Thursday, February 17, 2011

Method acting vs. special effects

During last year's debate over whether the blue people in James Cameron's Avatar were delivering actual performances or not, it was a commonly heard opinion from the acting community that "acting is the best special effect." The actors meant it as a way of pulling rank, but what if the statement were actually true? What if what lay behind our current fad for physical transformation in our actors was a desire to keep up, not with the illustrious example set by Marlon Brando, but with that set by Industrial Light and Magic? You've read the statistics, proudly trumpeted by the stars' publicists during the run-up to awards season. How Hanks lost 55 pounds for Cast Away. How Clooney put on 30 pounds for Syriana. Crowe gaining 63 pounds for Body of Lies. Bale losing 70 pounds for The MachinistThink of the language critics use to praise these performances—"immersive," "transformative," "revelatory"—and you hear distinct echoes of the way we talk about special effects. ...

It's telling, for example, that the current vogue for actorly metamorphosis didn't really kick in until after the release of Jurassic Park in 1993. ...

Trying imagining a lesser-known actor in The Hours, or Cast Away, and you begin to see that Kidman and Hanks' performances are as much adjuncts to their status as celebrities as to their skills as actors. They might best be understood, in fact, as a form of cinematic trompe l'oeil, wherein the audience is both fooled and not fooled at the same time, for we never forget that it's Theron under that make-up, or Hanks that's lost all that weight—indeed, to do so would be to defeat the point of the exercise, which is to marvel over the distance traveled by a well-known face or name. ...

Just as it is possible to exit the latest blockbuster going, "The special effects were great, but the movie blew," so it's possible to find Portman's performance exactly the kind of stunt that wins awards but be unsure what it connects with, emotionally, besides Nina's intense desire to be given the part of the Swan Queen and her determination to do anything to get it.
--Tom Shone, Slate, on physical transformation as special effect

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