Literary critics have one big fault, and film critics have another. The best critics of the novel undervalue story-telling even as they push the merits of literary gruel: dull, highbrow tomes filled with “ideas.” The result is excessive praise for Mrs. Dalloway and not enough for The Natural, huzzahs for Gravity’s Rainbow but not for The Jungle Book.
Film critics have the opposite fault. Because most start out as idolators, even the best of them often struggle to view and judge the medium as an art form. This attitude marred the often-brilliant criticism of Pauline Kael, and it also affects the work of David Thomson. Yet Thomson’s strengths are many, and his writing overflows with compassion, wide experience of life, and cultivation. Those traits are all on display here.
Thomson does not approach his subject in any systematic or formal way. If you know he wrote a book in 1987 on Warren Beatty that alternated between reported commentary about the subject with a surrealistic novel about Hollywood, you are unlikely to be surprised that Thomson attacks the subject of acting sometimes discursively and sometimes novelistically. Two particular figures of interest are Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando. Thomson rightly notes that although those two men are usually associated with conflicting schools of acting (traditional vs. method), neither can be easily classified. Thomson uses the pairing to identify not only the qualities we associate with great acting but the qualities that characterize great actors.
Inevitably, this involves some disparagement. Narcissism, manipulativeness, emotionalism founded in a poor sense of reality and, possibly, of self: These are defining aspects of the best performers. The actor who offers us the most soulful interpretation of a part frequently has the least understanding of himself, or of others.
Thomson makes no claim that acting is a moral endeavor; it is a profession that interests him and that serves as a vehicle for grasping the basic problems of life. In this sense, acting as a vocation isn’t a metaphor simply for life but for a more distilled version of it. The actor is Everyman, and through his choice of work, he faces the vexing problems others do in more absolute fashion: the need to articulate a presentation of oneself to find work, the loss of opportunity tied to the passing of youth, the uncertainty of love in an atomized world.
In what respect is Why Acting Matters less than satisfying? The difficulty is that Thomson isn’t concerned with what acting says about us; he remains, rather, an iconographer. The author of works on Gary Cooper, Bette Davis, and Nicole Kidman, he is fascinated by the glamour of the screen star over and above his or her expressive truthfulness. Thus, toward the end of the book, we find him gushing about Julia Roberts. While Thomson knows that Roberts is much closer to a screen personality than a great, or even good, actress, he is worshipful about her appearance in Pretty Woman (1990). Why? Because she was “gorgeous beyond belief where ‘gorgeousness’ was a mainline into one’s hopeless desires.”
I doubt that she could do Hedda Gabler or Tracy Lord out in the open. But her quality as an actress is not quite the point here, just as I finally feel that performance is a more important or generative venture than differences of quality. If acting is an attempt to which most of us are vulnerable in real life, it hardly matters whether we are doing a good job or a bad job.
This may qualify as philosophy, but it’s vacant criticism. And as anyone who works with actors will tell you, the quality of the acting matters as much as the difference between fresh mozzarella and Cheez Whiz.
Think of The Graduate (1967). When Mike Nichols was casting the movie, he considered three actors for the part of Benjamin Braddock: Robert Redford, Charles Grodin, and Dustin Hoffman. Those who have read the novel on which the film is based will know that Redford was closest to the role; and Nichols knew from directing him on Broadway how skilled he could be at romantic comedy. And who doesn’t know Grodin’s capacity for farce? But consider how forgettable The Graduate would have been with either Redford or Grodin. While Dustin Hoffman lacked the charisma, the generative power, of Robert Redford, he had a rare subtlety combined with a capacity to suggest complex feelings. When Anne Bancroft tries to seduce him, we laugh—but also grasp the pathos. We feel Benjamin’s discomfort and shame even as we find the humor in his flimsy confidence.