Good, better, best.

Writing about Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love and reading others’ reactions to the movie got me to thinking. Ms. Roberts is something of an oddly polarizing figure: most people either love her or hate her. But why? She is has been, for the most part, involved in pretty good projects. She was once the queen of the rom-com, but she has broken out and done some more interesting, edgy stuff as well – Closer springs to mind. That’s definitely not romantic, or particularly comedic, even.

And then there’s Erin Brockovich, the “biopic” about the feisty trailer-park single mom who takes on the system and wins. As we all know, Julia Roberts won an Oscar for that performance. And therein, I think, lies the problem. You see, Julia Roberts is not a great actress. She is merely a good one. And we’d like to think (even while we sneer at the Academy and their choices) that Oscar is supposed to decorate the truly great actor, not just the good ones, the so-so ones, or the downright bad ones. And so, lots of people dislike Julia Roberts for winning the award. Did she deserve it? It was a good performance … I’ve seen better that didn’t win an Oscar, but that’s hardly news. What interests me about this scenario is that she is definitely not alone, and that I question whether or not we direct more dislike towards her, as a woman, than we might towards a similarly likeable and “good” actor who happened to be male.

So that got me to thinking about the various strata of A-list actors that might be discerned. I’m going to try to break down what I came up with, but I have a few points to make before I dive in to what is a pretty sticky subject. Number 1: This is my opinion. This is how I feel about these actors. Just so you know, you may think someone is the most convincing performer in the world, and someone else will think they are as wooden as the redwoods. Shocking, I know.
Number 2: I’m trying to keep this brief so you’ll read it. Hence, examples will be kept to a minimum.
Shall we?

First off, the good actor. As already stated, Julia Roberts fits into this category. She is charismatic, engaging, able to convey a reasonable range of emotions. But the thing that, for me, characterizes the “good” actor is that they are always themselves. Julia’s always got that grin. She always looks like Julia. Likewise, I can think of two other actors, male, off the top of my head who are in the same category, and interestingly, are considered truly likeable. Does anyone hate Tom Hanks? Yes, yes, I know, Philadelphia was an amazing performance. I agree. And, he lost a lot of weight to play it! Same with Castaway! However, I would suggest that he is still, 99% of the time, just Tom Hanks. We know his mannerisms, his voice, his patterns of speech. They’re always the same. Likewise George Clooney. Dude is always George Clooney, whether he’s slinging a gun, a briefcase, or lovely ladies from both arms. And you know, that’s fine. We are entertained. We like watching these people. No big deal.

Second, we have the better actor. This actor is much like the “good” actor in that he is, quite often, himself. Highly recognizable. However sometimes, when that one role comes along, the better actor can disappear.

You’re going to think me terribly biased here, but I think a great example is Robert Downey, Jr. Particularly since his comeback, he’s been playing himself, to a degree. Handsome, devilishly, mischievously charming, maybe a little bit crazy. But again, tremendously charismatic and interesting to watch. But sometimes, Mr. Downey can pull a true vanishing act, and I’m not just talking about going blackface in Tropic Thunder (although I think that performance is tremendous). I would respectfully suggest that you sit still for all of Chaplin, for which RDJ did not win an Oscar, but should have. That performance is pure Charlie Chaplin with not a bit of Downey in sight. Amazing. And for the female “better” star? I’m going to start a riot here, but I submit to you Meryl Streep. Yep. She’s an excellent actress, don’t get me wrong. Very convincing. But still, largely, always Meryl Streep. You never look at her and think “Who is that, again?” She did, however, successfully capture Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and so she’s got the capability. It’d be interesting to see her use it more, and if she does so in any of her earlier work, please let me know. And discussing La Streep brings up, again, Julia Roberts’ appeal, or lack thereof. It’s interesting to me that Streep is largely hailed as the greatest actress of her generation, when she’s still so much of herself most of the time. What I’m getting at, I think, is that maybe actresses are held to a different standard than actors. But moving on.

The great actor. For me, the “great” actor is someone who disappears consistently. From character to character, even if they wear the same face, you really believe you’re looking at totally different people. You forget that you’re watching your favorite actor. Sometimes, you can’t even truly identify this individual from one film to the next. I’m sure you see where I’m going with this … yeah, I think Russell Crowe is a great actor. BUT, I think that discussing Crowe brings up another interesting point, which I will come back to later. Seriously, look at Crowe’s early work. From The Insider to Gladiator to A Beautiful Mind, that guy is three completely different people. It’s not just about gaining or losing weight or muscle, or changing the hairstyle. There’s a different man looking out of his eyes. I would also submit Christian Bale (to a lesser degree) and the amazing Daniel Day-Lewis as prime examples of the great actor. And for female star? There’s plenty, and most of them unsung, so I’ll go with Cate Blanchett. She’s very striking, yes, but she still finds a way to bring very different qualities and actions to all of her roles. I haven’t seen her play Bob Dylan (and probably won’t) but that’s probably an excellent example of what I’m talking about. These are the actors who take the risks, who go out on a limb, who don’t concern themselves so much with box-office returns or awards season. I think they take on these roles just to see if they can, sometimes, and that’s what makes them great.

