January 31, 2013
This year is the first time I actually got to vote in the SAG Awards the voting by members of the Screen Actors Guild for the best performances by individuals and ensembles of actors.
That's because my single off-camera line in the movie of Ender's Game a pure vanity bit just so the author of the book has a sort of cameo in the film won me the right to pay the dues and become a member of the actors' union.
Even though I have no delusions about my future as an actor, an old theater student like me can't pass up a legitimate opportunity to get my union card. Now, when I direct local amateur plays and musicals, I can legitimately claim that I'm a "professional" actor leading the company.
But, unlike some others with a similar claim, I won't be joining my actors on stage my inability to reliably memorize dialogue keeps me directing and writing, while others do the acting!
Anyway, this year's acting awards are in and I'm happy to observe that members of the acting union are just as prone to swoon over certain kinds of glamour, and misjudge the difficulty and quality of acting performances.
It certainly was refreshing to hear some genuinely surprised and humble actors respond to receiving some of the awards. When Ben Affleck's film Argo which he acted in and also directed won the "best ensemble" award, it was clear that he really hadn't thought his film would win.
But as an actor-director, Affleck had been extraordinarily generous with his fellow actors, keeping his own role in perfect proportion and giving actor after actor his or her "moments." The result was a company that truly deserved an award for ensemble acting a film about many different people instead of a story shaped to show off one or two high-priced stars.
Argo would be a credible best-picture winner. While this film about the rescue of six Americans from the Iranian hostage crisis did bend history a little, mostly to soup up the barely-made-it getaway sequence near the end, it was far truer to history than, say, Game Change and far more generous to the real people it portrayed.
In fact, that's one of the pleasures of Argo. While it recognizes that America had a history of messing with Iran in ways that Iranians had a right to resent deeply, it does not make the CIA or the US government the bad guys or a joke.
Rather, Argo treats everyone fairly, making nobody perfect but also making nobody absurdly bad or stupid. Everybody's doing their best to do what they think is the Right Thing.
One reason Argo is especially popular with actors, of course, is that it's a movie about Hollywood, as well as being about historical events. The F-word involved in a running gag about the name of the fake movie that the CIA is pretending to make will offend some, but I'm afraid I found it irresistibly funny. It's not often that I actually like the use of rough language in a film, but this is one of the rare exceptions.
For a long time after Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won their writing Oscar for shamelessly ripping off the climax of Ordinary People in Good Will Hunting, it looked like it was Matt Damon who was having the great career, as Affleck kept scoring tabloid covers while starring in bad movies.
But with his small role in He's Just Not That Into You, he started playing a new kind of character: Not a romantic lead, not an action hero, but something relatively rare in Hollywood films: A nice guy. A decent, reliable person. A grown-up.
How many people write movies about people like that?
But Ben Affleck can play them. More to the point, he can direct movies about them, and help other actors to play them as well. This is a rare talent. Most actors and directors are drawn to bizarre characters. Certainly Oscars are likely to go to actors playing people suffering from melodramatic angst.
That's not to say you can't have a great movie about melodramatic angst.
For instance, Silver Linings Playbook is in many ways a remake of the brilliant A Woman Under the Influence a person gets out of a mental institution and the audience sees that the family he or she returns to is at least as insane.
There are plenty of "mad scenes" oh, how actors love those! But it's not the mad scenes that make Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's performances so unforgettably good.
Anybody can rant and yell. What's hard is to make a character real and vulnerable, what's hard is to show them taking responsibility and growing up, because that's all about restraint and control.
So even actors voting for the SAG award sometimes miss the point. Jennifer Lawrence won (and gave a marvelously endearing and restrained acceptance speech, unlike Claire Danes' sadly self-satisfied one) for a portrayal full of rage and crying.
But her character works because of the slyness, the vulnerability, the hunger, the joy. Few actors can play these.
If Silver Linings Playbook had won the acting ensemble award, it would have been a perfectly credible choice, though unlike Argo this is definitely a star-centered movie. From Robert De Niro as Bradley Cooper's dad to Chris Tucker as a fellow lunatic to Anupam Kher as Cooper's sports-mad shrink, the supporting roles are given a chance to shine.
The heart of the movie, though, is the very much unflamboyant Jacki Weaver as the mom. She is the one who actually drives the plot, first by getting her son out of the mental institution, then by manipulating events to help him get over his obsession with the wife who betrayed him.
Her luminous performance probably won't win the Oscar any more than it won the SAG award but Jacki Weaver provides the foundation on which all the other performances rest. The leading actors are terrific but she is the bright background that sets them off to such good effect.
Silver Linings Playbook tries to deal honestly with mental illness, but in the end it can't quite make up its mind. Is Cooper's character truly bipolar and obsessive? Or is he a person with manageable problems who is pushed over the edge by the outlandish provocations of his unfaithful wife?
The first half of the movie asserts the former; the second half, the latter.
It is true that in other countries, good results are often obtained by guiding bipolar people into a normal home life and providing them with stable relationships.
However, good results are rarely obtained by providing them with an even crazier person to take care of.
This is fiction, of course, and so you can always say, "This time things worked out despite the unorthodox 'treatment.'" But the filmmakers are asserting a higher level of reality for this story, and so I guess I wanted to see Cooper's character a little less out-of-control angry rather than crazy at the beginning, or a little less fully-in-control at the end.
But let's give this film credit for dealing with issues of madness with far more sense and greater adherence to reality than is normal in storytelling. Most of the time madness is a plot contrivance or a macguffin; here at least the attempt is made to tell the truth....continued on page 2