In a great scene from All the President’s Men we have what looks like the conventional stand-off between two egos. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are the famous reporters Bernstein and Woodward, soon to blow open the Watergate scandal. But Bernstein doesn’t think Woodward can write, and automatically rearranges the order of the story. This is ostensibly text book central conflict theory: a theory of conflict that insists that a character wants something, and various obstacles are put in his or her way so that he or she can get what they want. But what is interesting about Redford is the degree to which he’s not given to central conflicts, so much as pursuing a value system that dissolves ambition into ethos: into the betterment of the world over the betterment of the ego. This of course up to a point ties into Redford’s extra-filmic persona as an environmentalist, as a social do-gooder who wants as little as possible to do with Hollywood and fame. As he says, he hates the idea that some of his film work has glamourized the very areas they’ve been exploring. He thinks this is even the case with All the President’s Men, and the fly-fishing film he directed, A River Runs Through It, which led to an increase in fly fishing that threatened the environmental stability of certain rivers.
But this ethos is also very much there in his films. If we compare a famous scene from Erin Brockovich where Julia Roberts proves how brilliant she is at the expense of a D. A.’s assistant, showing she can rattle off the names of all the plaintiffs involved in a case, before telling the woman she hates the way she dresses, we can see how Redford avoids this central conflict. As he goes off to see what Hoffman’s done to his work, Redford realises that Hoffman’s improved it. He goes back across to Hoffman’s desk and says that he’s right; it’s much better, before adding that while he’s happy that Hoffman has improved the text, he’s not been very happy about the way it was done. Shouldn’t Hoffman have consulted him? What Redford does here is turn conflict into ethos: into saying there are not conflicting egos at work (Bernstein is clearly the better writer), but an ethical misunderstanding he quickly wants to tidy up. Frequently in Redford’s work there is this sense that a healthy ethos is more important than any sense of individual achievement. (In complete contrast to central conflict theory whose basic premise is that “a story begins when someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it”). In a film like Brubaker, Redford plays the prison warden who tries to improve the rights of his prisoners, but at the end of the film he leaves on a point of honour. This means that much of the good work in improving the rights of the prisoners will go by the wayside, but Redford must hold to a value system over any sense of amelioration: what’s the point of improving lives in the short term if we have to sacrifice our general values in pursuing these short term goals? In Up Close and Personal, Redford’s ambitions as a journalist are secondary to any hint that he might sell-out.
In this sense Redford’s is a very unpragmatic persona, and yet it’s not the sort of dogmatism we often expect from leading men who have an idea in their mind and will stop at nothing to achieve it. His is not so much the mindset of a man who’s gotta do what a man has gotta do, in the Eastwood, Bronson, Lee Marvin mould, though he is of course their contemporary, but instead that there is a certain way of being in the world that should respect oneself, respect others and respect the environment. Redford was famous for turning “down more roles than he accepted”, and one wonders whether this lay in part in his refusal to accept parts that suggested an alternative way of looking at the world than the one he so determinedly holds onto.
If Redford suggests an ego in retreat, Tom Cruise offers an ego constantly throbbing, an ego that is nothing if not focused on the goal to the detriment often of any real value system. This doesn’t obviously make Cruise an amoral actor; frequently in his films there is a scene with Cruise getting a wake–up call, where he realises that someone has screwed him over, has caused him to compromise his values, or just happens to be playing mind games with his thought processes. Cruise’s character are rarely the brightest of sparks and, unlike Redford’s, you don’t get the sense they can see all the variables in the situation. This is partly because Cruise – as his name implies – is always propelling himself forward. His name is real, but it’s so apt it sounds like it was cooked up in some actors’ agency. We’re forever seeing Cruise getting in a plane (Top Gun), on a bike (Top Gun) in a fast car (Risky Business, Mission Impossible 2), or running from one place to another (The Firm, Minority Report). He’s the actor as pure propulsion. When he has a moment of reflection (as in Mission Impossible 2) the film gives him a whole desert, as if Cruise needs, to think at all, a wide expanse of space all to himself.
But let’s not be too harsh on the actor, and instead think again of an ethos, and of a ‘type’. What type of person does Cruise’s characters bring to mind? No matter that Cruise is now into his forties, his characters usually indicate youthfulness; that they’re on some sort of learning curve (and hence all those films where he realises he’s briefly deviated from the righteous path). But as he gets older this is changing, yet some of the underlying principles may remain, with Cruise moving from the rite of passage film to the investigative, enquiring thriller. In the former the quest is chiefly towards one’s own emotional maturity, as evidenced in Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, Cocktail and The Firm, where Cruise is usually a cocky young guy who needs to learn a few life lessons. But The Firm also showed a move into the investigative thriller, with Cruise the young lawyer determined to work out what corruption takes place in the firm in which he’s been employed. In the Mission Impossible films, Eyes Wide Shut and Minority Report, he’s not so much searching out his own character arc, as looking to solve a problem out there in the world. But we could say the principle remains the same: that there is some notion of a fairly concrete goal, and if the goal is less concretely present (as in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), Cruise isn’t ostensibly the best actor in the world at bringing out the ambiguity. He is so often an actor of central conflict rather than personal conflict.
