In the past several years, I’ve noticed that I have a harder time enjoying performances by actors. My sense is that I have become more sensitive to mediocre acting—i.e. a performance feels like a performance, more than behavior coming from a real person—and because of that I have a harder time finding performances I can enjoy. This became apparent recently with Jeff Bridges’ widely acclaimed performance in Crazy Heart. It seems like very critic and review considers this a great performance, which just leaves me scratching my head and questioning my own judgment. I didn’t think the performance was bad, but I also didn’t think it was great.
So I’m wondering if there is a way to identify a good—or even a great—performance over a mediocre or bad one. Does great acting often enter a realm that is undefinable, almost mystical—a realm that some people “get” while others don’t? I’m thinking of Robert Duvall’s performance (an appropriate comparison with Jeff Bridges’ one) in Tender Mercies. I think it’s a terrific performance, maybe an all-time great performance, but I don’t know if I can articulate what makes it great. His performance and his character almost come out of his pores—it’s imperceptible, but at the same time there is a pathos and substance in the performance. Another performance like this is Maria Falconetti’s performance in Passion of Joan D’Arc. One could say she’s just making faces in the camera and that wouldn’t be a completely inaccurate description. Yet, something powerful is coming across that screen—at least for me and many others.
So is there a way to make a compelling case for one performance’s greatness over another? Or does it just come down to “Well, that peformance worked for me?”
Btw, I do think that bad acting usually can be spoken about with a little more specificity. Generally, I’d say that mediocre or bad performances are ones where you “see” the acting; where the acting doesn’t seem like behavior coming from a real person. Then again, this is not very specific and many people disagree on which performances are like this. One example is Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood (and, for me, almost anything he’s in). I just found it overwrought and actor-y in many ways. (The fact that he seemed to be imitating Jack Palance’s voice didn’t help either). I don’t find his acting natural—which is another hallmark of good acting for me.
I hope we can talk about good acting vs bad acting; whether we can clearly identify it or not and site some examples to make our case.
I agree there are actors that seems natural (james garner, robert redford, warren beatty, sam elliot) then there are actors u can tell are acting Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Cruise, Mark Wahlberg (who actually seems to be trying so hard it hurts)
then there are some that coast on likability and never try range: Rodney Dangerfield, Hugh Grant, Jimmy Durante
the only actors I try to avoid are the ones who u feel are acting
Cruise is not a great actor, but he’s not a bad one—certainly for a leading man. I find that he has an appealing energy that he brings to his performances as well. I don’t really agree about Wahlberg being “unnatural.”
This also made me think of another issue: how important is an actor’s range when considering the quality of an actor? Some actors like Redford have a limited range versus someone like Hoffman. But does that make Redford less of an actor? I tend not to think so, and in some ways, I think range or versatility is somehat overrated.
he does have a unique energy but it feels like he is always searching for his lines, Tom Cruise I mean.
about range if u can discover yr range however limited and work it well then u are way ahead of the game
Groucho never gave a bad performance
Cary Grant or Bud Spencer didnt either
Al Pacino, DDL, Zach Braff=
Acting is probably more difficult to theorize about than many other aspects of filmmaking.
Pacino can be over-the-top, but he has good, if not, great moments, too. His performance in Donnie Brasco was solid. I also liked his Shylock in Merchant of Venice. Plus, I think Pacino strength is his charisma, star power than acting chops. He’s also solid in the Godfather films, too. I’m sure there are others.
this was true a long time ago jazz but he forgot a lot about acting and has become a parody of what he once was and has not been good in some time
he jumped the shark in those 2 john avnet films
getting back to the topic I dont know what makes good acting
why I can feel wahlberg and channing tatum straining and the occasional actor that seems empty like Don Johnson (The Hot Spot) and Brooke Shields (Pretty Baby, Endless Love) are still convincing. I guess it has to do with knowing what u are capable of and not going further,which is a much better option than doing something beyond yr range. Trying (when it comes to acting) is the first step toward failure
I tend to agree with Matt Parks that acting is more difficult to assess than many other aspects of filmmaking. Even the academics haven’t fully developed a vocabulary to speak about screen acting, although some have recently tried — including yours truly, Dennis Bingham, Jeremy Butler, Alan Lovell and Peter Kramer, James Naremore, Carole Zucker, Cynthia Baron, Sharon Carnicke, and Diane Carson.
However, it’s important to distinguish between the actual mechanics of acting — vocal intonation, posture, gesture, facial expressions, costume, etc. — and THE ROLE being played, which is usually the responsibility of the screenwriter.
