Hollywood's supporting actors take centre stage: Stars take backseat as film plots, method acting fail
Considering the limitations of method acting and how stars fail to shine in badly written movies, it is not surprising that actors who did supporting roles are now assuming centre stage | #FirstCulture
Good acting is not easy to define, but an actor’s ability to perform should make for plausible and interesting fiction. A good performance needs an intelligently constructed script with the space for characters, and ‘characters’ are constructed around intentional action. How a person conducts themselves in a fictional situation tells us what motivates them and gives clues as to their ‘character’. As regards the star in any Hollywood film, he or she is not a ‘character’, that is someone whose behaviour we wish to understand, but rather a human presence in which a public projects itself.
Hollywood films have tried to create individuals, or rather, 'individualities' as types through their stars. The factor which bestows a type with 'individuality' is their striking separateness from other people — their ability to make us believe that they are as 'we' are behind our disguises, people capable of 'defeating our self-defeats'. There is identification with the star-as-protagonist because they represent us as we might have been, if we had had the strength to be what we actually are. We therefore project ourselves into the 'individuality as type', something we do not do with 'character-types'.
Few stars in the 1940s, even the 1950s and stretching into the 1960s tried to ‘act’ in the sense of playing ‘characters’; stars like Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, John Wayne, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart simply allowed their screen personas to speak. In these decades, the style of acting was still predominantly theatrical and the supporting actor (Walter Brennan, Elsa Lanchester, Karl Malden) did not hence come into their own, although some did and went on to become lead actors in great though unconventional films (Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate). This began to change with the arrival of the more naturalistic method acting sometime in the early 1950s, which brought in a new kind of star exemplified by people like Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront, 1954), James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause, 1955) and Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity, 1953).
The celebrated ‘Method’ is a nebulous term often used for different approaches which don’t agree with each other, but may be broadly taken to have an emphasis on psychology – the actor trying to ‘feel’ the role and get into its skin based on their own past and recollected experiences. The new set of actors who belonged to this category and became stars–apart from the three mentioned earlier–included Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn, Rod Steiger, Patricia Neal and Jane Fonda. This line-up will give the reader who knows cinema an idea of how stardom transformed.
It may be surmised that since the ‘Method’ depends on identification with the role, its followers are hard-pressed to do comedy, where it is necessary for the actor to maintain a distance from the role they are playing. When they play villains, where also there is no identification (like De Niro in Cape Fear), they resort to ‘impersonation’ instead of ‘acting’, that is, they rely on gestures and mannerisms rather than trying to understand the compulsions of the character. Julia Roberts in Mirror Mirror (2012) is very different from the Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000).
Trying to approach the character from the ‘inside’ may be more hazardous for a star than simply allowing their persona to take over the role, which was the way the earlier stars approached acting. De Niro and Al Pacino have been the most celebrated actor-stars in Hollywood after 2000, and there are critics who swear that they are the greatest actors of all time. But if one considers De Niro’s most celebrated role in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the character is meant to be mentally unstable. The basic fact is that Hollywood films are driven by motivated action, which means that the protagonist is someone guided by rational goals, and someone who strives to achieve them. The audience needs to project itself onto them, and it can hardly do so for a character who is mentally challenged. Regardless of the intense histrionics in De Niro’s performance, the fact remains that Travis Bickle does little wrong, despite being ‘mentally unstable.’ He kills a pimp and a dangerous gangster, rescues an underage prostitute and sends her back to her parents — all actions too commendable from someone unhinged. De Niro is electrifying in parts of the film, as in the later film Raging Bull (1980), but he does not get a grasp of the character as a psychopath, since his acts are all morally unassailable. The only allowance may be that neither does director Scorsese nor does writer Paul Schrader understand Bickle. The British film magazine Sight and Sound, in comparing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront to De Niro in Raging Bull, noted that where Brando had opened the door to the human soul, De Niro had gone a step further; he had opened the door 'but there was no one home'.
A star who follows the ‘Method’ tends to usurp the space in the fiction, since they ‘internalise’ the role, while the others who do not follow it respond to the offered stimuli. This is perhaps the reason why two Method actors cannot be good foils to each other in any film. If you take a successful film like Midnight Cowboy (1969) with two male leads, the two (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight) have different approaches. Dustin Hoffman ‘internalises’ the role, while Jon Voight is a character actor who tries to play someone else rather than ‘get into his skin’. In Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) the pairing of De Niro and Pacino is quite disastrous, when the two don’t become foils to each other, rather embarking on their own personal trips. Neither responds to what the other offers but tries, instead, to do his own bit to upstage the other. Both stars are extremely charismatic, but their competing charismas become a problem.
