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Face Value
by Thom Williams

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Isn't it a bit unfair that Tricia Helfer can also act well?

Isn't it a bit unfair that Tricia Helfer can also act well?
When asked about the casting of Tricia Helfer as the robotic femme fatale Caprica Six Helfer having had no real acting experience Ronald Moore, creator of the current incarnation of Battlestar Galactica (one of the better television series and quite possibly the best science fiction television program ever), Moore said, "I can help someone with her acting; I can't tell an actress how to be sexy". In Helfer's case, Moore uncovered a diamond in the rough (so to speak); Helfer has been more than capable of playing the complex synthetic consciousness that is Six. Helfer is certainly the exception rather than the rule, or she may just be the beneficiary of Moore's prowess as a storyteller.

Consider that a good on-film acting performance can (and must) be cultivated from multiple takes, from multiple angles. The director and other accompanying actors (not to mention wardrobe, make-up, props, lighting, and set design staff) have an opportunity to affect the actor's take-to-take performance. Once those series of moments are captured, the editing process can make or break a performance. It has an opportunity to be enhanced or screwed up yet again once you get into mixing the sound.

Since everything ultimately should be falling to the director (in the case of film, producer in the case of television usually), a bad performance is usually indicative of a bad director. A good director can capture a great performance; a great director can manufacture one. Personal experience has proven to me the truth of this, however, there's a little chicken or egg argument still to be had.

Was the director incompetent in gathering and/or editing an existing assortment of usable footage? Consider Natalie Portman's performances in Star Wars, Episodes I, II, and III. Portman has a charisma, a magnetism that is evident in The Professional, Beautiful Girls, and Garden State (among others); sadly, this personality and life is missing from her performances in the Star Wars trilogy, especially Episode II. If you've seen the behind the scenes footage from the Star Wars films you see how much time and effort care went into the performances of the animated creations like Yoda. If only such loving care had been funneled towards the actors of flesh and blood.

Another reoccurring problem is the name game: the need or desire to place a well-publicized name (that the production sometimes just can't financially support) over a skilled performer that no one knows. The simply math is that the bigger name will be on-set for only a few days and you can forget about re-shoots,
Good actors gone bad: Jeremy Irons in <I>Dungeons and Dragons</I>

Good actors gone bad: Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons
readings, auditions, or rehearsals whereas the unknown, and thus cheaper, actor will be more available to the point of clearing his/her schedule to accommodate the picture. More often than not, more time equals a better performance.

The example that keeps popping into my mind to illustrate the point is Jeremy Irons, Thora Birch, and Bruce Payne in the dung-scenting Dungeons and Dragons. Here are three veteran performers that look like they are performing a school play and not a very good one. Though it's very likely that the director of Dungeons and Dragons simply sucks, it should be noted that Jeremy Irons was on-set for, I think, something like three days. For the amount of screen-time that his character is featured, it seems clear that an Ed Wood mentality was likely at work.

There's no doubt that special effects are hot issue these days for filmmakers and film fans in general. What surprises me is that the issue often turns into a "tastes great; less filling" argument dealing with puppets looking better than CG characters and magic-hour lighting (which is available for roughly 20 minutes twice a day) is better than a CG landscape, about which I couldn't care less.

How it looks is important, don't get me wrong, but what shatters my immersion into a any film is the connections or lack thereof between characters, be they flesh and blood or foam latex and silicon.

The film that most comes to mind that illustrates this point was Sci-fi Channel's version of Dune. Due to the advancements in special effects, the effects in Sci-fi's Dune were actually better than the theatrically released version that was David Lynch's brainchild, though the strength of Sci-fi's version was not the special effects (that were still lacking) but the illustration of character relationships that are so crucial to the massive social undertones of Frank Herbert's brilliant piece of literature. In a film that fails to grade well on so many levels, Sci-fi's Dune succeeds overall, thanks to these emotional relationships scoring resonance.

Branching off into touchy-feely for a moment, there is something magical that happens when you, as a member of the audience, find yourself emotionally invested in a fictional character that you are watching in a tiny electric box or projected onto the silver screen (this happens more when you are stoned). There is a openness that the actor must possess if even for one take out of twenty if it is to be captured at all. I can sense a false moment like a fart in a car, and if the actor is not engaged, I am not engaged.

Part of my search for
What happens to Orlando Bloom when he meets a real movie tough guy.

What happens to Orlando Bloom when he meets a real movie tough guy.
where bad performances come from brings me to Orlando Bloom. Bloom continues to be placed in roles for which he is ill suited like Kingdom of Heaven and the Pirates of the Caribbean films that finds Orlando trying to channel tough-guy energy that is practically laughable when you consider tough-guy performances from Charles Bronson, Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, and Russell Crowe (among others). Only an actor of considerable skill can overpower their own nature if their nature (and look) is so diametrically opposed to whom they are trying to portray.

An example of this skill is shown by Edward Norton in American History X; on a bad day Norton looks as if he could barely fight his way out of a wet paper sack, yet in American History X Norton projects a level of hostility that is not scoffed at. Can you imagine Orlando Bloom trying to play Norton's Derek Vinyard? On the other hand, Norton steals scenes from Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven whenever they are on screen together.

An actor provides a director a scope of performance. It is from this scope that the director and editor will craft the performance that the audience will see. When there is trust, an actor will go places, try things that they might be too self-conscious to otherwise attempt. When the director doesn't have that trust, actors are remiss about experimenting with their performance and limit it in an effort to protect themselves. Sometimes a bad performance is simply and actor and director not getting along.

Like anything, getting good acting performances is relatively easy; getting great performances is the hard part. With actors/actresses being as common as they are, and many other people that would be willing to try it out (and may possibly be quite good at it), I suppose it irks me that you have a role in a major motion picture go to some pretty face that is little more than serviceable. I don't know that I could be convinced that Orlando Bloom has survived in Hollywood flourished even on the merits of his acting ability, the same to said for any number of other pretty faces, be they male or female.

Unfortunately, there's probably no escaping pretty faces, many filmmakers having the same opinion as Ronald Moore when it comes to performers. Just remember, Trisha Helfer is the exception not the rule.

And let's try not to popularize someone that's only of marginal acting ability lest Hollywood continue to force them upon us like Popeye shoving pancakes down Wimpy's gullet; Orlando Bloom should never have gotten close to a role as complex as was his in Kingdom of Heaven.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Thom Williams:

To Bear the Arms Right

Bang for the Buck

Be All You Can Be

Hell Lost

Mean Teen Wrecking Machine

All Columns

Thom Williams
Thom is both a maker and lover of films. He loves, and makes, films of all kinds. He is often as surprised by what he likes as by what he creates himself; Thom entered film school with a distaste for silent, black and white, and foreign films, yet left having made one of each. He likes what he likes and make no apologies for his opinions.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Thom Williams by clicking here.

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