The Fighter: A Tale of Two Star Images

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First things first: The Fighter is a remarkable film.  At this point, I’ve seen all of the Oscar crop (save The King’s Speech, which is on deck for Wednesday): The Social Network was a tight and timely film; True Grit is hilarious and gorgeous; Black Swan is, as this great Slate article points out, “camp about camp.”  But The Fighter has something that none of those other films do — a sparking, crackling sense of life.  In discussing the movie with a friend who’s from the Boston area, I said that Lowell, the working class, dilapidated town where the film takes place, seemed so incredible alive. This person laughed, so I clarified: Lowell is TEEMING.  Not teeming in the way that, say, Bombay is teeming — the streets aren’t packed; in fact, there’s a certain emptiness that makes it feel like the no one is ever sober or wealthy enough to drive.  But there is so much presence in this film: everywhere you go (or rather, everywhere our protagonist goes), there’s his family, all seven bad-haired, bad-skinned, badly-dressed sisters, plus his hurricane of a mother and leech of a brother, plus every other person in town who’s ever known him or a member of his family, all that weight of presence, weighing down.  It’s a tremendous pressure, and you see it in the way that even an incredible physical presence like Wahlberg seems to cower, just ever so slightly, each time he walks in his house or the local restaurant

Just a few of the seven sisters....

The director is David O. Russell, best known for Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and inspiring incredible rants from George Clooney and Lily Tomlin on-set.  This guy is no Altman; actors do not “love” working with him.  Unless they’re Mark Wahlberg, who has given some of the best performances of his career for Russell (probably my favorite Wahlberg moment: ‘You rock, rock!’)  Despite speculation that the now-notoriously difficult Bale would go head-to-head with Russell, it was in fact Wahlberg and Bale who collectively decided on Russell after Darren Aronofsky dropped out (he decided that the film was too much like his other film about fighting).  I’ve loved Russell’s previous movies, but this one might be the most complete: in The Fighter, there’s a deftness to Russell’s direction, which seems to move seamlessly from complete pathos to hilarity.  The comparisons between the  seven bombastic sisters and a Greek chorus are not without warrant; don’t let the bad early ’90s fashions fool you into thinking this story isn’t archetypal.  Russell excels at taking basic tropes of classic family melodrama and effortlessly draping the specifics of a time, place, and personal narrative over them.  And the opening sequence — credits and the shots immediately following — is an absolute wonder to behold.  I only wish I could post it.

In lieu of the opening sequence, you'll have to settle for a shot of Melissa Leo's excellent hair.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: the purpose of this post is to tease out how the star images of the two stars of the film — Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale — influence the way that we read the film, their characters, and their performances.  So if you haven’t heard of the film, you’ll find the preview below:

Now, if I were really doing this right, I’d also talk about the performances of Melissa Leo (the matriarch – you may recognize her from her amazing turn in Frozen River, or maybe as John Goodman’s wife in Treme) and Amy Adams, who demonstrates what a filthy mouth really sounds like, and what sexiness can look like outside of the pilates studio.  They’re both spectacular.   As are the seven women portraying Wahlberg and Bale’s sisters — I grew up in a working class town in the ’80s and early ’90s, readers, and that is indeed what the hair, bodysuits, and jean skirts looked like.

Amy Adams has some excellent scrunchies in this film.

So Wahlberg plays Mickey — a boxer on the ascendency, the family’s new hope.  His older half-brother, Dicky (Bale), had his moment of glory — he was in the ring with Sugar Ray, and brags of knocking him down (in reality, Sugar Ray tripped, but that fact figures little into the lore).  Now Dicky’s a crack-head, but in the way of all charismatic older brothers, has taught Mickey everything he knows, and despite his complete f-ed-up-ness, Mickey finds it difficult to live with him or without him.  Same goes for his overbearing, tough loving mother, who refuses to admit to herself what Dicky has become.  AND YOU GUYS, THIS IS A REAL STORY.  If you were into boxing twenty years ago, you’ve heard the name Mickey Ward and know (at least part) of his story.   The Fighter is basically the creation story of Mickey, because the movie ends just when the real Mickey embarks on his path towards glory.

Enough set-up: let’s talk performance.

Bale as Dicky Eklund

CHRISTIAN BALE AS DICKY:

Dicky is a crack-head, and Bale, being Bale, took up the challenge of transforming into one with relish.  His teeth are disgusting; his body is emaciated (though not nearly as much as in The Machinist, when Bale was down to 120 pounds).  The skin on his face has the tight, stretched, near-translucent looks of a corpse, his cheeks and eye sockets are hollowed.  He’s a tattered ghost of the beautiful, refined Bale of Little Women or Batman. But Bale’s skill is evident in his ability to make Eckland’s charisma tangible: you’re simultaneously revolted and attracted this guy.  Not sexually attracted, per se — I mean, there’s only so much a personality can compensate for — but you can see the spell he puts on people, and why they want to believe what he promises.  This sort of warmth and magnetism was absolutely necessary to create a character as nuanced as Dicky, and Bale just NAILS it.  Manohla Dargis agrees — on Sunday, she wrote a piece that basically functions as a soliloquy to Bale’s performance.  She performs a masterful close read of his performance in a single scene in the first act of the film, part of which I’ve excerpted below — [my apologies; this might not make complete sense if you've yet to see the film] –

Dicky’s crack-house braggadocio comes to a climax with Boo Boo hitting the ground as if from a blow, the moment intercut with the 1978 fight. Mr. Russell crops the real bout so you can’t see that Mr. Leonard tripped, a cheat that preserves Dicky’s misremembered triumph. He thrusts his arms in the air and again steps over a fallen man. A few cuts later Dicky is bending into the frame toward his reward, the camera following him as he — and the shot — lean toward a waiting crack pipe. But just before he draws in the smoke, Mr. Bale does something extraordinary: He drains the animation from his face and turns his buggy eyes into fathomless pits, revealing the death mask beneath Dicky’s wild pantomime of life.

In one minute of screen time Mr. Bale, ably assisted by his director, the cinematographer and editor, has replayed the entire tragic sweep of Dicky’s life, with its bruising knockdown fights and addictively crippling highs. Right then someone reminds Dicky that he’s supposed to be training Micky at the gym. The camera swoops in for a close-up of Dicky’s comically startled face as he yells “What?,” the tight, drumlike skin punctuated by the dark O of his mouth. And then Dicky is off and running down Lowell’s brightly sunny mean streets. As his loose arms and legs spin in circles, he looks a little like the Road Runner, though more like a fugitive clown. He’s a riot, that Dicky, and he’s running for his life.

