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If the Stars Can Make You Forget Who They Are, That's When You've Seen Greatness

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page M01

In the opening moments of "The Visitor," actor Richard Jenkins stands at a living room window, nursing a glass of red wine, staring into the middle distance. As scenes go, it's a brief one. A man stands, looking out a window. Nothing happens. ¶ And yet, everything happens. Or at least everything the audience needs to know about Jenkins's character, Walter Vale. He's alone. Isolated. Depressed. He's craving connection but can't break through. It's all there, in the way he stands, the way expression barely plays across his face, and especially in his eyes -- eyes that seem to contain worlds of pain, loneliness, grief. A few seconds later, he's taking a disastrous (and very amusing) piano lesson, and the audience realizes: We may not know Walter Vale, but we care about him. A lot. ¶ Like Potter Stewart and pornography, we know good acting when we see it. But what, exactly, is it? How do we explain why certain actors move us and others leave us cold? Why did you find yourself bawling at Angelina Jolie's performance in "Changeling" while your best friend sat beside you dry-eyed? Why did one critic describe Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" as "standing there like a sensitive zombie" while another one called it Pitt's "most impressive outing to date"?

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Is Robert Downey Jr. really acting in "Tropic Thunder"? Or is he just a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude?

The easy answer is that it's all subjective. That's half-true. Every viewer brings biases and personal baggage to a performance that even the finest actor can never overcome. But there are objective standards that apply to screen acting, even at its most ethereal and unquantifiable. Maybe not rules, exactly, but principles -- involving physical control, intelligence, intuition and nuts-and-bolts technique -- that make it possible to discern whether there's more going on in Marisa Tomei's performance in "The Wrestler" than taking her top off.

How do we know that the actor or actress we just watched laugh, cry, break down or even die on-screen delivered a tour de force -- or a turkey? If you're asking yourself the following questions during a movie, you know a performance has failed, because if it were succeeding you'd be too caught up in the story to be analyzing it. But a few hours later, you can ask yourself these few questions to decide if what you just saw was acting . . . or something else.

Was that really him up there? There's a glib way of describing acting as "disappearing into the character," but it's true that the best actors utterly transform themselves -- physically, vocally, psychologically -- to become the person they're playing. Robert De Niro famously put on 60 pounds to play Jake La Motta in "Raging Bull." Nicole Kidman donned a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." But often the most startling performances have nothing to do with makeup or fakery but can start with something as subtle as a character's walk. For his role as the politician Harvey Milk in "Milk," the solidly built Sean Penn became almost elfin, affecting a gliding, hip-swaying walk, his hands fluttering up to his mouth with a shy giggle. He sent his voice -- in real life, a smoker's gravely mumble -- into a fluting, upper register, which in combination with a slight New Yawk drawl helped create not just the character of Harvey Milk but an entirely new man we barely recognize as Sean Penn.

When Heath Ledger starred as the repressed gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," he told interviewers he decided to play the character as if he had a fist in his mouth. That single choice seemed to inform everything about a character defined by what he held back, and what he couldn't say.

Did I just watch a performance or a stunt? In "Frost/Nixon," Frank Langella didn't really look or sound like Richard Nixon. If he had, his performance as the disgraced former president would have had little more artistic heft than an old Rich Little bit on "The Tonight Show." Instead, he developed an outsize, almost Shakespearean physical and vocal persona, giving Nixon a brooding, bearlike physicality and a growling baritone completely at odds with Nixon's actual cadences. The reason it succeeds is that it's a full characterization, grounded in Langella's own preparation for the role and defined by every single choice he makes, from where he focuses his eyes to the way he walks across a room.

"It's almost like a farce, it's so extreme," says acting coach Larry Moss of Langella's performance. "He almost plays Nixon like a hunchback. The face, the voice -- those are acting choices. . . . You can see the self-delusion in the eyes, the deep repression and lonely quality he had, as if he's the only person in the world."

Of course Langella, as well as his co-star Michael Sheen, were able to deliver their own versions of their characters because they were given the latitude by Peter Morgan's script and Ron Howard's direction. Conversely Jamie Foxx, who won the Oscar in 2005 for his portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," while certainly giving an uncanny impression of the rhythm-and-blues legend, was almost too spot-on, especially within the context of a too-tidy biopic structure. The result was less a story about a genuine character than an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry brought to note-perfect but somehow artificial life.

Where did I go? Once, after a particularly uninspiring screening, a friend bent down to whisper something in my ear as he walked out of the theater: "I could have been turning my mulch."

Were you mentally gardening during the movie you just saw? Thinking about your shopping list? Or did you seem to go somewhere not of this world? The best sign of a completely immersive performance is when an actor not only disappears into his or her character but allows viewers to forget the screen altogether and project themselves into the story. It's not Richard Jenkins in "The Visitor," or even Walter Vale -- it's us, discovering New York as if for the first time, leaving our comfort zones to find improbable emotional connections, even making a tentative stab at late-in-life romance. When Jenkins seems to be just standing there, he's really showing viewers the tip of an iceberg that begins with deep preparation, developing layers of inner and physical life for his character that he brings to even the most uneventful moments.

