Star turns: Clockwise from top left, Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet and Ben Affleck
When Marlon Brando took on the role of Mark Antony in the 1953 film Julius Caesar, there was the usual round of derisive snorts about a film actor attempting something which was so obviously the province of properly trained classical theatre actors—and probably British ones at that. A Hollywood star—and one trained in the Method! Fancy! As it happened, Brando wasn’t half bad. And one wit nailed the all-too-predictable snobbery perfectly: if Brando was so limited and our theatrical knights so infinite in their variety, then all one had to do was try to imagine John Gielgud as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire.
That put it nicely in perspective. Even today however, this attitude persists: American movie stars are complimented for their nerve in trying out the West End stage, where they will then obviously gain proper acting chops and “prove” themselves (unlike in LA itself, where “doing theatre” is a throwaway euphemism for being out of work, its effectiveness based on the assumption that nobody of any importance would see you). Doing it live, regardless of the artificiality, the sheer stiltedness of the medium, is still regarded as the more worthwhile achievement. This is rubbish. I’d suggest that truthfulness, if that is what one takes as the mark of good acting, is far harder to convey under the unforgiving scrutiny of the cinematic close-up.
Certainly the two are quite different disciplines: broadly speaking, film acting takes place on the inside, theatre on the outside. But I’m not a movie critic for nothing, so will happily lay my cards down and say that what’s required for the screen calls for something basically superior to what’s required for treading the boards.
I thought of this recently when watching The Master—the Paul Thomas Anderson film which, you might remember, I sat through recently so that you wouldn’t have to. The Oscars are once again approaching and Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the addled, sleazy cult-follower, which has received every breathless plaudit going, is already in with more than a shouting chance for the Best Actor award. Members of the Academy, still perhaps infected with the lingering sense that their product has to prove itself against the standards of the legitimate theatre, remain suckers for “big” theatrical performances, and in all its showy tricks and mannerisms, Phoenix’s performance has the hallmarks of the stage. We admire the technical skill, the sheer physical stamina involved, without much believing in the character.
This performance, lauded as it has been, is less impressive than much of the screen acting I’ve seen over the past year, in the cinema and for that matter on TV. It started on a high: when Meryl Streep finally hobbled out in January as the much reduced Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, one felt that some kind of new benchmark had been set. This performance wasn’t a mere imitation: alongside the recreation of Thatcher’s character there was an extraordinary authenticity about the details of her particular social attributes and Englishness. And what it wasn’t was showy. The poignancy of the quieter moments could not have existed without a camera; on stage the performance would have descended into caricature.