Now, Bale is obviously nothing like Dicky.  Right?  In truth, we don’t *actually* know — Bale is fiercely private.  He has no desire to talk about his private life; he is openly combative in interviews, acknowledging that he’s only doing them because his contract obliges him to do so.  We know that he’s married, that he has a daughter, that he apparently has a temper, and that something weird happened last year when his mother and sister filed a complaint of abuse against him (which was later rescinded).  We know that he started acting early — in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun — and even then hated promoting.  [Wikipedia also tells me that Bale's father married Gloria Steinham late in life, making Bale the step-son to one of the leading figures of second wave feminism.  CRAZY.]

As I thought about Bale and previous roles, I realized that he’s been in tons of films I love — Little Women, Newsies, The New World (boy oh boy does he make me cry there), The Prestige, the first Batman (the scene when he goes from standing up and falls into the push-up gets me every time, and no, I don’t like The Dark Knight; it’s fascist, but that’s for another blog post), Rescue Dawn, Laurel Canyon, 3:10 to Yuma, Velvet Goldmine, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Portrait of a Lady…..But never playing any specific type.  The point is underscored by his performance in two movies that viscerally repulsed me — American Psycho and The Machinist. He can be straight-laced, he can be dominant, he can be weak, he can be fiercely masculine, he can be queer, he can be hateable, he can be pitiable.  He can play almost anything; and, starting with The Machinist and the subsequent transformation into Batman, it became clear that he was willing to sacrifice his body to the role.  Bale claims not to be a Method actor — he claims he doesn’t use experiences from his own life to inform his performance — but he certainly transforms himself utterly, staying in character throughout the duration of filming.  (Here, it’s interesting to note that the rant on the set of Terminator was performed the American accent of his character — was he just acting as John Connor would?)

Bale is also cognizant that his ability to believably play such a spectrum of characters is contingent on his ability to keep knowledge about his personal life to a minimum.  In a characteristically reluctant interview with the New York Times, Bale makes it clear that he’s an actor, not a star:

Mr. Bale’s views on artistic privacy are related to his faith, perhaps a naïve one, that an anonymous actor is a more credible shape shifter. “I like the idea of movies having a magic element,” he said. “How many times have you seen an actor in a movie who you know only as the character? It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”

To the extent that Mr. Bale can approximate a blank slate in his films, he said, it is because he is an actor, not a movie star. He guards his personal life — he and his wife of 10 years, Sibi Blazic, have a 5-year-old daughter — and save for the “Terminator” blow-up and allegations of verbal assault on his mother and sister in 2008 (the charges were dropped), he has not gotten much tabloid attention. “A movie star is someone people look at and go, ‘I want to be like that person,’ ” Mr. Bale said. “There’s the responsibility of desire. It’s not something I’m interested in trying. I would fail miserably at it, so why even bother?”

In his hilariously combative interview with Esquire from last month, Bale cites Steve McQueen as a sort of ultimate movie star — you see him in a movie and you say “I want to be Steve McQueen,” not “I want to be [insert character's name here].”

Bale may not have a complete star image — the outburst and the weird incident with his family seem to reveal some sort of authentic self, but they’re the only real windows we have into his personal life. But does he even have a consistent picture personality?  Put differently, is there a line we can trace from role to role?  Like most Method actors, Bale’s picture personality is not of a certain type, but of the “serious method actor.”  Like (the younger) De Niro or Daniel Day-Lewis, his picture personality is rooted in the fact that he consistently plays wildly divergent characters — it’s the non-picture personality, and that non-ness is as much of defining characteristic as any other type.  Does that make sense?

Dicky in action...

It’s this non-picture personality, this non-star image, that makes it possible for Bale to play Dicky.  While I still think that all of the incessant talk about Bale’s performance is somewhat exhausting (especially coming from those Nolan-ites who worship him simply for his involvement in the Batman franchise), any other star in this role would be distracting.  Every move would be a reminder of the fact that this star was DOING SOME SERIOUS ACTING.  Brad Pitt was originally slated for the role — can you imagine it?  I would just be thinking “Whoa, Brad Pitt sure looks bad” the entire film.  With a star in the role, the star’s image would envelop that of Dicky; with Bale, Dicky envelops him.  (For proof, watch clips of the real Dicky in the HBO doc on his crack abuse — it’s startling).

In contrast…..

Mark Wahlberg as Mickey Ward

MARK WAHLBERG AS MICKEY:

Dargis puts a fine point on the contrast between the two performances:

With his naturalistic delivery and relaxed animal physicality Mr. Wahlberg doesn’t seem to be acting, while a twitchy, jumpy Mr. Bale all but pinwheels off the screen. Mr. Wahlberg’s acting seems more a matter of being, while Mr. Bale’s appears self-consciously performed. Each explores a life lived on and off the stage of the ring, but in Mr. Bale’s deep-tissue turn as an addict, the tragedy of a life is wholly embodied.

Dargis obviously thinks more of Bale’s “deep-tissue” performance — and I understand why.  Wahlberg’s performance isn’t as flashy or memorable; as Dargis says, “it’s more a matter of being.”  In many ways, he seems to be playing himself  – a slightly modified version of “Mark Wahlberg,” who shows up in each of his roles.  It’s true: Wahlberg does have a unified star image, buttressed by a consistent picture personality.  He plays physically strong men whose exteriors bely a deep intelligence — they’re not necessarily book smart, but they understand the way that the world works, the way people work, and the slight slump to the shoulders keys us into the fact that they realize the world’s a pretty tragic place.  But Wahlberg is also somewhat deliriously funny — madcap in I Heart Huckabees, playing the straight man in The Other Guys, making  fun of himself on Saturday Night Live.  When he showed up SNL, it was in response to Andy Samberg’s spot-on imitation, “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals,” which you can see below:

Like all great imitations, Samberg’s succeeds by touching on the hallmarks of Wahlberg’s image: the lilt of the voice (betraying his working class Boston upbringing), the confrontational tone, the conciliatory ”say hi to your mother for me,” the evocation of his producing role on Entourage — a show modeled after Wahlberg’s own experience in Hollywood after rising to stardom.

