The first in a series of watercolour paintings of acting heroes of mine. Richard Burton was a tremendously inspirational figure to me – his work in films like ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’, ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ and ‘Night Of The Iguana’ has a great power and a sort of wounded poignancy. Even something as wildy schlocky as ‘The Medusa Touch’ is elevated by Burton’s mere presence.
So, Wolf Hall! Very exciting, beautifully made, completely unmissable television after only one episode. It does make me feel even more guilty when I see the novel sitting on my shelf staring at me, saying ‘Why haven’t you read me yet?’, but still, what an achievement. Stunning design, locations, costumes; the script is thrillingly good. And as for the acting – Mark Rylance seems, on the evidence of the first part, to be delivering an era-defining performance. He shows us the warmth of the father and husband, the guile of the politician, the smoothness of the courtier.
Watching something as skilful as Rylance’s Cromwell, surely we can feel confident that we are witnessing truly great acting – a performance which will be remembered and studied for years – and that most observers would agree with that assessment.
Of course, each generation likes to crown its theatrical royalty – to bestow the mantle of ‘Great Acting’ – but, like every other art form, acting is subject to changing tastes and fashions. The years roll by, and sooner or later, what seemed cutting edge and the absolute pinnacle of theatrical perfection, when viewed with fresh eyes starts to look a bit – well, dated. What was once considered bold and exciting looks rather stagey and over the top, and the most tasteful, restrained performance suddenly seems mumbly and mannered.
We are now deep in awards season, an odd time when one actor is rated over another and officially designated The Best. Will it be Felicity Jones or Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch? Often the choice of winner can be very divisive, with people becoming outraged that their own personal favourite has been overlooked – this year’s Oscar nominations being a case in point, as David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King failed to make the list. And looking back over past winners, can we really say that Tom Hanks in ‘Philadelphia’ was better than Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘In The Name of the Father’, or Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Remains of the Day’? Frances McDormand is wonderful in ‘Fargo’, but what about Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets and Lies’ or Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves’?
But more pertinently, would some of those past winners still be rated so highly today? Fredric March is wonderful in 1931’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, but I have a feeling his performance might seem a little too ripe for modern tastes. Similarly with Charles Laughton in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’ from 1933. It’s quite a conundrum. How can we communicate the effect a performance had on us, once tastes have changed? Can we ever really talk meaningfully about ‘Great Acting’?
Theatregoers in the 20th century spoke in awe of Laurence Olivier, renowned as the finest actor of his generation. But when you view his film work – the only real record we have of his acting – it seems rather strident, a little blunt and mechanical. Was this really the best acting of its time? In the 1950s, Richard Burton tore through the theatrical establishment with a series of electrifying performances at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and established himself as the most exciting new actor for decades. But anyone looking at his screen work now might be hard pressed to locate this mercurial talent. There are flashes of it in ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ or ‘Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?’, and his later work has a wounded poignancy as hard living took its toll, but for much of the time he seems insincere, uncommitted, distracted even. There is a theatricality too, which these days we would probably judge as far too artificial.
But talk to anyone who saw these actors on stage, and they would give a very different account. There is something so much more powerful about being in the same room as someone, sharing the moment, being held by the spell of a performance, and it’s very hard to communicate these feelings after the event.
As for screen acting, our current tastes are for underplaying, subtlety and above all, naturalism.
I wonder if we’re missing something. Jack Nicholson in the documentary ‘Making The Shining’ talks of his conversations with Stanley Kubrick about realism in acting. “They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real and you, you know, you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley who says, “Yeah, it’s real but it’s not interesting.”
A case in point can be found in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary celebrations, where, amongst the host of brilliant performances from the leading lights of the British acting world, was a piece of footage from their 1964 production of ‘Hay Fever’, featuring Maggie Smith and Anthony Nicholls. Despite being 50 years old, and having been shot in a dark TV studio, it was still completely scintillating. Maggie Smith’s performance as Myra Arundel was, even in that brief excerpt, perhaps the most brilliant scene of the evening. Theatrical, stylised, but captivating – and most importantly, hilarious:
Does ‘Great Acting’ even really exist? Acting is such an ephemeral art. John Gielgud used to talk of his wish to capture some of his past performances, so he could wake in the night and regard them dispassionately as they sat on the mantelpiece. But perhaps Gielgud himself is the ultimate example of an actor who was able to work across different mediums with equal skill and success.
Contemporary theatregoers would swoon over his Golden Voice and romantic early performances, and he could have become a relic of the post-Edwardian West End theatre tradition. But he was able to jettison that part of himself and embrace the avant-garde, working with Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court and Pinter and Peter Hall at the National. A whole new audience fell for him. He then slipped effortlessly into film, deploying an acting style that we can still appreciate today – an understatement and hesitancy – indeed, a distinct lack of theatricality from this great Knight of the stage. Watch him as Lord Raglan in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ and see what I mean.
But this is just my opinion. Someone else will no doubt watch Gielgud and think, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’
So perhaps a term like ‘Great Acting’ is too subjective to ever really mean anything. The appreciation of acting, as with all creative work, will always be a matter of taste.
I still think Mark Rylance is great, though.
Can you be gay and happy in Hollywood?
