This year’s Oscars made me think about the various approaches to acting. On the one hand, you have a film like Silver Linings Playbook in which it seems that David O. Russell’s major requirement was to have the actors literally shout the house down. The scene of Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in the diner that was played at the Oscars was the example par excellence of this style of acting. Scream as loud as you can; subtlety is not invited. I found the experience of watching the film somewhat tortuous. Particularly the scenes in Cooper’s home where Jacki Weaver, de Niro and Cooper are engaged in screaming matches.
Cooper tells an interesting story. He had done a previous film with de Niro. And when they did a reading around the table, Cooper sat next to de Niro and was awed by his presence. When they began the reading and it was de Niro’s turn, Cooper said “He said his lines in a very ordinary way. Here I was, screaming and acting my heart out, and this guy just said his lines. That was a big lesson for me as an actor.” There is a huge difference between “emoting” and acting. (Although on the other hand, de Niro as a pro knew it was a first reading and knew well enough to conserve his energy for a later occasion.)
That difference is illustrated superbly by Daniel Day-Lewis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Day-Lewis has a very rare, brilliant combination of emotional intelligence, the ability to analyze a text with insight, no small amount of charisma (a very difficult quality to ascribe and describe,) as well as technique, learned at one of the UKs best drama schools, The Bristol Old Vic. He is also endowed with the sort of looks that are attributed to many leading men – he’s tall, with chiseled features – he’s just great to look at, and it is difficult to look away from him when he’s on screen.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has many of the same attributes. He graduated from the Tisch School of Drama at New York University. He says about acting: “To have that concentration to act well is like lugging things up staircases in your brain. I think that’s a thing people don’t understand. It is that exhausting. If you’re doing it well, if you’re concentrating the way you need to, if your will and your concentration and emotional and imagination and emotional life are all in tune, concentrated and working together in that role, that is just like lugging weights upstairs with your head.And I don’t think that should get any easier.”
I find that people often don’t think of acting as work or rather, labor, and certainly, an actor like Jennifer Lawrence would uphold this view, I would imagine. Yet, the type of work that Hoffman does, and why he is so riveting, in spite of the fact that he is not traditionally handsome, is derived of a combination of emotional intelligence and hard work on each character he plays. His role in The Master offers a wonderful example. As Lancaster Dodd, his character is chameleon-like. His moods alter dramatically from charming to overbearing to menacing, amongst many others. Yet, we can easily believe him; he is a terrifying creation. Most people have many different sides within them, but an actor has to dig deep to connect with parts of them that they’d rather not know about. Finding those selves is part of their job description.
With a great actor, there is a way in which the different parts of the self are used with dexterity and intelligence. Hoffman is not afraid to be unlikeable, (which is the curse of many American actors,) nor has he become a gym rat to buff his physique. That is one of the reasons he can play so many varied roles so well. He is not a fixed “type.” It’s interesting to compare him to his co-star, Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has the training that being in “the business” gives him. But when Paul Thomas Anderson shot The Master, he said that he had to get Phoenix on the first take or not at all. He did not have the technique or the training to repeat what he was able to do by instinct. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t really good in the role — he was, or that he didn’t fulfill his character — he did. It simply means that unless he commits himself to study his profession more deeply, he will only be able to play roles that are close to him and his limited emotional range, rather than the range of colors and characters that actors like Hoffman and Day-Lewis are able to enact.
In this, he’s not unlike a lot of other actors. (Drew Barrymore’s quote: “Shoot me if I ever talk about training.”) I don’t want to belittle or condemn what Phoenix does; I found his performance completely gut-wrenching. But I suppose I prefer to watch the dextrous, trained actor. But that’s me.