But it misses some of the finer points of the Wahlberg image, and part of what makes this particular role — and Wahlberg’s “playing himself” — so impressive:

In press reports, The Fighter is repeatedly evoked as Mark Wahlberg’s “passion project.”  He went through multiple directors, co-stars, producers and funding sources; he trained for four years, transforming his basement into a boxing gym and hiring Mickey’s own trainer; he spent countless hours at Mickey and Dicky’s Lowell gym.  His passion for the film stems from his childhood fascination with Mickey’s story — like Mickey, Wahlberg comes from an Irish-Catholic family of 9; like Mickey, Wahlberg grew up working class on the outskirts of Boston.  Wahlberg was the baby of the family, and found himself fighting his siblings throughout his childhood.  Wahlberg also got in trouble early, landing in jail for several months before finally turning his life around — a decision he attributes to the guidance of a Priest — in his late teens.  At this point, Wahlberg’s older brother Donny had already made it big as a member of The New Kids on the Block; Mark was hoping to follow in his older brother’s proven footsteps.  (AGAIN: SIMILARITIES ARE OBVIOUS).  Mark Wahlberg became “Marky Mark” and released an album, produced by Donny, featuring the wedding-reception-classic “Good Vibrations.”  Again, see below.

And then, oh, then, the Calvin Klein ads.  Combined with the ubiquitous Good Vibrations, Marky Mark had made it.

These posters were a HUGE DEAL.   People stole them from the streets, the subways, from bus shelters.  I can’t think of another advertising phenomenon that did so much to establish a star — even if Marky Mark was still just a rapper at this point.  This is also when the Entourage-style life supposedly began — Wahlberg didn’t have a huge movie role like Vince Chance does in the series, but he did bring his best friends to come live with him in Los Angeles; shenanigans and much womanizing ensued.  According to Wahlberg, he had no notion of acting, but Penny Marshall called him up during casting for  Renaissance Man. According to Wahlberg,

“And when I sat down with her, I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t wanna act.’ She goes, ‘What do you mean? You’re acting all the time, you’re acting right now. You know, you’re just acting like you’re cool, you act like a tough guy. You know, take the pages. Go outside, look ‘em over, and then come back in, and, and audition for one of the parts.”

Wahlberg got the part, and when on to other tough guy teen parts, perhaps most famously in Fear (with Reese Witherspoon) — a movie that had a profound impact on me and other girls of my age.  [All I need to say is ROLLER COASTER.  Maybe also "Nichole 4-Evuh."

But the Fear picture personality wasn't a great fit -- there's something about Wahlberg that seems gentler and more tenderhearted....which might be why his turn in Boogie Nights was such a revelation.  Wahlberg followed Boogie Nights with Three Kings, The Perfect Storm, The Italian Job, Four Brothers, I Heart Huckabees, The Departed, plus less memorable, even laughable roles in Planet of the Apes, Rock Star, Shooter, Invincible, and Max Payne. And I'm still missing about a dozen roles: this guy WORKS.

Wahlberg isn't super guarded about his private life, but he's no gossip column favorite -- at least not of late.  Back in the day, he sewed some wild oats; one of his flings, Rhea Durham, gave birth to his child, they broke up, she gave birth to another child, they got back together, they had another kid, and finally, in 2009, they got married; they now have four children together.  (See Lainey Gossip for the inside dish on how Durham may or may not have ensnared Wahlberg).  Despite his proclivities with the ladies, Wahlberg is a devout Catholic, and regularly attends Mass.  He hangs out with his kids; indeed, he first met Bale because both of their kids attended the same preschool.

The laundry list of personal details and gratuitous underwear shots proves it: Wahlberg's personal life complements his picture personality rather perfectly.  He's a ladies man -- see, for example, his brilliant spoof of himself in Date Night -- but he's a man of integrity.  His early self might have been bombastic and prideful, but as he ages, it's turned in on itself, making him a man of intense yet quiet physical presence.  He's a family man, but has always wanted something better for himself and his family.  And just look at his face in the Calvin Klein ad -- there's a sense of joy there, even as the state of his abs betray his intense work ethic.

Wahlberg does seem to just be Mickey; the man he's portraying seems so familiar to the image we associate with the man himself.  But does that make it any less acting?  Or does that mean that Wahlberg simply found the role that perfectly fit his established set of attributes?  Because here's the kicker: Mickey couldn't have been played by someone who seemed to be acting or putting on a show.  That was Dicky's schtick, not Mickey's.  Mickey was the second son, the one who faded into the background, who observed while his cartwheel of a brother stole the show, not only in the boxing ring, but in whatever space he happened to be.  While Dickey acts -- always in motion, always provoking, always sparking a new conversation -- Mickey REacts.  That's what we're meant to take away from this movie, and without it, the Dicky's transformation in the third act -- and the selflessness he shows towards his brother in the final training sessions and fights -- would not be nearly as touching.

This movie would not work without an actor like Bale as Dicky.....and a reactor -- a solid star image, someone like Wahlberg -- as Mickey.  The correlations between Wahlberg and Mickey's life are just icing on the cake, encouraging us to think of the performance -- and the entirety of the narrative -- as authentic.  In the end, it's perfect casting for a near-perfect film.

[Have you seen The Fighter?  What did you think? ]

The Character Actor, and/or How Can Steve Buscemi Be Sexy?

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The Character Actor is not a star, per se, although he can be the “star” of a show, or movie, or play. The Character Actor can PLAY star — with its attendant gravitas, pomp, allure — but is NOT a priori star.

But let’s define terms a bit more (with apologies to those who have read this sort of thing before — you can skim to the part where I start talking about character actors):
*An ACTOR is someone who appears on screen or on stage. He or she acts. What we know about this person is largely limited to his TEXTUAL performance — e.g. what he/she does, says, how he/she looks, etc. in the texts, on screen.

*A STAR also acts — or is famous for another skill, such as playing basketball. At the same time – and this is crucial – this person’s personal life (his/her LIFE outside the text, e.g. “extra-textual” life) has been made accessible to the public for consumption.

*An actor can become a star. Recall that George Clooney used to be “just an actor” on Facts of Life.

*An actor can be very famous, but that doesn’t make him/her a star. Robert De Niro is an actor, and almost universally known. But he is not a star, at least not by the definition above. Morgan Freeman is an actor, not a star. Laura Linney is an actor. It all depends on knowledge — so in Britain, where her marriage to Taylor Hackford is more publicized, we might consider Helen Mirren a star, whereas she’s an actress stateside.

Not a star, friends.

These actors — and that’s the term I use for them, for lack of a better one — are known almost wholly for their appearances on-screen. Now, I’m sure that someone will argue with me about Morgan Freeman — he’s one of the greatest actors of our time! Everyone loves him! But can you tell me a single thing about his extra-textual life? Okay, maybe if you’re really plugged in you’ll know that he was involved with Prom Night in Mississippi, or, if you’ve really done your research, you might know that he’s had an affair with someone who’s kinda sorta his step-grand-daughter, but you know what? I bet you totally didn’t even know that. I didn’t even know that until one of my students from last Spring insisted on doing a star study on him and discovered the fact that not only had he had this affair, but that virtually no one had picked up the story. Now, this could be because, as KW of Dear Black Woman has pointed out, black gossip doesn’t sell, but it’s also because he’s a.) old, b.) has always been “old” in the American imagination, which is another way of saying de-sexualized, and c.) he’s beloved for his screen personas, whether in Driving Mrs. Daisy or Shawshank or whatever, and his personal life has never been the source of his likability or charisma.