There was a time, now long lost in a mist of theatrical dry ice, when audiences had a taste for ham. They liked their acting big, artificial, transporting – theatrical, if you will. A leading actor might play Hamlet on Monday, Caliban on Wednesday and Lear on Friday, and he would achieve his transformations with greasepaint, false noses and an elastic array of voices and walks. If you were an actor-manager like Henry Irving you would seize the best part and attack it with gusto, and deliver a full-blooded, barnstorming performance.
A century or so on, there is really no place for that sort of thing. The arrival of cinema and the more sophisticated, subtle playwriting of the twentieth century combined to narrow the scope of our drama and bring about an appetite for a more naturalistic style of acting. These days we look to our actors for truth. We like our phrases broken and halting, our gestures restrained and our dialogue overlapping to the point of incomprehensibility.
And this appetite for candour extends to the real lives of actors. We want to know what goes on back stage – where they live, how they live, and, most importantly, with whom. A leading actor’s job description seems to require total disclosure.
Of course, things have been like this since the golden days of Valentino and Louise Brooks. It picked up pace when the first paparazzi chased Burton and Taylor through Rome in the 60s, and now we have arrived at the point where most tabloids and celebrity magazines feel at liberty to invent wild, contradictory fantasies about Jennifer Aniston on a daily basis.
We are used to celebrities being fodder for gossip columns. We want our stars to live more interesting lives than ours – more torrid, more dramatic; and ideally they should be as close to their on-screen personae as possible – the strong, silent type, the ditzy-unlucky-in-love-girl-next-door – but things becomes more complicated when this attitude starts to infect the casting process.
If you want someone to play a smouldering sex symbol, it seems that they must smoulder in real life too. Witness Bret Easton Ellis’s remarks when it was suggested that gay actor Matt Bomer should play the lead role in Fifty Shades of Grey. He claimed it ‘demands a man who is genuinely into women’.
There are holes in this argument for all to see, but basically Ellis’s point can be countered by the fact that what actors are doing in films is acting. Jamie Dornan may well be heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean he’s really attracted to Dakota Johnson, and since it is not a porn film, the actors won’t really be having sex. So it doesn’t matter if Dornan fancies Johnson or not, or she him, as they will be pretending that they do. All actors do – all the time – is pretend. They pretend to be sad when they are happy, to be English when they are American, they even pretend to be apes when they are humans. This is their job. And usually, audiences are happy to accept this. We suspend our disbelief because we are following the story.
But the gay/straight conundrum won’t seem to shift. Producers and casting directors still seem unwilling to cast gay actors in straight leading (i.e. romantic) roles. This has had drastic consequences for gay actors for decades. When Hollywood, television – even the apparently liberal world of the theatre – run scared of casting openly gay actors in those roles, even if the actor fits the part perfectly, the consequence has been that many of those actors choose to conceal their sexuality so they can continue to work. This point was raised by Benedict Cumberbatch in a recent interview with OUT magazine:
“I think if you’re going to sell yourself as a leading man in Hollywood,” he says, “to say ‘I’m gay,’ sadly, is still a huge obstacle. We all know actors who are [gay] who don’t want to talk about it or bring it up, or who deny it. I don’t really know what they do to deal with it.”
And this is my biggest concern – just how do they deal with it?
I struggled for a long time with whether to come out or not, and it wasn’t until drama school that I felt ready to be honest about it. But once I did, I felt much bolder in my acting, as well as in the rest of my life. Of course an audience need never know the details of our off-stage lives – and frankly they are usually less interesting than those we play out on stage or screen. But I think we need to have access to our real selves in order to empathise with a character: if a script asks an actor to play a love scene, most of us will draw on our own experiences to help us. Perhaps we might substitute a real lover from our own life for the other actor in the scene, and summon up the feeling of being in love. But how much harder must it be to show those feelings if we have always kept our sexuality in check, and never really expressed our true selves?
If acting is about telling the truth of human existence, then it must benefit your acting to be truthful to yourself – and conversely, surely your acting must suffer if you are living a lie.
So why stay in the closet? Who makes that decision? I think we tend to imagine a Svengali-like agent or manager telling his client to hide the truth for the sake of his career – to attend the premiere with a girl on his arm or dodge the relationship question in interviews, and clearly some pressure must be exerted from on high, at producer-level at least. Witness the complicated case of Luke Evans, who was very open about being gay a decade ago as a stage actor in London, then became much more cagey once his Hollywood profile was rising and he had publicists steering his interviews. Happily, he now seems willing to discuss it again, as in this recent interview.
Evans is a member of a small but significant group, including Ezra Miller and Neil Patrick Harris, who are openly gay but are still being cast in straight leading roles, and which is hopefully a sign of a more positive attitude in the future. But they are still very much a courageous minority. As Bret Easton Ellis said: ‘Hollywood is the most homophobic place in the entire world.’
But what if it comes from the actor him/herself? Inevitably all this homophobia must be internalised at some level.
Ultimately there is a choice to be made, between leading a successful career, and living a happy, open life. Which is more important? I can remember the fear of my sexuality being found out, of giving myself away. But that was 20-something years ago. I can’t imagine still carrying those fears with me now, and certainly not in the job I love.