Dissecting performances

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) go head to head in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) go head to head in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Last night, in a fury of summer boredom, I started watching Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It puzzled me that Oliver Stone would think the film was a good idea at all. I couldn’t imagine someone at 30 years old liking the original Wall Street back in 1987 enjoying its sequel at 53. I didn’t understand why Stone would think a 53 year old would ever want to watch a movie about a couple of kids and their Gen Y problems. It’s a completely absurd notion.

This is in no way meant to be a review of the sequel. I could probably go on lengths about how ridiculous the film is, but I don’t think mediocrity deserves that kind of attention.

While watching the film, I was fascinated by the disparity between Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf.

LaBeouf is admittedly, a very likable actor, and is, and always will be, more likable than Charlie Sheen, who played the original protege in Wall Street. While LaBeouf sort of emulates harmless, boyish charm, Sheen was wholly convincing as a wannabe, potentially sleazy Wall Street big shot. The difference here is, Sheen proved to be a worthy nemesis for Douglas’ iconic Gordon Gekko, while LaBeouf comes off more like a puppy with guard dog fantasies.

Neither LaBeouf and Sheen can actually compete with Douglas in the acting department, though. While Sheen was surely convincing, he lacked the magnetism, the electricity that Douglas had in him in the original film. And even though Douglas is not nearly as good in the sequel compared to his Oscar-winning performance in the original–though, to be fair, the script gave him very little to truly sink his teeth into–every time he is on or off screen, the audience is bound to remember his presence. LaBeouf, for all his natural ease as an actor, doesn’t have the same draw.

The last time I felt this kind of disparity between leading actors was when I watched Body of Lies. Russell Crowe remains a far more captivating, interesting actor than Leonardo DiCaprio, though DiCaprio has always been, like LaBeouf, a reliable actor. Crowe, like Douglas, commands the screen, commands our attention. Or, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, but I don’t really think that warrants an extensive explanation.

Which made me wonder: Why do some actors have “it” and others–no matter how competent they are–don’t?

A flurry questions came out of that. Should we judge performances the same way we judge films? What are the standards? What defines “good” and “bad” acting? How subjective can this be? Despite all the hate, why is Keanu Reeves still employed?

I am an amateur film blogger with hermit tendencies, so obviously I have never acted professionally. I’ve taken Drama I in high school and there were moments in that class that were really terrifying for me. I had to dance to “How to Be Lovely”  from Funny Face and even with a group of girls, it was fairly terrifying. I will be the first to admit that I am the last person that could ever wield “it.”

I realize I’ve introduced a fairly ambiguous term into this entry–“it.” I suppose I want to say that it’s a quality where the audiences are simply drawn and enthralled by the actor.

I think the first time I was excited about an actor’s performance was when I watched The Godfather for the first time when I was 11. Al Pacino’s first scene as Michael Corleone–when he explains to his wedding date, Kay (Diane Keaton), about what his father does for a living–captivated me in a way no other actor has been able to.  And of course, that legendary restaurant scene that cemented his casting in the role of Michael, are some of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

However, Marlon Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone is widely considered the finest performance in the film, and perhaps, one of the greatest, ever. Personally, I think Brando’s been better, much better–in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. So of course, evaluating performances is an entirely subjective art.

Comparatively, I feel the same way about William Holden’s performance In Network. I think Peter Finch’s madness is fun–and he’s often credited as the best performance in the film and also, one of the best of all-time–but Holden’s performance contains so much depth and he just manages to deliver Paddy Chayefesky’s lines with such conviction. In his final monologue to Faye Dunaway, which yes, wouldn’t have been possible with Chayefesky’s ahead-of-his-time insights about the media’s role in society–he just demonstrates how subtle an actor he really is. He doesn’t have to raise hell for people to notice how good he is.

I think the subjectivity of judging performances puzzles me, though. Unlike films, where things can be understandably subjective, depending on how much the audience connects with the story line, shouldn’t an actor’s merit be judged by how well, how naturally he or she portrays a character–and that could be the deciding factor on how great the performance is? What makes a performance “better” than another performance, when both are as objectively good as they come?

I don’t want to credit my sympathies toward the character an actor plays as the source of me thinking that it’s a good performance because I know that is not true. Just because we connect to a character does not necessarily mean that I would automatically love the performance. And I’ve liked performances of very despicable characters and I certainly would not like to think I connect with any of them.

I wrote this entry as a means of contemplation about how I view and judge acting. I have never been a fangirl for particular actors in the same way I have championed directors. While I tend to look at directors and their bodies of work as a whole, I tend to think of actors in their individual roles. Sure, there are certain actors I like a lot more than others, there are some who are consistently good and others who are not, and I am inclined to be more excited about certain casts than others, but I am aware that for every Godfather Al Pacino has been in, there is a Two For a Money. At the end of the day, is it the role or is it the actor?

Writing about this has made me realize how fickle judgments about an actor’s body of work can be, how difficult it is to explain why one actor’s performance is better than another. Sure, actors are important to the movies, but they often just populate a film and become chameleons to the audience’s perceptions. Those are also the exact same qualities of what makes them all too essential to the filmmaking and film-viewing experience.