*A crucial caveat: Stars are no guarantee of financial success. Some stars, like Will Smith and Brad Pitt, are somewhat reliable film-openers. Maybe we’ll add Nicolas Cage? Maybe? I mean, I know that he married Lisa Marie Presley and has a kid named Helicopter Robot or something like that….and recently had to sell 12 of his 52 mansions, so I guess there’s an interest (just not from me) in his personal life. But Brangelina is not an assured money-maker, and George Clooney never opens films big, unless he has Brad Pitt to support him.

To reiterate: Stars aren’t stars because they make money. They’re stars because their unified images — the combination of their textual and extra-textual personas — seems to embody something pertinent, something that speaks to what it means to be a person in a certain place during a certain time period. This is, at least in part, why it is often difficult for the biggest of stars to break free of a single type of role, or that some are accused of “playing themselves” in all of their films.  These stars’ images are so indelible to maintaining popularity that when they deviate from that image, the text either flops or seems off. (In the case of Julia Roberts, you can trace it to hairstyle, especially in the ’90s: the films in which she had curly wild hair, which seemed to bespeak the Pretty Woman persona that truly launched her star, did well, while differently-hairstyled Roberts bombed. See especially: Mary Reilly, Michael Collins, Something to Talk About, I Love Trouble).  This can also be true of a star’s extra-textual actions:  an event is only deemed “scandal” if it challenges societal norms and/or challenges one of the foundational elements of the star’s image.  Again, for many of you, this is familiar ground.

Auto-flop, Julia!

Which brings me to the meat of the post: THE CHARACTER ACTOR. The character actor can, theoretically, be quite famous.  We might call De Niro a character actor, especially in his early films — what was he doing save embodying a wide variety of roles, making any unified reading of his image or picture personality impossible?  De Niro is not a great example, however, because he often, or always, plays lead, whereas a character actor is cast in a supporting or peripheral role.

Character actors are so-termed because of their ability to play “character” roles:  people who are weird, kooky, distinguished in some way, e.g. the funny best friend, the weird preist, the overprotective mother, the psychotic priest, whatever. For a real character actor, there is no single role in which he/she is routinely cast — I wouldn’t call Christopher Walken a character actor, for example, because he can no longer play the role of a nice, loving, totally normal person. His face and voice have been overdetermined through a long string of weird/demonic/self-parodic roles, limiting the number of characters that he can successfully embody. Of course, there are some limits — Laura Linney is a consummate character actor, but it’s somewhat difficult to see her as, I dunno, a serial killer, even though she did do a good “baddie” in Breach.

Under the studio system, character actors were contracted to a single studio the same way that major stars were. They would be shuffled around to fill spots in films pegged to major stars. Some directors, like John Ford or Preston Sturges, would have “stock troupes” that would work in nearly all of his films — John Wayne, of course, but also members of the cast and crew. The set-up mirrors that of a traveling stage troupe, where you selected an actor for his/her ability to play a diverse number of roles as the troupe cycled through plays.

What got me started on this post, though, was the unique ability of the character actor to fully embody a particular role. Unlike the star, whose extra-textual associations inform my reading of him/her, the sheer number of conflicting significations of the character actor somehow cancel each other out, leaving me with a fresh slate of believability. I can’t watch Brad Pitt without thinking of Tristan in Legends of the Fall; I also can’t help but wonder whether or not he and Angelina are making out at that very moment. A star’s appearance is a palimpsest of every interview, photo shoot, piece of gossip, and past role, and asks to be read as such.  Oftentimes, this is the key to the role’s success — Hitchcock, for example, famously played on audience expectations of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in his later films.

William Demarest, Character Actor and part of the Struges stock troupe

One of my favorite character actors, Edward Everett Horton, seen here admiring Fred Astaire

Take, for example, renowned character actor Steve Buscemi, who is currently KILLING IT as mobster and Atlantic City Prohibition-era kingpin Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire. Buschemi has played many roles — the three that stick out most poignantly for me are in Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and Ghost World, and yours are most likely different.

Buscemi in Ghost World -- sympathetic, but not, per se, attractive.

But he has never played a confident, eloquent, well-respected and sexually potent ladies man, which is the role he’s currently embodying every Sunday night. Yes, I said sexually potent. Even sexy. Even attractive. STEVE BUSCEMI, whose visage is most often likened to that of a gasping trout.

The collars really do it for me.

Buscemi is able to convince the audience of these characteristics for two reasons: 1.) He’s a tremendously skilled actor, but also 2.) He’s a character actor, and while he has played dozens of previous roles, the memory of which should, by all means, undercut the specifics of this character, those roles do not make up a unified whole. They are not a specific image. And they are not reinforced through elements from Buscemi’s private life, as I know nothing, and I mean NOTHING, about who Buscemi is in “real life” other than talented.  Buscemi becomes a blank slate onto which the characterization of Nucky takes shape.  He becomes who the writers say he is: in this case, powerful, quietly ruthless, a natty dresser, and irresistible.

But what’s the difference between a character actor and a method actor?  Between the likes of Buscemi and Brando?  I would argue that there’s a spectrum:

*You have Method actors who are capital M Method actors — Brando, most definitely, but also De Niro, Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis.  These actors’ images are non-images, which is to say that their image is that of Method Actor, which carries all sorts of significations of tortured genius, pent up creative energy, etc.

*You have actors who may not ascribe to the Method, but who have pinned their images to their ability to embody several seemingly different roles.  Russell Crowe is an obvious example; I’d also put Angelina Jolie in this category.  For me, these actors resemble the strategy espoused by several stars during the classic era:  they cultivate an overarching image, and use the star’s ability to play AGAINST TYPE to reinforce the authenticity of the “real” image.  Bette Davis, for example, played “bad” in several films to show that 1.) Her “good” image was the real, authentic one and 2.) Her ability to convincingly transform was evidence of her talent as an actress.  I’d also add Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron, Brad Pitt, Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman and anyone who’s “played fat/bad/disabled” to this list.   Some of these are stars, some, like Williams, are more actors.  But transformation is part of each of their images, unlike, say, Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock, or Katherine Heigl, who really DO always play variations on the same role.