We could say that Redford and Cruise represent two very different forms of American-ness even if they superficially would seem in a similar mould. Both are very American, handsome stars of their prospective generations, both even interested in the investigative mystery (if for Redford only briefly in All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor), and both at certain stages of their careers capable of picking and choosing their projects. Yet the ethos is very different, with Redford suggesting an America that is only as worthy as the foundations one can give it as a citizen: that democracy lies in one’s capacity for respect for others, respect for honourable work and respect for the environment. In Cruise’s work, America is chiefly a springboard of opportunity; an often corrupt place, certainly, but a place that allows you to be anything you want to be. For Redford that would be half the trouble; for Cruise that seems to be the nature of the solution. If both are actors who often work with the close up, Redford’s absorb and reflect on events (think of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid where Sundance watches Butch fight); Cruise looks admiring and slightly covetous, as we may see in the film he made with Paul Newman: The Color of Money.
Isabelle Huppert is a French actress who has worked for many of the major French directors (Godard, Chabrol, Pialat) as well as key filmmakers from elsewhere (Claude Goretta, Werner Schroeter) and usually offers performances that contain an element of the inexplicable. As we can see in a key scene from The Piano Teacher, Huppert remains essentially impassive, even if she acts decisively. She’s the piano teacher who puts glass into the pocket of a student, but it is such an overreaction to a minor incident, that we will wonder what is behind it beyond petty jealousy.
There is often in Huppert’s work this combination of the decisive action with the indecisive cause that leaves us musing over her motivation. In Merci pour le chocolat she seems intent on murdering her husband’s possible daughter but without any clear reason: it’s as if she could do it because she can. It is as simple as that and yet consequently as complicated as that also. To make something simple, a director will create a straightforward motivation for an action: greed, jealousy, ambition. These may all be relevant to Huppert’s character’s actions, but they wouldn’t be so much motivating reasons, but chaotic inter-connected impulses. She might commit an horrific act like the one in the scene from The Piano Teacher not for a reason, but perhaps for the combination of reasons that she can’t explain to herself so convoluted are they, and that instead manifest themselves in an extreme action. There is also often reactiveness in Huppert’s characters, and this shows through in The Piano Teacher scene. She’s undeniably up to a point reacting to Walter’s brief flirtation with the pianist, but even then she could also be reacting to the fact that she doesn’t think the pianist is particularly good – evidenced in earlier scenes where she tells the girl’s mother that her daughter needs to work much harder. And yet, to what degree is this Huppert just saying she needs to work harder because she doesn’t like the girl, or because that is her actual professional opinion? After all, at one stage in the film Walter auditions to get into the music school in which she teaches, and whilst all the other teachers believe he should get in, Huppert, who’s taken a strange liking/disliking to him, insists that he shouldn’t.
What we often have with Huppert’s characters then is reactiveness, but a reaction that can’t be pinned down to a singular reason for the reaction. Her close-ups are much more complex than Redford’s or Cruise’s. In La Ceremonie, for example, sure Huppert’s character wants to gain revenge on the haute bourgeois family for whom her friend works, but where her friend has just been laid off and might have a justifiable reason for being angry, Huppert’s revenge is curiously unfocused, and the perversity exacerbated by the extremity of the revenge: Huppert insists the family should be killed. This type of performance, and this type of acting persona, leads to a very different form of cinema than the one we’re used to seeing, the type that Cruise has mastered. We spend less time looking forward to the next action, to having an anticipatory relationship with the images, though Huppert’s extreme gestures lend themselves well to suspense, as we see in The Piano Teacher, but working with the possible motives that might have generated the extreme action. Occasionally Huppert has turned up in American films, like Heaven’s Gate, Amateur and I Heart Huckabees, and occasionally sending up her image, but in the latter instance the performance is safely contained within the realm of the humorous. In films like The Piano Teacher, we’re left working out the meaning much more for ourselves.
Elements rarely talked about in relation to actors are issues of proportion and weight, no matter their significance to the world of comedy. Doesn’t much of the humour from Laurel and Hardy stem from the difference in the actors’ proportions? But let us take it out of the realm of comedy and into the realm of film acting more generally. Certain actors suggest weight and others lightness, some suggest great height and others the diminutive. Now often this relates to actualities (Liam Neeson is six foot four and looks it on screen), but other tall actors (like Warren Beatty) don’t give the same impression of immensity. And sometimes an actor who isn’t especially tall, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, imposingly suggests a few inches above his six foot height.
