Playing the Role versus Playing Oneself
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.
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.