After a lost decade of rom-coms Matthew McConaughey roared back to life with a trio of indies in 2012. In each film he created lively even somewhat audacious performances. While all of these characters were embraced with acclaim – particularly his turn as the chiseled strip-club owner Dallas from Magic Mike – dissenters began to rear their ugly heads when rumors began flying of a possible Oscar nod for Soderbergh’s film. The recurring criticism was that the characters of “Dallas” in Magic Mike, or “Joe Cooper” in Friedkin’s brilliant Killer Joe were somehow less impressive than the work of a bearded Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or a prosthetically enhanced Joseph Gordon Levitt in Looper. The basic idea is that there was still “too much McConaughey” in these roles.
Seeking to rebut this idea is perhaps somewhat of a pointless task, as it is largely subjective claim to begin with. Still, examining McConaughey’s work offers an intriguing possibility to discuss the rigid hierarchy society maintains regarding acting. In examining this hierarchy it becomes increasingly apocryphal whether or not actors who employ the more lauded form of acting (meaning, simply, those who “totally immerse” themselves in a role) ever actually disappear. Once fame is obtained an actor or actress has their work colored by an audience’s relationship to their past output, which deflates the ability to transform fully and contributes to typecasting.
Additionally, those who employ a more method acting technique, even if they play a variety of characters, experience a form of typecasting. Our cultural commitment (through institutions such as critic’s groups, news media and the Academy Awards) to rewarding only specific types of acting invariably leads to even the most impressive of chameleons having their identity revealed. Therefore, one could argue that actors who seek to embrace not hide the presence of their “real self” in their acting, produce work that differs from method actors, but work that is still impressive and even arguably more interesting.
I. The Ascension of Immersion
To begin we must unpack just exactly what constitutes the art form itself. The ancient Greek word for actor can be translated into the definition of “one who interprets.” Of course, for most applying the semantics of the word is an obvious task. An actor’s job is to interpret a written character, to capture the essence of what is on the page and bring a flesh and blood depiction of said character before an audience. Still, somewhere down the line this vague, malleable definition became appropriated by some – transformed into a definition of acting where it is only those employing a method-like technique that are credible performers.
How did this style of acting begin its dominance over the public consciousness? Well, most would probably point to the emergence of a young stud with a silly voice, who sauntered onto movie screens, smoldering with the raw animal magnetism of a pride of lions back in 1953. With rippling pectorals and pit stains the size of Montana, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski was probably the first to truly popularize the technique in American film. He irrevocably altered what we would come to expect from major Hollywood stars.
With a focus on total submersion into the character’s psyche, method acting became the technique of some of America’s greatest actors. This included everyone from DiCaprio, De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Day-Lewis, Bale, and the late Heath Ledger. All of these actors have given us multiple iconic performances where their method technique has been well publicized.
But do they ever truly disappear? Can an actor who once was able to fly under the radar ever truly transform once they have achieved world-wide recognition? Here’s where things get really subjective. Proving that transformative acting is even legitimately possible for a well-known star is certainly beyond the scope of this or any essay. Still, we can address a few recurring trends which are utilized by actors appearing in transformative parts or those actors who are known to engage in “method” practices. Hopefully it can then be addressed how a well-known actor ever truly disappearing into a role is a dubious concept at best.
II. The Bright Glare of the Spotlight
The most obvious inhibiting factor in an actor’s ability to disappear into a character comes from simply the ascension into stardom. This path from anonymity to notoriety completely transforms an audience member’s ability to perceive an actor’s work in the same fashion that they once did. The illusion of creating a character that is 100% transformative has been shattered at this point.
There is no greater example of this than one of the most famous actors in the past 30 years, whose professional and private life has been covered like few others. We are talking about Mr. Mission Impossible, Mr. Anti-Anti-Depressants, a man also known as Mr. Tom Cruise.
The actor’s role in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning film, Born on the Fourth of July, vividly articulates how fame and time change an audience’s perception of an actor and their work. Cruise’s performance in the film is astounding; it’s a real physical transformation and a harrowing emotional journey. Yet, viewing the film (and Cruise’s performance in particular) in the second decade of the 2000’s produce a much different effect for viewers than it did back in 1989.
