Jeff Bridges vs. “Jeff Bridges”: What determines a great actor, and does it actually matter?
Is it possible to objectively grade the talents of an actor? For several years, I’ve broken bread with fellow film buffs as we anxiously awaited the distribution of Oscars, Golden Globes, Razzies, and other shiny objects. Brandon Kim of the Independent Film Channel’s blog placed the title of “the greatest actor of our time” upon our heroic, jelly-shod, Creedence-blasting icon Jeff Bridges. While it is difficult to argue against such praise for Bridges, how does one make that determination? Isn’t a significant percentage of an actor’s “talent” based on such subjective measures, such as whether you like or dislike them as a screen presence (do we like Jeff Bridges, or our conception of him, a “Jeff Bridges”, per se)? Our particular tastes determine our assessment of an actor’s skills, as if they were a musician (Bridges equivalent: Willie Nelson/Wilco). If you love the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust ethos of punk rock, where DIY low-fi rowdiness is emphasized over Berklee College of Music-level meticulousness, you might also prefer your on-screen performers to echo that ideal. Complaints that George Clooney basically played himself in Up in the Air would not matter to you. While I love the wild time-changes of progressive rock, and have attempted to learn far too many guitar riffs from Rush, Yes, and Queensryche, I’ve always preferred the realism of the more “punk” leaning onscreen performance. I take the same perspective in appreciating actors as an NBA scout analyzing the NCAA Tournament: were they the right choice for the part? During my substitute teaching days, I was assigned to a music class, which was to watch Perfect Harmony, a noble (if straight-to-video) attempt to exhibit how segregation affected children in a small town. Unfortunately, the students could not get past the ridiculosity of seeing David Faustino (always quick with a clever quip as Bud Bundy) cast as the racist bully-type. No matter how “great” a performance elicited from Faustino, the final triumph would be compromised by the incorrectly-cast villain. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the trend toward stunt-casting. This can occasionally lead to impressive results (Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There), but in most cases, an actor’s requirement to stretch their acting chops is equally proportional to the casting director’s lack of understanding of the fit between actor and role. Thus, is this the sign of a credible director: every element of the film within their control, even the actors – regardless how “great” – become merely another piece to be manipulated into expressing their overall vision?
For example, let us examine a favorite of mine (and many on this site), The Big Lebowski. Suppose the screenplay was crafted by some anonymous Hollywood writer rather than the Brothers Coen, freeing the project to be thrown upon the silver screen by anyone with the money to make it happen (feel free to picture a barista handing it to Lloyd or Ari as Johnny Drama filibusters during an interminable latte order). At the risk of causing most of you to micturate on your screen as if it was the Dude’s rug, ask yourself what movie would have resulted had the director been (God help us all) Joel Schumacher, or Michael Bay, or Tyler Perry, or Shawn Levy – yep, the schlockmeister behind Marley and Me? In all likelihood, the film would have been so miserable that a scenery-chewing performance would be our only salvation. There would be little else to fill the screen other than exposition as actors moved from one inessential scene to another, offering little of import to say (or in the case with Bay, the entire film would have consisted of Logjammin’ and the occasional exploding bowling-alley). The performances of Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro were magnificent, sure. The Coens were aware that they chose the optimal cast, and incorporated the motherlode of talent into the direction of the film. Few of us were surprised with the cadence and vernacular of Bridges when he won his Academy Award (Careful, there’s an Oscar here, man!). The characters were memorable because they were right for the part, not because of any grand display of technique, or some wild venture into method acting. The hack directors mentioned above would have enlisted whoever was hot with a particular demographic and squeezed them into a prefabricated role, figuring their critic-proof records of “populist” hits would continue unabated.
Which brings me back to the original question – can an actor actually be great, and most importantly, do they even have to be great? A director can re-shoot a scene multiple times, from multiple angles, collecting the best pieces into a cohesive whole. So what if the actor could only muster a few seconds where they provided the needed emotion or context? Just like the recording engineer for the supermajority of airbrushed-pic-on-the-album-cover American Idolatry, the plethora of manipulation techniques at the director’s disposal can make the most mediocre performance into something that truly resonates. Am I alone in evaluation an actor’s performance by a primarily visceral reaction? The film Kicking and Screaming – which I have to clarify as “the 1995 film about post-collegiate confusion”, thanks to the similarly-titled headache-factory with Mike Ditka and Will Ferrell – is awesome because every actor’s onscreen persona is likely to approximate their actual personality. I assume that Chris Eigeman (Max) is not actually afraid of door-to-door merchants of cookies, or that Carlos Jacott (Otis) does not leave warning notes rather than removing the broken glass himself. But the general interactions, especially the sarcasm and wit, do not seem to be a stretch for anyone in the group. Eigeman is an interesting case study – a favorite of both Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach, any film aficionado with a penchant for wordsmithery has several Eigeman-spoken lines ready for appropriate situations, not unlike a superfan of The Simpsons.
“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.”
[From 1999-2001, Eigeman starred in It’s Like, You Know…, a great idea that failed to garner the support of the network or the patience of viewers. Starring Rayanna from My So-Called Life, and written by former Seinfeld co-producer Peter Mehlman, this show had serious potential, but disappeared into the memory hole (I’ve tried to find the 25-episode run either on VHS or DVD, but no commercial release exists that I am aware). Perhaps Mehlman’s association with Joe Buck Live was the final nail.]
Maybe I’m not watching the films that require technically-proficient acting, you might say. With a few exceptions (last year’s Star Trek, District 9, Inglorious Basterds for example), I am not traditionally drawn to the cinema of high conflict, which is the domain of intense expressions of emotion. I wish I could recapture the sense of wonder of heavily rooting for Good to triumph over Evil that informed my movie tastes as a youth, but those days are long gone. It takes far too much effort to disable my cynicism as I frustratingly identify clichés like plot devices, forced tension, and other intentional attempts to manipulate the emotions of the audience. In almost all cases, a scene featuring those evil people doing evil things (oh no! Somebody stop them!) bores the living shite out of me. Especially if the bad guys create havoc for the first two hours of the film, only to be defeated in the last minute. I far prefer the antagonist to face accountability measures for their actions throughout the film, because it is often humorous (a la Adam Sandler’s character in Punch Drunk Love after being accosted for his act of property destruction). Unless I leave the theatre with multiple clever bits of dialogue and/or topics for intellectual debate, I feel like my time was wasted. This may be a by-product of my unemployment, where a film is far more escapist if it rewards, rather than insults, my intelligence.
Am I alone here? Does anyone else out there find themselves drawn to the creators of films rather than the onscreen talent? Should we reward filmmakers that emphasize thought-provoking debate and side-splitting banter over perfunctory good vs evil battles?