The recent success of IRON MAN has underscored an implacable truth of fantasy film making: it's all about the acting.
It's not groaning and staggering -- it's ACTING.
(fantasy. n. an imaginative or fanciful work, esp. one dealing with supernatural or unnatural events or characters.)
You know, fantasy movies, those movies that bend and break the rules of physics as we know...are aware of them. There are a thousand and one things that can and/or should happen for a fantasy flick to work; a great premise, an intelligent script, excellent special effects, an evocative soundtrack and razor sharp editing. Generally, a given fantasy movie might be missing any one of these elements, sometimes more than one and still manage to work. But man, if you don't have good to great central performances the whole thing can fall apart. This may be even more imperative in a fantasy flick than in a different kind of movie where the plot or the writing can carry you through. A super-hero movie, as in the case of IRON MAN, or a horror movie, or science fiction movie, any film that takes a little extra suspension of disbelief seems to have even more of a need to have a strong human center to ground the film in. There are certainly decent fantasy flicks without a strong central performance, but that one element can elevate a bad fantasy flick to good, and a good one to a transcendent, even classic event.
Max Schreck. NOSFERATU. Lon Chaney. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Boris Karloff. FRANKENSTEIN. Bela Lugosi. DRACULA. Frederick March. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Claude Rains. THE INVISIBLE MAN. Anthony Perkins. PSYCHO. Mia Farrow. ROSEMARY'S BABY. Sigourney Weaver. ALIEN and ALIENS. Sissy Spacek. CARRIE. These movies, classics all, are unimaginable without the stars who brought their main characters to life. And the classic status of all these movies is dependent upon these performances. CARRIE would be unwatchable now without Spacek. Is there another actor who
could have transferred a character as grounded in "reality" as Ellen Ripley from ALIEN to ALIENS – a movie that was drastically different in tone and execution, other than classically trained Sigourney Weaver? Would the Creature from FRANKENSTEIN be such a fixture in the public consciousness without the muted poetry of Boris Karloff's still astonishing performance? Who knows what these films would be without the work of these actors, but most assuredly, none of them would be the classics we know now.
It's not buckets of blood -- it's ACTING.
There is much about BLADE RUNNER that is amazing. It's rightfully regarded as a classic of its kind. I would argue, however, that the villain, Roy Batty, Rutger Hauer's finest hour, gives the movie its profundity and its poetry. Likewise, SPIDER-MAN was wildly successful on almost every front, but if Tobey Maguire isn't able to navigate the balancing act between the insecure, floundering nerd Peter Parker and the dashing, wise-cracking, Spider-Man the movie doesn't work. MANHUNTER, on the other hand was a decent enough movie with strong actors, William Peterson and Brian Cox, doing decent enough work. But when Jody Foster and Anthony Hopkins did some of the very best work of two luminous film careers SILENCE OF THE LAMBS became an instant classic. Without Johnny Depp's insanely charismatic turn as Jack Sparrow, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN would have been seen as the mess of over-the-top special effects and under-developed storyline that it actually was, and not the progenitor of a franchise. There are many fantasy movies (THE LORD OF THE RINGS franchise springs to mind), that despite special effects and fantastical creatures and innumerous acts of derring do are rightfully, wisely built around sterling casts. On a much lower budget, THE ROAD WARRIOR, along with its dazzling chase sequences, remains relevant and potent due primarily to its cast of largely unknown, but deeply committed actors. All else being equal,
the acting makes the movie.
It's not dying beautifully -- it's ACTING!
There are exceptions; STAR WARS, of course, being the most notable. Looking at the first three films without the rosy haze of nostalgia, much of the acting – and writing for that matter -- is excruciating. Ford alone carried the day with sheer charisma, though even this fails him in the over-ripe RETURN OF THE JEDI. The only performance that still holds up to the magnitude of what STAR WARS is to American culture is that of Darth Vader, and that took two actors, David Prowse providing the body and the inimitable James Earl Jones providing the voice! (The next three STAR WARS films I won't even discuss. Two words: Hayden Christiansen.) THE MATRIX is another one. It's Keanu Reeves special gift to somehow wind up in movies that are great in spite of him, THE MATRIX, DANGEROUS LIASONS, BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA. It's also notable that all three of these had great performances around
Reeves. Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving and Carrie Anne Moss in THE MATRIX, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins in DRACULA, John Malkovich and Glenn Close in DANGEROUS LIASONS) If THE MATRIX falls from its classic status in the years to come it'll be for three reasons: RELOADED, REVOLUTIONS and Reeves' lame work at the center of each.
'Cuz you gotta have it. In the era we live in now, where movies are rife with CGI and green screens, insane stunts and gadgets and everything else, more than ever the audience needs to feel a human connection at the base of the story. It's the grounding for our imagination to be set free. We're going to get bombarded with dazzling special effects. Studios don't feel – and large audiences agree with them – that they're giving the movie-goer her money's worth unless their product verges on sensory overload (check out the new SPEED RACER.) JUMPER was a disaster for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Hayden Christian (him again). THE ILLUSIONIST, an
old story-line with a (kind of) new twist flew almost entirely on the strength of Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti playing cat and mouse but THE PRESTIGE was sunk by an overwrought and highly unimagined plot – and by Hugh Jackman not being able to keep up his end of the bargain.
Let me show you mofo's how it's done.
So. Here we are with Summer Blockbuster Season upon us, one drunken master and one silent monk afoot, one moderately successful, super-psychedelic race car driver on the streets, talking lions, white witches, and beloved relic hunters waiting in the wings and the only thing anyone is talking about is Robert Downey Jr's flawed, charismatic, billionaire playboy Tony Stark. He gives us the doorway into a fantastic story. We don't have to be like Tony Stark, we don't have to have what Tony Stark has, to relate to him. Robert Downey Jr. will almost exclusively be the reason IRON MAN is a hit. Without him, IRON MAN is just another "origin of a super-hero" movie. The new INDIANA JONES movie comes out (yikes!) next week. Lucas is producing, Spielberg is at the helm but if Harrison Ford doesn't provide the vulnerable magnetism that made Indiana Jones such an appealing hero the whole endeavor is dead in the water.
Over and over again, Hollywood reaches for the golden goose and a lot of times it's to everyone's benefit. But when it doesn't work no one seems to know why even when the answer so often is right there in front of them. A good script is nice but a bad actor can ruin a great line. Great special effects are awesome but I can see them in any car or beer commercial and if there aren't real human beings in the movie that's exactly what they become. A neat premise is the basis of every half-way decent comic book. But you want your millions of dollars investment to become a smash hit that makes you millions upon millions more? Simple.
It's the acting, stupid.
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