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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
That's Acting!
by Betty Jo Tucker

Through Hamlet, William Shakespeare revealed his belief that good actors teach us important lessons about ourselves. Consider Hamlet's famous advice to the Players, "Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor; suit the action to the word, and the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o'er-step not the modesty of nature; for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end is, to hold, as 't were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and time his form and pressure."

While actors get paid for doing what most of us would love to do -- pretend to be someone else -- the best ones do their job so well it helps the rest of us understand who we really are. And they make acting look very easy -- or, as Henry Fonda explained, they "don't let the wheels show." 

As someone in love with the cinema for over half a century, I've seen many incredible performances by actors who lost themselves in their roles in order to deliver truths about what it means to be human. "I've made me disappear and I put Thomas Fowler on the screen," Michael Caine told one interviewer about his Oscar-nominated role in The Quiet AmericanAnyone who watches Caine's riveting performance as a disillusioned British journalist stationed in Vietnam comes away with greater insight about love, jealousy, despair and compassion.

Judy Garland became Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and reinforced our universal longing for home. Jack Nicholson was the lonely widower who taught us there's life after retirement in About Schmidt. Frances McDormand showed us the value of persistence by transforming herself into the dedicated pregnant police chief in Fargo. Tony Shalhoub inhabited the heart and soul of the obsessed Italian master chef in Big Night, thereby enlightening us concerning how frustrating the need for perfection can be. Aaron Eckhart's metamorphosis into the manipulative Chad for In the Company of Men clearly demonstrated the evils of chauvinism. Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins ceased to be movie stars by changing into unconventional prisoners who helped us celebrate the virtue of patience in The Shawshank Redemption. These are just a few examples of actors making us forget they are acting. "Acting is the one art you cannot be caught doing," declares drama coach Tony Ron. 

Because some actors make their performances seem so natural, they run the risk of being empty-handed when awards season rolls around each year. Johnny Depp and Billy Crudup come to mind. Neither actor owns an Oscar to date. I still find that hard to believe. Depp's amazing work in films like Don Juan DeMarco, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow deserves such recognition. (Perhaps his Captain Jack Sparrow turn this year in Pirates of the Caribbean will finally change Depp's luck.) And Crudup's realistic performances in Jesus' Son and Almost Famous would have received my vote had I been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences during the years those films were released.           

How does one become a good actor? Constantin Stanislavsky, the late great Russian drama teacher/director, advised actors who want to be real artists to lead a full, interesting and exciting life and to study the lives of people around them. "We need a broad point of view to act," he wrote in An Actor Prepares. Stanislavsky obviously viewed acting as an exploration of the human psyche.

Personally, I think Bette Davis was even more on target when she observed, "The real actor has a direct line to the collective heart."

(Photo from The Quiet American: Miramax Films, All Rights Reserved.)

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