So much for tapping into emotional truths—today's acting greats tell lies; long live Damon and Strep.
By DAVID THOMSON
David Thomson is the author of "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" and "Have You Seen?" His short biographies of Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart will be published next month by Faber & Faber as part of the Great Stars series.
Something odd is happening to our actors. No one seems to talk about it, but it's there, and it has to do with our uneasiness over "sincerity." Now, we'd like people to tell us the truth—whether our president or our spouse—yet we find it hard to trust "sincerity." After 100 years and all those movies, wide eyes and an unwavering look too often seem like a proof of acting.
This line of thought set in a few days ago when I went to see "The Box." Why did I go, when I guessed that it was going to turn a seductive overture into a terrible disappointment? For two reasons: "The Box" is the new work from writer-director Richard Kelly, whose first picture, "Donnie Darko," a dark and disconcerting film about high school, is something you really should see.
My other reason was, quite simply, Frank Langella. You see, I had been relishing the television commercials for "The Box" where Mr. Langella, elegantly dressed in gray, playing a man named Arlington Steward, arrives at a tidy, happy suburban house (with some money worries) and tells the wife and mother (Cameron Diaz) that he has an offer for them. An offer they can refuse. It's a box with a red button: press the button and you get $1 million in cash—but someone, somewhere, dies. Though half his face has been stripped away by lightning—don't ask, just study the wreckage—Mr. Langella is so suave and serene that I was in love. I wanted to see the film just to hear his gracious speech, to see his Vatican-like politesse and to feel the assurance with which he offered his lurid bargain.
Once Mr. Langella has made his proposal, the film slips downhill at an accelerating rate. But I'm glad I went because 10 minutes or so of Mr. Langella being suave, weary and gray is as good as hearing James Mason talk in "Lolita," or Claude Rains in "Casablanca"—these are all actors who represent a spirit of lovely, hopeless intelligence. Part of the power of acting is that we like being with certain people. It's voice as much as look, and it's the confidence that distinguishes a great teacher, an elected president or a movie star—we believe them, even if they're uttering hogwash. As a younger man, mind you, Mr. Langella wasn't always this happy. He has found it in late middle age.
In addition, I had just seen Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" This is a far more satisfying film in which Matt Damon plays a young executive at Archer Daniels Midland who is a liar, a fraud, a con and a pretender. Mr. Damon plays the part in a glaring toupee, but with immense verve and panache. You're hooked by his act.
He's been around already for nearly 20 years, and once you could look at him as a kid who wanted to be nice-looking but who had a faintly squashed or shifty face. That's what made him memorable in a film like "Courage Under Fire," where he played a jittery soldier with a bad secret. And that's what encouraged a certain, parental protectiveness towards him in the audience for films like "Good Will Hunting" and "The Rainmaker" where he was keen to be a good, honest guy.
Then something happened: it was "The Talented Mr. Ripley," where Anthony Minghella cast him as Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley, a social climber who would love to live like the irresponsible heir Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) and who makes a start by killing Dickie so that he can take over the part. "The Talented Mr. Ripley" freed something in Mr. Damon—naked pretense (you could call it lying, as much as acting). All at once, he owned up to his tricky face.
Acting is storytelling, and any child knows the delight in distinguishing a "real" story about what Dad did at work, and a fantasy—a pretend job—about what he wished he had done. (Of course, there are family situations where neither Dad nor the kid can tell the difference—and that's dysfunction.) A culture of acting is disconcerting, too, but everyone understands the basic energy in acting—let's pretend—because it's the same energy that carries us to the movies.
So I looked at Mr. Langella and Mr. Damon and the penny dropped: The Method is over. In the years after World War II there was an immense revolution in American acting. It was not a cultural awakening. War and its revelations of human nature had exposed the Hollywood ethos (the flawless hero, the happy ending, the feeling that life was swell) as simply not good enough. The American movies of the 1930s and the war years include many of our greatest, but their basic assumption—that the fantasy must prevail—was so much less tenable after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. A part of us, at least, wanted honesty, the gritty truth, and a more realistic or "grown-up" attitude to life.
This was a moment when American acting was the cheerful showtime of Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. Then with startling speed it was challenged by what was quickly called Method acting. This was an approach based in the teaching of the Russian, Konstantin Stanislavsky, the institution of the Actors Studio (set up in 1947), and by the example of director Elia Kazan. In practice, the Method was exemplified by Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rod Steiger and others (it was always male-heavy) and by plays and films like "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Death of a Salesman," "On the Waterfront" and "East of Eden."
It was a way of acting in which the players were urged to discover their characters in their own emotional history. It was pledged to sincerity and emotional truth, and it turned film-going into a profound psychological ordeal, and it was antagonistic to the old English style of acting in which young players were taught elocution, fencing, manners and pretending. This school included the English masters Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud as well as their English or Anglophile cousins in film—Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, Ray Milland and Bob Hope.