*The actual character actor, who’s usually not even a big enough name to be cast ast the lead in anything but a small independent film or a television show.

For example:

Steve Buscemi

Laura Linney

Patricia Clarkston

John Malkovich (especially before, arguable now?)

Toni Collette

Philip Seymour Hoffman

John Turturro

William H. Macy

Frances McDormand

Paul Giamatti

As I was making this list, I realized that there’s a whole reservoir of actors that I feel uneasy about putting in the purely character actor slot — I mean, what do we do with Mark Ruffalo (who I obviously need to post about one of these days)?  But doesn’t he play the same shambly guy every time?  Is there a special subset of character actors who still have a unified picture personality….but aren’t stars?   What about Julianne Moore? Kate Winslet?  Jason Bateman?  And why do the Coen Brothers seem to produce so many of them?  Is there any entirely different set of “television” character actors — those actors who move across television universes in a way that makes us believe that all shows are linked across space and time?  (Yes, I believe so).  Is there a hierarchy between film and television character acting?  (Yes again). What do we make of the fact that none of these actors are traditionally attractive? (Okay, take Laura Linney off that list). Does oddity of appearance make it “easier” to avoid stardom, or, rather, impossible to achieve stardom, which allows for a career as character actor? Are they industrially valuable because they provide Oscar nominations but can’t demand tremendous salaries?

I wrote this post because I wanted to figure out why and how Steve Buscemi could be sexy, but I suppose the ultimate question is whether the true character actor, of which I believe Buscemi to number, is a rarified, incredibly valuable breed.  They also prove resistant to analysis, which, of course, might be their most alluring attribute.

So I need your help, readers.  Help make these distinctions clear, or tell me the distinction is not worthwhile. Or tell me your own favorite character actors, and where they might fight in this spectrum.

Absurd Masculinity: The Time-Bending Comic Persona of Will Ferrell

The following is a guest post from R. Colin Tait, RTF Ph.D. student and my personal informant on all things Canadian, including Rachel McAdams, hockey, universal healthcare, and not paying for grad school.

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Will Ferrell's Nostalgic Masculinity in Semi-Pro

Brennan: You know what?  I still hate you, but you have a pretty awesome collection of nudie mags.

Dale: Yeah, I got ‘em from the seventies, eighties and nineties. It’s like masturbating in a time machine.

-          Brennan (Will Ferrell) to Dale (John C. Reilly) in Step Brothers

First off, I want to thank Annie for letting me do some cyber-squatting on her otherwise excellent blog, and second, let me state at the outset that these thoughts are part of a larger work-in-progress, tentatively titled “Absurd Masculinity: The Time-Bending Comic Persona of Will Ferrell.” So thanks to all of you in advance for entertaining some of these half-formed (or perhaps malformed) thoughts.

This project is motivated by my larger interest in film nostalgia, particularly for the 1970s and as replayed in contemporary film culture. My central question begins and ends with Anchorman as well as a whole wealth of comedies, all of which highlight the absurdities of excessive masculinity across different time periods. I am interested in comedies set in the recent past – including Superbad (which seems to be set in the eighties), The Wedding Singer, in addition to The Royal Tennenbaums — a comedy(?) set simultaneously in a strange in-between place that is the seventies and the present.

Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Ron Burgundy is the chief illustration of this trend. We can add a series of films where the male protagonists depict man-children of a certain age (around the 40-Year Old Virgin mark) who haven’t “grown up” or are stuck in some sort of state of adolescent sexuality or man-child-ness. These films not only include the recent “Bromances” (I Love You Man, Role Models) but also the residents of “Old School” and certainly almost every one of Adam Sandler’s films, whose characters live in either a literal or figurative past.

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70s Masculine Icon Ron Burgundy

Will Ferrell is the latest and most successful within this larger phenomenon, not only because of his appealing comic persona, but in the way that he seemingly destabilizes traditional notions of history, sexuality, and politics through his excessively absurd portrayals of childhood, adolescence, in addition to retaining a core stable of comic traits. I will argue that part of Ferrell’s appeal (and ultimately why he is so funny) is his willingness to pierce traditional notions of male power, to put his naked body in the service of destabilizing concepts such as attractiveness, and ultimately his association with eras that he has obviously lived through, representing the full range of childish or adolescent sexuality from the perspective of absurd critique. This work involves looking at the core of Ferrell’s comic traits including key scenes, as well as linking Ferrell’s success to a nostalgic depiction of both the way things were, but also the way that they never were. In this sense, I propose that Ferrell’s persona is “time-bending;” my allusion to the idea of gender bending but through his revisitation in particular eras. The reward of watching his films is built upon the fact that his comedy depends on our built-in foreknowledge that Ferrell is presenting us with the absurdities and excesses rather than the defenses of the eras he’s referring to.

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The not-so-successful remake of "Bewitched"

In terms of contemporary film stardom, Ferrell is a consistent draw at the box-office, with some very big exceptions such as big studio films like Bewitched and most recently Land of the Lost. For the most part, his films from Anchorman onward (and his collaborations with Adam McKay) are consistently profitable and generally over-perform at the box-office. Additionally, as retrospectives of the first decade of the new millennium begin to show their faces, we can see that the 2000s were marked, in part, by the rise and peak within Ferrell’s career as he moves from the sidelines as a memorable bit player (some might say the most memorable player in certain films such as Old School and Zoolander) and emerges as a genuine box-office comedy star. As recently as this last week New York Times critic A. O. Scott listed the best of the last decade he almost mentioned Ferrell as a significant afterthought.

While sometimes associated with the larger movement somewhat problematically called the “Frat Pack” which is even more commonly associated with writer/producer Judd Apatow – whose “laugh factory” includes what could be effectively called a reparatory company of actors and writers such as Vince Vaughan, Ben Stiller, Jason Segel, Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd among many others – Ferrell brings his own brand of comic sensibility to the discussion, which may begin with Apatow, McKay and others, but remains consistently and uniquely linked to the actor’s comic persona.

Will Ferrell’s comic persona is unique insofar as it possesses the following “time-bending” features, “man as child,” “man as adolescent,” “man as reactionary” and “man out of time.” The best of Ferrell’s characters generally overlap these categories. First, Ferrell is associated with a “man as child” childish grown-up, prone to temper tantrums (and yelling) and wearing clothes that are far too tight.

(Quintessential Ferrell vehicle Elf)

This first category accounts for the actor’s first hits, particularly as he moves from a sideline and TV player to a bona fide box-office draw and carries through (somewhat more perversely) to Step Brothers.

