“My dear boy,” Alfred Hitchcock said on being pestered by Gregory Peck as to his character’s motivation in “Spellbound” (1945), “I couldn’t care less what you’re thinking. Just let your face drain of all expression.” Decades later, are we any clearer on what, exactly, constitutes great screen acting? The Oscars will go to Blanche du Bois impressions, drunkalogues and drag acts with gummed-on toupees, bloated bellies and false teeth. Screen acting has never been showier than right now. “‘Stunt’ performances, once relatively rare, are becoming a necessary audience hook,” Paul Schrader said in a recent Facebook post. “Emaciated McConaughey, comb-over Bale, silent Redford…”
Schrader should know. He wrote “Raging Bull”, for which Robert de Niro ate his way around northern Italy to get his weight up from 145lbs to 215lbs, turning his body into a cinematic event that had to be seen to be believed. It was this performance that showed the way for actors to hold their own in the age of special effects: they would make quite literal spectacles of themselves — not so much acting as morphing. More than ever before, screen acting has become a series of spectacular coups de théâtre — come see Nicole Kidman’s nose! Meryl Streep’s dementia! Tom Hanks’s weight loss! Christian Bale’s weight gain! — even as some of us wonder what has happened to the magnificent ease that once marked them out.
In an experiment in the 1920s, the Russian film-maker Lev Kuleshov cut between the blank expression of a tsarist matinee idol and a series of shots showing a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin and a woman on a divan, then showed it to an audience, all of whom praised his display of hunger, grief, desire, etc. Hitchcock had a version of this in “Rear Window”, when he cut from the same shot of James Stewart looking out at a peeing dog, a pianist, and a nubile girl exercising in her bedroom, instantly converting his character into a peeping tom. The best screen actors have always known this — the enormous limbic power of a look, or gesture, as well as the director’s power to recontextualise it — and taken appropriate action. Ceding control of the scene to the film-maker, they seek gravitational influence within the frame. They become gestural minimalists, concentrating on the two areas studies have revealed as the audience’s first ports of call: eyes and hands.
Gary Cooper’s eyes were beautiful, but so were his hands, and he liked to keep them occupied — in one scene in “Morocco” (1930), he played with a burnt match, a child’s doll, a fan, a tumbler of whisky and an apple, as if finding substitutes for the one thing he would like to get his hands on, Marlene Dietrich, who stood framed in a doorway. From Cooper flow all the tricks in the scene-stealer’s handbook, including: chewing toothpicks (Ryan Gosling), constant snacking (Brad Pitt), speaking sotto voce (Kevin Spacey), refusing to look your co-star in the eye (Al Pacino, who was doing this even before he played blind in “Scent of a Woman”; after that, he simply doubled down on the technique. He hasn’t looked at anyone in decades). You may smile, but such tricks point to the importance, more than mere acting, of existing on screen — capturing the camera, holding the space, compelling and retaining the audience’s gaze.
Jonah Hill stole “The Wolf of Wall Street” with just his hands, flopping lazily on their Rolex-heavy wrists — the very emblem of fratboyish entitlement. In “Enough Said”, Julia Louis-Dreyfus achieved comic perfection with her trick of smiling with her mouth while panicking with her eyes. And if you caught Robert Redford in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost”, reacting to every gust of wind and creak in his ailing boat with an ever-tighter squint, you’ll have seen how an actor can turn thinking into the main attraction. Jennifer Lawrence is technically a little rough around the edges — still apt to look blank when another actor is speaking — but as the sexy, bored stay-at-home mom in David O. Russell’s con-man fantasia “American Hustle”, she has a crackle of unpredictability. “Another fire!” yell her kids, excitedly, and it could easily be Lawrence they mean. But it is Amy Adams who owns the movie. Vamping it in glitzy hand-me-downs, cleavage like a landing strip, head thrown back in triumph while having a pee at Studio 54 as angry women hammer on the door — surely a screen first in terms of iconic character moments — Adams embodies a particular kind of American drive, never more powerful than when purring in neutral.
For me, the best bit of screen acting in 2013 came from Tom Hanks. Actually two bits — the final scene of “Captain Phillips”, in which he presented us with a layer-cake of shock, tears and relief that was even better than his sudden squall of tears in “Saving Private Ryan”; and his whole performance as Walt Disney in “Saving Mr Banks” (pictured). Whirling in and out of rooms with an animator’s elegance of line, buoyed by an indefatigable bonhomie, Hanks gave us everything — Disney’s optimism, his charm, his bullying, his hucksterism — and somehow made them all synonymous. For that seamlessness, he has been duly punished by the Academy, who like their actors to show their working, as your maths teacher used to say. Prizing sweat above all else, they miss one of the reasons we go to the movies in the first place: to find ease, transcendence, a state of grace.
The 86th Academy Awards is at the Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles, on March 2nd