The Decline (and Fall?) of the American Actor'
In October of 1944, an American actor took to the stage on Broadway in a play titled 'I Remember Mama' in a supporting role. It wasn't a scene stealing role per se but by all accounts people couldn't take their eyes off of him. There was just something about his behavior...like he had wandered onto the stage from real life and wasn't aware there was anyone watching him. Audience members ruffled their programs and tried to figure out where this kid came from? This happened again and again as he began popping up in new productions and each time people were transfixed by the fact that the big stars he was standing next to seemed to be "acting" next to this real person.
In a relative few short years this boy blossomed and grew and then exploded into the form of Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and American acting was never the same again. Whatever he was doing everyone wanted in on it. It didn't hurt that he was incredibly beautiful with a powerful current of sexuality coursing through him. But perhaps more than that he was up to something that made everyone want to see what he would do next.
I am, of course, talking about the late Marlon Brando.
There are enough myths and anecdotes about Marlon to fill the numerous and thick volumes of books already written about him. Perhaps the greatest misconception was that 'Marlon was just Marlon' meaning he was simply this incredibly talented guy who was immensely charismatic and the camera just loved him. While all those things are, in fact, true they fatally miss one of the most crucial aspects of Brando's success. Early on, he took the craft of acting very seriously and was immersed in technique and mentored by pioneers and veterans of the theater.
Of course this fact is easily over-shadowed by his bloated and lazy years later in the profession. Years of ear-pieces with assistants muttering his lines to him so he didn't have to memorize them. Experimental characterizations that seemed more self-amusing than in service to the script or movie. Or the on-going mental games with directors in order to prove they weren't worthy of directing him as a validation for his sloth.
But what made Brando 'Brando' in his prime was that he was sculpted, nurtured and adored by the great acting teacher Stella Adler. Stella came out of the Group Theater in New York and was the daughter of Yiddish acting great Jacob Adler. More importantly, she was an acolyte of the Russian Stanislavski System and later became mentored by the man himself. Stella saw in Marlon all the unbridled sexuality and awkward behavior and pounded him into shape. Before that he was by all accounts a mumbling, incomprehensible and shifty kid who couldn't look someone in the eye in a meeting or on stage. So much so that directors and producers had to be reassured and practically threatened to cast him.
Yes, the man who would come to define the acting revolution of the 1950's that would change the American style going forward was uncastable. He needed Elia Kazan, Stella Adler and previous producers in the room and on the phone pitching him within an inch of their lives. What happened after that was a fleet of actors rushing to the Group Theater/ Actor's Studio in desire to have that thing that Marlon possessed. They were met with an intense training program that generated the great icons of the stage and screen. (Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Deniro, Pacino, Newman, Woodward, etc etc) Great performances were flocked to in order to see if these actors could outdo their peers and predecessors. "The next Brando" was always a moniker someone loathed but privately coveted.
Let's take a pause here in this casual history and see where we are now.
It's been over 65 years since Brando blew the doors off The Ethel Barrymore Theater in December 1947 and ushered in a new wave of modern realism. Today, by all accounts, our acting 'greats' are all over 60 and are now considered classics. Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert Redford, Ellen Burstyn, Hoffman and Deniro are now such venerated and celebrated actors that they are practically awarded for just showing up.
In their wake there is a younger set of performers who grew up watching their films and admiring their prowess. They trained intensely and worked their way up through drama schools and rep theaters in order to hone their talents to join the elite ranks of the best companies and some to become movie stars.
The difference is: Those actors are no longer American.
Over the summer 'The Atlantic' magazine ran an excellent and thorough article titled 'The Decline of the American Actor' by Terrence Rafferty. The premise of the piece was that the current male movie stars of the U.S. were being edged out of the prime roles by their British and Australian counterparts (the women were apparently doing alright). In a bit of a damning example he recasts an imaginary 'Godfather' reboot with an all euro cast that is unfortunately too accurate to dismiss. The snapshots of the' then-and-now' casts is to create a startling contrast in how things have shifted in our perception of excellence in acting over the past 40 years.
Sadly, I have to grudgingly agree to Mr. Rafferty's results. As he points out, if you simply look around at some of the names taking up the coveted real estate of the screen you will see Tom Hiddleston (Avengers), James MacAvoy (X-Men), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Benedict Cumberbatch (practically everything) and on and on. The reason being is that these thesps overseas are being primed in drama schools, rep companies and quality public television until they get the attention of a wider audience or studio. In America this type of development is being eschewed for more commercial exposure. Or as Michael Douglas recently observed, "“Clearly, it breaks down on two fronts. In Britain, they take their training seriously, while in the States, we’re going through a sort of social-media image-conscious thing rather than formal training. Many actors are getting caught up in this image thing, which is going on to affect their range.”
