Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Performances in Stanley Kubrick Movies/Actors as Auteurs

Whilst re-watching Full Metal Jacket recently I was struck once again by R. Lee Ermey’s tour-de-force performance as the drill instructor and this time I even started to question how much it could rightfully be called Kubrick’s film. We movie fans usually worship directors, especially this director, but for the first 40 minutes of the film - covering the training of the recruits on Parris Island - Ermey dominates proceedings to such an extent that it’s almost beside the point to note that Kubrick does a good job of framing him, that his tracking shots and geometric arrangements create a good context for showing off Ermey’s talents. We don’t keep track of the people who set up the stage when a rock band performs live, and it’s almost the equivalent situation here. One has to wonder sometimes why a director always gets the most credit or blame for a film.

Much of the power of Ermey’s performance comes from the outrageous things he says, things like ‘Do you maggots understand that?’ and ‘I will unscrew your head and shit down your neck’. But how much were these things scripted? The film was officially written by Kubrick, Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford based on Hasford’s novel, The Short-Timers, but surely a lot of it was improvised? These lines don’t seem like the kind of thing you could actually sit down, ponder on and methodically put down on paper. They seem like the kind of thing that could only come out of a man’s mouth when he’s in a spontaneous rage. (Wikipedia says ‘According to Kubrick's estimate, the former drill instructor wrote 50% of his own dialogue, especially the insults’.) What’s more, this opening section is the most distinctive part of the film, and the thing that distinguishes it from every other Vietnam War movie. The rest of it, including all the scenes involving the mysterious sniper, is very good but could just as well have been in Platoon or Casualties of War. So couldn’t you say that in a way that Ermey is the ‘auteur’ of this film as much as Kubrick?  

Then there’s Dr. Strangelove. Apart from Slim Pickens’ scenes in the bomber, isn’t it basically the Peter Sellers show? There’d be hardly any film left if you took him and his three roles out, and could any other actor have done what he did? Wouldn’t they have had to radically alter the script if Sellers had been unavailable? So shouldn’t Sellers be considered an auteur in that case too? And what about Jack Nicholson in The Shining? In fact you might wonder if Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film very obviously not dominated by actors, with no big names or larger-than-life characters, because after movies like Paths of Glory (dominated by Kirk Douglas), Lolita (James Mason and Sellers) and Dr Strangelove (Sellers), he wanted to make something that was unequivocally his. And maybe later he chose Ryan O’Neal for Barry Lyndon precisely because O’Neal was unremarkable and unlikely to upstage the elaborate visual scheme he had planned for the film?

I don’t mean to disrespect Kubrick. I’m a big fan of his. He had an amazing visual sensibility and was a great story-teller too. But it’s precisely because he’s such a revered creative talent that the contributions of his actors perhaps don’t get the credit they deserve. And it’s easy to start picking apart other directors’ oeuvres in the same way. When we think of Ingmar Bergman films should we be paying more attention to Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand etc? I’m a huge Frank Capra fan, but his two best films are definitely Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life and both of them rest on powerful performances by James Stewart. How come when Capra worked with other actors he hardly ever reached the same standard? Mr Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper seems like it should be as good, but it simply isn’t.

And where would Scorsese be without De Niro, Keitel, Pesci and DiCaprio? If his resumé only included the films he made without any of these four, what would his reputation be? Or even if we just took out the performances of these four guys and their parts had been played by uncharismatic B-grade actors instead, how would we rate Marty? Even though Scorsese's films more than most are very directed, full of brilliant camerawork and editing, it still seems to me that they affect us so much mainly because of what the actors do. For instance in the famous Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas, when Ray Liotta leads Lorraine Bracco into a nightclub through the back entrance and the kitchen, is it brilliant because of what the cameraman does, or because of Liotta's smooth patter and Bracco's bug-eyed look of amazement? Brain De Palma's work is full of similar directorial flourishes but just look at something like Body Double to see how meaningless they can be if they're not backed up by the work of charismatic actors. There are long sequences in that film which are very similar to the passages in Vertigo when James Stewart follows Kim Novak. One could possibly argue they are directed in a more interesting way, or at least have more interesting camerawork. But even if that's true it doesn't really help, because the two leads are so bland when compared to Stewart and Novak. We feel nothing for them. It was telling that De Palma was only at his best when he worked with big stars on films like Carlito's Way, Mission Impossible and The Untouchables.