My theory is that most acting awards (especially the Oscars) are given for the ROLE, rather than the actual performance. If a character resonates with the audience (or even an individual viewer), then the actor/actress usually gets much of the credit.
As far as good vs. bad acting is concerned, there are certain acting styles — especially the Brechtian school — that intentionally try to call attention to the fact that you’re watching a performance. In an ideal world. one shouldn’t bring considerations of naturalism or realism to such acting. Brecht was a huge influence on Douglas Sirk, Godard, and Fassbinder, for instance. And I once had a huge argument with an internationally known film professor about the acting in Rossellini’s Medici movies. I insisted that the acting was flat-out BAD (mainly because the performers were rank amateurs — which sometimes works well, but in this case did not) while this prof. claimed that the acting was “Brechtian” — intentionally off-putting to call attention to the artifice and pull the viewer out of the illusion and make them think. (Brecht called his dramas “Learning Plays.”)
Similarly, should we bring standards of naturalism to, say, a soap opera or musical? In comedy, Groucho may never have given a bad performance, as Den says above, but does it resemble “behavior coming from a real person”? (especially when he talks directly to the audience, as in HORSE FEATHERS, when he says: “I’m stuck up here, but there’s no reason you can’t go out into the lobby until this blows over.”)
In short, do certain genres have different standards for what is good acting vs. bad acting? Or are we mainly talking about dramas here? (I hesitate to bring up silent screen acting, so I won’t!)
a good actor can bring what they have to other genres
Laurence Oliver used to tell Jimmy Durante that he should play Hamlet to which Durante replied, “I dont do small towns.”
Adam Sandler is playing his usual character in Punch Drunk Love
and Dangerfield is playing the same way in my 5 wives and natural born killers
Franks theory about awards and acting is interesting.
Acting styles that are intentionally call attention to the performance may be another reason why watching a film more than once will give you a greater understanding of what it’s doing.
So Frank, you’re not going to tell us who the professor was?
Great post! You brought up some really good issues and made good points.
I like the distinction between a role and performance—and I sort of feel we give actors awards for the roles (or characters) they play rather than a performance. (I haven’t really tried to tally them, however. I’d say Hoffman’s Rain Main and Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster were for performance, rather than role.)
Or are we thinking of role and performance differently?
Also, would you say that generally awards are given to characters that are really likable or really reviled (a villain like Hannibal Lecter, for example)?
I would that screenwriters should be given a lot of the credit (or blame) in terms of roles. On the other hand, I think roles seem so collaborative that, crediting/blaming one person seems impossible. (I guess we could determine who most made the role great.) For example, doesn’t the director have to share in the credit/blame. He’s not beholden to the screenwriter’s creation of the character—he actually has final say on the nature of the role. The camera work and costumes also have a big influence (although those decisions could come from the director or actor). I’m thinking of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. The costume and make-up were big contributions to the success of that character. (Is that a good role or performance in your mind?)
As far as good vs. bad acting is concerned, there are certain acting styles — especially the Brechtian school — that intentionally try to call attention to the fact that you’re watching a performance.
What are some examples of this, particularly in a dramatic context? (I’m assuming Brecht did more dramatic stuff.) I’d be interested in hearing when this type of performance would work in a more conventional drama…which leads to the next issue.
In short, do certain genres have different standards for what is good acting vs. bad acting?
Excellent point. I guess, I was thinking mainly of dramas. Certainly the type of film determines the appropriateness of the acting. The acting in Dumb and Dumber certainly isn’t realistic, but it’s completely appropriate. I’d don’t know if I’d call it great, however….which leads me to wonder if there are great performances in genre films or at least non-dramatic ones? (I’m sure there are, but I can’t think of anything specific right now.)
@Jazz: I like the distinction between a role and performance—and I sort of feel we give actors awards for the roles (or characters) they play rather than a performance. (I haven’t really tried to tally them, however. I’d say Hoffman’s Rain Main and Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster were for performance, rather than role.) Or are we thinking of role and performance differently?
I think we’re on the same page about the distinction between role & performance. The examples you give — Hoffman’s Rain Main and Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster — probably don’t fit my model. I agree with you that those performances were heralded because of the actual acting: changes in voice, gesture, hair style, posture, movement, etc. were pronounced in both cases.
That’s a toss-up in my opinion. One would have to do a statistical analysis to determine whether awards go more often to positive or negative characters, and that would be complicated by (a) the competition in a given year (what if they were ALL villains?) and (b) by characters who had both good and bad qualities (theanti-hero, for instance).
