High Concept

Nichols and Nora

The two greatest performances of the decade.

My favorite story about acting happened minutes before the filming of a crucial scene in Marathon Man in Central Park. Dustin Hoffman had to appear physically exhausted, so half an hour before the shoot, he jogged rapidly three, four, five times around the reservoir, then staggered up to his co-star, Laurence Olivier, and gasped that he was ready. Baffled by Olivier’s nonchalance, Hoffman, still breathing hard, asked him how he prepared for a scene. “Prepare?” Olivier replied, carefully setting down his cup of tea and languidly rising from his chair. “I don’t prepare. I pretend.”

One reason I love the story is that it so symmetrically counters the usual assumptions about the difference between American and English acting–the spill-your-guts Americans and the technically polished English, the American search for “emotional truth” and the English displays of mere skill. Hoffman, for all his straining after naturalistic verisimilitude, remained dependent on acting-class exercises, while Olivier, for all his years of training, had so deeply integrated technique into his being that, like a classical pianist, he could stop thinking about it the moment he began performing. In short, it’s the difference between talent and genius–between Glenn Close proficiently performing her character’s attributes one by one (“Look at me, I’m acting!”) and Marlon Brando intuitively discovering his character’s essence (“Look at me, I’m alive!”) and conveying all his ambiguities and contradictions simultaneously.

These thoughts were occasioned by what I regard as without question the two most enthralling performances of the decade–and I hasten to temper such a superlative with a dose of irony. Mike Nichols’ performance in Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner (the filmed version of the London production of the play) has been universally praised but, by the time the Oscars roll around next March, will surely be overlooked. Janet McTeer’s Broadway performance in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, on the other hand, has been both widely honored and roundly reviled–she won the Tony for best actress last Sunday, but among the reviews were several sputtering fulminations.

Jack, Nichols’ character in The Designated Mourner, is a former graduate student of English literature who, in his own description, “went downhill from there.” His wife, Judy, and her father, Howard, are members of the intelligentsia in an unnamed country in the near future, and the story–told by the three characters seated at a table in direct address to the camera–involves the gradual destruction of their lives by an oppressive regime, and the moral disintegration of Jack, the eponymous survivor. A man characterized by envy and cynicism, superficial wit and subterranean rage, ceaseless introspection and emotional detachment, insufferable smugness and barely concealed self-loathing, Jack is a bundle of apparent contradictions.

In describing Nichols’ interpretation, the problem of technique immediately arises, because to give examples of specific line readings suggests that he’s merely made a sequence of acting choices, when what makes his performance so engrossing is his ability to embody all these aspects of his character at once. Now cynicism comes to the fore, now rage, now a brief interlude of tenderness, but their opposites also are always present–for Nichols is embodying the character, not the character’s characteristics. Watch Nichols in his most typical gesture. He ducks his chin onto his chest, bobs his head back and forth, gulps as if stifling a burp, then suddenly lifts his head and expresses a thought that not only seems to have just occurred to him, but which also seems to have struggled with conflicting emotions before emerging. A technique, certainly, but one so expressive of character that it never occurs to us that he’s reciting a text. At times he speaks in short, halting phrases, pausing between the most unlikely words, and then he’ll rush through a series of phrases so quickly that he’ll nearly run out of breath and almost gasp out the last words–rhythm as characterization, his cadences revealing the contours of his troubled spirit as concisely as his words.

It’s tempting to go on for paragraphs. How can one overlook the abruptly truncated laugh, for instance, that conveys a perplexed intellect? Or the voice suddenly shifting from silky to raspy when derision erupts from his muddled emotions? But each moment remains significant only as it traces the trajectory of his spiritual deterioration. Finally, when he learns that Judy has been murdered, he can barely breathe, his anguish seems nearly unendurable, but it’s only a momentary spasm, he regains his soulless equanimity, and as he quietly intones his last lines–“The greatest pleasure in life [is] the sweet, ever-changing caress of an early evening breeze”–we realize we’ve witnessed the exquisitely ironic fusion of elegy and despair, the inseparable linking of a brilliant text and a superb performance.