There were excesses or mannerisms in the Method, things like your not being able to hear what was being said; and its concomitant, the habit of the actors in forsaking the original "text" for the improvisations that came into their earnest heads and which were beyond reproach just because they had become their characters.
It's hard to exaggerate the impact of the Method. It was full of good work, but it was above all, sincere, American, robust and manly. Writing shifted to accommodate the search for a "true self." Thus, in "On the Waterfront," Mr. Brando wants to recover the crushed spirit in Terry Malloy the failed boxer, while in "East of Eden" the "bad boy" Cal Trask yearns to gain the paternal love he deserves. These models were imitated not just in movies, but in countless television dramas or episodes in which the story turned on so-and-so's rediscovery of his damaged human nature. It was quite close to psychotherapy and the Method, soul-searching and getting at your "process" all worked in harness. Almost as a matter of course, would-be actors went into therapy.
It was a rich moment and it gave us classics. I grew up shaped by Messrs. Brando, Clift and Dean and by the passing passion for emotional honesty. For a moment, I'm sure, I believed it was not just true, but The Truth. So it's important to admit that the histrionics of the years before 1920 (I mean Lillian Gishery—and Gish was great) seemed as true then as Mr. Brando did in 1954. What I'm suggesting is that the desperate intensity of the Method era is passing (like all fashions). It became stale, tedious and hollow just because it was employed automatically. (I fear that some Method geniuses—Robert De Niro and Al Pacino—have given too many dreary, monotonous performances in recent years that spoil the memory of their early fineness.)
The Method worked until the '70s—the first two parts of "The Godfather" are its triumph. It is alive and well (or begging for pity) in the films of John Cassavetes. Until recently, there was a television show with James Lipton (an old-fashioned hambone English-style actor) asking us to celebrate the Actors Studio.
Sean Penn is a steadfast Methodist still, but Johnny Depp, it seems, has an itch to pretend if only people would write comedy for him. The most influential actor in America today is not a man. It's Meryl Streep, whose stress on skill has made her one of the most glorious of pretenders. Method actors take their roles home with them: Once in they can't get out—Vivien Leigh nearly went crazy playing Blanche Du Bois. I'm sure that Ms. Streep feels the other self at home, but no one supposes that she was "doing" Julia Child all the time. She was nimble enough to go from one to the other with professional speed.
Still, for lack of a crucial turning point, here is a test case: Compare Anthony Hopkins in "Nixon," from 1995, with Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon," which came out 13 years later. Oliver Stone's "Nixon" seems to me an honorable, strenuous failure in which Mr. Stone tries to get at the poisoned roots of a man he believed to be wicked. Mr. Hopkins was a great actor then (some barking at the moon has set in lately) and he sweated his head off to get at the psychic zero of Nixon. It was heavy-duty acting, and the harder it labored the more it left veteran Nixon-watchers (on TV) smiling sadly at a missed boat.
Whereas, the 2008 film "Frost/Nixon," from a play and a script by Peter Morgan, is a very different type of work. Instead of plunging Nixon into a search for his own truth it can live by the far more accurate daily reality—that Nixon was a connoisseur of his own fraud and a constant actor who had long since forgotten truth in the beguiling task of playing himself. The film is very interesting in that Michael Sheen gives a wickedly brilliant impersonation of David Frost, while Mr. Langella was encouraged to be himself and to evoke Nixon. By the film's close, it's a great charm that Langella manages to reveal Nixon by being himself.
The film flourishes because it has trusted Mr. Langella the pretender. I don't mean to say that this new, unofficial school (it has no studio, no text and little public understanding) has advanced as the Method did. But once you feel the seductive intrigue in pretending, then you begin to see it more and more—look at George Clooney (at his best, playing poker with the audience), the teasing stance of Robert Downey Jr., John Malkovich (daring us to find a way of liking him), Kevin Spacey (the limping Verbal Kint itching to turn into the strolling Keyser Söze). And others? Just think about it, and then see that this school stretches back to people like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope, actors who never had any intention of letting us catch them personally.
But just as the Method needed script material about the search for human truth, so this new cool pretending is founded on a way of looking at the world that says you can't trust anyone, can you? It suggests that—for the moment at least—we have given up on self-knowledge and feel ourselves being massaged or directed by most of our presidents, and nearly all of our eternal performers from Johnny Carson to David Letterman. (Secret principle: If you're going to last on television, you need to be mysterious or withheld.) Presidents move us from time to time, just as hosts make us smile, but most of them warn us that we're in a play or a game. Think of Ronald Reagan, the master, the Olivier of ordinariness, never exactly an actor but a nice guy playing an actor.