(This is a reprint of the second newsletter I sent. You can subscribe to it here: https://tinyletter.com/CasparSalmon)
What do we mean by 'good' acting? It's a subject that you could write a whole book on, and PERHAPS I DAMN WILL, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts.
Acting is easy, and everyone can do it. It's obvious to say, but every time you tell a lie you are acting, and even your day to day behaviour, while truthful, contains elements of performance. You choose to heighten certain words, to pause, to exaggerate, to use your body language for emphasis, in order to make your character manifest. Once, when I was at school, a boy in my class changed his walk almost from one day to the next. He had a boyish walk and changed it to a perfectly ridiculous, would-be cool saunter, which came with a stride that was too long and stretched his legs to visibly preposterous effect. But I suppose he wanted to convey something.
This is to say that everyone makes a big fuss over acting, which seems a bit hilarious to me. A lot of people are confused about acting: is it good acting if you notice it? Is the acting good if it's visible and you can pick up on what the performer is doing? I'm reminded of boys who went to a single sex boarding school and spend years afterwards wondering what girls are like, what drives them, how they tick. They're the same as you, dummy!
When I used to act, as a kid, the most important thing you could do to help me play a scene was tell me where to stand and how loudly to talk. When I was 10 I played a scene too big and the director told me to take it down a level, and I said I was worried the camera wouldn't pick it up, and the whole crew laughed at me - a big roar, rippling from sound guy through to best boy. But actors need to be told what they're acting for: where to look, stand, how fast to move, and how the camera is picking all of these things up. Every actor should look through the lens before each scene, to see what space they are performing in, and what comes across, in order to modulate their tone.
Let's take it that these are the basics of acting; the ground zero of plausibility and simplicity: being heard, being seen, saying the lines correctly. On top of this, add a basic comfort with the costume you have been given and chemistry with your fellow actors. This is the least, a minimum requirement - what you might expect of someone like, say, Keira Knightley after years in the business. What then adds excellence to these considerations?
Seven out of the last ten Oscars for best actor have gone to actors playing people who really existed. 'Only' four out of the last ten Oscars for best actress have gone to imitations of real people. It's both obvious and a commonplace to observe that these performances are often easier to interpret than purely invented characters, so that people who are foxed by the idea of acting can measure them against a known grade of verisimilitude. In my view, this sort of acting is fine, and actually sort of fascinating in many ways, and the ability to do it well is rather extraordinary, as it bespeaks an ability to subsume your own character, and behave with a truly different set of tics and mannerisms. But Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher is nobody's favourite Meryl Streep performance, and Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn is fun but not a patch on her Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr Ripley. In that film, her way of pushing her hair back is so perfectly self-conscious, and her line readings walk such a fine line between naivety and archness: it's like seeing a grain of sand blown into a glass balloon.
Blanchett is plausible, but she also does something different, which is to play on another level, or in a different register. Sometimes this is called overacting. But some of my favourite actors do something different, seem to bring fizz or punch from somewhere, which occasionally whips a film into shape.
One of my favourite performances this year is by Michael Barbieri in the film Little Men. Playing Tony, a young Latino kid from a less privileged family who dreams of making it to acting school, Barbieri for some reason chooses to play it like a young De Niro, with some quite stupendous line readings that aren't afraid to tip into badness. What makes the performance so much fun is that it's set in a pristine, elegant, perfectly controlled little film, a comedy of manners, a social satire, so that Barbieri's purposefully slurred words, his slouch, his playfulness, are almost at odds with the movie. But Ira Sachs has chosen to let him play it up like this, and it gives the film a significant boost, by giving his character a chance that the script cannot allow him. The film knows that this boy, though bright and charming and good, will amount to little, and cannot summon the reserves of privilege that his young friend (played with gentle melancholy by Theo Taplitz) has at his disposal: but Barbieri and Sacks lift Tony out of this impasse, by giving him such chances to shine in the viewer's eyes, by making him the magnetic focal point also for the film's shy desires. And, most importantly, the performance gives us pleasure: it's exciting to see someone try something, use his energy, and be so reckless.
Isabelle Huppert exhibits this fearlessness in her career choices rather than in her acting, which is much more controlled and calibrated than Barbieri's. But even she, in her two standout performances this year, does things that surprise, and take the viewer out of their presuppositions. The biggest shock in Things To Come comes when she utters a big, dramatic "yoohoo!!" at her ex-husband, frustrated when he cannot understand something: it's so fresh and funny, because it's the language of children, waving at you sarcastically, shouting, "Hey, wake up, dum-dum!" - but with the added hilarity that Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher, very measured and articulate, whose understanding of language is key to her concept of the world. Huppert throws these things in (watch her, for instance, delicately overplay a scene of slipping in muddy sand on a deserted beach while trying to find a signal on her mobile phone) because she is trying to take us out of our routine, trying to give something else to her performance. These jolts, these little nuggets of comedy or shocks of truth, serve to keep the audience on its toes. And again, it provokes pleasure.
My favourite thing is to see actors doing things. Any actor can recite lines, but I love to see actors talking while doing stuff. My favourite things I've seen actors do include: playing catch (the cast of Friends), climb a tree (Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou), do the washing up (Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi in Same Old Song), put flowers in a vase (Meryl Streep in The Hours), and cook an omelette (Stanley Tucci in Big Night). The things they do can be simple, but I derive pleasure out of seeing someone do these things easily, simply, while being a character; and I think that the idea of doing stuff is impressive, and gives us a sense of spectacle. Alden Ehrenreich does things in Hail, Caesar! - things of a different order (watching him use a strand of spaghetti as a lasso is one of the greatest joys in my life), but the idea is the same: to make the ordinary interesting, bring elements out of the everyday to underline them, and create pleasure.
In a sense, the best actors do the washing up with their words, make a spectacle out of that simplicity: language that we use all the time is played with by the best actors, rolled around in their mouths for fun, joy, to create something different. Jean-Pierre Leaud, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Denis Lavant, to name just a few: these are people who can play with a sentence, whose way of making something standard unusual elevates them into a level above pure verisimilitude. I like acting that underlines itself, and I like acting that plays, both in the sense of playing a game and of manipulating us.
I think we need to move away from worthy, realistic, 'good' performances - or, rather, make space for other sorts of performances. For instance, the best performance of all time is, factually speaking, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: what he does is true but also absurd and ridiculous; vital and satirical; collaboration and deceit. John Goodman has never won an Oscar, and perhaps he will one day, for playing, I don't know, Oliver Hardy: but Walter Sobchak is the one who hums with life, who does something so necessary and good and nourishing. We need actors like this, who will take a risk, and take us away from reality, the better to make us appreciate the lives we have.