E very actress would like to play the most legendary Nora but, for much of the first act, Janet McTeer seems to want to play the most irritating. She’s an unusually sexy Nora, but in an annoyingly kittenish way: flighty and fluttery, as the role calls for, but with a whimpering and giggling nervousness. This Nora, we begin to think, isn’t so much a woman as a collection of manic mannerisms. But we gradually realize that this Nora, in fact, is playing the role that’s expected of her–merely “playing tricks,” as she says in the last act–and that there’s another Nora beneath the childlike silliness that will astonish even her. There is so much she’s not allowed to experience, much less express–her native intelligence, her creative energy, her increasing unhappiness–so much that can emerge only in distortion.

McTeer’s bold choice to play Nora as far more fraught than usual at the beginning of the play–with a hyperanimation that, in her increasing frustration, becomes nervous exhaustion and eventually a kind of hysterical dementia–allows her to make Nora’s transformation at the end at once more plausible and more powerful. Some critics have suggested that her performance–like most performances of the role–turns Nora into two different and irreconcilable characters, the domestic doll and the feminist icon. But, on the contrary, she subtly provides the psychological continuity between these two aspects of her character.

In the opening scenes, for instance, even as McTeer enacts Nora’s dependence on her husband, she shows the cunning that is the only outlet for the character’s acute and sensitive mind–submission as manipulation. This is no ninny–this is a woman forbidden to use her intelligence. And even as she proclaims her happiness, McTeer’s Nora reaches compulsively for her macaroons with a hint of voracity that hints at her dissatisfaction.

Nora’s jittery, skittery behavior is charming in a way. It’s certainly the kind of self-abasing flirtatiousness her husband finds seductive. (McTeer’s decision to play Nora’s marriage as erotically electric makes Nora’s decision to leave all the more difficult, and all the more shattering.) But when her web of lies begins to unravel and he calls her “pretty bird,” she rolls her eyes in a gesture at once accepting of his flattery, aware of her deceit, and resentful of his condescension. She knows nothing of this consciously but, in dozens of such gestures, McTeer reveals the unconscious conflation of Nora’s conflicts–the way her wildly unfocused energy is the consequence of her inner turmoil, of both social oppression and emotional repression. Over and over, McTeer portrays a Nora with a capacity for feeling she herself refuses to recognize and a capacity for insight frustrated by her familial role. When she hears herself saying that being with her husband is “like being with papa,” she pauses for a second, then flashes her eyes with something close to a recognition of primal sin, utters a sound somewhere between a hysterical giggle and a shriek of horror, and rushes across the room as if in flight from her own words.

By the final confrontation with her husband, McTeer has so skillfully foreshadowed Nora’s transformation that, though it seems bewilderingly abrupt to her, it seems emotionally inevitable to us. Gone are her neurotic mannerisms. Nora now sits in an ominous stillness. “I’m saved,” her husband says after the arrival of the forgiving letter. “What about me?” Nora responds, with a touch of meekness but at last with a sense of her separable self. Out of her stillness she suddenly shrieks, not as an appeal but as a demand, “I’m a human being!” Most astonishingly–for the first time in my experience of half a dozen Noras–McTeer even manages to make Nora’s single most famous line ring true. When her husband says that no man would sacrifice his integrity for another person, Nora has to reply, “Hundreds of thousands of women have”–an impossible line for the character, a line in which it is not Nora speaking but Ibsen himself. McTeer’s solution? She lowers her voice a full octave and intones the words in a constrained fury–the voice not of Nora but of wronged women forever.

The trouble with this kind of detailed analysis is it implies that any competent craftsman could carefully study the performer’s techniques and replicate them–Hoffman’s “preparation.” We can only be grateful that they can’t, that Nichols and McTeer become rather than enact their characters–Olivier’s “pretending.” Perhaps all we can say of great acting is that it involves assimilation rather than accumulation, that the performer isn’t so much a surrogate as a vessel. There’s paradox in artifice. The supreme tragedies leave us not devastated but exhilarated, and the sublime actors, the moment their performances begin, stop acting.