Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

The influence of the actor and the part on the performance

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A few recent movies have brought me back to the question of when and to what degree a great acting performance is to be credited to the actor and when to the part (and/or, possibly, something else yet). Moreover, to what degree the accolades for the performance actually match the performance and to what degree they are influenced (a second time) by factors like the part.

An excellent (non-recent) example is Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”: Would she have won an Academy Award playing another part in another movie in that year, had she been cast in another lead? Could someone else have been found for the part in “Black Swan” and won in Portman’s stead? The answers are “probably not”* and “almost certainly”**, respectively.

*She is a legitimately good actress, and a bit of a personal favorite, but there are others as or more skilled that she would need to overcome. Also note that this currently remains her only Academy Award.

**There might not be many candidates, seeing that the average “waitress/actress” would be well out of her depth, that Judi Dench would have been too old and Jessica Alba too unskilled, etc. There would almost certainly be some, however. (I am too uninformed to judge who might or might not manage the ballet part, and refrain from specific suggestions.)

On other occasions, it might be a combination of actor and part. Consider Marlee Matlin: She won an Academy Award at 21, spectacularly young, and might have seemed destined for a great career. The problem? She won as a deaf woman playing a deaf woman … Her deafness might have been a major asset for this particular part and movie*, but more of a liability for most other parts. Actingwise, she does not appear to be anything special based on the few things that I have seen her in (including a recurring minor part on “My Name is Earl”)—decent, yes; special, no.

*“Children of a Lesser God”. Note that I have not seen this movie and cannot, myself, judge the quality of her performance.

Then again we might have performances that are highly overrated because of the part or the movie. Russel Crowe in “Gladiator” springs to mind: not a bad performance by any means, but it was not even the best performance of the (extremely well-cast) movie. Joaquin Phoenix, as his counter-part, did a better job in the second largest part; and, even off the top of my head, I would mention at least Richard Harris as better too. (Neither was, obviously, eligible to compete for “best actor”, but they did not win “best supporting actor” either.)

The recent performances, whose fate at this year’s Academy Awards will be interesting*:

*Note: The first draft of this text was written before nominations were available. Reading up on past winners (cf. below) I note that Sandler has not been nominated. Phoenix and Zellweger, however, are both in the respective short-list of five. Of the other movies involved, I have only seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and have no objections to DiCaprio’s nomination.

  1. Joaquin Phoenix* in “Joker”: A quite good performance, but not perfection. There are dozens of others who might have achieved a similar level, actingwise. Throw in the part and the overall movie, and this changes. This is, I suspect, a very strong victory candidate. (But see excursion.)

    *No, I am not a Phoenix fanatic (although I do consider him one of the best of the current actors). “Gladiator” was brought to my recollection because of Phoenix already being present in this text.

  2. Renee Zellweger in “Judy”: The performance is first rate. The movie is a weakish, but the topic (Judy Garland as a tragic figure) added weight to the performance and the “sentimentality bonus” that might play in with the judges could very well clinch the victory.
  3. Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems”: A crappy performance by a (still) crappy actor—but one apparently lauded by many. Why? Most likely the part. (With e.g. Joaquin Phoenix or Gary Oldman, or any number of considerably better actors, even comedy rival Ben Stiller*, this might have been a strong victory candidate. Should Sandler win, I will be truly depressed.)

    *Who is strong both as a comedian and as an actor, while Sandler is only good at comedy (and possibly even just a certain type of low-brow comedy).

Excursion on “Joker”:
I remain somewhat skeptical to the movie as a whole, because it feels redundant: A lot of the ground that it covers has already been done better in “King of Comedy”, to the point that it felt partially like a weaker copy. At the same time, the whole “Batman” franchise, the Joker included, has been done to death at the movies (and elsewhere). In the choice of movies for a second viewing, I would definitely prefer “King of Comedy”.

Excursion on brilliant actors:
Of course, a brilliant actor might bring a brilliant performance to a less than brilliant part and a weaker actor might bungle the brilliant part. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to be an Academy Award candidate almost by default, if in part because of his selectivity. Gary Oldman’s recent Academy Award was a big “finally” moment for me—he has been a threat for decades, with quite a few lesser winners before him. (The win was also personally satisfying to me, because I had called it immediately after watching the movie.)

Excursion on other Academy Award factors:
Sometimes, the Academy Awards seem like a game of pin-the-donkey, leaving me with the suspicion that other factors play in, e.g. personal relationships or a wish to push a movie. (Hardly controversial ideas, admittedly.) This particularly for “best picture”, which lost all credibility with me when a “Lord of the Rings” movie won. However, even the list of “Best Actor/Actress” seems odd at times.

Excursion on other examples:
I trail behind in my watchings of recent movies, especially of the “artsy” type. However, looking from 2010 and onward, the winning roles for male actor seem to support my hypothesis that the part is of great importance. Consider names like King George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, and Freddie Mercury—all important (within their respective field) historical characters, all house-hold names, all with an interesting story and strong “human interest” opportunity. To boot, at least two (Lincoln*, Mercury*) died highly prematurely and at least one another (Hawking) unusually/tragically. The lesser names involved include Hugh Glass and Ron Woodroof—lesser known, but otherwise of a similar character and both non-fictional. (The remaining two, George Valentin and Lee Chandler, are likely fictional. I have only a vague recollection of “The Artist” for Valentin and have not seen “Manchester by the Sea” for Chandler, so I will not make further statements.)

*Or is the true explanation some form of subtle product placement by Ford? A long term plan to build interest for the recent “Ford v Ferrari”?


Written by michaeleriksson

February 6, 2020 at 4:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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  1. […] To briefly follow-up on my thoughts on actors and performances: […]

  2. […] a follow-up to some earlier discussions on the influence of the actor and the part on the performance resp. politically correct distortions (e.g. through undue alterations of fictional characters) and […]

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