The second category, “man as adolescent” is best embodied by “Frank the Tank” in Old School in addition to his depiction of President George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live and You’re Welcome America: An Evening With George W. Bush.

(Frank the Tank while still married)

The third category, “man as reactionary,” presents a man who is simultaneously in and out of his time, best embodied by North Carolina race car driver Ricky Bobby. In the case of Bobby, the childhood trauma of his father’s abandonment forces him to question his excessive materialist (and perhaps American) values at the end of the film.

(Ricky Bobby espouses the family values of a white baby Jesus and capitalism, brought to you by Pizza Hut and Taco Bell)

The most interesting of these categories for me (and ultimately what draws me to Ferrell as a performer) is “man out of time.” The atemporality of Ferrell’s portrayal usually infuses his characters with a self-reflexive commentary on the era his characters are set in. The fact that Ron Burgundy plays the jazz flute, an anachronism in our era to say the least, is part of this humor, as is the claim by designer Mugatu (in Zoolander) that his claim to fame was inventing the piano-key necktie.

(Ron Burgundy plays the jazz flute)

The reflexive presence of hyper-masculine Ron Burgundy, Ferrell’s portrayal as one half of the Woodward and Bernstein team (in Dick), the association of designer Mugatu as a former member of 80s group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, are examples of how this phenomenon plays out.

Ferrell’s best characters are borne of this temporal gray area. They are literally man-children born in the 1970s – sometimes literally like Brennan of Step-Brothers or Buddy from Elf, or are associated in some way with a previous decade – Ron Burgundy, the 70s anchorman, 70s Detroit basketball team owner Jackie Moon, or the cowbell player from the famous “more cowbell” sketch.

(My apologies, but this is the best version of this available on youtube)

Importantly, all of these characters are men seemingly “out of time,” males whose extreme whiteness and overdetermined masculinity are made absurd through the process of the film or (sketch’s) narrative. It is as if because Ferrell is of a particular age (moving onto forty, if not right in his forties) he best embodies this “arrested development” inherent in contemporary masculinity, which he both explodes the expectations of, while simultaneously reconstituting a new formulation of it.

History

I would like to suggest that Will Ferrell’s emergence as a star as dependent on two factors. First, Ferrell’s developed a distinctive comic personality over the course of the 1990s on Saturday Night Live during his tenure from 1995-2006. Second, I imagine that Ferrell’s depiction of a hysterical rendition of excessive masculinity corresponds with the nostalgic paradoxes of the post-9/11 era. Importantly, this “excessive masculinity” is really funny.

This initial period is formative for Ferrell and for his audiences, in part because of his collaboration with then-SNL writer Adam McKay. The duo would go on to form an effective partnership which accounts for Ferrell’s greatest successes, including his three biggest films, Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. We can also see Saturday Night Live as an effective producer of pop-cultural personalities, references and star personas. In this way, it nearly resembles an earlier version of stardom in the Vaudeville era, where performers enter a market with fully-rendered star persona traits. To be certain, some performers fare better than others, but Saturday Night Live has more often than not been successful precisely because it so effectively creates and cultivates stars on its show. Although billed as an ensemble program, gradually it elevates certain performers over others, grooming them eventually for film stardom as others in the cast recede or become supporting actors in this system.

We can see Ferrell’s rise as following performers such as Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and John Belushi, each of whom effectively constructed comedic star personas that expanded outward after years of apprenticeship in this staging ground. At the same time, we can see that the range of these actors and their roles remains consistent throughout their subsequent careers, so that the kinds of films that Myers, Sandler and others follow a limited set of traits and which usually exploit the personality traits honed on the  Show.

For Ferrell, these traits included what are now staples within his film repertoire. They include the aforementioned temper tantrums, (as seen in one of his earliest sketches featured Ferrell as a father at Thanksgiving dinner who repeatedly threw over the kitchen table, declaring a censored “Fuck this, I’m leaving!”) in addition to imitating antiquated pop-cultural figures, including Neil Diamond, Robert Goulet and Alex Trebek (who is nearly atemporal as he exists in reruns and syndication) and the “more cowbell” guy.

Robert Goulet “Raps”

In each case, Ferrell can be expected to throw some sort of temper tantrum, sing, or embody an outdated mode of male-ness, that has long since gone out of style. Ferrell’s physicality – and often enough what has been described as his “doughy nudity” – achieves comedic precisely because of its inappropriateness and its deviation from the norm. As with all Saturday Night Live comedians, Ferrell also became famous by imitating George W. Bush throughout his presidency.

This depiction of Bush as a petulant frat-boy is also interesting as a historical phenomenon. It is worth pursuing how these comedy traits carry over into different aspects of pop-culture, particularly as Ferrell crosses media into the talk show circuit (sometimes taking entire characters with him) and further expanding his comic presence across media industries.

(A fictional character pitching a real product)

(“Robert Goulet” appears on Conan O’Brien)

In this vein, Ferrell can be seen as embodying an older style of comic personality, such as Groucho Marx’s hosting game shows, and his later appearances on shows such as Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.

History and Masculinity in Crisis?

Moving on to the specifics of Ferrell’s contingent history, I would like to follow some comments such as those made by K.W. Kusz who in his essay “Remasculinizing American White Guys in/Through New Millennium American Sport Films,” suggests that the ascent of comics such as Ferrell, Vince Vaughan and Judd Apatow’s are historically-contingent on the post-9/11 era and are reacting to a particular crisis of American masculinity under threat during the “War on Terror.”

While I find some of these ideas convincing – particularly Peter Alilunas’ excellent study across Vince Vaughan’s career, which certainly intersects with Ferrell’s – I find some of the valances of these arguments slightly problematic. This is especially true of the critical engagement with Talladega Nights, a film that Heather Laine Talley and Monica J. Casper state that they “are deeply concerned” with the possibility that the film presents another opportunity to “laugh at ‘gay men’” “Southerners,” or “the working class without “being critical of the assumptions that this humor depends on” (Laine and Casper 2007). Part of the problem with these analyses is that they take the films (and their various plot points) entirely seriously (which may be something that I am admittedly guilty of here) whereas Ferrell’s comedy leaves room for a certain amount of “play” and perhaps even some critique to take place. Added to this I would argue that what makes Ferrell’s persona so likable is he manages to take standard representations of gender, of maturity, of sexuality, and presents their absurdity for comedic effect.

The actor’s various outbursts during crisis points serve as part of this effect (such as Mugatu’s screaming of “I invented the piano-key neck-tie!” during the climax of the film) or as Ricky Bobby strips down to his underwear to run around the racetrack in Talladega Nights when he imagines himself to be on fire.

