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Cinema Stardom



Let us start this week by offering a provocation: the great actor is not someone with a wide range, capable of dozens of different characters, but rather one with a narrow focus but intense emotional depth and iconographic appeal. If we think of some of the great American actors who would seem to have escaped the studio stardom of John Wayne, Cary Grant and Clark Gable, do we not still finally respond to them for the same reasons? Actors like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro brought a down and dirty realism to film. In Movies of the Seventies, David Thomson said of Nicholson that “he can be unshaven, shabby or downright unwholesome on screen”, and believed in A Biographical Dictionary of Film that De Niro was “the kind of actor who reminds you how genteel American movies are”. But they are no less stars for that, and perhaps what we want from a star isn’t glamour either.

So if it isn’t always glamour on the one hand or range on the other, what is it we expect from stardom? The best way to describe what we are looking for is to talk of qualities: what attributes do we seek in the actor, and obviously these qualities will vary from actor to actor. What we mean by qualities here are both physical elements like the smile, the voice, the eyes, the walk, the figure, the hair, but also the intangible elements like the aura, the sense of intimacy, charm or tenderness the actor can project. Nicholson for example has a wonderful smile, a smile he once said need never get fat. De Niro, though, has a smile so inept that critic Pauline Kael reckoned, in When the Lights Go Down, that when he smiled he looked like the village idiot. Do we respond to Nicole Kidman partly due to her nose, a nose so loved that it’s the one that most women ask for when going for a nose job? What about Newman, who once jokingly suggested that if his famous blue eyes turned brown he would no longer have been a star? Do many of us prefer George Clooney to Tom Cruise because Clooney possesses a deeper, smoother voice that indicates a manly quality Cruise lacks – though Cruise is only two years younger?

Then there are the less obvious attributes, the qualities the actor possesses that can’t be pinned down only to the physical. We may not care for Cruise’s voice, but few actors are better at getting a plot moving. Frequently Cruise plays characters that are full of ambition, as in Jerry Maguire, Top Gun and The Firm, and often naïve, as in Risky Business, The Color of Money and even Eyes Wide Shut. Up until now it has been his youthful persona that has helped keep him a star; but will that change as he enters his mid-to-late-forties?  Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Collateral, Lions for Lambs are all in various ways more mature roles, but are they still callow characters? This may be seen as an issue of failed maturity on Cruise’s part: that in his late thirties and early forties Cruise is unable to mature into a convincing middle-age and that a sort of supercilious ignorance still clings to him. But this maybe says more about the persona than it does about age. For do Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp not have the same problem of projecting maturity, a problem that Clooney, Daniel Day Lewis and Sean Penn have incorporated into their personae, as if aware that their best roles wouldn’t lie in playing young guns, but in middle-aged complexity? How broad can one’s persona really be?

Even a great actor like Nicholson is not averse to the vagaries of the persona. Many believe that Nicholson’s best roles came to him in and around his thirties, between Easy Rider in 1969, and the Shining in 1980. In Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Passenger, Nicholson represented the dissatisfied man, aware of failure and cynicism, but looking for something more from life. If Cruise cannot convince us as he hits middle-age, is it because his persona has been so designed for playing younger men? De Niro, meanwhile, was a great actor from Mean Streets to King of Comedy, ten years where he so often played characters looking for credence in a world that was somehow mocking his attempts at communication (Taxi Driver), a reputation (Raging Bull) and success (The King of Comedy). Even in The Deer Hunter, where he plays the heroic Vietnam veteran, Mike, he has to play emotional second fiddle to Christopher Walken’s character. They are both in love with the same woman, but it is Walken who woos her; De Niro who gets her under duress.

