While watching Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris, I was stimulated to think about what makes an actor's performance compelling. In order to deliver a story, to make it real, the actor uses his craft to engage the audience in a cathartic experience. This is in contrast to performance-as-spectacle, where the audience has an aesthetic or emotional experience that is produced by witnessing a drama or event. I see far too much of this at the movies, where computer graphics and derring-do substitute for engagement and genuineness. The hugely expensive comic book extravaganzas hang their special effects on thin, clicheed stories, where actors can only deliver broad and stupid performances with the scripts and direction they are given, with few exceptions.
I'm not talking about that kind of movie now, so don't get me started.
I want to talk about movies that are supposed to be the other type that I first described; the ones about life that make the audience feel deeply engaged in an experience that is cathartic and thought-provoking. I'm interested in the magic that an actor can bring to a story. A bad job of acting is the fastest way to destroy a movie — not the lack of a sufficient special effects budget. Film makers: take a page from the theater playbook, and recognize that it's the actor's craft, with outstanding scripts and brilliant direction, that brings a project to life.
When you think about it, you know which actors are capable of delivering a performance that can touch one deeply. I think that those actors are in touch with what I call vulnerability: their ability to suffer, and to recognize their own suffering, and to express it in a genuine manner.
Actors hate performing with small children and animals. Why is that? It's because animals and small children — young enough not to understand that they are performing — always upstage the actor. This is because small children and animals have vulnerability. They are unmediated by self-awareness. They are not "acting." We feel their presence and vulnerability, and that makes them engaging; they make us aware of our own vulnerability.
Which takes me back to Midnight in Paris, and why it wasn't more successful. I thought the story was brilliant. The sets were a love-song to Paris. The script was intelligent and touching, and was ready for production. Alas, however, for Owen Wilson, who deeply tries to deny his vulnerability, and routinely depends on his shell of a persona to get by. I see him as a fragile human being caught in tragic condition, just as most of us are, but this is not the same thing as being a compellingly vulnerable actor. He doesn't make his emotions and experience available to his audience. Consider for a moment, if you will, Woody Allen's movies which starred Woody Allen. In his best movies, he demonstrates his vulnerability, and that made him engaging, funny, and excruciatingly real, and the audience could have a genuine experience; comedic, dramatic, and cerebral.
I'm thinking that the requirement for vulnerability also applies to writers; that's something I'd like to explore.
If you agree or disagree with me, or if you would like to mention some of your favorite actors who succeed by being in touch with their vulnerability, you're invited to leave a comment.