In fact, I did recently get an opportunity to see what a great film full of talented actors would be like without those actors. I rented The Maltese Falcon (1940 Bogart version) from my video shop and was surprised to find two earlier versions of the same story were thrown in for free: The Maltese Falcon (1932) and Satan Met A Lady (1936). I watched part of each movie after I’d seen the Bogart classic but not all of them since they were very, very similar in storyline. It’s unusual to have three versions of the same story within such a short space of time, and the fact that the settings and iconography and black and white cinematography were basically identical highlighted the one huge difference between the 1940 version and the earlier films: the acting. In the 1936 film a very young, very blonde Bette Davis plays the Mary Astor role, but otherwise all the players in these two films are by now virtually unknown, and you can’t help thinking history has made a fair judgment. You keep on comparing them to Bogart and Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet etc and thinking ‘Wow…they’re so bland, so flat, they’re… just kind of nothing’. Elisha Cook Jr. only has a small role in the 1940 film but this time round he struck me as one of its highlights. He’s such a strangely emotional, vulnerable gangster; he actually gets tears in his eyes when Bogart reveals his plan to make him the fall guy for the police. In the earlier versions there’s nothing remotely as powerful, even from more major characters.

This kind of comparitive exercise can really bring home to you how important casting and acting is to movies. Or to put it another way, a lot of what makes a great director is surely their ability to recognise and care about great acting and to cast well. This should be noted more often. (There are some acclaimed arthouse directors who don’t have this talent but they’re the ones whose films are, to my mind at least, very over-rated). The auteur theory came about partly because up until the 1950’s movie commentators concentrated most of their attention on the stars and hardly noticed the director, so maybe it’s retrograde and unnecessary to start championing the actor at this late stage. But we do tend to think of actors as not actually creating films. We admit that they do something but tend to think of the director (and maybe the screenwriter) as the real artistic forces. It is easy sometimes just to think of actors as parroting out the lines they’ve been given and showing off their pretty faces or, in the case of character actors, their natural idiosyncrasies. Yet it’s more complicated than that. There are many behind-the-scenes unknowables - how much actors improvise, how much they cut or add to make the lines feel right - before we even get to the knowable elements on screen: their intonations, expressions etc. Nevertheless these unknowables are not what I’m concerned about here, because as far as I can work out the words said in a finished film are usually at least 90% from the script (so never mind actors and directors; what about screenwriters not getting the credit they deserve?)

What I’m trying to put my finger on is something else that actors bring, some magical transformation they occasionally enact, when words on the page become much more meaningful when said out loud. Sometimes it seems actors own those words more than the person who wrote them. And that happens when they have an emotionally intelligent reaction to their lines, and let us see what they’re feeling and thinking. So maybe all I’m saying in the end is that of course a good film requires a symbiotic relationship between everyone on the set, and actors, directors, screenwriters and everyone else all help to make each other look good (or bad)... but I still think a director needs good actors more than an actor needs a good director. And a lot of the pleasure of the movies is witnessing a good actor’s interesting appropriation of scripted words, and that pleasure is under-rated and under-reported. The best film criticism, like that of Pauline Kael, recognises this; she often reported on what actors did with their voices and faces and bodies, and how that made her feel. But she’s long gone and unfortunately even the most widely-read critics these days often talk of acting only in the blandest generic terms. I wish more people writing about film would get into the nitty-gritty of their own feelings about performances. It’s far more interesting and valuable than any high-falutin theory or terminology you can learn at film school.

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