Since the 1960s, there’s been a tendency among film actors who initially embraced the smoldering realism introduced by Brando and Dean and Montgomery Clift in the 1950s to start dabbling in the opposite, an over-the-top kind of hamming it up as they age.
Brando himself was guilty of this beginning with his performance in MISSOURI BREAKS (Dean and Clift may well have done it too had they lived longer). But given that in MISSOURI BREAKS Brando rarely does anything you’ve ever seen an actor do in a movie before, let alone a genre Western, it can be seen, at least by me, as brilliantly extreme acting.
In the case of his successors, like for instance Pacino and DiNiro. Pacino shifted from some of the most realistic depictions of film characters ever to that hamming it up stuff with that blind character he played who couldn’t stop saying “Hoo-hah” and DiNiro when his gangster imitations became so mannered all that was left was to parody them in comedies (often the best use of this tendency, as perfectly illustrated for my taste by BURN AFTER READING in which all the stars are asked to ham it up for the purposes of the dark humor that makes that movie work).
They’re still great actors, Pacino and DiNiro, as their earlier performances prove, and the occasional later performance as well. Maybe it’s just running out of ideas (directors aren’t immune to this tendency either, ala Scorcese with THE DEPARTED, a weak riff on themes his earlier work interpreted much more innovatively and powerfully).
(And speaking of THE DEPARTED, ever since THE SHINING Nicholson too has gone over the top in most of his performances, especially in THE DEPARTED. There are a few exceptions but not many.)
And now we have Meryl Streep in DOUBT. She has always been a mixed bag for my taste. I liked her best in comic roles where she seemed more juicy and alive and real. The one serious role where she managed to accomplish that as well for me was SOPHIE’S CHOICE. But a lot of her other roles, even the most critically acclaimed, fell way short for me. Like in THE DEER HUNTER, where she came across about as working class as Dame Edith, and ditto for IRONWEED.
But in recent years she seems to be having more fun and now in DOUBT going the way of Brando. Her accent is way too broad and at times all over the place (as Brando’s “Oirish” one was in MISSOURI BREAKS). Some of her gestures and actions are familiar from bad actors who indicate, as they say, instead of interpret, but in her hands these gestures —extreme face making and fist clenching etc.—come across almost as knowing nods to previous, pre-method styles of acting.
Not as extreme as Brando in MISSOURI BREAKS, but heading in that direction, her performance in DOUBT as Sister Aloysius is groundbreaking, You’ve never seen a nun talk or gesture or make faces like this woman. And yet, she grounds all this in what adds up on other levels to a solid portrayal of what many of these nuns could be like back in the day (the movie’s set in 1964 when things were rapidly changing in all spheres of American life, including the Catholic Parishes of the Bronx).
It’s a bravura performance that, I must admit, had me mesmerized. I loved it. I loved the crazy courage of it, or courageous craziness of it, and what appeared to me to be the fun of it. She really seemed to relish the chance to expand her repertoire of acting tools to incorporate the campy with never-before-seen-realism-quite-like-this, at least in terms of the stock repressed-strict-nun character.
And she’s supported ably by Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most subdued, for the most part, performances, and Amy Adams in one of hers. There are other more subtle and not so subtle performances that keep the film interesting, including several of the child actors—and an actress with a small role but a big impact, Viola Davis.
John Patrick Shanley not only wrote the play the film’s based on, and the screen adaptation, but he directed it as well, and for my taste, it is one of the better directed films I’ve seen this year. Maybe because it’s about a world I know pretty well and he nails at least some aspects of it pretty accurately, or because the tightness of the script and the action forced me to focus in a way a lot of movies these days fail to do because they attempt to do too much, cover too much ground or too wide an emotional spectrum (MILK and DEFIANCE good examples),
Or maybe it’s just that this is a truly adult script that raises questions about the human ways in which good and evil mix and often make clear choices and uncompromising judgments impossible to make, though we often make them just the same, which is equally human. In some ways it could be seen as a very bleak take (even overly melodramatic) on aspects of life in a Catholic grammar school and parish in the old days (I remember a lot more humor and fun and compassion and even insight and a little enlightenment, from some quarters at least) that stand in for many bleak things about life in our age as well, or any age.
But somehow, despite the subject matter and the ambivalence that pervades the movie (the ending included, which for me was the weakest moment of not only the actual text of the play/screenplay but of the subtext in Streep’s acting as well) and the overacting and too bleak perspective of what was in fact a much richer tapestry in my experience, DOUBT still kept me engaged throughout. It may do the same for you.
[Maybe I’ll initiate acting X games awards, awards for extreme acting. If so Streep looks headed to winning this year’s female one, (and the cast of BURN AFTER READING the extreme acting ensemble award).]