Saturday, February 20, 2010

Costumes Do Not Equal Acting

I was watching Steven Spielberg's Hook in which Dustin Hoffman plays Captain Hook under the guise of excessive make-up: ironically the performance predates Jack Sparrow by about 12 years. Although I was not surprised to discover just how bad Hook was (it's considered minor Spielberg and justifiably so), I was surprised by how bad Hoffman was. Then I got to thinking: it seems that stars gravitate towards these costumed roles in an effort to cut lose, do something wild, have fun, and escape themselves by having their persona's devoured by their costumes. Johnny Depp is so solemn and strange in real life that it's no wonder he tends to work with fimmakers like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. They let him cut lose and play by his own rules. But costumes rarely ever equal acting and sometimes stars seem to forget that. There's a thin line between imitation and performance when it comes to actors being cloaked in disguises to the point where they cease to be recognizable. A costume also invites an actor to be lazy. In the case of Hoffman, who is a great actor no doubt and managed to create a brilliant character under a disguise in Tootsie, he spends too much time acting with his fake teeth and his hook, making sure we see how horrible they are at all times, showing how vile a villain he is. However, outside of the hook and the teeth, which always seem to be playing against Hoffman within the frame, there isn't much of a character there and Hoffman approaches playing him like a high school drama student playing dress-up. The whole performance announces itself as performance: "Look at me," Hoffman seems to be saying, "I'm acting." Depp did the same thing as Willy Wonka in Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One actress who comes to mind who knows how to act with of make-up, not under it, is Emma Thompson. Look her in Nanny McPhee, not a great movie to be sure, but Thompson does exactly what it takes to bring a costume to life: she builds the character from the ground up. The make-up can speak for itself; it's Thompson who let's us know just what Nanny McPhee as a character is really about. The examples go on and on of great character actors who seem to be perfect for zany roles (usually as villains) who are overcome by their costumes. Look at Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman (there seems to be a pattern developing here, no?). The Joker is one of the most iconic villains in all of comic book history, but Nicholson does virtually nothing with the character except smirk his way to a huge paycheck. Even when Nicholson is all dolled up in the infamous face paint, he can't escape himself as a persona and the character falls to the wayside. Heath Ledger on the other hand completely disappears inside the same character in The Dark Knight and in doing so, provides one of the most memorable villains in all of film history. Ledger, like Thompson, builds the character from the inside out. We aren't seeing Heath Ledger acting evil, we are seeing the Joker brought to life outswide the pages of a comic book. Not only is Ledger deviously entertaining, he also manages to embody the character's ideas and philosophies. That's the sign of an actor giving a character everything they've got. On the other hand, when watching Hoffman in Hook or Depp in Charlie or Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever, or any other innumerable instances of this happening, the joy of acting is sucked out of the performances as we are made physically award of an actor playing dress-up. There's no joy in that. Acting is the art of assessing a character and providing them with exactly what they need. It's about making choices and committing to them to the fullest extent. Performances like the ones mentioned don't make choices, they don't get to know the characters, they don't strive for anything but second rate imitation. That's unfortunate as there are few things more disheartening than seeing a great actor phoning it in in a role that, on paper, they seem destined to play.

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