Yes, in cinema, character creation is a complex phenomenon. But BASIC character is usually created by the screenwriter, as well as most of the dialogue. Peter Finch gave a great performance in NETWORK but he probably won the Oscar (posthumously) because he “articulated the popular rage” by saying “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!” (words written by Paddy Chayevsky). And, yes, the director may have suggested that the camera dolly in at a particularly dramatic moment, which in turn accentuated the actor’s sneer, which in turn led to an Academy Award for Best Acting. I was just stating a generalization; each case has to be looked at individually. As for Heath Ledger as the Joker, I agree with you that costume and makeup enhanced that characterization, which was also aided by Ledger’s vocal intonations and movements. The role as written was not that spectacular (e.g., the dialogue and actions), so I’d give most of the credit to the actor in that case. (But I could be wrong…)
I mentioned a few Brechtian directors earlier — Sirk, Godard, and Fassbinder. Most melodramas utilize an “over-the-top” emotional acting style that MIGHT be considered Brechtian in that it calls attention to its own artifice but I would argue that that’s just the conventional style of melodrama and it was used well before Brecht ever penned his theories of the Epic Theater. So, this is not an easy one to categorize, as my Rossellini example suggests.
Again, I agree that the acting in DUMB AND DUMBER is appropriate for that gross-out comedy. However, actors in certain genres — especially those that involve particularly exaggerated acting, such as comedy, musicals, horror films, etc, — are rarely considered for acting awards. Likewise, those genre films rarely win Oscars (or the Palme d’Or either). With a few exceptions, drama rules at award shows and festivals — and I don’t think I have to do a statistical analysis to say that with some certainty.
If we use the oscars as some kind of right judge of acting (not that I would)
do we use the razzies the same way?
Eddie Murphy got a razzie nomination for Norbit but he played four distinct characters (or caricatures) and did so in a believable fashion or at the very least he carried the picture without straining himself
Cruise is not an actor he’s a movie star.
I think you underrate Day Lewis.
Speaking of faces, the young actor at the heart of Come and See could have acted the entire film without uttering a word, so adept is he at expressing himself through his look alone. An accomplished child performance.
I think I favor movie stars
the ones I like anyway
for instance since i like clark gable in a film I tend to always like clark gable as long as he is not doing something crazy like when John wayne played G Khan. But it is harder to create a persona and nurture and stick with that persona than it is to go from role to role in my opinion
Personally, I am not bothered by acting; be the actor a Bressonian model, a Brechtian actor or a naturalist Rohmeresque conversation participant. But acting starts to get distracting and irritating for me when it reaches Oscar heights with all the melodramatic inspired monologues and thoroughly scripted one-liners (e.g. Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking).
I tend to agree with that, though I will say the more I’m exposed to it the more I am coming to lean towards realism and naturalistic performances.
I’m thinking of writing a film where the “script” would serve to set the actors up to have a conversation (they’re being filmed but they’re just talking as themselves, not ‘in character’), but those conversations end up actually comprising the film I’m trying to make.
Not sure if that was coherent, but I’m going with it.
Law: I pretty much agree, though I give some lee-way on dialogue depending on the age or period it’s set in.
I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority re: DDL. Most people seem to think he’s fabulous. What are some performances that stand out for you? Btw, one of the things that I touched on in the original post is that as I’ve watched more movies, my sensitivity and picky-ness towards acting has increased. Do others find this to be true?
Jazz: I agree with your latter point—I’m going through the same thing now.
In the films that I’ve seen I found he was great: Last of the Mohicans (my least favorite DDL performance), The Boxer, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood.
The latter two in particular (though they skew far away from realism") are so much fun that I can’t take my eyes off of him.
Acting is up there in importance in filmmaking for me. I am very sensitive to acting since I went to film school—-it’s difficult for me to fully immerse myself in a film without constantly being aware that I am watching a movie (I’m watching what a camera is recording right now). Consequently, when acting is spot-on, I notice it retrospectively by paradoxically [i]not[/i] noticing it. If I can lose myself in the action of screen, I consider the performance sound.
how do you do bold/italics in reply boxes on T.A.??
Bold: Asterisks before and after the word
Italics: _ before and after the word
A performance is a signifier, so unless the actor is a pure genius in self expression (Cary Grant, Warren Oates, Carol Lombard), I prefer the actor to serve the mise-en-scene humbly and without fuss.
