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In Which We Are Unconvinced

October 31, 2012

I’m not a hater. I’m open-minded. I get that not every Hollywood actor must necessarily be some master thespian. I get that sometimes audiences just want a familiar, comfortable face to carry them through the story regardless of how well that face emotes (if at all). Sometimes Hollywood, for whatever reason, prefers the familiar and the comfortable (and thus marketable) instead of finding actual actors with, you know, range to play these parts. We are again running into this idea that there are actors who really do act, and there are actors who really just play themselves. But I really think Hollywood is just being crass in promoting certain actors to A-list status when they really have no business being there. Here are a couple that immediately spring to mind, but I invite suggestions and further discussion in the comments.

Leonardo DiCaprioI was listening to the excellent Downton Abbey podcast “Up Yours, Downstairs” recently. In between seasons of the popular BBC show, the proprietors of said podcast are talking about media that is peripherally (sometimes distantly) related to Downton Abbey. The last couple of weeks, they have concentrated on James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic. (For the uninitiated, the event that sets things in motion in the pilot episode of Downton Abbey is the 1912 sinking of that famously doomed ship.) They talk at length about what a terrible performance Leonardo DiCaprio gives as “Jack,” and they’re not wrong. DiCaprio is an actor who regularly finds himself in meaty roles, working with top-notch directors, but rarely gives a performance even approaching memorable. He’s dreamy to be sure, and I suppose Scorsese must see something in him, but whatever that may be is lost on me. This same sentiment occurred to me upon a recent accidental viewing of Catch Me If You Can. Beyond Tom Hanks’ absurd Bahston accent, it’s a decently enjoyable film. But not because of DiCaprio, who is utterly interchangeable with a dozen other better actors. Yet he consistently manages to land marquee parts in otherwise good movies such as Inception, Gangs of New York, and even the upcoming The Great Gatsby. And, while I enjoyed the former two films, I really can’t recall anything about DiCaprio other than the fact that, yes, he was in them. Perhaps the most interesting thing about DiCaprio’s work lately is that he actually has been capable of great acting. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? pitted DiCaprio against Mr. The Depp himself and who shone brighter? DiCaprio as mentally challenged little brother “Arnie!” I just wish they would stop putting him in biopics like The Aviator and J. Edgar because roles based on a real person require a certain plausibility to sell the whole movie, and latter-day DiCaprio just doesn’t have the chops. He seems either unwilling or incapable of digging deep into a role and becoming something other than Leonardo DiCaprio.

Owen WilsonOf course there is the opposite situation, wherein an actor may have some ability up his sleeve (when he chooses to show it) but just doesn’t have the looks. I first saw Owen Wilson in Wes Anderson’s criminally underrated first film, Bottle Rocket (co-written by Wilson). Owen was acting alongside his brother Luke, and played the excitable, enthusiastic, but not-entirely-there “Dignan.” The script was marvelous, the character rich with possibility, and Wilson did a fine job. Then he grew his hair long, started getting roles in soul crushing rom-coms and buddy-action-comedies, and skyrocketed to the top of the A-list. He’s funny, and amicable. He’s a capable actor, certainly. But to me he just doesn’t have the looks and his voice and speech pattern are far too distinctive. (Don’t believe me? Ask Midnight In Paris co-star Tom Hiddleston.) He’s always Owen Wilson. He never convinces the audience that his character is anything else. And it’s a real shame, because I absolutely believed in Dignan. I sympathized with him. I felt his pain and his disappointment and his energy. Is it really not to be ever again, Owen?

What say you, dear reader? Have ye other examples? Perhaps you would cite a particular role of one of these gentlemen that I have overlooked? I welcome the discussion!

  1. November 1, 2012 11:38 am

    My three favorite movie characters of all time are as follows, in no order: Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone in “The Untouchables,” Kevin Kline’s Otto in “A Fish Called Wanda,” and Wilson’s Dignan. What a fantastic character. The final shot of him being led back into the prison only to turn around and flash a hopeful, delusional thumbs-up is one of the most bittersweet exits I’ve ever seen in a character.

    I’ll say this about Wilson; he’s made some less-than-great movies, but nearly every time I see him on screen I’m reminded that he’s a very likeable actor. DiCaprio is a better actor, but I never feel that way about him. Charisma goes a long way.

  2. Sean Gilroy permalink
    November 1, 2012 7:34 pm

    I think the word “serviceable” pretty much sums up DiCaprio’s acting ability. I’ve never thought that an otherwise good movie was ruined by his performance, but I’ve never thought elevated a film, either. Sure, he’s been in some great movies, but none of them were great because of him. He gets the job done, but I’m pretty baffled that he would ever be any director’s first (or even second) choice for a substantial role. I remember thinking much the same thing about Bill Pullman, back when he was in a lot of movies. And, heaven help me, I occasionally catch myself thinking similar things about Tom Hanks these days (he said as he ducked behind some convenient cover, narrowly avoiding the barrage of rotten fruit and random sharp objects). I really miss the old, pre-Forrest Gump Tom Hanks.

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