Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: The Limits of Performance

For better or for worse, filmic performances are often determined by an unavoidable cultural weight as well as increasingly mediating technological factors that go largely unacknowledged or unrecognized by critics or audiences as an actual part of the performance.
By  · Published on February 14th, 2009

Some thoughts—and few conclusions—about this year’s acting nominees:

It goes without saying that some great performances are easier to recognize than others, and every year the Academy Awards’ four acting categories encounter endless debate regarding which performances deserve the Oscar statue’s symbol (resonant or not) of greatness recognized or canonization established. Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler, it seems, is one of those rare performances that is almost unanimously regarded as great by critics and audiences (and justifiably so), prompting talk of Rourke’s “comeback.” Yet, like most comebacks, The Wrestler will not suddenly make Rourke the movie star, or even the successor of DeNiro or Brando, that many say he always should have been. As so much about the way in which we perceive Rourke’s performance as a washed-up, past-his-prime wrestler is determined by the ever-so-obvious self-reflexive parallel of Rourke himself as a washed-up, past-his-prime actor, the “comeback” would not have been nearly as possible, nor as poignant, had Rourke never “gone away.”

Compare Rourke’s performance to the favorite Best Supporting Actor nominee, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. In both cases, the viewing of each performance is helplessly contextualized by circumstances outside the film—Rourke’s similar life narrative, and Ledger’s unexpected death. In both cases, these actors’ performances are praised in part not only by what they achieved in the film’s running time, but who they could have been. If Rourke and Ledger each win their respective awards, the emblem of the Oscar would be less a recognition of these individual performances than an appreciation of their potential greatness that was, for one reason or another, never fully realized. For Ledger, it’s the tragic greatness of an actor that could have been had he not died prematurely, a greatness whose potential we only glimpsed in Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight—a greatness that can only be recognized posthumously. For Rourke, it’s the sad greatness of an actor that should have been, one whose potential was hinted at in his early work with his promising 1980s roles in 9 1/2 Weeks, Rumble Fish, Barfly, etc., but was deliberately shielded from us with the actor’s indulgences between the 90s and now.

No doubt Rourke and Ledger deserve their recognition, but is it possible to view performances like these on their own, without their larger cultural context?

Recognizing a great performance in film is dissimilar to recognizing one on stage. While the stage actor’s performance is certainly determined by the director, props, fellow actors, and, in some instances, the audience itself, the stage actor is permitted to play their part largely without interruption, allowing an equally uninterrupted flow of character. In most films, performances are taken and retaken, chopped up, dubbed and manipulated, and finally put back together again throughout the many phases of production. The film actor must find their character in rehearsal and be trained to turn this character on as soon as the cameras roll, thereby doing his or her part to allow the meticulous choreography of filmmaking to flow smoothly. The actor must believe the world he or she is in to convincingly play their part, yet simultaneously be aware of the façade around them (e.g., the crew members and the set, an awareness of their position within a frame and how to act to a camera). As evidenced by the Christian Bale “controversy,” a movie set can temporarily fall apart when the synergy of all those involved is interrupted.

Academy members don’t roll through all the unused takes of an actor’s performance when voting. They recognize a good filmic performance the same way we all do: by what is ultimately projected on screen. The final performance for any filmic actor is simply several carefully chosen segments of a performance options from a mosaic of options. Had filmmakers chosen a different take of an actor reciting an iconic line in a pivotal scene, even the most celebrated of performances could be viewed differently (imagine seeing the other takes of Michael Corleone saying “You broke my heart” to Fredo).

It is a selected fraction of the full performance process that we recognize. So a filmic performance is defined by what is ultimately seen on screen rather than by what is not seen, then witnessed through the context of the its cultural role beyond that film. But whether or not a given performance has an influential cultural role, filmic performances are always, in part, manufactured by the technological utility of cinematic technology.

New advancements in technology are determining performances even more. Take fellow best actor nominee Brad Pitt’s role as the title character in Benjamin Button. For the first half of the film, most of the actor’s body that we actually see perform doesn’t even belong to the actor playing the role. To portray a young-old man, the filmmakers (through a ridiculously complex and impressive process that I am unforgivably simplifying) basically juxtaposed Pitt’s face onto the body of somebody much smaller. So is a performance defined by, or limited to, the actor’s use of their face? But this definition is complicated further, as even Pitt’s facial expressions were altered by CGI.

So to what degree, in this case, is Brad Pitt’s performance actually Brad Pitt’s performance? I’m not taking the credit away from him, as essential aspects of his physique and acting (his facial expressions, his voice, his persona) enable the spectator to identify the performance as his. But, in this case, the Academy recognizes the actor rather than the role. Had they chose to recognize the role of Benjamin Button, the nominees would have included a great deal more people than Brad Pitt, including the body stand-ins and the film’s digital effect engineers. Yet if a performance that is determined by so many other people than the actor is eligible for an Oscar nomination, then this opens up a great deal of possibilities and complications when it comes to recognizing performances largely enabled by CGI. If Pitt can be nominated, would Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, Bill Nighy in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, or Anthony Serkis as Gollum or King Kong qualify for acting nominations? Is this a problematic simplification of a performance dumbed down to our affection of the movie star, or is this simply a more complex technological extension of the fragmentation of performance already in place that has been implemented for years through editing and multiple takes?

In some ways, this is simply an extension of practices that are nothing new. For years, Hollywood has recognized actors and actresses who performed in musicals but whose singing voices were dubbed by those possessing far more talented pipes. For example, Marni Nixon is hardly a household name, but her singing voice allowed Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr to receive Best Actress nominations for My Fair Lady and the King and I, respectively. For better or for worse, filmic performances are often determined by an unavoidable cultural weight as well as increasingly mediating technological factors that go largely unacknowledged or unrecognized by critics or audiences as an actual part of the performance.

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