Diamonds in the Rough: a Study of the Character Actor

Madeline H Lucas is keen in the hunt for up-and-coming cinema gold

 

Colin Firth is an actor almost everyone will be aware of, one way or another. For years it was often in association with the famous (or perhaps infamous) pond scene in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of  Pride and Prejudice, a proto-Daniel Craig Bond Moment, if ever there was one. Even to this day, Firth is often characterised as being synonymous with Mr Darcy. Yet, despite this recognition by association, Firth has never been short of respectable roles in a broad array of films, both British and International. Finally, after an acting career spanning more than 20 years, Firth reached the limelight of Hollywood – instantly becoming a household name – with his most recent films: Tom Ford’s A Single Man, and the multi-award winning Oscar-favourite, The King’s Speech  for which Firth received the highest of all cinematic accolades, the Best Actor Academy Award.

Perhaps fortunately, I did not see The King’s Speech prior to the Oscars, and so was able to watch it for the first time a few months ago with the retrospective knowledge of all the acclaim it had received. I thought it was a good film. All in all, it built gradually towards its climax with the appropriate wartime Britain delivery of a stiff upper-lip: restrained, unsentimental, utilitarian. As a biopic it stayed true to actual events, dipping marginally into the cause of King George’s stutter, but remaining focused for the most part upon his ascension to the throne, and ending with the prospect of him becoming the British monarch in a time of war. His friendship with his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, was touching, the unfolding drama was moving, the conflict fitting, and yet, at no point did I feel my belief suspended. Throughout the entire film I was thoroughly aware that I was watching Colin Firth acting, rather than ‘Bertie’ himself.

Colin Firth is a thoroughly well-known British actor, which in accord made me wonder where the image and renown of an actor indeed does seem to overtake the art of their craft. It is a case where publicity – or perhaps better described as the celebrity factor – overtakes the talent – or lack thereof.

An apt example is Johnny Depp, who, prior to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was relatively unknown in the mainstream world, and more associated to the offbeat, indie scene — the quirky eccentric. Today, he is seen as an elegant, debonair actor with great panache, no longer a Hollywood exile but a crowd-pleasing entertainer with an established reputation as a versatile actor. His ability to inhabit his character is natural – in performance and appearance. The same goes for Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day Lewis, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington, and many other actors who have not been typecast and have managed to express their broad ability in film. What these actors have in common is that they are all recognisable by appearance: household names with – for the most part – deserved acclaim.

But maybe this is their downfall.

Now, when watching Brokeback Mountain or The Dark Knight, I suspect the viewer will see Ledger the actor rather than Ennis Del Mar or the Joker. Johnny Depp may never escape from the icon he made of himself as Jack Sparrow, and although it certainly was a moment of characterising excellence for his character to be portrayed as such, Depp will always be seen as that witty Keith Richards-esque buccaneer to some degree.

Which draws me back to Colin Firth. While my opinion of The King’s Speech was moderately impressed, despite doubts that the acclaim for it was a little excessive (what is known in film lingo as a ‘glowjob’), it was only by seeing another film of Firth’s recently that I could put my finger upon what it was that so bothered me about this actor. While watching Tom Ford’s A Single Man, I realised this: in almost all his roles, Colin Firth is always the same character barring a small divergence here and there. Indeed, his characters are often so similar even his physical appearance doesn’t change. He is certainly not a particularly expressive actor, and not physical either. He is inelastic, removed, unfluctuating – every inch the Mr Darcy of times gone by. His voice remains in a contented and invariable permanence of tone and vernacular.

Having some interest in fashion I was sure I would enjoy A Single Man, but like all fashion designers, Tom Ford is too self-aware and his impression upon the film is heavy-handed. It was, for me, a film that tried its best to be culturally and intellectually high-brow with its study of a homosexual man suffering a grievance under the oppression of a homophobic society amidst Cold War distractions. But instead it ends up being as pretentious and shallow as a petri dish. I would rather watch The History Boys any day. The acclaim for this film was fitting in that it was a mainstream success and therefore – like The King’s Speech - good fodder for the Oscars. But it was not, in my opinion, an exceptional film, and similarly, Firth’s performance was nothing out of the ordinary.

A great delight in film is discovering obscure diamonds in the multitude of rough. It is also, despite the hypocrisy, greatly satisfying when these little-known gems get recognition from ever-larger audiences. For example, before his tragically premature death, and certainly before Brokeback Mountain was on our screens, I remember following curiously the career of Heath Ledger after seeing him in the hugely entertaining A Knight’s Tale and 10 Things I Hate About You; and Robert Downey Jr. has been on our screens for years, in exceptional performances (despite his off-screen antics): see Richard Attenborough’s 1990 biopic, Chaplin, Less than Zero, or Wonder Boys as just a few examples of this most brilliantly versatile actor’s capability.

At other times, the diamonds are even rarer. Two of the greatest shows of acting capability (and equally the directing/writing brilliance of Bruce Robinson) are by Richard E. Grant in the cult-classic Withnail and I, and How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Meanwhile there are actors at this very moment who are still somewhat unrecognised to the general public – actors who I can see steadily gaining acclaim over the next few years. Tom Hardy is only just coming to the surface of mainstream recognition, after starring in Nolan’s Inception and with the prospect of his forthcoming part in The Dark Knight Rises. His role as the eponymous ‘Bronson’ is truly inspired brilliance. He is certainly one to watch, and can be seen currently in the just-released Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Likewise, Lee Pace’s astounding performances over the past years, such as his role as a transgendered man in the true story Soldier’s Girl, and his largely-improvised performance in the visually stunning The Fall, are fitting examples of true method-acting, and have set him on the track to greater – and well-deserved – recognition. Casey Affleck inhabited his eponymous role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, revealing an exceptional level of talent later seen in Gone Baby Gone; Edward Norton has long proven his ability – from Fight Club to American History X, The Painted Veil and The Illusionist. And Sam Rockwell’s versatility is obvious across the broad array of parts he has inhabited over the years. It feels good to say that the list surely runs on beyond my own knowledge of film. And there are surely even more examples to be found beyond the English-speaking realms of cinema.

So here is a toast to the often under-appreciated yet wholly deserving talent that lies beneath the surface of Celebrity and Academy Awards in the movie-making business. There are actors out there who treat their profession as an art form as much as anything else – they pick their roles with prudence, invest themselves into their characters, inhabit them and strive to portray them as multifaceted individuals. Alec Guinness, Kevin Kline, Scott Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Daniels, Warren Oates, Ben Kingsley, Richard Griffiths and so many others achieved it. Here is to the future of the Character Actor.

   


Madeline H Lucas
Image credit –  nicogenin

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