The coming of age of a television drama

Thomas and O'Brien being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Since marathoning the first six episodes of season three of Downton Abbey, I was rather disappointed at the show’s increasingly slow, melodramatic nature. While season one was absolutely terrific–a Gossip Girl for the matronly and the pretentious–season two sort of prodded along, alternating between somewhat inspired, to somewhat dull, to moderately entertaining, with World War I as the backdrop of the excruciatingly ill-fated Matthew, Mary, and Lavinia love triangle.

After a hiatus from the show, I knew I had to finish season three someday, so I took the official beginning of my summer vacation to marathon the last few episodes. I dreaded the Bates and Anna scenes, but thank God–Bates finally got released from prison and we would never to deal with their boring angst ever again. And, well, the last few episodes were helluva more rewarding than I ever expected them to be. Sure, it wasn’t as fun as the first season, but the show demonstrated its undeniable age. And good shows, such as Downton, can age like fine wine.

The women in Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

The women in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

I first had this thought about the coming of age of a television drama when I was marathoning the recent sixth season of Mad Men earlier this summer. I was initially skeptical about season six, mainly because there has been sort of a weird critical and audience negativity surrounding it (namely from The Washington Post). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. The show capitalized on its period backdrop; it expertly used that tumultuous time in American history (the late ’60s) to be a catalyst for the show’s escalating drama. It is by far my favorite season of the show because it is the season that avidly proves the show’s novelistic worth.

There are so many things that were done in season six that simply could not have been done if the show was a relatively young show. And if those things were done when the show was relatively young, it would not have been as nowhere as dramatically effective and emotionally satisfying. No one would savor it because no one would appreciate it.

I’m thinking about that great scene when Don eavesdrops on Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Or that scene when Don and Betty reconnect. Or when Don breaks down during the Hershey’s meeting. Or that last scene of the finale–that heartbreaking, moving look between Don and Sally, set to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” None of these things would work if we didn’t know these characters, didn’t know what they have been through together, didn’t know their history together.

One of the great things about committing to a great television series–as a fan or as a writer–is that you really get to see the characters grow. And I suppose, as a writer, you get to a point where you have so much freedom to do so much with your characters because character dynamics are already so well-established and the viewers are already so familiar with this world you have created that you have the ability to capitalize on that. You can explore more and more possibilities as the show ages and the characters grow. That’s the advantage that a long, long story has over a 120-minute film: it has the capability to boast that it’s art that imitates life. Though, truth be told, it’s not necessarily better.

I understand that not all television series have the opportunity to flourish as much as  Mad Men and Downton have been so lucky to do so, but as a viewer, I feel like it’s such a rewarding experience when the writers know that their show has come of age.

So back to Downton.

While there were several shocking moments–Edith being left at the altar and Sybil’s death–I was never quite intrigued, if that is the best way to put it. Those were horrifying scenes, but in context, they weren’t fulfilling. However, for most of season three, I found myself strangely drawn to the Thomas and O’Brien relationship more than I ever did in previous seasons. Or, the development Thomas’ character, in particular. Upon the arrival for O’Brien’s nephew, Alfred, and Thomas’ unwillingness to help him out, the former smoking buddies have become antagonistic toward each other–and it’s one of the more interesting story lines in the eerily bland first half of season three. And, as Thomas’ attraction to the pretty boy footman James attraction escalates–you know O’Brien is going to exploit the hell out of it.

However, in the last few episodes, the drama escalates to a point where Thomas, creepily sneaks into James’ bedroom, while James is sleeping, to give him a kiss, based on O’Brien’s false tip about James’ supposed feelings for him. Alfred sees the entire scene and James begins screaming at Thomas. The dominoes fall as they do, and Thomas ends up in a position where he may have to leave Downton, after 10 years of service, without a reference, and perhaps with a prison sentence.

Thomas has always been difficult to sympathize with, but I certainly always have. I love to hate him, but I also hate to love him, and sometimes the latter certainly triumphs. Because I know that deep down, there are redemptive qualities about him. Not to say what he did wasn’t sort of creepy–for a lack of a better word–but for once, he seemed truly apologetic because he truly meant no harm. And I think that’s the sentiment that most of the other characters share, as everyone–all those former enemies turned allies–rallies behind Thomas to protect him. Because behind all the ambition and deceit, there is a character who just wants to be successful and happy, who just wants to be better than who he is, and find a place that is better than where he is. If he needs to worm his way into those places, you can’t really blame him for any of that. Like Thomas told Carson, it isn’t against the law to hope. And damn right it isn’t.

When James thanks the beaten-up Thomas for defending him when he was drunk at the town fair and even goes as far to call him brave (made more meaningful by the audience knowing how Thomas wanted out from WWI), James inquires why Thomas was even following him. Thomas responds honestly–“you know.” James mans up and tells Thomas that he can never reciprocate, but he’s willing to be friends. And perhaps, there is some hope for Thomas after all.

The writers couldn’t have possibly pulled the Thomas story line off without the show being well into its third season. Or without the supremely well-constructed performance of Rob James-Collier. Thomas’ villainy, on paper, defined who he was, but the show is starting to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

While there are a plethora of other things in the most recent season that can elicit feelings from long-time viewers of Downton (like the final scene of the Christmas special), the transformation of Thomas Barrow has been, personally, the most enthralling and rewarding story line in the dawn of the drama’s coming of age.