Overactose intolerance: cont’d

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(Continued from Part 1)

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What am I thinking of particularly on this topic, actors being unfairly accused of overacting? Two films from a couple years ago. One is The Mist [Frank Darabont, 2007], with Marcia Gay Harden as a religious zealot of no particular church. She doesn’t become a major character until about a third of the way in, making one feel that she’s horning in on the other actors’ movie. In fact, her character is horning in on the other characters’ nascent plans. She destabilizes the fragile order of the grocery store besieged by veiled monsters. Unlike The Mist‘s other intensely irritating antagonist – Andre Braugher’s irritable skeptic/rationalist type – she needs people to believe in her in order to accomplish anything. So she needs to be constantly talking. Everything she says is hateful or awkward, and she’s been waiting all her life for someone to listen instead of brushing her off. She’s been waiting all her life to have a captive audience.

This is a character you can’t play without making everyone aware that you’re trying to direct their attention toward you and you alone. Anyone in this role would be accused of overacting. Many productions have a role like that – you have some characters that are just getting through their day, and then you have one or two characters for whom this is is the biggest day they’ll ever face and they are very emotional. Maybe Burl Ives is overacting as Big Daddy. Maybe Guy Pearce is overacting as Leonard Shelby. Maybe it would be impossible not to overact in these roles, and the actor shouldn’t resent being accused of taking the easy way and having too much fun.

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Another note on The Mist: The actress who plays Thomas Jane’s wife Jessie is fantastic. Her name’s Kelly Collins Lintz and you can check out her performance here, albeit dubbed into Turkish. I was distressed to see that almost all her significant roles are in things to which I respond with part-instinctive, part-culturally-determined revulsion. (Exception: Surface. All fifteen episodes of which are available for free in IMDB’s Hulu links! Expiring tomorrow. What?) Lintz is only in a couple scenes at the start of the movie, and to her predictable motherly dialogue she adds flourishes that can be best described as “quizzical”. Eye rolls, laughs, gestures. I was looking forward to seeing what she’d do in the rest of the movie, but lasted 20 minutes before needing to go to bed. Resuming The Mist two nights later, I was disappointed by her generic performance as the protector of Billy in the supermarket. At the very end I was abruptly reminded that Jessie hadn’t accompanied her husband to the store, and the maternal role was being filled by a similarly blonde local schoolteacher, to which role Laurie Holden didn’t bring anything you won’t find in a thousand other horror films.

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Like Tommy Lee Jones, Willem Dafoe is slapped down for “overacting” whenever he does a frivolous role [Boondock Saints, Spider-Man 2, xXx: State of the Union]. My first instinct was to accuse him of that offense in Daybreakers [2009], the mostly-satisfying vampire-world film that was saddled with the miserably awkward release date of January 8, 2010, surrounded by competitors big and small in the undead genre. Ethan Hawke (L) here is a vampire and Willem Dafoe (R) is a non-vampire who calls himself Elvis. Daybreakers proceeds nicely until Elvis shows up.

Conceived by the unpretentious Queensland-based team of Michael and Peter Spierig, now reported to be helming a Dark Crystal reboot, Daybreakers is about a world where vampires have taken over and non-vampires are farmed for blood. The lopsided qualities of the storytelling recall a comic book, in that

  • The world-building is amazing — all your questions about day-to-day logistics are answered. And yet
  • The plot has gigantic and obvious holes — did nobody anticipate running out of blood until a week before it happened? Have there been no scientific investigations by the ex-humans, now-vampires, into how this world can be coped with, aside from speculative and derided attempts to synthesize a blood substitute?

The design of the vampire-modded cars is delightful. The minor characters are intriguing. The storyline of well-meaning innovations and cynical machinations at a cosmopolitan drug corporation is not completely predictable. I was engaged, until this hard-bitten snake-eating vigilante named Elvis revealed himself as the savior of humanity/vampirity. He’s responsible for every positive plot development. He’s very helpful by nature and very cagey. Why is he so annoying? What’s wrong with this character?