(Mugatu faces off against “Blue Steel”)

(Ricky Bobby is on “fire”)

In both cases, it is the inappropriateness the outbursts that provide the humor within these scenes in addition to Ferrell’s obvious and near-nudity.

Ferrell’s physical comedy is also important here, as one of the trademarks of this public persona is presented by the absurdity of his ubiquitous nudity. The most famous example of this is in Old School where Frank the Tank’s “Let’s go streaking!” provides one of the film’s most humorous moments. In addition, his climactic “ribbon dance” may have marked a turning point in the actor’s career. We can also expect Ferrell to break into an overly sentimental song from the 70s, 80s or 90s, as he does in this scene from Old School, but also in almost every other one of his films.

Frank the Tank’s “Ribbon Dance”


(Frank sings “Dust in the Wind” – a rendition that is as comedic as it is earnest)

In both examples, Ferrell seemingly explodes both the expectations of male camaraderie and love in addition to a bravura display of sentimentality and an implosion of gender expectations.

Finally, this expansion of boundaries can be seen in the penultimate scene in Talladega Nights as the actor’s climactic run to the finish line in order to beat gay French racecar rival Jean Girard.

(“You taste of America”)

What is interesting to me about this clip is the way that it combines and problematizes the notions of masculinity (and politics) as it simultaneously presents an ideological message (complete with a waving American flag in the background) in addition to a long man-on-man kiss at the end of the scene. Once again, the inclusion of all things, a Pat Benetar song is important, as it aids in evoking the simultaneity of the past and present, and its ongoing association with Ferrell’s comic personality.

Gender Politics and Sensitive Expressivity

I would like to end on this note, as I believe that Ferrell’s films and his comic stardom raises some interesting questions within a larger discourse of contemporary masculinity. The first of these ideas relates to the setting of many of these films, presenting absurdly anachronistic versions of “normative” masculine behavior and how in almost every case, Ferrell’s humor derives entirely on deflating and expanding these gender norms. Relating back to my earlier discussion of Ferrell’s “time-bending” qualities, Ferrell infuses past and present depictions of masculinity with either a childish or adolescent sensibility, in addition to his willingness to go over the top by way of a sickly-sweet sensitivity. Added to this is the notion that somehow Ferrell embodies “the way things” were in a hyper-stylized manner that ultimately opens the past up for ridicule.

Buddy the Elf is clearly the best (and perhaps most successful) example of this fusion of the man-child within a contemporary cynical sphere (New York City no less), but there are clearly numerous other examples. As the actor continues to be associated with specific periods and characters who live in the past, Ferrell’s inappropriate comic appropriation of these eras ultimately reward us with the big laughs that we get from watching one of his films.

Finally, Ferrell’s portrayal and association with George W. Bush, throughout and after his presidency may provide us with an interesting window through which we can view the political effect of Ferrell’s comedy. As opposed to critics like Kusz, who is prepared to take Ferrell’s films at face value as part of a larger movement of reactionary gender politics, perhaps we can see the comic’s portrayal of Bush as largely countering these claims.

In (one of) his most recent releases, Ferrell portrays the ex-President as a petulant and bratty Frat-boy, undercutting his potency as a hyper-masculine figure and great leader.

(“How come you’re the only one in our family that speaks with a Texas accent?”)

What is especially interesting to me about this scene is how the line between the portrayal of George Bush and Will Ferrell is so fine, and how this particular story allows Ferrell to use the full range of his comic persona, submerged within a larger historical figure. At the heart of things, it would seem to me that this presents an absurd critique of the excessive masculine patriotism that emerged during this specific time.

Maybe we’ll have to wait until Anchorman 2 to see how all of this plays out, but for now, I hope that I have outlined some of the larger points about Ferrell’s comic personality and made a case for his “time-bending” comic persona.

If not, I had lots of fun stringing a bunch of great clips together which is just as important to me. Thanks to all for reading.

Works Cited (or parenthetically referred to )

Alilunas, Peter, Nothing I Ever Do Is Good Enough: Masculinities in the Films of Vince Vaughan. MA Thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2008.

—. “Male Masculinity as the Celebration of Failure: The Frat Pack, Women, and the Trauma of Victimization in the ‘Dude Flick.’” Mediascape, UCLA (Spring, 2008).

Kusz, Kyle W., “Remasculinizing American White Guys in/Through New Millennium American Sport Films,” Sport in Society,2008, 11:2,209-226.

Talley, Heather Laine and Casper, Monica J., “A Response to the Motion Picture Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” in Journal of Sport and Social Issues 2007; 31; 434

You Lookin' at Me? Robert De Niro and the Cult of Anti-Stardom

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A rare De Niro Candid

Do you realize how difficult it is to find pictures of Robert De Niro?  Obviously I could find dozens of De Niro as Travis Bickle, or De Niro as Jake La Motta, or De Niro as Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents. Unlike 95% of stars and famous actors, De Niro not only shelters himself (and his family) from paparazzi attention, but poses for precious few profile photos, period.  Indeed, nearly all of the images readily available were screen caps, publicity stills, or a small handful of un-posed shots from Tribeca and other mandatory public appearances.

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An even rarer De Niro Paparazzi Shot

In other words, sticking with our understanding of a star as an actor whose private life has become equally, if not more, important to his/her image as his/her actual film roles, De Niro is no star.  He’s perhaps our greatest living actor, but his private life has always been — and remains — almost wholly unknown.

Of course, his biography can be recited — it’s right here on Wikipedia, filled with details of his childhood, his early theater roles (his first role was as the lion in The Wizard of Oz), his subsequent work with the Actor’s Studio, and the eventual move to film and long-term collaboration with Scorsese.  But apart from the fact of his parents’ occupations and the milieu of his childhood, the available details are all work posturing as intimate knowledge.  We know nothing of De Niro other than the facts of his marriages (he has had two), children (apparently he has fathered four and adopted one, although the details are unclear).  His first wife, Diahnne Abbott, had appeared in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. He had a son in 1998.  But again, these are facts, not stories.  He owns a large amount of real estate in TriBeCa; he co-owns hot-spot restaurants Nobu and TriBeCa Grill; he started the up-and-coming TriBeCa film festival.  He has directed two films, both to moderate praise  (A Bronx Tale and The Good Shepherd).  He is said to spend a fair amount of time dining in his restaurants and Jay-Z even name drops him in the recent hit “Empire State of Mind.”