What we’ve been looking at so far, then, is the physical aspect and the intangible aspect: aspects of the form and aspects of the persona if you like. How do these play out in the clips that we’re going to be looking at today? In Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Paul Newman and Robert Redford play the titular characters, a couple of roguish outlaws who thumb their nose at authority, fellow law-breakers, and anything that gets in the way of their free form existence. Originally the roles were gong to be reversed, with Newman playing the Kid, and Redford Butch Cassidy. The present casting makes sense: Newman has always been a much more physical actor than Redford, whether in Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cool Hand Luke or Slap Shot, Newman moves through space much more athletically than Redford ever did, and he pulls off the beating of the gang giant and the re-establishing of his leadership with élan. So generally Newman’s roles have been more physical than Redford’s: no matter if Redford has played a baseball player in The Natural, and a skier in Downhill Racer, his strength often resides in a certain passive sense of observation that suits the medium close up. Though Newman’s associates were supposedly unhappy that Redford was getting more close-ups than Newman in Butch Cassidy, despite Newman being the bigger star, this also makes sense. Newman is an actor who actively and often impetuously moves through space, and thus benefits from the medium and medium long shot, Redford is an actor more given to a slow burn weighing up of the situation. This isn’t only true here but also in films like All the President’s Men, The CandidateBrubaker and Lions for Lambs. In the former, Redford’s Bob Woodward gets into and out of a conflict with Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein over edited copy and turns an inflammatory situation into an issue of fair behaviour. In Lions for Lambs, Redford’s professor explains to a student why fighting for political justice isn’t hot air. If Newman’s characters are often on learning curves; Redford’s are frequently morally righteous to begin with.

We’ve proposed Newman is an actor of the medium long shot (no matter his striking eyes that would seem to demand the close up) and Redford good with the medium close up, but what about Daniel Day-Lewis? Isn’t he an actor who often gives the impression of bursting out of the edges of the frame? Whether it is his stork like demeanour in In The Name of the Father where he seems to fill the frame vertically, or in the wide screen images in There Will be Blood where he fills it horizontally, Day-Lewis is a fine actor of expressionism in film. Some will claim that he is too theatrical, too highly pitched for cinema, but if we see him as the antithesis of De Niro, and yet still very much a man of film, what tools do we need to explain this? Day-Lewis’s voice is rich and resonant and, in films like The Crucible, Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood, capable of intense authority. Also his facial gestures aren’t intimated but registered: again a stage-like mannerism, as if Day-Lewis was aiming for the back of the stalls over the close up camera. Watch how he uses his eyebrows in There Will Be Blood and The Gangs of New York; watch how his long legs become an expressive tool, an element that allows him to loom large in the frame. Even Day-Lewis’s veins in his head seem to add to the intensity of performance. This combination doesn’t lead to the quiet intensity of a De Niro, but a loud intensity, an expressionist acting that makes the characters he plays larger than life. To understand whether this is overacting we would also have to look at what the films’ themes happen to be. In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’s character is a man of such vaulting ambition, of such single-mindedness, that he seems a man imposing himself on life: think of those opening fifteen minutes where he digs and digs.

Day-Lewis is, then, an over-stated actor. The fine French actress Catherine Deneuve is the opposite and may be a prime example of someone who needs to work with a masterful director where it isn’t the acting that counts; more the framing of the actor by the director. When Antonioni said to David Hemmings in Blow Up that it wasn’t important for Hemmings to know much about the character, for Antonioni would frame in such a way that the character would be revealed through the camera movement, this is also true of much of Deneuve’s work: in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Repulsion, in Belle de Jour, in Tristana. She is a great actress of stillness and inscrutability, and possesses one of the great mask-like faces in cinema – like Alain Delon, Charlotte Rampling and Monica Vitti; much ambiguity can be excavated from a face giving away so little. Some critics have even suggested Deneuve was the icy blonde, even if she never got round to working with that master of icy blonde actresses – Hitchcock.

But what about a director cruelly using an actor against type, and is this not what Stanley Kurbick does in Eyes Wide Shut with Tom Cruise? Here Cruise looks uneasy in a role where his goal-oriented behaviour slips into Kubrick’s gaps. As Cruise and his wife (Nicole Kidman) attend an upmarket party Kubrick emphasises Kidman’s centrality as the wide-angled framing makes Cruise look short and squat, while both the babysitter and the party host comment on Kidman’s beauty; and leaves Cruise seeming like a chaperone. Throughout the film Cruise appears to be in quite literally over his head – think of the Hungarian count that is several inches taller than him; and also the two models. It is also true in terms of a story he can’t quite get to grips with as people constantly confuse and befuddle him. Cruise’s character can’t quite fathom a story that Kubrick keeps beyond the character’s grasp: it is as if the limitations of Cruise as an actor play into the limitations of the character. As with Deneuve’s work in films by Buñuel, Polanski, Garrel and others, the director controls the performance but occasionally a director dictates and plays with the persona as well. In casting Cruise against type is Kubrick gently mocking his inadequacies? Acting is clearly a vulnerable and self-exposing profession; what one can usefully explore is how filmmakers work with that vulnerability and the actor with self-revelation.


©Tony McKibbin