English and Irish respectively. In fact, I didn't even realize until stumbling across an interview with Tom as research on a post that I discovered that they both went to the same acting school at The Drama Centre London. According to Hardy the school was akin to the movie 'Whiplash' in its intensity and that Fassbender was "the shit". He jokes that Fassbender was so intense that even between classes he wouldn't leave his character's wheelchair in order to eat because of their limited schedule. When asked to get up, Fassbender promptly told them to "f*#k off!".
That type of admiration and competition reminds me of another duo who challenged each other in every role they took. Brando and Clift. Both of them were darlings of the Actor's Studio and were constantly twined when one debated who was the greatest.
(Yes, there was a time when such things were debated rather than our current box-office pissing competition. ) It wasn't until Montgomery had his deforming car crash and devolved into addiction that Brando took the mantle from then on. Rightly concerned that he would become lazy without his challenger, Brando went to Clift's bed-side and implored him to recover. So much so he fought to get him in 'The Young Lions'. Alas, it was not meant to be as Monty could not endure the pain of his wracked body and broken looks.
In both these examples you have a sort of competition. Many consider this a bad word in the arts as it has become mutated and aligned with box-office success and trophies. Two things the actor has absolutely no control over. In acting the true sense of competition is within yourself. When you see another break through some internal barrier into new discovery it's contagious. You want that revelation for yourself. You strive to be brave and creative and set the bar even higher. Every actor wants to improve and get the flame of their own inspiration lit.
It wasn't that long back when the likes of Sean Penn would come out of one of his retirements after seeing a particularly inspiring performance. Or Brad Pitt would ponder his own and then get recharged after seeing the 2nd act of DiCaprio's career blossom creatively. The torch passing in America has become a rather short relay and the flame is getting dangerously close to fizzling altogether. Is anyone looking to our home grown for the next anything anymore? Or are we satiated by simply watching Shia Laboef put a bag on his head and grope Alan Cummings in misguided performance art?
In Rafferty's article he offers two rays of hope in the forms of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. He suggests the two were child actors who climbed up through the ranks of commercials and bad television to find their inner artist. This was the only instance I cried foul to an otherwise provocative and incisive piece.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is not the by-product of some commercialized process of natural selection. He studied quite seriously with acting teachers in his childhood. "I had a really cool teacher when I was really young named Kevin McDermott, and I actually worked with him on 'The Lookout', too. Like all the best teachers of young kids, he didn't talk down to us, didn't treat us like little kids. He treated us like real actors and artists. And he would have us do the coolest shit. And I learned so much about not just acting, but being creative in general, or just life in general from him. So maybe that was a big part of it. But even when I was really young, I hated doing commercials." (The AV Club)
While studying acting isn't the magic bullet to explaining Mr. Levitt's success creatively or otherwise, it by all accounts assisted him in being able to objectify what he was doing with the material and its relationship to himself. Rafferty's other example in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio has a similar appearance of thriving in the Hollywood development pool of exploited youth. But, again, there is an argument to be made against this facade.
DiCaprio without a doubt was a natural. Even as a young kid working his way up through commercials, Romper Room and B-movies he had a sense of himself separate from the inane projects he was skipping through. Having worked with many child actors over the years you can generally tell the ones that are more serious about what they are doing. They weren't plopped down in front of the camera because Mommy and Daddy told them to but actually want to be there and be good at it. For whatever reason they have a longer view of what they are trying to achieve. At the age of 19, DiCaprio caught the world's attention when he did a seamless performance of a child with autism in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?' and was nominated for an Academy Award. That same year he had also gone toe-to-toe with Robert DeNiro in 'This Boy's Life' and was given an insight into a level of commitment he had yet to witness before.
Indeed, to Rafferty's point, DiCaprio had survived through his 'Growing Pains' and kept a third eye on some sense of greater artistic achievement. Now, with the accolades and attention garnered from his nomination he could start to navigate himself to more distinguished projects. Since the superhero boom wasn't upon us yet, Leo was spared a cape for the time being though a glacial sized shift was looming. Instead, he indulged his artistic instincts by playing Rimbauld (Total Eclipse), attempting Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet) and working with Meryl Streep (Marvin's Room).
