Sunday, April 18, 2010

When Does An Actor Go Too Far?

Have you ever watched a movie where you actually felt sorry for an actor? Not because they had the misfortune to be in a dreadful film. But because they have committed so much to their role, that they have crossed an imaginary line. It is difficult to define this line, but you know it when you see it. You know it, when you say to yourself during a film, "no matter how immersed they are in their role, no actor should have to go through this" or "no person should have to do this on camera". All good actors go the distance, giving themselves emotionally and physically to the demands of a film.  But is there some such thing as going too far?

These thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the film 'Antichrist' last weekend. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourgh, the redoubtable French actress of hardy cinematic stock (she is the daughter of actress Jane Birkin and screenwriter Serge Gainsbourgh) who has incidentally also sold a fair number of music CDs as a singer of some merit.  And she is asked in this film to do things that are, frankly, unspeakable. To see her in this film is to realize, how deep and far into the woods an actor can go, following in step behind the director. Yes, we all know that the actor of gumption is meant to be an empty vessel, a blank slate, devoid of all vanity, all inhibition, and willing and able to enact whatever the director asks of him/her. But I ask this question again, is there room to place a limit on where an actor can or should go? When does an actor tell himself, I just cannot go to that place? Charlotte Gainsbourgh's scenes in this movie are so exhaustingly enervating, both emotionally and physically, that after one is done feeling sorry for her, one's regard for her bravery starts to gradually accumulate -  for unequivocally demonstrating that she knows no limits as an actor. When it comes to movies, I am not weak of heart, or prone to the slightest prudery, but the extreme performances of the two lead actors in this film (Gainsbourgh and Willem Dafoe) shook me. Lars von Trier, the director of 'Antichrist' has acknowledged that he made this film during a period of extreme personal depression. But does this justify what he demanded of these actors? I believe this question lies at the crux of the polarization between avid defenders of this film and those who are outraged by it.

Charlotte Gainsbourgh in a publicity still from 'Antichrist'
The history of cinema is studded with examples of performers, male and female, who have reached that elusive ether-bound realm of acting that is immediately eternal; performances that are uniformly regarded as classic. But what of those actors who dive into the deep-end, holding hands with the director, with nary a fear of whether they would make it back to the surface? Gainsbourgh (and Dafoe's) performances in 'Antichrist' (which I would score 9 out of 10 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale) got me to thinking about other movies where I have noticed actors going far, very far, and thought I would list them here.

Speaking of Lars von Trier, Emily Watson in another film directed by Trier, 'Breaking The Waves', also created a bold, heart-breakingly raw and honest character that remains memorable for all who have seen the movie (which announced her immediately to the world as an actor to watch out for). Her portrayal is so stark, that it is altogether exempt from the audience's judgment, and this is almost impossible to do in films. A great measure of her achievement here is that it is difficult to decide if the character she portrays is someone approximating saintliness or is simply a person who is not entirely mentally sound (I would give her a 7 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale).

Any inquiry into the limits that actors have crossed on camera would have to consider Monica Bellucci in the French film 'Irreversible' (an easy score of 9 out of 10 on the scale). Directed by Gaspar Noe, and running backwards in time, the film begins with the gruesome consequences resulting from the very real trauma faced by a young couple, and ends with the idyllic times from when the two first met. In the middle of this film is a single seemingly unbroken 9 minute shot, where Monica Bellucci's character gets accosted in a Paris subway underpass late in the night, and gets raped and brutally beaten. Unlike other movies, the camera gets unbearably close to the violence, and by making the viewer watch this event enact in real time, makes them complicit in what is occurring on screen. I had to look away from the screen through much of this because it was simply unwatchable; this movie was labeled the most walked-out film of 2003 for good reason. That someone as well regarded as Monica Bellucci would participate in this film is a measure of how fearless an actor can be. I will not pretend to understand what sort of an experience this may be for an actor, but I have wondered if it may actually be freeing to know that you are capable of doing something so emotionally and physically extreme.

