Sunday, January 28, 2007
Penny Press Posturing Pouting Poseurs!
The latest issue of GQ features a bracing, thought-provoking essay by Tom Carson called "You Actin' Like Me?" It's a heartfelt condemnation of the cult of high (and, though Carson doesn't mention it, Method) seriousness that's pervaded the ranks of Hollywood's leading men since the early days of Robert DeNiro's career, when he took 'brooding intensity' to new depths.
Carson is aggrieved that so many of Hollywood's leading men seem so intent on being seriously devoted to their craft that they've forgotten - or worse, chosen not - to entertain:
'I was caught in the leading man trap,' Brad Pitt told Entertainment Weekly in November, expressing thanks for the ordeal Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu put him through on "Babel." Fine, more power to him. But it's not as if we've got a surplus of genuine leading men, and Pitt's impression that he is or was one just proves the category's decline (Sorry, Brad - you were beefcake, astounding women with your apparent ability to doze off with your eyes open.) His pal George Clooney may be the only current marquee name who fits the bill, and even Clooney has been bitten by the solemnity bug. He'll never believe "Ocean's Eleven" was a better movie than "Syriana."'
The 'solemnity bug' has bothered me for a while now too. Its ubiquity has curdled my enjoyment even of movies that seemed guaranteed to please me. I thought the central flaw of Oliver Stone's "Alexander" (signalled by the omission of 'the Great' from the title ... of all the 'the Great's handed down by history, that one is the most secure, the most necessary, the most synonymous with the name) was the casting of pretty brooder Colin Farrell in the lead part, and the result? A portrait without charisma, a three hour movie about a pouty whiner whose men wouldn't have followed him across the street, much less across the world.
(I thought Wolfgang Peterson's "Troy" escaped similar fate by immediately establishing its central character, Brad Pitt's Achilles, as unsympathetic - as somebody other people dislike BECAUSE of his one-dimensional seriousness)
Naturally when talking about today's leading men, Carson brings up Leonardo DiCaprio ... and naturally, if you bring up Leonardo DiCaprio, you bring up "Titanic." As some of you will already know, I think "Titanic" is a much better movie than it's usually credited, and I think DiCaprio's performance in it is strikingly good. And I think Carson is spot-on in his assessment of post-"Titanic" Leo:
'Yet ever since "Titanic," he [DiCaprio]'s been treating his participation in that great pop event as a misunderstanding he's got to live down. I know I'm supposed to admire the grown-up Leo's dedication, and up to a point, I do. But he's turned into yet another resolutely uningratiating, morbidly self-serious actor who never taints his talent by providing anything as corrupt as entertainment value. He's calling attention to his craft to distract us from his magnetism, when any idiot can see it ought to be the other way around.'
DiCaprio is on Carson's mind because of "Blood Diamond," of course - a movie, a TYPE of movie, I wouldn't watch if it were being projected onto the wall of my bedroom and all I had to do was turn my head to see it. At the core of my aversion to such 'serious' movies is how BORING they almost always are, but I see now that another part might be the very phenomenon Carson is here excoriating: a certain Sunday school humorlessness.
Talking specifically about "Blood Diamond," Carson invokes the ghosts of Hollywood past:
'Expert as he [DiCaprio] is, he spends the movie preoccupied with the technical demands and emotional nuances of role Errol Flynn wouldn't have even bothered to sober up to play.'
The mention of Flynn is a telling one, especially since Carson mentions the technically still-living Peter O'Toole as a stellar example of ... well, of the anti-DeNiro. The context, of course, is O'Toole's current starring role in Roger Michell's "Venus," and I think Carson gets it exactly right:
"Treating any resemblance between the character's gallant decreptitude and his own as blessedly irrelevant, he just assumes he's been hired to amuse and enlighten us about somebody [screenwriter Hanif] Kureishi has made up, and gets to work devising dozens of tiny accentuations of the man's foibles for our benefit. His only interest in the hero is to make the characterization as entertainingly accessible as he can, and wow ... how unambitious, right?"
As you all know, I consider O'Toole to be the best actor of the 20th century (I'm enormously hoping he wins an Oscar for 'Venus') - very nearly the last of his kind - and Carson's article got me thinking about the wider cast of young culprits whose work is before us. The solemnity bug seems to have bitten just about all of them, from Daniel Day Lewis on down. I mean, look at Ryan Gosling's performance in "The United States of Leland" - it's literally nothing BUT brooding, from start to finish.
In fact, thinking of the damage DeNiro hath wrought, I found myself appreciating all afresh the talents of none other than Hugh Grant. It's positively wince-inducing to imagine, say, Clive Owen trying to do what Grant does so perfectly in "About a Boy."
That's my only real point of difference with Carson, in fact: he implies throughout his piece that the young actors he condemns for oh-so-seriously hamming it up make that choice entirely voluntarily. I myself am of the opinion most of those young actors CAN'T do anything but stare and glare. I doubt Liev Schriber could do a pratfall if his life depended on it.
As if in full-color illustration of Carson's points, the issue's cover feature is an interview with Jake Gyllenhaal written in pitch-perfect fawning imbecility by Marshall Sella.
There's Gyllenhaal on the cover, looking bored and stoned. And all through the interview, he indulges in cheap sarcasms at his interviewer's expense, in which he uncorks inanity after inanity, in which he fairly thoroughly demonstrates that he's an overprivileged twit.
I have no doubt that studio-dictated publicity rounds (in this case, for his upcoming movie "Zodiac") are probably arduous and boring. But Gyllenhaal, like so many of his peers, owes his extremely lucrative career in very large part to his physical appearance - something over which he, after all, had no say. That ought to instill a certain undertone of humility, but it never seems to, not in today's crop of young stars.
Gyllenhaal's own seminal piece of broodery, the notorious "Donnie Darko," certainly rivals "The United States of Leland" for contentless pouting. And apart from his rather forceful singing (...), his turn on 'Saturday Night Live' was almost entirely free of comic timing. I doubt he'll even so much as smile during the entire course of "Zodiac," and I shudder to think about the rumor I heard from a friend of mine in the business - that young Jake is considering the Dustin Hoffman part in a remake of "All the President's Men"
Although even if he is, things could be worse: the same rumor-source said Heath Ledger was approached about the Robert Redford part and guffawed the approacher out of the room.