With his bulging, wild eyes and shock of stringy, unkempt hair, Cruise encapsulates the physical and emotional trauma experienced by Roy Crovic. However, for a 21st Century viewer, living in a post-Oprah-couch-jumping epoch, Cruise’s work in the film is unavoidably colored; the moments of his character’s insanity seem actually more intrinsic to Cruise than to Crovac, and seem to separate and highlight Cruise the actor in the role.
Another such example is how one may react to the cannon of Robert De Niro’s performances in Martin Scorsese films. In his last performance for the director (1995‘s Casino) De Niro remains characteristically commanding. Yet, the raging, unpredictable volatility found in his earlier performances for the director, such as Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1976) and especially Mean Streets (1973), was ultimately more diluted because the audience is much more aware of De Niro’s presence in the role.
An actor being progressively less capable of concealing themselves inside of a character (and from the minds of audiences) comes into being through a two-fold process. One part is unavoidable. The ascent into stardom cripples an actor’s transformative power. As actors progress throughout their career they become, either by choice or exterior factors, defined by a “type” of performance (such as De Niro as the angry, potentially violent Italian American in the Scorsese canon). This placement of actors into “types” is contingent upon the relationship that an actor’s cultivates with viewers over a prolonged period of time. The development of this connection between audience member, and the assignment of an actor’s “type” does not necessarily imply that the quality of their work exponentially deteriorates over time. It simply suggests that the actor becomes more visible in their work.
III. Shattering the Illusion
In the age of ubiquitous media very little can remain outside of the public consciousness for very long. Entertainment news is certainly not immune to this process. Thus, the preparation process for so-called “method” actors is now so relentlessly reported on, and so passionately followed by various fan bases that the process itself becomes instilled in the minds of viewers in a way that threatens to usurp the simple effect of the performance. By the time a lauded performance is actually seen by the average viewer behind-the-scenes anecdotes such as Day Lewis initially refusing medical treatment during the Gangs of New York shoot (because it was inconsistent with the time period of the film) have already threatened to eclipse the work.
One particular facet of news coverage that strongly contributes to this ascension of the actor’s process over the actor’s work is found in the nature of the industry’s annual awards season. This self-congratulatory (or self-masturbatory – take your pick) period of constant exposure props up and celebrates very specific types of films as well as a very specific type of performance. The types of performances celebrated by this season is typically the transformative kind. For example, if there is one type of role that the Academy, the Golden Globes and the critics groups gravitate towards it is the actor taking on the part of a real person. This is clearly indicative of the widely held belief that the only type of acting worthy of attention is that which somehow achieves this shaky concept of a full transformation.
Yet, through this fixation the an actor’s ability to actually transform, to hide their public persona, becomes increasingly arduous. Once an actor has been relentlessly promoted for appearing in an award’s baiting part the viewer’s attention is ultimately diverted from simply experiencing the performance as if we are just watching a living character. When one watches a lauded film containing a lauded performance one waits in anticipation for the actor to showcase just what has provoked superlatives and awards speculation. You are waiting around for the actor to, well, act, not be. The character is once again converted back into an actor before our eyes.
This is a trend that becomes especially true of actors who build careers around awards-baiting work. From Leonardo DiCaprio to Matt Damon, to Meryl Streep, certain actors become defined by the type of performance they are expected to give. The focus of the culture surrounding film production is directed towards the promotion of the actor giving the performance. It’s impossible for one to eschew thinking about the actor behind the character when the media is aggressively campaigning for one to recognize and celebrate the process at work.
It is not simply time or awards ceremonies that can be at fault for revealing the player behind the part – personal choices also come into play. This is exemplified in the flamboyant antics of Johnny Depp, who long ago destroyed his ability to present characters without drawing attention to himself. Alas, after years of prancing about as a drunken pirate, a freakish chocolate maker, or yet another variation of Hunter S. Thompson, Depp’s habitual cinematic appetites have now so thoroughly ingrained themselves in the public’s consciousness that the actor, and his typical characters, have become indistinguishable.
Depp’s thick swathes of makeup, garish costumes, and silly voices have become his trademark and identifying symbol. The irony here is that these superfluous techniques often times serves as a powerful crutch for assisting an actor attempting to achieve a transformative effect. In Depp’s case however the inverse effect occurs because the secondary, visual attributes of his acting have now become synonymous as the type of work he chooses.