We can perhaps say then that proportion and weight can more readily be looked at in terms of presence: what sort of physical bearing does an actor indicate on screen? By all accounts Brian Blessed is a short stocky guy, but because of his booming voice and bold features he implies immensity. An actor who suggests its opposite we can say is Johnny Depp. There is almost a cartoon lightness to the actor in a number of his films: in Edward Scissorhands, in Sleepy Hollow and most especially in the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and he possesses on occasion the physical grace of the great musical actors and dancers of the past, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Terry Gilliam in Gilliam on Gilliam, recalled working with him on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and reckoned “technically he’s the most superb actor, fast and inventive…”and that he hits “marks [the line an actor must hit so that he’s within the right position in the camera frame] within millimetres.”
Thus Depp is probably an especially good actor for directors who are much more mise-en-scene driven, for actors who can function as part of the director’s aesthetic design. Some directors (including Ken Loach, to some degree Mike Leigh, and the Dogme filmmakers) like to liberate the actor so that they dictate the focus of the scene and the camera plays catch me up with the performance. With so stylistic a filmmaker as Gilliam, or more especially a master stylist like Tim Burton (for whom Depp has worked on a number of occasions), the emphasis lies in how the actor can fit into the overall visual pattern, almost as if Depp is sketched into the scene, rather than self-determining within it.
Which other actors come to mind when we think of, if you like, mise-en-scene performers, actors of great lightness and grace? Michelle Pfeiffer seems to have this quality, as well as the young Laurence Olivier (think of Hamlet), Errol Flynn and the musical performers we’ve already invoked. Actors who interestingly don’t have it would include Robert de Niro and Benicio Del Toro. Both actors have worked for Gilliam (De Niro on Brazil, Del Toro on Fear and Loathing) and both have given Gilliam problems because their style is just very different. As Gilliam says, “Benicio was more like De Niro in Brazil: it was rough because I couldn’t get a tempo.” Where De Niro and Del Toro wanted to get into their performance, Gilliam wanted the performance to integrate with the mise-en-scene first and foremost. De Niro and Del Toro are, in this sense, ‘weighty’ performers, like Brando, like Penn, who give the impression of working very much from character rather than from the given frame. Thus we can see that weight doesn’t only reside in the actual physical presence, but also the way a performer works on screen.
Julie Christie has often had the air of someone slightly ethereal and other-worldly, as if her place in this world is only provisional, and she could just as easily belong to another. It’s of course there in one of her great roles, Laura Baxter in Don’t Look Now, but it’s also present in moments in Billy Liar, where she seems so out of place in the northern town in which she lives, and in Heat and Dust, where she’s a BBC producer looking for her family’s roots in India. Some critics however find her less intriguing. David Thomson for example reckons in The Biographical Dictionary of Film she’s “obvious in her efforts…gawky, self-conscious.” David Shipman, however, believed that “Julie Christie’s entrance in Billy Liar is one of the most beguiling things in 60s cinema.” Let’s ignore the carmudgeonly Thomson and wonder where Christie’s appeal lies.
In interviews she’s always modest, usually self-deprecatory and beguilingly honest as she talks about the roles she’s taken and the good fortune she’s had working with directors who’ve covered up her limitations. But maybe they’ve instead just been directors who know how to negotiate her strengths. She says in An Autobiography of British Cinema she’s very much an actress who’s “not been interested in roles. I’m interested in the director and I don’t think that will change now. I am absolutely a believer in the auteur and I am convinced that the director is the only thing that really matters, that he or she will make or break the film.” It is perhaps because the directors capture an element of her on camera rather than that she finds her character in the script. This might seem a bit vague, but let us think of a comment by the great French filmmaker Robert Bresson in Notes on the Cinematographer, who we quoted earlier in relation to style, and the antithesis of the directors Christie likes to work with: “I change camera angles rarely. A person is not the same person if he is seen from an angle which varies greatly from the others.”
Working with directors like Nicolas Roeg, Richard Lester, John Schlesinger and Robert Altman, Christie was filmed from multiple angles, suggesting a slightly different self from shot to shot. Think of scenes in Don’t Look Now, where Roeg captures Christie’s little gestures, like the way she flicks her hand at the beginning of the film in a manner that her daughter has learnt to mimic, or the way she prepares herself in front of the mirror after making love. We sense such moments are not first and foremost about the scripted character, but about directorial observation. She’s not an actress who suggests solid grounding in a grand actress tradition that would include anybody from Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. These are actresses whom one would employ for their consummate technique, skill with accents and quality of diction; but one casts Christie more for a touching vulnerability.
Interestingly Christie has talked about the way that “stars serve a purpose in a world without religion. I came to this conclusion in America…I worked out for myself this theory that stars were like religious icons: we weren’t real and it was stupid to pretend that we were.” And yet Christie, who’s perhaps never been the best actress at ‘pretending’, at acting, has often given enough of herself in each role to go beyond being an actress of technique, or star as icon, to give something quite real. Maybe it lies in the breathless, cooing voice, her willingness to allow directors to capture her face from various angles, and her gestures that seem to give much away.