When is a good actor not a good actor?
A weird thing sometimes happens when two or more people sit down in a cutting room and look through takes. They will agree on which take has the smoothest camera move or focus pull, there’ll be little disagreement about whether the shoot looks better with the sun out or behind the cloud, or even about which take caught the actor moving in the most dynamic manner. When it comes to the actor’s performance, however, there can be profound disagreement on which take is best.
It’s not only filmmakers in cutting rooms – critics can’t agree, voters on major awards are divided, and audiences are split. For some people Marlon Brando was the finest screen actor who ever lived, for others he was a mumbling ham. Others consider Nicolas Cage to be a god… and not all of them are being ironic.
What’s going on?!
A simple answer might be that audiences just have different tastes. Just as with music: one person loves dubstep but hates baroque chamber music, another digs jazz but can’t stand show tunes. Everyone’s different.
But isn’t acting different in kind? Surely an actor mimics the behaviour of a particular person in a particular situation? Okay the person they’re playing might be fictional, but given all the information we have about that character, we can surely make a pretty good guess as to whether or not the actor’s behaviour is natural? We’re not talking about something that’s entirely relative. So how can a performance that appears completely convincing, moving even, to one person seem utterly fake to another?
An artist-filmmaker I work with, Daria Martin, was intrigued when she and I disagreed during an edit on what a certain actor’s look was expressing. As an experiment, she tracked down a book that contained pages of photos of people with different expressions and we tested each other on what emotion we thought they were expressing.
This was fun, but it soon became clear that the test was spurious. For a start, it was unclear how the author of the book had established that the subject of a certain photo was expressing, say, annoyance. Had he asked them to “look annoyed” or was he asserting his own opinion about what annoyance looks like? Even if he had gone to the trouble of doing something to annoy the person, so that he’d be sure that their annoyance was the real thing, did it matter? The result would simply be how that one particular person expressed annoyance at that time, rather than some universal template of annoyance.
We all read human behaviour slightly differently, but at least in a social situation there is a right answer. Someone is either annoyed or they are not; the only question is whether or not we successfully pick up on their emotion. A filmed performance is different – if an actor who is in-character feels annoyance, but the camera doesn’t pick up on it, the emotion might as well not be there. If no one can recognise it, it doesn’t exist.
One simple factor that can skew how we receive an actor’s performance, is how attractive we find that actor. Not just physical attractiveness, we’re easily swayed by a charismatic persona too. This is a basic human bias: we look for the best in people we’re attracted to, we want them to be good. We ‘buy-in’ to their performance. It doesn’t dull our senses completely, but whether we recognise it or not we’re all susceptible to the allure of an attractive performer. However, this is only a partial answer.
I think there is a more comprehensive reason why different people believe different performances – it’s to do with what we see as the basic purpose of acting. The broad division of opinion echoes that of the old rivalry between the British theatrical tradition of Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud et al., and the followers of ‘The Method’ of Stanislavski, brought to America by Lee Strasburg and Stella Adler and popularised by the likes of Brando, De Niro and Pacino. Simply put, the British theatrical approach was based on entertainment and dramatic effect, whereas the American Method was about being naturalistic and emotionally true. These two approaches present completely separate criteria for judging an actor’s performance: the first leads you to say “That actor was good: I enjoyed their performance”, the second “That actor was good: I believed their performance.” Entertainment vs. truth.
Unconsciously I think we all prioritise one approach over the other. Not in a black-and-white way: one person might need to believe that the actor really is that character, but they don’t want the performance to be dull; another might need the actor to be engaging, but also wants to be able to suspend their disbelief.
Crucially this is not a single spectrum, with dramatic performances at one end and emotionally true ones at the other. The best actors should be able to be true, naturalistic, engaging and entertaining all at the same time; and when they succeed those are the performances that most commonly unite people in praise.
For me, the last word goes to Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” If there is any respect in which acting can be said to be good or bad, it can only be in relation to the number of people who think it so. Perhaps there are no bad performances, only unpopular ones.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2017
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge