One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Best Acting

Forest Whittaker took a well-deserved Golden Globe last night for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. It was a tour de force performance. Since Golden Globes are usually an indication of Academy Award nominations, it’s highly likely that he’ll be up against Leonardo DiCaprio for The Departed. Excellent though Whitaker was – and my money’s on him - I have to say that I was totally blown away by DiCaprio. Allow me to compare and contrast:

Forest Whittaker

The night before I saw TLKoS, I saw the review on Newsnight. Someone mentioned that footage of the real Amin was shown with the credits “…and that usually means Game Up for the actor.’ Even forewarned I did a double-take. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t still Whitaker. So obviously it was a great physical impersonation. As it happens, I don’t much like impersonations – oftentimes they’re just a matter of clever makeup and learning some gestures in front of the mirror. Whitaker did better than that. To get Amin right, he had to draw on his considerable charisma and screen presence to give the impression of Amin as a force of nature. Plus he had to portray Amin across a range of personalities from joker to scared child to psychotic torturer. (There was one moment where he went, chillingly, straight from torturing James McAvoy and into jovial mode in front of reporters and hostages – but I think that was a matter of good editing. It would have been truly impressive if one had seen Whitaker make the switch in a single shot – although you’d also have to worry about his mental state). Anyway…suffice to say it was a virtuoso piece of method acting.

A Digression on Method Acting

One of my least favourite actors of all times is Dustin Hoffman*. Tootsie was a lousy film – you can see better drag in many a gay pub. And what was interesting about his autistic schtick in Rain Man? They could have got better realism by hiring an autistic actor with no great detriment to the part.

The best story about him (and about The Method in general ) is about when he was playing opposite Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. Before the famous dentist drill torture scene, he was agonising to Larry: “I don’t know how to, ahmm, you know, like, ahmm, get into this part, like, you know, ahmm, like really feel his pain”
So Larry says. “My dear boy! Why not just pretend.”

This to me sums up the difference between The Method and good, old-fashioned acting. In a similar vein, I’m a big fan of James Mason. In every one of his films, he looked and sounded like James Mason. But he also acted.

Leonardo DiCaprio

I’ve always regarded him as someone promising. He’s yet to do his best work. Obviously he’s a pretty boy, so he gets to do crap like the execrable Titanic – but it’s fairly plain he can act a bit. So far he’s not been stretched. His characters have (mainly) called for na├»ve puppy-faced charm, and with his face he hasn’t had to actually do much.

But – Scorsese has used him well this time. I haven’t seen Gangs of New York (the consensus was that he came over as too young). I slightly liked him in The Aviator – although all the OCD stuff was a bit too researched, cf Hoffman. But The Departed is different.

My theory is that it’s Scorsese’s film about the art acting. Over part of his career he had DeNiro as a muse – and over that period DeNiro’s performances were unmatched.** It was clearly mutual chemistry – DeNiro hasn’t done anything interesting since.

So – The Departed and acting. Firstly, the whole plot is about acting. Both DiCaprio and Matt Damon are in deep cover, the one a goodie acting as a baddie, the other a baddie acting as a goodie. So far so good. Secondly, Scorsese assembled a virtuoso ensemble cast. Standouts include (especially) Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone and Martin Sheene. Thirdly, there’s Jack Nicholson. Usually when a director casts Nicholson, they want him to dominate the film with his Jack impersonation. For once he plays against type. His role is central and powerful and charismatic – but without hogging the limelight.

Now…onto DiCaprio. SPOILERS HERE. To a large extent, his part is a cipher. He has to play it deadpan and unemotional, holding in the dangerous truth. To do it properly, that takes clever but not exceptional acting. Where he goes beyond that is the few times when it slips – like the genuine panic revulsion he shows when Sheene’s body lands next to him. But best of all is the moment when he’s talking to the counsellor. She (says something like) “You always seem so vulnerable – or is that just an act? " And he says “No…I don’t think so.” And it’s that moment that made me go ‘Whooaa!’ – his body slumps slightly. He looks as though the mask has slipped – he’s stopped acting…Only, of course, he’s acting as though he’s stopped acting. Classy! It’s this kind of thing I like best. Acting that’s aware of itself as an artefact and yet still manages to take us to new emotional places.
See also the moment in Prime Suspect II when Tom Bell blew Helen Mirren off the screen with a single facial gesture - yet didn't move a muscle. I still can't figure out what he did. Maybe dilated his pupils a fraction?

And I really liked Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

* OK – so I liked him in The Graduate, obviously. And Midnight Cowboy. And Straws Dogs. And Little Big Man.
** Barry Norman used to say that he used to think that DeNiro was best actor in the world, until he saw the next Depardieu. Then he’d think Depardieu was the best, until he saw the next DeNiro...


Jane Ellen said...

People forget that Leo was an Oscar nominated actor well before Titanic. He got the nod for What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Phenomenal performance.

Leo was also really good in Catch Me If You Can, especially the part where he is on the plane with Hanks and finds out someone has died. He subtly but effectively flips out.

Last but not least, Leo did a fine job on his South African accent in Blood Diamond. Speaking of accents, he had to do two accents in The Departed - uppercrust and lower class Boston.

Jane Ellen said...

PS Do you remember Forest Whitaker as the soldier who is kidnapped in The Crying Game? Not a big part, but he made it memorable.

I really must see Last King of Scotland as soon as it comes out here.

Edward the Bonobo said...

Ah, now...I saw the trailer for Blood Diamond. Yes, his Sith Efriken accent was spot on...but that's not the kind of stuff that impresses me. I's very clever - but there's more to acting than that. Same with his Bostonian accents.

In Catch Me If You Can - yes, good acting - but still relying on his puppydog charm much of the time. I'm waiting for him to age. Like a fine cheese.

Gilbert Grape - I've not seen it for years, but we got a free copy with The Grauniad at the weekend.

Yes, I remember Forest Whitaker in The Crying Game - but that's not the (ahem) part that most people remember. ;-) Another great African American actor also played a British soldier around about the same time in the low-budget For Queen and Country. His Sarf Lahndon accent was pretty reasonable.

Any comments on Dustin Hoffman?

Jane Ellen said...

Leo can't help it if he's young and beautiful. *laugh*

Let's see, Dustin. I've liked most of his movies, including Tootsie. Liked him best in The Graduate. Thought he tried too hard in Rain Man. But method acting in general? It works for some people, I mean look at Meryl Streep! When she started Devil Wears Prada, she told the crew the first day, "This is the last nice thing you will hear me say."

puddlejumper said...

I was going to say something about leo in gilbert grape as I just watched my free copy the other night (having not watched it for years). But it appears I have been beaten to it. Johnny Depp is in it too. Now he IS pretty.

Leo's most rubbish role was in The Beach. IMO great book, not so great film.

I agree about dustin in rainman though. Too much.

And what has happened to De Niro? All he seems to do in films now is "that face" you know the one...

Edward the Bonobo said... Streep. Again, I'm afraid that for my money, she's someone who overdoes The Method at the expense of everything else. Don't get me wrong...nothing against Method Acting - provided people remeber to act as well - as I think Lenny dies in The Departed.

And the pity is that Streep can act. Sometimes. The best performance I've seen by her war by David will come to me...ah! Plenty. (No - I didn't have to look her up on imdb to remember the title).

She does seem particularly good at picking turkeys, though. And I really don't think she can do comedy. She's nearly as bad as DeNiro!