De Niro’s image, then, is built on a series of highly iconic roles and business decisions.  He has a distinct “picture personality,” to borrow from Richard DeCordova — as in very early cinema, before the studios realized they could up the demand for their actors by releasing tidbits of their private lives, audiences strung together their conception of De Niro through knowledge of his various roles.  In other words, our knowledge of his supposed ‘personality’ is predicated on his actual ‘pictures.’ You, dear readers, support this very conclusion: when I queried my Facebook and Twitter followers as to their immediate associations with De Niro, the answers either explicitly invoked film roles, (“You Talkin’ to Me?”/The Godfather/shooting Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown/Ben Stiller rolling off a roof/Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas/A Bronx Tale), his financial moves (Tribeca), and his physical appearance (short guy/’yummy’/DILF/mohawk/Italian).

Interestingly, one reader responded with “smirking.  smarminess.”  I find this particularly fascinating in light of the clip below, which purports to be an outtake from a promo shoot for Tribeca.  (Thanks to Peter Alilunas over at Manvertised for directing me to it.)

As you can see, the persona reproduced here matches well with the ‘new De Niro’ — as if the psychosis and abjection of his early characters (especially in the Scorsese films) had been sublimated into the agitated portrayals of middle-class, middle-age men (in Meet the Parents in particular, but one could also argue for Analyze This and Analyze That as well).

This rare glimpse of the ‘real’ De Niro seems to authenticate the image of him gleaned from his roles — unlike a similar glimpse of the ‘real’ Christian Bale on the set of Terminator (and the alleged ‘abuse’ of his mother/sister) which usurped his image as a class-act/family man/forever-Laurie from Little Women.  The clip is two years old and has been viewed under one million times, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work — it simply means that its existence is no revelation (it confirms, as opposed to compromises, our established understanding.  Scandal — or massive YouTube hits — erupts when what we thought was true turns out to be false.)

Which brings us to the idea of De Niro as caricature.  Several respondees (granted, most of them cinephiles or media aficionados more generally) indicated that De Niro primarily signifies as a parody or caricature of his former self, as he’s poured all his energy and resources into profiting off his mere presence in films co-produced by Tribeca Productions, most notably Hide and Seek, Righteous Kill, and What Just Happened.  Righteous Kill was particularly (un)remarkable, as it paired De Niro with another acting legend of a similar age — Al Pacino — to lackluster effect and dismal reviews (21% on Rotten Tomatoes).  The pairing  could have been explosive (think of their few shared moments together in Heat) but this was the wrong movie, with the wrong script, wrong dialogue, and a premise that depended too heavily on both De Niro and Pacino’s iconic images.

righteous-kill

Importantly, these ‘late’ De Niro roles are working with a subdued and defanged version of his early characters.  Think of his role in Goodfellas as Jimmy Conway, when he’s been unnaturally aged — silver haired, reading glasses.  That was 1990, and he was made to look the way he does now in films.  But something violent and precarious undulated beneath Jimmy Conway’s aging exterior: when he attempts to show Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) a warehouse full of furs, you are terrified of what he might or might not do.

goodfellasDe Niro as an older Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas

I would argue that part of the magic of De Niro’s early performances was rooted in his cult of anti-stardom.  Because we didn’t know anything else about him, he very well could have been as fearsome as the characters he so fully inhabited. Looking at his papers in the Harry Ransom Center here at the University of Texas, I’m struck by a man so devoted to his characters that he would edit an entire version of a script (as he does in the files for Casino) as if Ace Rothstein himself were reading the script and commenting on his own portrayal.  (I’m also interested in the motivation for the donation of his papers to the HRC in the first place — apparently he was inspired by Scorsese’s donation of his personal files to Wesleyan, and he received no payment, unlike, say, Paul Schrader.  He’s even funding a number of research fellowships, and apparently loves the idea of students thinking through his performances.  It’s as if he acknowledges that those roles are out for public consumption, and people can know about his acting and ‘work’ as much as they’d like.  It’s the non-acting side of his life he keeps close.)

In some ways, the mystique of De Niro’s anti-stardom has been evacuated by these late roles.  But then again, what are his choices?  One can only imagine the tremendous toll of thirty years of playing the likes of Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, and Max Cady (terrifying in Scorsese’s Cape Fear).  While I obviously know nothing of De Niro as a man — other than what I have been able to glean from the very work-centric papers at the HRC — I imagine that these late roles are a mellowing of sorts.  Look, for example, to the trailer for his forthcoming family drama Everybody’s Fine with Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell, and Melissa Leo, in which he plays a widower attempting to reconnect with his grown children:

Who’s to say this role is any less method acting than that of, say, Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York?  He may not have learned to play the saxophone for the role, but I oftentimes think we’re too keen to award and overvalue acting that is either bombastic, ugly, manic, or different in some ways.  Playing serial killers, social misfits, and general victims = good, hard acting.  Playing normal guys with subtle problems = not work.  The files on De Niro’s latest films have been slowly trickling into the HRC, and it’ll be fascinating to see how his process manifests differently on Hide and Seek (a horror film with Dakota Fanning), his voice work on Shark Tale, or when he’s behind the camera on The Good Shepherd.

Ultimately, I do agree that De Niro’s ‘picture personality’ has changed.  But he’s supposedly working with Scorsese again, and I look forward to seeing him act off Rockwell and Leo.   I like old, sad men — and what can De Niro do with quiet grief? It could be disappointing, but it could also be beautiful.

I suppose that with so many voices saying he’s washed up, I still find him — and his choices, including his continued anti-stardom — fascinating and compelling.  When and if he comes to the HRC, his aura will overwhelm me, no matter how many Little Fockers he makes.  Some stars stop working altogether and arrest their images, whether by choice (Garbo) or by death (Dean, Monroe).  But even those who do not — who, like Brando, appear in Superman for a ludicrous sum of money and retreat to their South Pacific island — remain powerful in our minds.  De Niro and Brando are very different, especially since Brando’s personal life became such a fundamental part of his star image in later years.  I can’t imagine the same happening in any way for De Niro.  But both men offered performances that remain touchstones of American cinema and dramatically altered our understandings of what masculinity and a masculine body and mind could resemble.  So let De Niro pay for his kids’ college funds and cultivate film and filmmaking in New York.  I’ll be watching Everybody’s Fine with the subconscious fear that he’ll pull a Rupert Pupkin (from The King of Comedy) and kidnap Jerry Lewis and highjack late night television at any moment.  Such is the power of past performance — I’m not thinking of who his kids are, or what jacket he wears when he goes jogging, but of his actual body of work.  And it’s something, especially when we think about the division between ‘actors’ and ‘stars,’ and whether it’s possible to maintain that division in an increasingly intolerant market for actual acting and storylines, for us to consider.