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.

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