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Playing the Role versus Playing Oneself

December 14, 2011

As part of our Disposable Movies series, Mrs. theGeek and I watched The Lincoln Lawyer this weekend. First, I’m happy to report that this movie is anything but disposable; in fact it was quite good. But what struck me about the movie is the huge differences in performance between two of its stars. Today’s discussion is not a review of The Lincoln Lawyer, but an exploration into actors who become the characters they play versus actors who always simply play themselves.

William H. Macy as Frank Levin in The Lincoln Lawyer

William H. Macy as Frank Levin in The Lincoln Lawyer

Naturally, in The Lincoln Lawyer I’m talking about William H. Macy versus Matthew McConaughey, respectively. Despite having a very distinctive and fairly recognizable appearance, Macy always dives head-first into his roles. From his closeted Sheriff Chappy Dent in Happy, Texas, to his Shoveler in Mystery Men, to his hitman Alex in Panic, to his breakout role as the unforgettable Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo, Macy always brings dedication and believability. A subtle change in posture or diction and he becomes not-William-H-Macy. To my mind, that’s acting. Other actors with this level of talent include Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Sellers (naturally), Bryan Cranston, and Emma Thompson.

Matthew McConaughey, on the other hand, always plays Matthew McConaughey. He is always impossibly charming & clever; always a bit of a rake and a rogue. Though I have never met the man, that’s how I imagine him to be because he seems nigh incapable of playing anything else. He almost never takes risky roles. Never anything that would alter his appearance (à la Charlize Theron in Monster) or his behavior (à la George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty.) He always seems to find a reason to take his shirt off (a record, I might point out, that remains unbroken with The Lincoln Lawyer.) In fairness, there is one exception to the McConaughey-as-McConaughey rule: his role as Wooderson in Dazed & Confused. Wooderson is the smooth-talkin’, hard-workin’ (“for the city; it’s money in my pocket”), hard-partyin’ older guy who still hangs out with high schoolers (“I get older. They stay the same age.”) McConaughey’s Wooderson was a perfectly nuanced blend of accent and mannerisms that made the character not only memorable but actually alive in the mind of the audience.*

A few actors that come to mind who always seem to play themselves (with few exceptions) are Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Katherine Heigl, and Leonardo DiCaprio. But even actors with proven talent seem unable to get lost in a role. Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino are certainly excellent actors, with proven records. But whenever I see them in a movie, all I see is DeNiro and Pacino. Is this a failure on my part? An inability to look past the actor and just see the role? Other actors seem to make it easier for the viewer to do this. Does being recognized in a film necessarily mean that an actor is not adequately playing the role for which he or she was cast? Actors who are sometimes overlooked do occasionally produce a strong performance that makes it difficult to dismiss them entirely (Ryan Reynolds in Buried or Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love. Or even Tom Cruise in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder.) Can a judgment be made without seeing the entirety of an actor’s work?

These are questions that I hope you’ll explore in the comments below. Tell us, dear reader, which actors you find always playing themselves and which ones disappear into their roles. Lend us your opinion on the questions I’ve posed above. Speak and be heard.


* Many might point out that Dazed & Confused is full of nuanced performances thanks to the whip-smart direction of Richard Linklater, and there’s validity in that. So perhaps we’ll simply credit McConaughey’s performance to the quality of the script.

  1. Fred Webb permalink
    December 14, 2011 2:42 pm

    I think the first good actor to become larger than (or a distraction from) his roles was Jack Nicholson. With very few exceptions, he appears to have spent the last forty years living out the restaurant scene from “Five Easy Pieces.” (

    Related to this, I think, is when an actor becomes a figure of fun and it retroactively kills any serious performance they ever gave. For example, I can’t take Christopher Walken seriously anymore, even in something from back in the day like “King of New York.” (I think Alec Baldwin is on the verge of that status as well.)

  2. Paul the Geek permalink
    December 14, 2011 6:54 pm

    For all his scenery chewing, I think Daniel Day-Lewis does a pretty good job of sinking into a character.

  3. Kristoph Jung permalink
    December 14, 2011 8:57 pm

    I was inspired to think of how interesting Robert Downey Jr.’s path in acting has been. He used to just play himself, as affected by the events on screen. But as he got older and wiser, overcoming his many challenges, his roles got cooler, starting with Chaplin. So in an odd way, he as himself has become increasingly better. And that seems more true with him than anyone else I can think of off the top of my head.

    Additionally, I thought William H. Macy’s role in Seabiscuit as Tick Tock McGlaughlin and his “Leave it to Beaver” style dad, George Parker, in Pleasantville were both fine examples as well of his ability to become a role.

    Gary Oldman is the man.

  4. Kristoph Jung permalink
    December 16, 2011 9:04 pm

    And I didn’t mean to leave out Cate Blanchett. Eternally Galadriel, Queen Elizabeth I and Katharine Hepburn, she has as much power over a role as anyone. Her versatility is further evidenced by The Missing, The Talented Mr, Ripley and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, each adding to her strong resume.

  5. Porter permalink
    December 17, 2011 7:26 am

    Cate Blanchett — the first time I saw her was in Elizabeth. Blown away. The next time I saw her was a few months later in Pushing Tin, a relatively forgettable movie that was notable only because it was the first time I saw Angelina Jolie. CB had gone from Queen of England to New Jersey housewife and was so good at it, I almost didn’t recognize her.

    Zach Galifinakis is funny, but seems to have one gear.

    Ryan Gosling (w/his roles in Drive, Blue Valentine, Full Nelson, and Ides of March) is emerging as a total badass.

    Steve Buscemi, though unforgettable, is generally great a being the character (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!”), as are John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and John Turturro.

    • December 17, 2011 4:37 pm

      I liked the article sir, and I haven’t any way to dispute your point of view. However I think that it is about box-office rather than acting chops. The ones who put the fannies in the seats, the ones who sell the tickets are the Leading Men – Gable, Peck, Nicholson, Holden, Jimmy Stewart, Lancaster, etc etc.

      The ones who work with these idols are the character actors who get the supporting roles. They become recognizable, and yet as you say – we don’t see William Macy acting, we see the character.

      Beyond that – it is driven by age – leading men or romantic leads becomes bosses, parents, and authority figures. They can only be an action hero for just so long before they become ‘elder statesman’ of the acting profession. Ditto the leading ladies – Meryl Streep excepted.

      As much as you admire Mr. Macy – have you ever said to anyone, or had said to you – William Macy has a new film out. Let’s go see it?

      • Paul the Geek permalink
        December 19, 2011 12:01 am

        You’re right of course.

        No one ever refers to anything as “that new William H. Macy movie.” But people DO go to see “the new Matthew McConaughey movie,” even though Macy is clearly the better actor.

        Bearing further exploration is the idea that there IS such a thing as a “William H. Macy movie” as much as there is a “Tom Cruise movie” or a “Schwarzenegger movie.” Is there anything unifying about Macy’s roles that makes a movie as much “his” as Terminator or Predator are Schwarzenegger’s?

        Furthermore, is Macy “leading man” material? (See “Panic” for a possible argument in the affirmative.)

        Also, though I see your point about Hollywood’s age-driven culture, as Porter pointed out Ryan Gosling is doing quite well…

    • Paul the Geek permalink
      December 19, 2011 12:27 am

      Talk about absolutely disappearing into a role: Gosling in “Lars & the Real Girl.”


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