Those actors who played supporting roles and went on to become stars often did better a better job as protagonists than the biggest stars. This is not as true for women, perhaps because supporting women stars are not usually considered ‘star material’ as far as glamour is concerned (and glamour is deemed as being more important to female film stars). In more recent decades, with Naturalistic acting catching on, we find a number of supporting actors who have gone on to play lead roles brilliantly. I would cite Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, Robert Duval, Christopher Walken, Jon Voight, John Malkovich, Edward Norton, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman and even Jack Nicholson, who began as a supporting actor in Easy Rider (1969), but developed a unique style later.
The reason a character actor can morph into a leading star effectively is that they are not stuck to a persona or a ‘method’. Since they are often actors who have worked in theatre, they portray a character rather than try to be the person. A character actor does much less in a role than a star and allows the spectators to fill in bits of fiction through their imagination. If the script is below par, they do the extra bit with their presence. This is where the star following the ‘Method’ has a distinct disadvantage. Where Al Pacino has now a repertoire of a few assorted stares and De Niro is stuck with some grimaces, an actor like Christopher Walken goes from strength to strength because he does not use himself up. In Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), he even steals the show, though his role is small.
In conventional cinema dependent on storytelling, a good film must necessarily also be good fiction with plausible characters, who hold our attention. Just consider where The Godfather might have been without John Cazale as Fredo, Robert Duval as Tom Hagen, Stirling Hayden as Capt McCluskey, James Caan as Sonny and Al Lettieri as Virgil Solozzo. Pacino and Brando are great, but these other characters are together perhaps even more important, and the best sequences would be impossible without them.
Coming to Hollywood in the present day, there has been a decline in the fiction, partly brought about by the rise of the spectacle initiated by technological advances like digital effects, and partly by the film-going public gradually losing the reading habit, becoming insensitive to the quality of plot construction. Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is a sequel to an earlier classic from 1982, but while the narrative of the Ridley Scott film is still firm in our memories, can one recollect the plot of the sequel that is less than a year old? One still remembers its special effects, but little pertaining to character and situation is retained. One might expect from the decline in the fiction that character acting would deteriorate, but that has hardly been the case. It is in fact stardom that appears to have suffered.
The biggest earners in Hollywood have always been the action stars and it is no different now; but one misses the actor-stars capable of suggesting deep interiority, which character actors don’t do. With actor-stars like Dustin Hoffman, De Niro and Pacino being past their prime and in decline, there have been no new method actors to replace them, and one is left wondering. I propose that the kind of roles they played needed a sharply-etched picture of a real milieu as a counter – the docks in On the Waterfront, the city of New York in Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy or the Texas oil fields in Giant (1956) with James Dean. Even Jack Nicholson suggested deep interiority in Five Easy Pieces (1970) because of the sharp portrayal of a world obsessed with producing oil. Since digital effects rule and the reigning genre in Hollywood is fantasy, the days of the sharply-etched real milieu appear over and there are also few convincing suggestions of interiority. Perhaps actors don’t even understand what ‘interiority’ means anymore. Heath Ledger, in playing the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), tried to give a ‘Method’ performance, clearly out of place; Jack Nicholson did the earlier Joker just right in Batman (1989). Getting into the skin of a villain is impossible since one cannot be in sympathy with an evil person. Heath Ledger appears to have attempted the impossible by trying to ‘become’ the Joker, and he died shortly afterwards. In the midst of all this, the character actor thrives, perhaps as never before.
Since spectacle has usurped the space meant for the plot, there may be a dearth of outstanding lead actors in Hollywood today, but our general interest in people cannot but continue. We find that even action films use supporting actors, who often rise above the doubtful literary material. As instances I would cite Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III (2006), Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds (2009) and the small roles played by numerous actors in the Jason Bourne films – actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn and Albert Finney. One of Quentin Tarantino’s biggest contributions to Hollywood may have been his use of supporting actors in Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997). De Niro’s career-best performance may have been the one in Jackie Brown. The winner of the best actress Oscar in 2018, Frances McDormand for Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, is evidence of the supporting actor gradually moving to centre stage. The rise of the supporting actor in Hollywood is perhaps worthy of a book-length investigation.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
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