger Games franchise, yet it is telling that her turn in mother! also fits somewhat into this particular angle I took to consider her “meaning.” The Hunger Games films made her a star because her character of Katniss Everdeen undoubtedly had an everyday-ness about her (she belonged to the lowest class of this imaginary, post-apocalyptic society), but was also an extraordinarily brave and athletic young woman. With this part, Lawrence became a role model for countless little or older girls who saw in her their equal, in that she was young and not physically “perfect” like other actresses, but wasn’t constantly miserable because of her lack of exceptionality. Instead, like Katniss, Lawrence was paving her own way and turning her commonness into a unique attribute. In the films, Katniss, just like Lawrence, gets the support of the crowd because of how unlikely her endurance and her victory in the games seemed to have been. This combination of ordinariness and capability explains why a 22-year-old Lawrence could play a widow in Silver Linings Playbook, for instance.

Aronofsky’s casting of Lawrence in mother! as a homemaker married to a much older man therefore fits into her current persona — but only to some extent. I think one of the reasons (there are so many) why this film is a failure is because the script doesn’t believe in mother’s strength. Unlike Katniss or Joy in the David O. Russell film of the same name, this woman barely ever finds the courage to express her fear to her husband when he starts welcoming strangers into their home and stand up for what she believes. The mounting frustration I felt throughout the film peaked to profound disgust when she suffered violent blows from a crowd of mad worshipers of her poet husband. To me, Aronofsky was doubling-down on his sadism: he was ruthless towards not only the character, but also Lawrence (whom, interestingly and maybe disturbingly, he was dating at the time). As physically challenged as her character was when taking part in The Hunger Games, Lawrence always played her as determined and able to fight back. Aronofsky instead pins her to the ground, drags her around her house and ultimately kills her. One could argue that this character arc serves the story (a really boring and unoriginal one), but when placed in the Jennifer Lawrence filmography, it seems to constitute a total and cruel undoing of what made J-Law a star. They say the greatest artists never stop reinventing themselves, but this role feels more like self-sabotage. I hope the studios and the young women who found inspiration in Lawrence because of Katniss and her strange but strong David O. Russell characters will keep the faith.

This example allows me to discuss your other points. I think both the ideological significance and the acting capabilities of J-Law are to be discussed together. I agree that critics usually follow the Richard Dyer model of talking about actors as stars and thus as cultural signifiers, but I think the real stars, the ones we will keep talking about as cultural and ideological objects, are those who can really act. Lawrence couldn’t have become such a phenomenon had she not blown critics’ (and casting directors’) minds away with her performance in Winter’s Bone and then the Hunger Games films. Her career would have crashed and burned had she proven a terribly illogical choice to play a widow at 22.

I think Lawrence’s key talent as an actress is her ability to portray vulnerability and courage as two sides of the same coin, and in a way that makes them look at once crazy and inspiring. In Joy, her character is a single mom struggling to make ends meet and she fails to sell her idea of a self-wringing mop several times, and Lawrence isn’t afraid to go to those deeply uncomfortable places. But Joy has a strength that could seem irritatingly illogical and self-destructive, weren’t it for Lawrence’s talent. In The Hunger Games, Lawrence doesn’t emphasise Katniss’ fear over her courage to try and make her seem stronger than she is: she understands that accepting one’s vulnerability is inspiring in itself. Her character in Silver Linings Playbook suffers from mental illness and her moments of pain and self-hatred are as violent as those when she feels angry, courageous and happy: Lawrence takes her seemingly irrational character seriously, accepting that what she does corresponds to her own logic. I think all these points I’ve made about Lawrence’s ability as an actress to navigate dehumanising weakness and its corresponding mad confidence help to explain her ideological significance as a model of precocious independent womanhood for girls.

Adam: I suppose it was inevitable that David O. Russell would come up when we’re talking about acting because while he fits the mold of the domineering, alpha-male director — the control freak. With him, it’s not about exerting mastery over the frame but giving these wildly talented actors space to do their thing and assembling the movie out of their exertions. In a way, he’s the temperamental opposite of a David Fincher; Jake Gyllenhaal complained that it’s no fun to be a “color” after Zodiac, whereas with Russell, I’m reminded of a line from Se7en: “look at all that passion all over the wall.” I wonder if the critical skepticism towards Russell (who is J-Law’s major collaborator to this point and probably the guy who’s gotten the most out of her) is because of this idea of him being an “actor’s director,” which is also in turn complicated by the fact that he seems to be an asshole. I wrote a VICE Guide to Film episode about him, and I will admit that it felt harder than some of the other assignments because I couldn’t fall back on the idea of aesthetic “perfection,” which was an interesting challenge, to say nothing of the fact that I sort of hate the movies as well. But Joy was interesting, and I think it’s Lawrence’s best work for Russell; that strength you describe holds the movie up and together at the same time. If it had been Joy married to the poet in mother!, she would have mopped the floor with him.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.

Adam Nayman (@brofromanother) is a film critic and lecturer in Toronto. He is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and writes regularly for Reverse Shot, Quill & Quire and The Ringer. He is one of the writers for the Viceland television series ‘The Vice Guide to Film’ and has taught classes on film at the University of Toronto and Ryerson. He is the author of two books: ‘Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck’ and ‘Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage.’