Thomas McCarthy, who wrote and directed "The Visitor," says though he didn't talk about Walter's specific back story with Jenkins, "we did talk about relevant history. So by the time we were shooting, any question that arose pertaining to Walter's history, Richard immediately had an answer for: 'Of course I would' or 'I'd never do that.' I think good actors do that homework automatically and lock it in, so all their decisions are based not on arbitrary acting choices but specific choices that their character would make."

When an audience is riveted just by the sight of a character making a sandwich or tying her shoe, acting coach Moss says, "they're not just in the now, they're in the now of the now." Often, the immediacy of a scene is a function of vocal dynamics, an element that Mickey Rourke has mastered throughout his career, from "Diner" to "Body Heat" to his comeback performance in "The Wrestler." In each of those films, Rourke has scenes in which he barely raises his voice, but whether he's whispering to William Hurt in a prison or conferring with a fellow gladiator in a locker room, we're leaning forward to catch every word. We're in the now of his now.

Did she ask for the laugh, or did she ask for the tea? One of the scandals (okay, minor outrages) of last year's Oscars was that Amy Adams wasn't nominated for her performance in "Enchanted." Sure, it was a family comedy, about a rather frothy fairy-tale princess, no less, but watch Adams closely and you never see her wink. She plays her character, Giselle, completely straight, with a touch of pathos that is genuinely affecting. (Just watch how she says "And ever?" after she learns that divorce is forever. That's serious.) Comic performances are notoriously ignored when it comes to acting awards, which, from a degree-of-difficulty point of view, is wildly unfair. As an actor reportedly said on his deathbed, dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard.

"In a comedy film, 'trying to be funny' is certain death," wrote Michael Caine in his book "Acting in Film." "First you have to be a real man or woman. Then you slide on the banana skin, and then it will be funny. If you are a comedian sliding on a funny banana peel, nobody will laugh because you're not real. The history of the cinema is littered with great comics who failed on the screen largely because they weren't actors; they could not be real up there." Elizabeth Kemp, chair of the acting department at the Actors Studio Drama School, a master's program at Pace University in New York City, concurs. "There's a great old story about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, in which he's in a play and he comes off the stage and says to her, 'I didn't get the laugh when I asked for the tea.' And she says, 'That's because you asked for the laugh and not the tea.' " Think of the great comic performances of last year -- Downey in "Tropic Thunder," Sally Hawkins in "Happy-Go-Lucky," Penélope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." Each of those performances would have had the same integrity if it had been in the service of a drama (even Downey's pretentious Australian Method over-actor). All of them asked for the tea.

Was the outburst earned? Meltdowns are part of why we go to the movies. There's nothing more cathartic than watching a pro in a full-tilt, floor-pounding, curtain-shredding breakdown. But as the acting teacher Sanford Meisner said, you can't cry, scream or otherwise start chewing scenery until you've done everything possible to hold it back. Angelina Jolie finally collapsed in "A Mighty Heart" only after her character had made an almost superhuman effort to keep it together after her husband was kidnapped and probably murdered. In "Changeling," she plays a woman who snaps after being committed to an insane asylum and the effect is almost risible. Jolie's character, Christine Collins, is never grounded or rounded enough, never allowed to be more than a symbol of suffering, so an otherwise wrenching, intimate moment instead feels like a masquerade. What Jolie creates is emotionalism, not emotion.

Can you watch the movie with the sound off and understand every word? "There's an exercise I have my students do," says Moss, "which is to watch three completely different performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep without sound, just to study their physical behavior. That's when you know an actor has really done their work. You can see it in their bodies -- picking up a glass, walking, using their hands." This is an easy experiment to replicate at home, and not just to observe an actor or actress's body, but -- perhaps most important -- the eyes. Watch an actor's eyes when his character isn't talking, just listening. Does a little light go out? Or does he listen with the same focus and intensity he brings to his own lines? (This, by the way, is what's important about Tomei's performance in "The Wrestler." Even when she's taking her top off, her eyes don't lie.)

Acting, finally, demands superb physical expression, facial control, intellectual acuity and delicate intuition -- all harmonizing to create a performance that, while carefully researched and conceived, occurs completely spontaneously. After all the training and exercises and script analysis and research, after an inner life has been invented and a physical life settled upon, after the sense memories have been plumbed and the lines have been memorized, when the lights are hot and the camera is on -- that's when the actor ceases to act and simply is. When he received an honorary Oscar in 1980, Alec Guinness recalled that as an acting student, "it dawned on me that if I was seriously going to have a career in movies, the wisest thing was to do absolutely nothing at all. And that is more or less what I've done since then." And that, more or less, may be what all great actors have in common: They do nothing, and make it something.


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