Submerged in the Role

May 10, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

The art of acting is a complex and difficult discipline. Distilled to its essence, it requires that the actor perform a not-to-simple feat: convince an audience that something artificial is real, that he/she is someone other than who he/she really is. It's wearing another skin. It's obscuring one's identity beneath that of another. It doesn't matter whether the performance is live, on television, or on film. The end result is the same - the actor must vanish into the character, allowing only the latter to remain.

When we think of great actors in great roles, it's the character who comes to mind first, then the actor. When you're watching Gone with the Wind, you're seeing Rhett Butler, not Clark Gable. In Citizen Kane, it's Charles Foster Kane, not Orson Welles. In Patton, it's the poetic, profane general, not George C. Scott. In The Godfather, the offer is made by Don Vito Corleone, not Marlon Brando. And so on... The same principal applies to lesser roles. The best character actors get consistent work because they have figured out how to consistently and effectively camouflage their true selves.

To an extent, comedies are different. In the pursuit of laughter, effective characterization is often not a primary goal. Consider the antics of Airplane or The Naked Gun. In many ways, these films work because we know who the actors are. Leslie Nielsen never would have become a great comedic actor if he hadn't previously been known as a "straight man." Post-1980, any time Nielsen appeared in a movie, we recognized not the character but the actor. Similar comments could be made about Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Will Ferrell in their early (non-serious) movies.

One could claim that the iconic actor is also an exception to the rule, but that's not necessarily the case. Consider John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of the time, these actors played variations on a type. Yet they still managed to become the character. We know Sheriff John Chance, Rick Blaine, George Bailey, and the Terminator. Each has also successfully stepped outside of his comfort zone once in a while: The Quiet Man, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Rear Window, and Twins. I'm not trying to equate Schwarzenegger with the other three - merely pointing out that he was an effective actor in his own way.

Nothing kills an actor's ability to perform more than transforming into so big a personality that it becomes impossible to become submerged in a role. Consider a few recent examples. Tom Cruise, always a huge draw because of his good looks and his penchant for appearing in box office successes, showed his acting chops in movies like Born on the Fourth of July and Magnolia. Unfortunately, he reached the tipping point during a one-year period when he acted like an idiot proclaiming his undying love for Katie Holmes then following this up with Scientology-fueled rants. By whipping the tabloids into a furor, Cruise turned himself into the kind of actor whose image was bigger than any role he could play. When Mission: Impossible III rolled out, we were seeing Tom Cruise instead of his cinematic alter ego.

Since his drunken anti-Semitic tirade, Mel Gibson has shown the good sense not to accept an acting job. Hidden from view in the director's chair, it's easier to forget his involvement in a movie. However, if he were to do another Lethal Weapon, few viewers would be able to look past Gibson to see the character of Martin Riggs. Gibson's image has become so grotesque that it will be difficult ever again to take him seriously if he decides to appear in front of the camera.

That brings me to Lindsay Lohan, whose collaboration in Georgia Rule motivated me to write this. As recently as three or four years ago, I counted Lohan among a crop of promising young actors. In that short time, she has gone from a budding talent to one of three women vying for the title of Tabloid Queen (the other two being Paris Hilton and Britney Spears). Her off-screen antics have become so well publicized that it's impossible not to think of them when seeing her. It hasn't helped that her recent movies have shown a marked decrease in acting ability or that she was publicly chastised for conduct unbecoming an actor while making Georgia Rule. Lohan can no longer disappear into a character. Her reputation has so outstripped her skill that she endangers the integrity of any production in which she appears.

Is her reputation beyond rehabilitation? Probably not. (The same could be said of Cruise and Gibson. If they stay out of the tabloids and keep a low profile for about a decade, they might be able to rebuild.) There are three obvious steps that need to be taken: clean up her life, stop craving the spotlight, and start doing small, serious films. The first two are entwined, and she's not doing a good job at either. As for the third... she recently dropped out of The Best Time of Our Lives, in which she was supposed to appear opposite Kiera Knightley, Cillian Murphy, and Matthew Rhys. (She was replaced by Sienna Miller.) This has the look of a film that, if nothing else, would have added a little "prestige" to Lohan's image. The stated reason for her dropping out is "creative differences." The real reason is apparently that the role requires nudity. Lohan, of course, is on record stating that she will never do nudity in a movie. Apparently, she reserves that for paparazzi snapshots.

Lohan has reached the vulnerable point in her career when she must transition from teenage parts to adult ones - a point at which many excellent child actors have failed. Unless Lohan can buckle down and get serious about her craft, it's time for her to move on and get a job that doesn't require appearing in front of a camera.