IV. Going Meta
What about the actors who do not seem to employ the method acting style, whose work feels even self-referential at times? The history of cinema is riddled with many performers who do little to obfuscate their own identities, often times leading to more affecting work. One of the strong, recent example of this is what occurs in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama, The Wrestler. In this potent film Mickey Rourke creates one of the more iconic leading roles of the 2000’s, playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson. As “The Ram” Rourke certainly seemed to strive for a method-based performance. He packed on pounds of muscle, actually cut himself with razors during some of the film’s brutal fight scenes, and trained for months to capture the look and feel of a professional wrestler.
This obvious physical commitment creates a powerful effect. Rourke in many scenes looks completely unrecognizable – highly credible even when sharing the screen with professional wrestlers. However, the more critical component of Rourke’s role, which gives the performance its electric poignancy, are the professional and personal connections between the actor and character.
What makes the performance work so beautifully is the convergence of the lives of both the fictional Ram and the real Rourke. For both men major life developments, such as the harm done to their bodies through sport and the general ostracization they experienced through their hard living lifestyles, ran parallel to one another. Having this knowledge imbues each scene with a greater sense of emotion. The content feels more raw, more immediate and more real. Take for instance the Ram’s soul-shattering confessional with his daughter (played by Evan Rachel Wood) or his desperate pleas to keep a young neighbor from the trailer park where he lives interested with his status as a minor celebrity. These scenes are moving on their own, but the way they resonate as reflections of Rourke’s own life is what makes The Wrestler even more emotionally stirring.
The beautifully written and performed conversation in a bar between the Ram and the character of Cassidy, played by the luminous Marisa Tomei, is another instance of art proverbially imitating life to the betterment of the film. The conversation revolves around the subject of music, an art form which the characters claim its heyday in the 1980‘s before sharply deteriorating in the 1990‘s.
While this scene is somewhat involving when taken at face value, there is an element of it which feels arbitrary unless one imposes real world connections. In this case, both Rourke and Tomei rose professionally throughout the 80’s before disintegrating in the 90’s (although Rourke experienced this to a much greater extent than Tomei) and that connection between the scripted conversation and the actual events exterior to the film enhances, not detracts, from the performances of the actors.
The actors of The Wrestler showcase how an actor’s real-life presence being visible in their character can enrich not detract from the performance. In this regard the film functions essentially in a meta-film manner, despite it not directly focusing on film production. Another example which is more firmly rooted in the meta-film genre – which also directly speaks to the idea of an actor’s presence being both visible and beneficial – is last year’s Argo (2012), where Affleck’s performance as Tony Mendez mirrored the man’s own identity as a film director and actor. Of course, when having this conversation one can also not discount the work of Woody Allen, who makes no attempt to hide himself in any of his performances. Additionally, his acting, particularly in Annie Hall (1977) and Stardust Memories (1980), appears to deconstruct both Woody’s identity in regards to his romantic life, and his professional anxieties (although Woody has vehemently denied this).
V. Deconstructing Legends
An actor’s established, off-screen identity can also play a large role in creating or deconstructing the mythos of larger-than-life stars. Take for example The Searchers (1956) and Unforgiven (1992) – films which finally address the blatant lack of morality found in both Clint Eastwood’s and John Wayne’s canons. At the time of each film’s release Eastwood and Wayne had both grown into a level of stardom that was almost legendary in nature, where hiding their actual identity would be an impossibility. However, both The Searchers and Unforgiven are clearly uninterested in showcasing transformative acting, instead doing the exact opposite. They run with the mythos of their stars with the pointed agenda of critically examining the mythology of their archetypal personas.
In The Searchers John Wayne’s character appears highly congruent with the actor’s paradigm, in that all of the typical Wayne tropes are evident in the characterization of Ethan Edwards. Yet there is also a caustic, raging anger in the man, which seems governed by racism. Similarly, in Unforgiven Clint Eastwood’s depiction of aging gunfighter William Munny emphasizes the horror inherent to the character’s violent proclivities. What is pertinent here is how the impact of these films is contingent on the intense familiarity that these two men elicit with audiences. These films imbue both Wayne’s rugged adventurer archetype, and Eastwood’s steely vigilante personality with a real sense of moral weight. Simultaneously, the films use each man’s character to deconstruct the mythology of the Western genre and movie violence. These films are the antithesis and answer to films like Wayne’s Stagecoach (1939) or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise.
