A critic's criticism of actor's actors

The Baltimore Sun

Let's retire the phrase "actor's actor" before it does any more damage. Maybe it was a useful label when serious actors worked nonstop on stage and didn't have time to feed off tons of high-toned adulation. It meant that an actor of formidable range, technique and invention - such as Laurence Olivier - had become a performer even peers looked to for guidance or inspiration because of a string of undeniable accomplishments.

But these days, it's become an encomium for any star who's delivered the splashiest or most radical-chic turn of the year.

And it tends to settle on that artist like a curse.

The accolades for Daniel Day-Lewis' foaming at the mouth in There Will Be Blood, honored by every major critics' group as well as the Academy Awards, may push this latest actor's actor even further into characterizations that register as "fresh" and "one of a kind" only because they're disconnected from everything except the actor's own ambition.

Anyone with a sense of movie history must wonder why Day-Lewis mimics John Huston's awesomely amoral tycoon from Roman Polanski's Chinatown. Was it just because Huston's father, Walter, played a wily prospector in Huston's own The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), which Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson used as a template?

The brilliance of John and Walter Huston was in the way they sounded depths within, respectively, a monster and a sort of grizzled sprite. But unlike either Huston, Day-Lewis develops tunnel vision and loses himself in monomania. In There Will Be Blood, he's all envy, fear and malice. The script fails to suggest the roots for this human beast's malevolence, but you don't feel Day-Lewis is pushing the text to its limit. He simply tests how far he can make his vein jump out of his forehead.

It's dispiriting to read interviews in which the actor downplays his breakthrough role in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), in which he married intelligence, instinct and romantic imagination. It's as if he's taken leave of his sensuality - and even worse, his senses.

Kevin Spacey is another actor's actor with similar theatrical prestige and credentials - and a best actor Oscar, too. After a string of brilliant, surprising turns as off-kilter characters, he earned his award for playing a suburban husband and carrying that sour comic soap opera, American Beauty (1999), with his crack comic timing.

But Spacey almost immediately took his Oscar and his actor's-actor label as dual certification that he could do anything. A movie like The Shipping News (2001) became a monument to miscasting. Many a great actor has scored a coup playing the kind of wary, observant fellow who gets other people to talk: Think of Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America (1984). But when Spacey tried a watchful role in The Shipping News, he gained 20 pounds and made heaviness the leitmotif of his performance; he denied the comic, showoff element of his talent that cries out for expression; and he drained his eyes, inflections and movements of all vitality.

Even that was sane compared with Spacey's vanity production of the biopic, Beyond the Sea (2004), in which he directed his own way-too-old impersonation of Bobby Darin. When cerebral actors such as Spacey and Day-Lewis determine to make a stretch, they may naturally shade themselves toward mimicry. Imitation becomes not the sincerest form of flattery but a short cut to "versatility."

Spacey sang his own superficial re-creations of Darin's style, but he lacked Darin's spontaneous oomph, and his body movements caromed off the beats without drive or force. The movie was about an actor's misguided and shallow demonstration of virtuosity rather than a real performer who conquered as many genres and personal traumas as Ray Charles.

And now, when Spacey tries to return to his old sinister specialties, whether in the farcical Fred Claus (2007) or the forthcoming melodrama 21, he appears to have lost any spark of joy or inspiration.

Our leading women in Hollywood have carried the burden of praise better. Meryl Streep has grown lighter and more surprising over the years; she has rarely been more daring than in The Manchurian Candidate (2004) or more seductive and hilarious than she was in A Prairie Home Companion (2006).

And for an object lesson of how to lead a post-Oscar career, you need look no further than Frances McDormand, the most-honored leading lady in today's roster of openings (her latest: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day). McDormand has done her best work in the years after her 1996 best actress Oscar for Fargo. Nominated for best supporting actress for Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2005), as she had been in 1988 for Mississippi Burning, McDormand still demonstrates an ever-growing appetite and aptitude for practicing her art at its peak, as a way of absorbing new and often chaotic experiences and making them lucid and moving for an audience. And she's often done so in small films that fall off Oscar's radar.

As a record producer in the Los Angeles comedy-drama Laurel Canyon (2003), McDormand is sexy, smart, infuriating and touching - a continual revelation and surprise. When her son says, "We just hadn't planned on a change of plan," she brings just the right brio to her response: "Well, who plans on a change of plan? I mean, that would be sort of paranoid, don't you think?"

Part of any actor's education is learning how to give up everything to be "in the moment." But whether as a post-hippie in Los Angeles or a London governess turned social secretary in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, McDormand brings clout to women who lose themselves in the moment - and suggests the universe of feeling that exists beyond the moment. There's nothing static or self-important about any McDormand performance. In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis helps Anderson turn his film into dead weight. In Miss Pettigrew, McDormand transforms a high-style comedy-drama into a nonstop spree.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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