What none could argue was that DiCaprio had an uncanny naturalism and raw emotional vulnerability. But what slowly emerged was this sense that he was still a boy with a boy's emotional life and a certain repetition was setting in. By the time the offer for 'Titanic' came in he was unsure if he was ready for that type of global exposure and the expectations that genuine movie star status would bestow. You see, taking risks artistically and financially when one has the weight of a massive film, or in this case, an entire studio on their backs is an altogether different game.
After his heart-throb status was secured forever in 'Titanic' Leonardo's output slowed as he seemed to be more cautious. There was a cameo with Woody Allen (Celebrity) along with 'The Beach' and 'Catch Me if You Can' from 1997 to 2002. During this time there continued this nudging criticism that he was "a boy in a man's suit." It seemed that all the natural instincts and talent that had carried him to the fore of that fateful ship were now somewhat frozen in the water. This was made all the more apparent when he was placed across from Daniel Day-Lewis as the brilliant incarnation of Bill the Butcher in 'Gangs of New York'.
There is a lot of rumor and hearsay about that collaboration but by most accounts it didn't go swimmingly. The most damning being DiCaprio's reaction when arriving on set and seeing the fully formed Day-Lewis characterization of Bill. Realizing he had done so little in advance he allegedly commented, "They even had a gym for me right off my bedroom and I didn't even bother going into it once." I think this wake-up call struck something in DiCaprio similar to when he was getting flung and kicked around a kitchen in 'This Boy's Life' by DeNiro. That other place where the work transcends the direct notes of emotional availability and becomes an altogether different creation.
It's quite telling that his next project would be to reteam with Scorcese. Perhaps seeking some sort of redemption in falling short of a standard, he helped bring 'The Aviator' to life by producing it. This time instead of going au natural style-wise he hired an acting coach for the first time in his career. That man was Larry Moss.
From the get-go, Larry was a no bullshit, "do the work" type of acting coach and hammered DiCaprio every step of the way for the detail and characterizations of Howard Hughes. What emerged from the pairing was the first true instance of the boy actor looking like a man. His voice was changed, his body transformed from the multiple plane crashes and there was an overall sense that he had truly put the work in. Now, a full 15 years later, DiCaprio was again nominated for an Academy Award. He has been working with Moss ever since.
I need not digress further into the cinematic history of Leonardo DiCaprio as it is common knowledge. Yet, I find it of immense importance to focus on because it seems to be the moment when that allegorical torch of an American acting generation was handed over and shipped overseas.
DiCaprio is 40 now and there isn't a long line of American inheritors of his ascendant throne. Or, if there are, that they are eschewing training with the misguided notion that it will get in the way of their natural talent. For every Johnny Depp who has succeeded with idiosyncratic characterizations and raw talent there are 10 other Brits and Aussie's coming out of the overseas development camp of training taking the mantle. Even Mr. Depp, as of late, looks a bit rudderless when not bedazzled with gold teeth and dreaded hair.
(My fingers are crossed for his Whitey Bolger in 'Black Mass')
So the looming question is whether it's something in the water? The answer is, in fact, yes. Not in the environmental sense that our overseas friends have classic texts pumped into the faucets and ingest it literally by osmosis. But, rather, in an environmental sense of a system that values that their actors come up the proper way. Humility is prized in a young actor rather than the false hubris and bravado of the young turk we mythologize in America from our inability to discern the difference between a rebel actor and their cause.
Too often in Hollywood rather than plow the so-called fields of our universities and arts programs the studios tend to snatch up some young beauty who is trending. This person has a "cool" factor, goes to the right places and rubs the right elbows and has that proverbial "it". Once that "it" is christened by the other "it" people they begin getting plugged into a system. They are often told to avoid training because their "it" could be dissolved quickly like touching a butterfly's wings. In some cases they are sent to fix-it specialist. A coach or trainer who won't damage that ephemeral quality they just fell in love with. For the chosen actor this feels like a validation of the most divine level. They have been chosen because they are special for just being themselves.
All that being said, one must step back a Miracle Mile and ask what is really going on here?
I've just spent the better part of the last 5 pages responding in acceptance to an article decimating the premise of the next great American actor. I've nodded to the training and culture of excellence of young actors coming up through foreign systems. Yet, if that premise is to be held as a given then what are we teaching our students in America? I have been through my fair share of universities and have seen their programs. It's not as if undergraduates are studying The Chuck Lorre School of Sitcom Acting with piped in laugh-tracks to lecture halls.
Any college program that offers a degree in theater has a program diversified in speech, movement, dance and a heavy emphasis on the classics.
