A distinction often occurs between “Actors” and “Movie Stars.” The former sinks into his or her given role with quicksilver grace and chameleon-like skill. The latter imbues every on-screen moment with the intangible glow of personality, physicality, and that elusive quality known simply as star-power. Actors can exist for us on the screen and nowhere else; Movie Stars need to be known on-screen and off to effectively bewitch the viewing public.
This is a binary, and as Wesleyan students, we know better than most to take this kind of rigidity with a grain of salt. Indeed, some of the most interesting and pleasurable moments in screen acting occur when on-screen talent and off-screen persona bleed together. The steely sheen in which Meryl Streep coats herself in “The Devil Wears Prada” gleams all the more magnificently when contrasted with both her other great performance of the summer (a wilting rose of a country singer in “A Prairie Home Companion”) and the earthy, delightful persona she reveals in interviews.
Certainly, the stench of off-camera antics, if too strong or distasteful, can negatively cling to actors’ on-screen performances (paging Mr. Cruise). Generally speaking, though, a knowledge of both an actor’s body of work and their real life can add some intriguing shades to a performance.
This fall, some actors, with careers lacking both Ms. Streep’s artistic brilliance and Mr. Cruise’s personal freakishness, seem to be banking on this acknowledgement of the personal within the context of the fictional as they vie for the love and respect (not to mention box office dollars) of the viewing public.
Perhaps the most intriguing example of this can be seen in the recently released “Hollywoodland,” which explores the mysterious circumstances surrounding the suicide of George Reeves, the boozy B-list pretty boy who found brief notoriety on television as Superman. The film itself is of little consequence, a watered-down “L.A. Confidential” that neither examines nor embraces Tinseltown sleaze with enough vigor or cynical insight. What is notable is the actor who stars as the doomed Reeves in the film’s extended flashback sequences: Ben Affleck. Playing a mediocre actor in the throes of career crisis, Affleck provides a sly and strangely affecting performance that succeeds, in no small part, because of the actor’s skillful manipulation of his own public image.
It wasn’t that long ago when Affleck was bolting down the aisle with writing partner Matt Damon to collect their Best Original Screenplay Oscars for “Good Will Hunting.” Even before that film catapulted both actors into the national spotlight, Affleck was a known commodity, appearing in such mid-90’s touchstones “Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” and “Chasing Amy.” With his square jaw and kind eyes, Affleck has an aura of roguish sensitivity, the frat boy who keeps his copy of Emily Dickinson tucked under the mattress. When given the right material, he’s a prickly and engaging screen presence (for evidence, check out the little-known but worthy 2002 drama “Changing Lanes”).
As the post-“Good Will” years proved, however, finding that right material has proven to be a struggle. One could cynically argue that Affleck’s true talent lies in sniffing out horrendous scripts attached to hack-tastic directors (most notably Michael Bay). And let’s not even discuss the tabloid epic of Bennifer, which culminated in the release of the infamous “Gigli.”
Given his diminished box office power, it makes sense for Affleck to rebound with a supporting role in a small, serious-minded picture. There’s something undeniably shrewd, though, about the way Affleck, without ever winking at the camera, so convincingly fills out Reeves’s ingratiating personality and underlying desperation. Every smile is a little too tight, every move a touch too planned, and Affleck allows us to see the anger and depression build up like sediment in Reeves’s psyche.
This is not to imply that Affleck so convincingly plays Reeves because he personally shares his demons (though Affleck did check into an alcohol rehab center in August 2001). Nor would it be true to say Affleck has invented some new form of meta-acting with this latest performance; Bill Murray’s entire career renaissance rests on a artful expanding and reorganization of his own cynical, world-weary persona. Still, there is something undeniably exciting in watching Affleck fashion his professional floundering into the foundation of a genuinely intriguing performance. He is the reason to see this film; and when’s the last time anyone’s said that?
Affleck may not be alone this fall in traveling this particular route of career rehabilitation. Eddie Murphy, electric funny man turned narcoticized family man, will be seen this December in the much-buzzed-about film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” the 1980’s Broadway musical loosely based on the story of The Supremes. Murphy’s comedic timing and seemingly boundless verbal energy were used to make even schlock like the “The Nutty Professor” remake palatable. “Shrek” notwithstanding, his career now consists of sleep-walking through kiddie crap unworthy of his gifts. Here’s hoping the role of James “Thunder” Early, a manic superstar singer, gives him a chance to tap into the live-wire talent audiences hopefully still remember.
And Penelope Cruz, she of the smoldering eyes and rapidly diminishing career, finally reconnects with the director whose 1999 film, “All About My Mother,” first made US audiences perk up and take notice of her. Starring in Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, “Volver,” Cruz plays, to quote A.O. Scott’s “New York Times” piece on her career, “someone for whom the killing of a despicable husband is the first step in a program of self-improvement and entrepreneurial success.” If that won’t blow the cobwebs off audience perceptions of an actress too often caught in dull, narrow roles that reinforce her “inevitable burden of exoticism” (again, Scott’s words), then nothing will. Working again with Almodovar, a madcap yet intensely empathetic director who truly loves his actresses, Cruz just may show the world the force she can be.
But this is pure speculation. For now, let’s give Mr. Affleck his deserved moment. He’s not quite an Actor, and he’s not really a Movie Star. Watching him perform, though, these labels matter less than simply appreciating the character on-screen and the actor who brings him to life with such surprising grace.