When Daniel Day Lewis won the Oscar for best actor and Jennifer Lawrence won for best actress this past Sunday, I began to ask what makes a performance worthy of such an accolade? In the workplace, we use the term acting to refer to people temporarily doing the duties of another person – such as an acting CEO. In plays, movies and television, acting refers to a profession… or to put it in other terms: assuming the role of another (i.e. performing his or her duties).
If you take the case of Daniel Day Lewis, acting is the ability to not only assume the role of another; it is also the ability to become another. In taking on the persona of Lincoln, he not only changes himself physically to look like Lincoln, he also assumes the mannerisms that we accept Lincoln possessed (bowed back, speech idiosyncrasies, a sense of weariness). In essence he becomes Lincoln. Lewis has throughout his career become others, whether it be Cecil in A Room With A View, or Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, or the role that brought him to the attention of the world as Christy Brown in My Left Foot.
The British appear to be more strongly rooted in the art of acting, but America has its great actors. Meryl Streep comes to mind. Whether she is playing Margaret Thatcher, Julia Child or Miranda Priestley, she assumes another’s persona with a level of perfection rarely seen in the movies throughout an individual’s career. With 17 nominations for either Best Actress or Best Actress in a Supporting Role, every time she is on screen she becomes a new character.
An actor is different than a movie star. In his essay ‘Charisma,’ Richard Dyer refers to the star image. A star has his or her own distinct persona, but unlike an actor the star’s persona remains consistent throughout all his or her films. The audience knows what to expect from the star in each film, and it provides a level of familiarity to the star that allows us to develop an audience/star relationship. What makes a great movie star? Stardom is based on the appropriateness of a star’s persona to the contemporary social situation. Or in other words, a star reflects the needs and desires of contemporary society. This may be because of a political persona/persuasion or it may be something as simple as beauty. In order to be successful, the audience must identify with the star as well as desire to be him or her.
The idea of identification with a star/character in a film is reflected in the line from Tropic Thunder by Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) to Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller): “Everybody knows you never go full retard.” On the surface, this comment may seem to contradict my interpretation of great acting but it actually reinforces another tenet of what makes a great character/star. Kirk’s follow up included this reference:
‘You know Tom Hanks’s, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded.’
We enjoy these characters because they remain accessible to us as an audience. It is also because we see their flaws as a mirror image to our own flaws. In the case of Forrest Gump, we struggled alongside him as he tried to love Jenny. On the other extreme from the mentally or physically challenged, we have the superhero persona. The reason we enjoy superhero films is because we want to be the hero, and the hero remains accessible to us as an audience because they possess flaws. Perfection in a character cuts us off as an audience. Would Superman remain an interesting character if he didn’t struggle with his feelings for Lois Lane, had no weakness for kryptonite, or was able to easily overcome all odds? The Dark Knight is a popular character because his persona allows us to identify with the darkness that exists within all of us.
Lacanian psychoanalytical film theory attempts to explain this system of identification. The audience, through the characters/stars on screen, is offered particular identifications to choose from. The theory stresses the subject’s longing for a completeness which the film may appear to offer through identification with an image. In essence, when we are watching a movie we are attempting to place ourselves in the film, almost as if we desire the film/character/stars to be mirror images of our own lives/self. However there is a catch–Lacanian theory also indicates that identification with the image is never anything but an illusion; the mirror isn’t real.
In my last blog entry, I referred to the implicit contract between a filmmaker and the audience. Our identification with those depicted in cinema is also part of this implicit contract. We have to agree with their values. The difference is that a star’s value system carries through all his or her films, while an actor becomes a character who possess new values in each film. Interestingly, regardless of whether someone is an actor or a star, film theorists will refer to a character’s name and not the actor when describing a scene in a film (see my reference to Forrest Gump and Jenny above), because film theorists believe that there is always distinction, albeit sometimes small, between the person playing the character and the actual character.
Regardless of the distinction, can’t a truly great actor become a star? Is Meryl Streep a star? Possibly yes. I know I would be kinda gaga if I ever met her.
But have you ever noticed that many of the great actors are reticent to give live interviews? Streep says she suffers great anxiety during live interviews. A star, on the other hand, is as comfortable on screen as they are on a late night TV show couch. They appear so much more self –assured, which makes me wonder:
Would I prefer to be a star or a great actor?