The Movie Club

The Trouble With Great Acting

Gang, readers: Happy New Year.

You’ll all be pleased to know that I’m writing this in a pair of RealD glasses, so if I seem more impressed with my prose than you, it’s because the words are bigger and closer and awesomer than what’s currently on your screen.

Now, what do I have before me? The specific baseness of Precious. The general awesomeness of Tilda Swinton. And a couple of sex scenes that I found neither disgusting nor hot—Ok, the coitus in Watchmen was gross. More because, with all due respect to little old Canadian troubadours, the last thing I want to hear when making bombastically directed love to Patrick Wilson is the croak of Leonard Cohen. (I know, I know: That makes me the Malin Akerman in that scenario, but I feel 100 percent confident in saying I would have done more with the role, if not the costume. Seriously, what is the point of this woman? How, besides all the obvious, unimaginative, straight-male-movie-executive reasons, does she continue to work as often as she seems to? There are dozens of actors I’ve wondered the same thing about. A subject for another day, perhaps.) 

In any case, Dana, I love that one of the things you found unclean about Precious is the food. This is certainly the greasiest movie of the year. But Lee Daniels, the film’s intrepid director, rubs nasty macaroni and cheese, gurgling and hissing pigs feet, and a pile of fried chicken in our faces until it’s toxic, even to his heroine, who promptly pukes up the crispy contents of her purloined extra-large bucket. If all we can see in this melodrama is a kind of “Rhythm Nation”-esque social tract (Illiteracy: No! Ignorance: No! Teen pregnancy as a consequence of incest: No!), then food is one of its complaints.

Lenny Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe in Precious

There are obvious socioeconomic explanations for why some of us eat what we do, and this is the only film I can think of that manages to fold the problem of class and diet into the larger nightmare of abuse. There’s a degree of psychic terror in Precious’ relationship to food. Her mother, Mary, forces her to eat when she’s not hungry. She makes her cook as a chore. This is both a daughter and a beaten housewife. When she complains to Mary that she’s hungry, Mary, who’s in bed pleasuring herself, demands that Precious come up and lend a hand. If I’m not mistaken that scene is followed by her stealing the chicken, which Daniels treats as the character’s only moment of insanity. That feels right to me since what’s she’s just been asked to do is, well, insane. (Compare her chicken stealing to the more swashbuckling thefts of chickens in The Fantastic Mr. Fox. I have nothing to conclude. I’m saying.) 

Later, Precious’ nurse tells her he doesn’t like McDonald’s, and rather than have Precious suddenly paying $4.99 for a little cup of pineapples from Au Bon Pain, the film makes us think about her diet (and maybe ours), which obviously needs to change. The movies tend to treat food as holy—this year alone we had La Streep playing two successful chefs!—but some food is evil. And as much as I love me some fried pigs feet, I shan’t love them every day. (It’s interesting that Mary and Precious’ Harlem apartment is often as glumly lit as Amy Adams’ Queens flat in Julie & Julia.) 

What I feel is being smothered in the debate over the movie’s messages is Daniels’ craft. He practices raw-nerve filmmaking, meaning both that he has balls and that he’s a sensationalist. Everyone I know who’s seen this movie, whether they liked it or not, has reacted in similar wordlessness: They tend to simulate the experience of being electrocuted. I can’t think of another movie that provoked an equivalent response. And it’s the right one—one possible only with bold, fearless moviemaking. Daniels is not a great filmmaker—for now. But he is a courageous, imaginative one—he also got a very good script from Geoffrey Fletcher. I was more impressed with what Daniels did to bring that world to life than with what Jason Reitman was able to do with the stale airport oxygen in Up in the Air (Lysol some sex into it—not a small achievement, either).

But getting hung up on race and class and education and dietary issues in Precious, always comes at the expense of how formally and emotionally vital the movie is—authentic, too. Unlike so many American movies, this one actually feels like it’s set not in a world but in the world. And the handling of race is new territory: Precious’ self-loathing (she sees a white girl in the mirror) is the institutional internal struggle African-Americans are born with. Until my mother finally caught me, I secretly wore a white T-shirt on my head to imitate being the blond girls I saw on TV. Again: I’m just sayin’… The classroom sequences are some of the truest I’ve seen in any movie or television show. And the throwaway leisure-time details are kind of amazing: “I saw this movie last night, Barfly. … It was a piece of shit.” 

Precious is being discussed as if it were only a teaching tool. But unlike, say, The Blind Side, it’s a movie not a Trapper Keeper. It refuses to be overshadowed by its uniformly excellent acting (Gabourey Sidibe, Xosha Roquemore, Mariah “Freaking” Carey) or overwhelmed by its one titanic piece of acting, which I’m happy to talk about later.

But the subject of great acting has come up early and robustly in our discourse, and I’ll confess an aversion to a particular kind of performance in a particular kind of movie. They usually show up at the end of the year and tend to pushed at critics, moviegoers, and, most importantly, at Oscar voters as must-see events. You get to the theater—or however you get your eyes on the film—and there is this giant piece of acting in this tiny little movie. What bugs me is that all I can see is the performance. A good example is Charlize Theron and Monster, a piece of acting and a movie that Roger has extolled so unforgettably that I remain sad that I couldn’t be him, instead of me, as I watched it.     

This year I felt that way about Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Colin Firth in A Single Man. Neither movie did much for me, although there’s a scene between Firth and Jon Kortajarena outside in a convenience store parking lot that is sexy (albeit in the most banal way) and pop-art wonderful. With Bridges, I felt like I’ve seen the drunken country singer many times before, and the movie is so modest you have to squint to see it. And Firth’s hauteur, heartbreak, and horniness are apparent enough but I felt like I was experiencing life more inside the head of the movie’s writer and director, Tom Ford, than I was through Firth’s character. Plus, this is simply a more complete version of other men Firth has played. I liked his performance, but, emotionally, I also felt like I was watching him being pulled out by the tide. He kept getting farther away from me. 

My trouble is peculiarly procedural and philosophical: It becomes hard to see the movie and performance for the awards campaign. That’s a terrible, industry-borne perversion of the movie-watching experience, one that might, of course for me, simply be occupational. And since it works—Mr. Bridges, I know you said no visitors, but there’s a gentleman who says his name is Oscar waiting for you in the lobby—we’re stuck with it.

Tilda Swinton in Juliainspired a similar feeling, not so much about awards as about the problem of big acting. Everyone’s right, it’s a pretty accessible film, but it’s also one that seemed to exist for her performance alone, which is both enough of a reason and too much. She is the movie. Contrast that to what Nicolas Cage does in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans—finally, by the way, a Nicolas Cage movie whose commercial neglect breaks my heart. You got the sense at every stage that he and the movie’s director, Werner Herzog, were pedaling deliriously on a tandem bike. One man brought something strange and newly vile out of the other, and their symbiosis was a pleasure to watch.

Usually, when this sort of collaboration doesn’t work or when the movie feels merely like upholstery for the performance, it’s an artistic hazard. The best example being Denzel Washington in Training Day. That show, and others like it, is the acting equivalent of how the giant steak the drive-thru waitress puts on Fred’s car at the end of every Flintstones episode tips the whole car over. Who’s going to clean that up?