Monday, January 30, 2012


This was the first year I didn't watch the Screen Actors Awards. I just forgot it was on. I always enjoy the awards shows because I see old friends from my Hollywood days, or people I worked with, or even old lovers now and then, But in the end, I just like live awards shows because people say things and behave in ways that are often unexpected and revealing and often very funny or very moving.

But I have been thinking about movie acting ever since the other night when I was channel surfing and caught a piece of TAXI DRIVER. It was a scene in the restaurant, or diner, where Travis comes in and other cabbies are sitting there and there's a couple of pimp looking dudes at other tables. It's a classic Scorcese scene in many ways.

The thing is, to me a classic is a work of art I can experience over and over again and it still works and even gets better in some ways as I discover even more to appreciate. TAXI DRIVER doesn't do that for me. I don't like watching a lot of it and catching this one scene made me realize why. DiNiro has a reputation for being a great movie actor who transformed himself into his characters etc.

But for my taste, after the revelation of his first few roles where he did seem amazing, in MEAN STREETS and THE GODFATHER, it pretty soon became apparent, to me at least, that he was doing pretty much the same thing over and over again. TAXI DRIVER was just a variation on that and I find it almost painful to watch. And interestingly, just catching that scene, everyone in it seemed to be overacting for my taste, or at least "acting" as in none of them seemed like a real person really in that time and place and circumstance.

Part of it was the writing, which was pretty lame, to me, at least watching this one scene. But giving the lie to any excuse of poorly written or being a different time and style etc. was the performance of my friend the poet and movie actor Harry E. Northup. Harry isn't a big star like DiNiro, and he is a very humble and grateful actor for the career he has had as just a working movie actor. But in fact Harry's character in TAXI DRIVER was unlike any other character he has played in films, and every other character was unlike the rest of them.

Harry's the great actor. His character was so amazingly present and real in the moment of the TAXI DRIVER scene I watched as he smiled and laughed and probed Travis Bickle or whatever DiNiro's character was called about his working way uptown or whatever, that you wouldn't recognize him as the soldier in MEAN STREETS or the lawyer in TOM HORN or too many other movies to name but most directed by Scorcese or Demme or Eastwood, etc.

Having starred in a few movies myself, no matter how low budget or straight to video or never even released they may have been, and been a character actor with much smaller roles in many more films, I know how hard it can be. It's like someone presenting you with a DeKooning one day and a Picasso the next with a couple of little blank parts and asking you to fill them in. You have to fit your creative impulses into someone else's vision, someone else's perspective etc.

And then tonight I was channel surfing again (I do this during commercials when I'm watching the news shows I like to check out) and happened on MOONSTRUCK and was laughing within a minute and stuck around to see it to the end and not only laughed again and again but was delighted with the writing and the acting as stylized as both were because everyone was consistent, in the same story and movie, as opposed to TAXI DRIVER, and yes it had an ending that was tied up like a bow and it was sentimental and romantic and clever and obvious and whatever words critics might throw at it because it doesn't satisfy their cynicism but instead satisfies our need for some pleasure and recognition of the lighter side of what it means to be human and suffer and fear and even despair and then find a way to transcend all that and find some joy and laughter and even love now and then.

So I was happy when I learned that Viola Davis won best actress for her performance in THE HELP, even though that movie was a bit cliched and unrealistic in many ways about the racist realities of that time and place and once again was from the white perspective of the white star (in this case Emma Stone's character) but it was a moving performance and maybe she won because Meryl Streep, the expected winner for THE IRON LADY and Glen Close who obviously made the bigger bid for an award winning performance by playing a man (or rather a woman passing for a man) in ALBERT NOBBS split the vote. But I was happy that someone else, also a terrific actress who happens to be African-American won.

And then to have best supporting actress go to Octavia Spencer, another black woman, for the same flick, beating out the most competitive category for my taste (Berenice Bejo for THE ARTIST, Jessica Chastain for THE HELP, Melissa McCarthy for BRIDESMAIDS, and the best of them in many ways, Janet McTeer for ALBERT NOBBS) also had a sweetness to the victory.

The big fake out in the male categories was not Christopher Plummer for BEGINNERS, he totally deserved it, but George Clooney's performance in DESCENDANTS losing to Jean Dujardin for THE ARTIST. Sort of the revenge of the French after the beating they've been taking as the right's favorite European scapegoat.

The ensemble award went to THE HELP which may have been going too far. But all in all not a bad evening for well deserved winners.


tom said...

Interesting that you should mention Northrup today. I was following links on Silliman's blog and one of them was to Times Times 3 Conversations with Don Sherman, Harry E. Northup, David Lloyd
I think I'll spend some time looking over the blog.

Lally said...

Yeah Tom, there's some great interviews with Harry around the internet too. My favorite book of his is REUNIONS. One of my all time favorite books period.

-K- said...

There are so many wonderful scenes in MOONSTRUCK that I get a little dizzy thinking about them all. That I have a copy of it at home is the only thing getting my through this long grind of an afternoon.

Unknown said...

Great article. Thanks. It reminds of another awarded role. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
She played the same person all through the movie. Didn't change or develop.

While one of the patients, (forgot his movie name and his real name), had to go through a lot different emotions and constantly change. The young fragile guy.

In my view he was the one with the harder role to play, and played his part better than any of the others.

Nicholson included. Although I loved Jack in that role.

I think we sometimes confuse star qualities, and star like charisma, with acting.

Lally said...

K, I know, in fact I was kind of stunned at how rich the dialogue was in every scene, poetic and meaningful and usually funny. It's never been on my top anything list I don't think, except when it first came out. But it is now.

And Torre, I've spent some time in Paris myself over the years and always found it romantic. But maybe that was because I was either there with a lover or found one while there!