Imitation Flavored

Walk the Line
With her portrayal of June Carter, Reese Witherspoon (shown with Joaquin Phoenix)settles for less. (Suzanne Tenner - Twentieth Century Fox)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

What do we talk about when we talk about acting?

And what do I mean when I say, as I often do, "That's not acting, it's impersonating"?

It's a question that has vexed me as long as I've been writing about movies: What, exactly, is an actor doing when he or she transports us with a performance? Whereas it's possible to break a movie down into its visual and aural components -- the cinematography, editing, music and dialogue -- when it comes to describing a performance, words always seem to fail. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart on the subject of pornography, we know a good performance when we see it. Indeed, we don't just see it, we feel it in our bones as something honest, authentic and deeply felt. But why? What are the technical elements that are in place when an actor delivers not just a good performance but a great one?

The Oscars present the ideal opportunity to consider the mysteries of acting. As the veteran critic Stanley Kauffmann pointed out recently in the New Republic, only at the Academy Awards can viewers be treated to the surreal sight -- okay, some might say crime -- of Marisa Tomei beating Vanessa Redgrave for Best Supporting Actress.

This year's crop of Oscar nominees includes only one "Huh?" for me, and it allows me to ride what has become something of a hobbyhorse of mine: actors who have been nominated for good impersonations rather than great performances. I was one of the few people on the planet who weren't wowed by Jamie Foxx's Oscar-winning turn as Ray Charles in the 2004 movie "Ray"; I felt it was more a study in mannerisms than a fully realized performance. This year, I'm that rare naysayer regarding Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of June Carter in "Walk the Line," which too often felt to me like let's-put-Reese-in-another-hairstyle.

But here's the curious part: I am rooting for Philip Seymour Hoffman to win the Oscar for his uncanny channeling of Truman Capote in "Capote." And I thought two of his co-nominees, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" and David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," were outstanding as their respective real-life characters.

How to reconcile the discrepancy?

Maybe it's the movies themselves. "Walk the Line," like "Ray," is a conventional biopic, a boy-to-man journey that is basically a VH1 "Behind the Music" episode: From humble roots and an early childhood trauma, the artist finds an outlet -- and eventually success, fame and drugs -- in his art, finally discovering redemption in the love of a good woman. It's a trite, formulaic framework whose narrative exigencies make a fleshed-out performance difficult if not impossible. (To my way of thinking, Phoenix managed to overcome "Walk the Line's" structural constraints, but just barely.)

On the other hand, both "Capote" and "Good Night, and Good Luck" eschewed the life-span arc. Instead they focused on the pivotal moments of both men's lives, in Capote's case the period he spent writing "In Cold Blood" and in Murrow's, his on-air campaign against Sen. Joseph McCarthy. No back story, no intimate domestic scenes, no warm-and-fuzzies, just the lean retelling of the emotionally charged, high-stakes episodes that would change both men's lives forever.

"Capote," especially, succeeds as a film that, in its exploration of one man's ambition, anxiety and moral compromise, allows for a performance rather than a mere imitation. Hoffman doesn't just nail Capote's signature baby-talk lisp and hand-flopping gestures; he actually makes the audience ignore those things and focus instead upon the man behind them, a writer on the verge of both success and self-destruction.

The fact that Hoffman had room to do this is a tribute to "Capote's" magnificent script (perhaps more than in any other category, "Brokeback Mountain" deserves to be upset in this one). But it's also a tribute to Hoffman's skills as an actor -- the same skills he brought to memorable performances in "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and as the leads in the little-seen "Love Liza" and "Owning Mahowny."

But what are those skills, exactly? What is an actor actually doing when he or she succeeds in making us forget we're watching a movie (or a play), and believe instead that we're watching a life?

In "The Intent to Live: Achieving Your True Potential as an Actor," author and acting coach Larry Moss tells the story of the legendary actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen returning to the theater again and again to watch Laurette Taylor as Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie" in order to analyze Taylor's technique. Every time, Hagen "became so completely absorbed in the play that she forgot she was watching an actress and believed she was watching a woman named Amanda Wingfield live," Moss writes. "Uta Hagen complained that she never learned a damn thing from Laurette Taylor because she could never catch her acting!"

Moss, who coached Helen Hunt for her role in "As Good as It Gets" and Hilary Swank for both "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby," believes that the difference between impersonating and acting -- and between good acting and great acting -- lies in the psychological research and reflection an actor does before going on camera, accessing personal memories and emotions to bring oneself into a role rather than just playing it. Hoffman's performance, Moss says, is "a very good example of a performance that has enormous technique, filled to the brim with what I call emotional justification, and that's the private work the actor does to identify within himself the emotional cost of a character's desires."

Hoffman has said in interviews that he when he began rehearsing for his part in "Capote," he focused on the externals of the character -- the signature voice and mannerisms most people know from the writer's appearances on the talk show circuit in the 1970s. "But then he got stymied," Moss explains. "He felt he was doing an impersonation. [So] he stopped and went back to work on the whys, why [Capote] was doing this kind of obsessive questioning. And he found the emotional center, which I think had to do with his ambition, his own heartbreak, his own fragility. And I think that when Hoffman understood that and then personalized it for himself, then he went back to the externals and filled the rest of it out."

This might help explain why some performances don't ring true. "If you don't have the right externals with the right internals, it doesn't work," says Moss. "If Philip Seymour Hoffman didn't find the internal life, it would be like a cartoon. It's easy to do the lisping and the limp wrist, the oddnesses and eccentricities of Capote, but he could also find the hunger inside the man, and that's where real action lies."

Hunger is the right word for my four picks for the acting Oscars this year: Hoffman's Capote, voracious for fame; Matt Dillon's Officer Ryan in "Crash," ravenous for vindication on behalf of his father; Felicity Huffman's Bree Osbourne ("Transamerica"), a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual who hungers for an outer identity that matches her inner one; Amy Adams's radiant character in "Junebug," her appetite for love having long gone unsatisfied. All four performances seem to be about people and their lives, rather than mere characters and a plot.

This isn't to say that the other nominees aren't gifted actors; they are, including Witherspoon, who has delivered terrific performances in "Freeway," "Election" and "Legally Blonde." The actress, whose sweetness is equaled only by her unmistakable ambition, even delivered what to my mind was a genuine Oscar-worthy performance earlier this year, when she met the press in Berlin after receiving news of her Academy Award nomination.

"I was completely surprised," she told reporters. Talk about acting.

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