For me, good acting is basically a question of authenticity – getting it right relative to the character the actor is portraying. If the actions, including subtle nuances of expression and line delivery, feel right to us, then the actor has been able to transmit something that is real and human. The best actors don’t work in broad strokes or ever resort to melodrama. They try to read just what is appropriate to the character in terms of expression – what feels natural. Small changes in expression, voice inflection, a look cast just at the right moment can be much more revealing than an actor who is just emoting in front of the camera.
Take Ingrid Bergman as one example. Study her in almost any role. She is very effective in the small gestures and looks. A teary eye when done by her can convey a whole wealth of emotion without the need of one word of dialogue. Brando and Nicholson at their best command the screen by a sort of presence or charismatic appeal. Brando in Streetcar Named Desire epitomized a style of acting where he created before us a full-dimensional portrait of a deeply flawed man who is unaware of the effect of his actions on others. Brando makes him human, not a caricature. Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces gives a flawless performance, where every gesture and bit of dialogue conveys an inner reality to his character that we would not see without his gifts. Geraldine Page in A Trip to Bountiful perfectly captures the essence of her character – a simple, country woman who is longing to recapture her past. Jack Lemmon could capture the frustrated nature of his characters by his facial gestures and perfect comic timing.
In every case, good acting is really invisible. A good actor blends perfectly into the character portrayed to bring that character to life. All this boils down to naturalness, authenticity, and ability to convey the heart of the character in every gesture. Anything that smacks of artifice or melodrama is just bad acting. When we believe in a character and get an insight into their motivation and personality – forgetting the actor’s own personality – then we have a good to great performance. Acting is the hardest thing to learn and the most elusive element to pin down.
When we feel it is right, and can’t see the man/woman behind the mask, then it is working its magic. For in reality, good acting is more akin to a magic act happening right before our eyes. To over-analyze it makes the magic disappear. Recognizing good acting is more a feeling than a thought process.
Study the greats and one may learn something of their craft. Of course, a well-scripted role does a great deal to help the artist transmit something of the character to us. But great actors can bring life into a script and role to make of it something uniquely their own. Look at a character actor such as Sydney Greenstreet who could milk any line for far more than what it might be worth in lesser hands. Orson Welles – the invisible man throughout most of The Third Man – steals every scene he is in by the sheer bravado and versatility of his performance. Peter Sellers proved that comic acting requires just as much talent as dramatic to be effective. Alec Guinness could do either comedy or drama or portray any character imaginable with complete believability. If we feel and believe in the character on screen, then we have good acting.
If we are lacking that today, blame poor screenplays more than the lack of acting talent. Jeff Bridges, for example, is an excellent actor when given the right role, as he has demonstrated over a long career. Even a gifted actor can’t completely transcend mediocre writing. A great performance usually results from good writing connecting with inspired acting. Case in point: Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? Great writing justs gives the extra oomph to great acting. This often is NOT the stuff of current Hollywood filmmaking, which is too formulistic, unfortunately. However, the rest of the world is out there, not relying on formulas, and this is where to find good acting today.
Ahh, I love you, Joe. So happy you’re still here.
And I largely agree with you. I’d add that acting, like any other art, has an intangible element that cannot be taught, no matter how long you study or practice.
Thanks, Josh – I can return the compliment. We have several consistently thoughtful posters on site, such as yourself, who always add to the dialogue. When this place works, it is a dialogue and hopefully not a monologue. Some posters can get across in a few sentences what it takes me to say in a more round about, longer way. Thanks for reading and commenting, too.
I think that there are a handful of great actors out there in English language films that just need the proper vehicle to show off their talent. I admire the work of Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, and yes, Daniel Day Lewis. Each brings something special to the table. I also admire a Julianne Moore or Tilda Swinton who will try to add something to less conventional roles or have the courage to take on something different. I think you will often find that good actors seek out creative directors – and writers – that will challenge them and extend their range.
If actors are just looking for ‘Oscar bait’. roles, forget it! These are often the type of roles that allow actors to ham it up, emote for the camera, and draw the audience in through manipulation. This isn’t really acting but just another form of a con job. That never works for me.
Blanchett, without a doubt. I have heard that Swinton is amazing in Julia, which I have in my Q (and Moore is my wife’s favorite actress).
I also like the authenticity that Viggo Mortensen can bring to his roles (in varying degrees of success).
On the flip side I’m not at all impressed with ‘heavyweights’ like Anthony Hopkins, and we could go on at length about the downfall of DeNiro and Pacino.