Potential graduates spent upwards of 4 or more years working on-stage and off working their way up through a system. Then, after an expensive university degree they are faced with few options. Go to a market that might sustain them or continue this track of education in a Masters degree program. Then after 2-3 years their prospects are teach or act. The "degree" of excellence the student emerges from these programs varies due to individual commitment and the quality of the program.
Is it possible that in a population of 320 million people that the ratio of great actors emerging from that casting pool just aren't very good? I'm far from a statistician but the odds are quite low for that equation. The UK population is 64 million in total. Australia 23 million. Let's thrown in Canada's 35 million in for good measure. That's a total 122 million people from our three greatest acting competitors. So if you're keeping up that means the US has 198 million people more to generate our next qualified charismatic, skilled and handsome movie star.
So, the fault, dear readers, is not in our stars. It's in our star-makers.
You don't have to be in Hollywood long to pick up on the fact that it wants what it can't have. With over 80,000 registered SAG-AFTRA actors in Los Angeles alone there is a sense of swimming in a sea of resumes. There has to be some filter to that ocean or every casting office would have a line of 1000 actors per role. Indeed, if you were to ask any casting agent they would probably tell you that is close to the number of submission requests they field every day. But compared to the ratio per capita of actors generated by 320 million people that in itself WAS a massive filter. If you just got to LA you had, in effect, made the first cut!
What hasn't been discussed in Mr. Rafferty's piece was the game-changing nature of the internet on casting. More and more as run-away production has seen the outgrowth of shoots in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere (oh, Michigan, you blew it) there has been the development of the 'self-tape'. Meaning the actor records their audition remotely and it is sent to the producers on location to peruse. Too busy to fly back for each casting session, now many a casting session is done looking at a tablet while on lunch from a shoot. While the preference for a NY or LA actor has some currency still as they are seen as more serious about their professions, that exclusive "first cut" of locality has been watered down with availability.
Back in the early-to-mid 90's, it was rare to sit next to someone from overseas. They had to do enough tv and film in their country and get enough "tape" to generate interest from a studio to even see them. Then, if they would front the travel, they would fly in on a casting tour over a week and see if there were any bites. Now, with the speed and availability of the web, casting can look just as easily at an actor from Australia as one in their lobby. This alone has contributed to the prolific use of international talent. But it doesn't explain it.
As I said, Hollywood wants what it can't have. It's a natural process evolving from the vast amount of supply and so little demand. Exclusion is the name of the game. If you are going to cast the lead in practically anything you have a very long line wanting in on it. Therefore a manufactured desire to have something elusive takes over. The brain can't help it. When so much is on the line in terms of money and perception you hesitate to take the first guy who walks through your door. It just can't be that easy! Then the second guy walks in and well, he's good too, but...
This "not quite it" energetic becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and soon enough the producers begin to wonder, "Is there anybody else we haven't seen?" Good casting directors know this recurring spell cast over producers and position their actors in clever ways to make them more desirable. Agents too are in on this as a constant jockeying for perception is made from the first phone call. That's just Hollywood.
So, in effect, what has emerged is a desire for something elite. Sometimes a thing is made elite by its very nature of excellence which lends itself to the first half of this posts' premise of foreign actors and their seasoning. Another way of generating the perception of being elite is its exclusive nature. In this case we have the unfortunate tyranny of choice from that 320 million populace and 80,000 SAG-AFTRA members. There's just too many of them to be perceived as "special".
Cue: Phone call to London or Sydney.
Add to this the fact that over those 65 years since Brando and The Actor's Studio changed the acting landscape for the cinema those techniques were fully implemented in almost every training course in England for up and coming actors. They did not sit back and let us take the gold (statue) for long as they incorporated those techniques into their classical training. Now, a generation later, we are seeing the results of this hybrid training as they took "our" method and threw it back at us changed and improved.
So, what we have here is a perception of quality based largely on its limited availability. There are just SO many actors overseas to fill our tent-poles and quality films. That alone makes them desirable. But what can really bust your nut is that you can't complain about the ones getting their shot. They're good. Damn good, most of them (sorry, Alex Pettyfer). If Hollywood really is like "Highschool with money" then we are all making the foreign exchange students the valedictorians, class presidents and stars of the athletic teams. The problem is that they are winning the popularity contest and acing all the quizzes to boot.
The solution to this is like all American trade and globalization issues. You don't create an embargo, you make your product better. That means, like Rafferty suggests, the American actor look themselves in the mirror. Stop mistaking your art for your brand. While it is obvious in the growing cacophony of our media frenzied culture you need to get noticed.
Just make sure you have a there-there when you look your self(ie) in the mirror.