Another French film that registers high on the scale (again, a 9) is 'Ma Mere' (My Mother); it stars the dauntless Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel, both no strangers to wandering off the beaten track when it comes to acting. I will only leave you with a brief outline of the film and have you recognize why these actors belong in this discussion. The movie, based on a controversial novel, is about a young man who (after the death of his father) begins to start spending time with his mother who holds an extremely fluid opinion of morality. As he is exposed by his mother to her hedonistic lifestyle, his relationship with her and the friends she spends her time with, takes increasingly dark turns. Huppert brings dignity to a role that calls for absolute disregard to any sense of norm, and Garrel gamely goes with this movie to places that films seldom visit.

All of this would make it seem that it is only European actors who cross the line with full abandon in the name of their craft. But many American films too have asked actors for their pound of flesh and received it in more than equal measure. Christian Bale's deliriously unhinged and guileless take on materialism in the eighties, in 'American Psycho' directed by Mary Harmon, scores high (7 out of 10). Also, Bale's physical transformation in The Machinist, unseen by me, is often brought up as an example of an actor's commitment gone wild. Tom Hanks famously went through a similar physical transformation in 'Cast Away', but while his performance was outstanding in the film - he wordlessly kept viewers riveted for more than an hour in the middle of the film - his acting was too conventional, in my opinion, to qualify for being on the list of actors who have gone too far. Robert DeNiro similarly is often cited in 'Raging Bull' for his unrecognizably effective physical transformation, but again, I am not sure that I would consider that he crossed that imaginary line into going too far in that movie. So who did actually cross the line? Definitely Harvey Keitel in the Abel Ferrara directed original 'Bad Lieutenant', in which Keitel leaps anchorless into a sea of depravity. It takes courage to play someone so loathsome; repulsive is not a trait most actors seek when looking for roles (score 5 out of 10).

Amongst American female actors, Jennifer Connelly's drug-fueled, free-falling descent in 'Requiem For A Dream' sticks in the memory almost a decade after the release of the film, with the last scene of the movie defining the "no actor should have to go through this" moment (score 8 out of 10). Also, Chloe Sevigny started her career portraying dangerous/creepy lapses in early teen (mis)behavior; 'Gummo' and 'The Brown Bunny' earned plenty of notoriety, but nothing she has done surpasses the gutsy abandon with which she defined the shocking moral sting at the end of 'Kids', her first film (score 6 out of 10). Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film, 'The Sheltering Sky' gave Debra Winger, an uninhibited actor from the start of her career, a chance to completely unravel in portraying the despair and slowly settling insanity of the character; I recall wondering as to why Winger would allow herself to come so emotionally and physically unhinged for the sake of a movie (score 6 out of 10). Amongst more contemporary female actors, Ashley Judd in 'Bug' and Anne Hathaway in 'Havoc' (score 5 out of 10, for both) have made it abundantly clear that there is not much that they will shy from in the service of the role at hand; it is obvious that they are here for the real thing, and not to serve as Hollywood wallpaper. And how about Ewan McGregor, who seems peerless amongst contemporary male actors in being almost recklessly game in complying with pretty much any and all manner of demands from the roles he takes on. His commitment to crossing every line there is, is particularly evident in Peter Greenaway's 'The Pillow Book', where his character goes through physical and emotional turmoils of unthinkable variety (score 7 out of 10). [Greenaway, by the way, has probably made more consistently outrageous demands from his actors, than any other director].

So these are the great warriors of the cinema screen, the ones who have earned the right to say that they can do anything for their craft. Viewers sometimes see this level of extreme malleability from an actor as a lack of discipline or self-respect even; I have only great admiration for them.

I am sure there are tens of other actors who deserve mention here. That is what the comments section of the blog is for; I could use some reminding of those I have missed.

1 comment:

  1. Another actor who belongs on this list is (Dame) Helen Mirren. Particularly in the film "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, And Her Lover". She is a prototype of the fearless kind.