I’ll mention one more interesting sub-category, just in passing. I feel the need to give a nod to Halle Berry and Nicolas Cage, as actors who are largely mediocre, but who made that one shining choice. If you haven’t seen Monster’s Ball or Leaving Las Vegas, I’d recommend them both, if only to understand that, while they may not be great or even good, they deserved awards for those performances.

OK. So there’s my good, better, best of actors. I’m sure you’ll disagree, but that’s just how I see it. Moving on, I want to bring up a point that got mixed into my thoughts on this a week or so ago. RTM over at FlixChatter wrote this post about actors who always seem to be typecast vs. those who seem to vanish into roles.

It got me to thinking about the character actor. For the character actor, vanishing into roles is a way of life. They’re always on the fringes, sometimes in larger capacities, but usually they’re there to support the leads, and so for them, you’re not supposed to recognize them. And that makes me wonder – is what I call a “great” actor truly what Hollywood wants in terms of leading ladies and men? For my example, I give you Gary Oldman. Oldman sort of started out in leading roles, what with Dracula and Immortal Beloved and The Professional, but over the years he’s slipped into a pattern of impressive, memorable, smaller roles. He fits better in the supporting role, no doubt about it. But why is that?

Oldman would fit into my “great” category – I’ve even had conversations with people about how, yes, Dracula, Beethoven, and the bad guy from The Professional were the same guy. We know he’s got the chops. What I think, though, is that Hollywood is hoping to bank on the stars’ recognizability (yes, I made that up), their brand … and so what they want are more actors who fit into the “good” or “better” mold. If you disappear too often, people aren’t going to come see your movie, because they’re not sure who you are, and whether or not they liked you last time around. I sometimes wonder if that hasn’t become the problem for Russell Crowe. He is much more recognizable now than he was when he made those three award-winners, and I wonder if it doesn’t hurt him a little bit. Just a thought.

That’s what’s sad about this possibility, really. As time goes on, I think it becomes harder for the great actors to do what they really want to do, because they have to do less of the really neat vanishing tricks in order to pay the bills. But it’s just a theory. I really do believe that there are gradations of acting abilities, though, and that we shouldn’t necessarily blame actors for sticking with their niche roles or genres. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? Still, I personally enjoy most the actors who seem to be different from movie to movie … those are the performances that make me sit up and take note. So, who’s your good, better, best? It’s different for everyone, after all.

3 responses to “Good, better, best.

  1. Hey thanks for the link love, Sam. WOW, I knew you’d put it far more eloquently than I ever would on the subject. Seems like everyone is in agreement with Gary Oldman and Christian Bale. As for your point about bankability (is that even a real word?), we could almost make its own post of bankability vs. versatility and I think it’s a catch 22. The more well-known you are, naturally you’d be more recognized, which will lessen your ‘vanishing’ power on screen. It’s a delicate balance that few actors possess, but I think Daniel Day-Lewis might be a good example of this as I’m sure he puts butts on theaters’ seats (to a degree) but when we watch him, we don’t keep thinking of ‘Oh it’s Daniel playing so and so.’ Some might argue Johnny Depp does that (I know you’ll disagree on that), I don’t think he’s the greatest actor out there, no, but he does often choose roles where he’s hardly recognizable.

    So yeah, I think I agree with your Good, Better, Best choices. Kudos for putting Hanks in the ‘good’ category as I don’t think he’s as great as people made him out to be. Even when he’s playing someone with a different accent (The Terminal), it’s still obvious from his facial ticks, etc. that it’s him.

    Btw, my good friend who loves Rufus Sewell told me that she never recognized him before he fell head over heels in love with him in Tristan & Isolde. She had seen him many times before but never clicked. Well now she admits that he doesn’t ‘disappear’ as he was before in his roles, to her anyways, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I feel the same way about Gerry Butler, but I don’t mind it either. So again, this kind of thing is subjective.

    Anyway, fabulous post!

  2. Ok, I don’t watch many movies, but I would love to know your thoughts on a couple actors and which category you think they fall into.

    Edward Norton
    John Cusak

    • Ooh, good question. And good picks.

      For whatever reason, I really haven’t seen Ed Norton in that much, but I would be inclined to put him in the “better” category, I think. First thing I ever saw him in was (part of) Primal Fear, and he really stuck with me in that role. Wow. I like how he makes a broad range of choices in terms of the movies he makes, too.

      Cusack is pretty firmly in the “good” camp, which is, of course, not a bad thing. He has made a very solid career out of being kind of the “everyman” type, and I have enjoyed seeing him make good long after the teenaged romantic flicks. Personal favorite: Grosse Point Blank. Love that movie.

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