  • A) He calls himself “Elvis”. [rolls eyes] This encapsulates the deceptively unrewarding a role this is for Defoe. The character is supposed to be charismatic, and he’s capable, but he is just not written consistently enough for us to see why he’d be charismatic. The character makes himself the center of attention, and he’s grating. This means whenever he wants me to think he’s done something great, I look for reasons to attribute it to his luck rather than his talent. I just want him to go away, and for the actor to help him go away by being more subdued.
  • B) He’s a TV character. I almost think this was envisioned as a big-budget TV series, part Jericho and part Justified, with Elvis and his gritty band of survivors, going town to town, lending a hand to people in crisis in the post-apocalyptic vampire world. And he made me realize that all the other characters are TV characters. His detective-esque non-vampire sidekick, both authoritative and vulnerable. Sam Neill’s amoral corporate boss. The corporate boss’s daughter, who fills two roles in the plot through the sort of awkward coincidence that’s often made necessary by a network TV show’s cramped cast structure. Ethan Hawke’s brother who follows the heart/fist rather than the head. Generic.
  • C) He’s not Australian. Every actor in the film is Australian or Kiwi except him and Ethan Hawke. It was made in Australia by Australian writer/directors. The credits contain multiple logos acknowledging Australian government support. To put it another way, it’s an Australian movie, and the fact that every actor is doing a fake and featureless American accent makes it even more like something made for TV. Ethan Hawke could easily be a star American scientist recruited to an Australian company, that part is fine. But the Elvis role should belong to a man vaguely indigenous to the film’s stark desert landscapes through which the vampire characters skulk fearfully.

I felt bad for actors like Claudia Karvan and Michael Dorman, unnecessarily devoting brainpower to maintaining their American accents, brainpower that could have been used to nuance their performances beyond “nervous woman” and “Jeremy Renner character”. I could imagine having twinges of resentment toward the two Hollywood stars, barging into our continent and forcing us all to pronounce our words their way, just because of the unipolar nature of the entertainment industry. If the Spierigs could have foreseen the success District 9 had without needing to fake a North American setting, they could have dared to make this the mass-market Australian vampire movie, like their own Undead [2003] had been the independent Australian zombie movie.

Although really, do we need any more proof that worldwide audiences can embrase a dystopian vision populated wholly by Australians?

Overactose intolerance

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One thing people find it easy to criticize is “overacting”. People also find it easy to simply note an example of “overacting” and smile in the way we do with “guilty pleasures”. “Jon Polito is wonderfully hammy as Johnny Caspar”, that sort of thing. “Few people can chew scenery with the endearing voracity of John Malkovich.” Would you want him to read that?

Maybe so, maybe you want him to know he’s making the production more enjoyable with his antics. But is it intended as a compliment? An appreciation? When it is, it may also be a flippant dismissal, a suggestion that the actor took the easy route. Either he or the director didn’t bother to figure out how to construct a subtle performance. Is this fair?

Take Tommy Lee Jones for example. He’s known for being pretty similar in most of his roles, playing fairly understated roles in fairly understated productions (In the Valley of Elah, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) or in unpredictable films where he embodies stability (Men in Black, No Country For Old Men). Sometimes he’s a menacing man of power (The Client, The Fugitive, Under Siege). In most of the roles you associate with him, you don’t remember him doing anything to attract attention. He himself has described his Captain America role as the same sort of thing he always does. And yet, when he does something different from what we expect, there are people who won’t give him the benefit of the doubt. “Overacting” just means “giving a big performance”, with a negative connotation attached.

Here someone accuses him of overacting in Natural Born Killers. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Batman Forever. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Eyes of Laura Mars. Dammit, those are movies that demand big performances. He’s the villain in all those movies and they are all full of shrieking noises and crazy imagery. What’s he supposed to do?

Especially Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978), whose plot makes no sense. To keep people from walking out in bemusement once the sexy fashion-shoot segments are over, he needs to be as menacing as possible. To be menacing while playing a crazy person, he needs to exaggerate his personality a bit.

Look at some examples of overacting from this typically excellent discussion in Jim Emerson’s comments. Includes plenty of people who question the premise, and plenty who don’t.

  • Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast – no, that’s the character.
  • Sheila Reid in Brazil – cited  as both “overacting” and a performance that makes the movie less comedic and more haunting. Is that possible?
  • Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd – no, that’s the character. Lonesome Rhodes is barely this side of Howard Beale as a character who’s written to be charismatic, but can’t honestly be played as less than maniacal.
  • Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – no, that’s the character. Del Toro is capable of more subtle performances. It’s happened.
  • “Jack Nicholson in just about everything” – yes, you could say he gravitates to roles that require what some might consider overacting. Which after a long career, you could say, suggests that he prefers to act in unrealistic ways. If that’s how you see it.
  • “This might be an unpopular assertion, but Joe Pesci overacts his head off in Goodfellas. It’s perfect for the role and the film, but so out there that it’s about as easily mocked and imitated as anything in cinema.” So, it’s perfect for the role. It’s the sort of acting that suits the role exactly. It isn’t overly acted, it’s properly acted. The 1812 Overture is easily mocked too, you know.
  • Tom Hulce in Amadeus – fair enough.

Sheila Reid as the inaccurately widowed Mrs. Buttle in BRAZIL (Terry Gilliam, 1984)

Coming soon: Examples of actors who are not overacting.