The other benefit of an actor’s public persona remaining evident in much of their work is that occasionally a role can appear that subverts their established paradigm, which creates a striking effect. Certain performances from Jack Nicholson exemplify this process. The actor miraculously put away his Jack-O-Lantern grin and fiendish eye-brow twitches for the grim, nuanced The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and then 30 years later with the powerful About Schmidt (2002). Even more impressive, and far more interesting than Nicholson’s break from tradition, is the series of five westerns that were produced through the artistic partnership of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart. This includes The Naked Spur (1953), a film which completely inverted the Stewart facade of a perennial, All-American good guy.
The effect of Stewart’s work in Spur is something that is truly remarkable. It offers a presentation of one of the 20th Century’s greatest stars in a role starkly divergent from his bashful, “Aw shucks” demeanor found in films like: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Harvey (1950), or even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). The audience doesn’t forget about that carefully cultivated persona; it actually can’t forget about it for his performance in The Naked Spur to function properly. Stewart in The Naked Spur gives us the ultimate inversion of the placid, almost saintly American hero. He exposes our fears, our anxieties about the feral universe outside of small-town Americana. Even more importantly Stewart elucidates our anxieties about our inner-selves, showcasing the raging capacity for violence that is brimming beneath the facade of white-picket fences, Mom’s apple-pie and Norman Rockwell. This elucidation would fail without our past relationship with Stewart. The film uses his dominant, recognizable and enduring identity as “one of the good guys” as a source of disturbing power.
VI. Room on the Stage
The same opportunities are jumped on by William Friedkin in Killer Joe (2012) and Steven Soderbergh in Magic Mike (2012). In Joe, the director capitalizes on McConaughey’s long relationship with harmless romantic comedy. In doing so he brings us a character who disarms us initially with the affable charm that became a staple of McConaughey’s rom-com performances. The horrifying beauty of this situation is how McConaughey past professional credits win the allegiance of the audience’s sympathies, which makes the final reveal of Killer’s Joe’s true savagery even more upsetting.
While Killer Joe seeks to harness an audience’s relationship with the actor’s past performances in a specific genre, Magic Mike’s agenda is fixated on subverting the manner in which the industry had utilized McConaughey’s body. It imbues his sex appeal with a darker and more cerebral undercurrent. A huge segment of the man’s filmography is dominated by roles requiring little more than simple charisma and a focus on his naked pectorals. McConaughey’s Dallas character in Magic Mike shares these attributes. However, the film makes a point to position Dallas as a man intensely aware of the benefits his appearance provides for him. He is a character who chooses to monetize his sexuality. He revels in it and exploits it.
With this interpretation in mind Magic Mike seems to comment on the arc of McConaughey’s own career. Dallas’s journey from stripper to business owner, from the one being controlled to the one doing the controlling, is also McConaughey’s journey. The power dynamics of the man’s career have reversed themselves, with A-List directors like Christopher Nolan now clamoring to work with him. One can easily see how the prospect of casting McConaughey in the film was an attractive for Tatum and Soderbergh. He simply is Dallas, and McConaughey’s work prompts interpretations for how the actor and character overlap.
At long last one can see how an unquestioning, quixotic reverence for “transformative” acting is perhaps misguided. It’s a dubious concept because the effects of time, audience recognition, cultural approbation and personal choices often degrade an actor’s ability to ever truly disappear into the character. Additionally one can recognize that the presence of an actor’s real persona can serve a critical purpose. Often, it can be the very catalyst for a character resonating in a unique and special way. Without actors and performances that eschew the method acting route our film culture would never have the legendary archetypes of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, the great meta-film performances of Rourke, or acting that represents “playing against type,” like the great Jimmy Stewart collaborations with Anthony Mann.
Finally we wouldn’t have the work of McConaughey in 2012 (which is something he has continued with throughout 2013 and now into 2014) where he subverted audience’s expectations and seemed to offer meta-commentary on the ebb and flow of his own career. This resurgence offers the chance to view acting in a different light, to stop availing ourselves of the idea that only one type of performance deserves to be celebrated. Ironically, McConaughey’s most lauded performance of late is also his most conventional, a typical awards-baiting part defined by an extreme physical transformation and rooted in real events. His Academy Award nomination for Dallas Buyer’s Club, while exciting, suggests that the concept of great acting is sadly still not up for debate.