Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I think when I see big Hollywood Blockbusters

I've just come back from watching Monsters Vs. Aliens, which is one of those films where you see a trailer and laugh a lot, but when you're actually sitting in the theatre, popcorn in hand, you realise all the funny bits were in that trailer. Worse, the film feels like it's a succession of lead-ups to the lines that have already been delivered in the trailer that you saw (and if you are a parent with children that need distracting often, this will be a trailer you have seen too many times).

The tragedy of it, from my aged perspective, is that there are a lot of great actors in the movie: Will Arnett, Reese Witherspoon, Stephen Colbert, Hugh Laurie, etc, etc. (I've linked to their best roles, in my opinion. Get over it). But of course, the thing with actors is that you trust them at your peril. Anybody who decides to watch films based on the actor who's starring in it alone is a moron of the first water. Full disclaimer: I have been and continue to be that moron. Also, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't count. Or he's the exception that proves the rule.

I was an actor once. The 'once' is a silent implication that (a) I wasn't much good, and (b) more importantly, I wasn't successful, which is the real measure. Anyone can say they are an actor in the same way that they can say they are a successful brand of washing machine, but without the gold seal that is beautifully starched whites or a lead role in a TV series someone has actually seen, it's not going to fly.

Fundamentally, every actor needs to work. They are motivated in the same way as any other 'creative professional': "I need to eat, but I want to enjoy the process of getting there", but what they do is not the same. Unless they have written the script or are the director, they have little to no control over what they put out. Which can be hard. Imagine putting years of your life into your craft (and it is a craft, as are most things. People who tell you they are artists are pulling wool over their eyes and yours. That doesn't mean art can't be a result, just that it rarely starts there. Undergraduate rant over.) - but in the end, everyone only remembers you that guy from Steptoe.

Richard Dreyfus tells an anecdote about being poor: When he was a struggling actor, before Jaws, Close Encounters and the rest, he used to pass a car dealership and look admiringly at the models in the showroom, painfully aware that the gulf between him and a convertible was a lot wider than the thickness of the glass. Then, when success happened to him - for actors, success happens to you, you don't happen yourself - the dealer offered him the finest car gratis. This was what struck him: When he needed a car, he had no money, he couldn't afford much of anything, certainly not a glossy sportscar. But when he could buy whatever he chose, it was free.

I don't know if Dreyfus knew what to do with that realisation. He's certainly one of the forgotten great actors. All his performances (that I've seen) are great, but compared to his peers, he is the invisible man. Few remember the stuff he did unprompted. What it does for me is illustrate the great inadequacy that you feel as an actor: You can do the job, if only someone would hire you. But no-one will, because you can't get a job with which you can demonstrate your skills. If by some magic fortune you ever get the chance to show your quality, you won't need the job anymore. This was probably true more in the past than now - acting, like everything else, is oversubscribed: simply wanting to be something won't make it happen, but what it does explain is the way that actors grab at everything that turns up.

Ricky Gervais once made a famous comment to the effect that any time a British comic succeeds with something they are immediately everywhere, then go and do a terrible sex comedy and divebomb back to cruise-ship level fame (maybe he wasn't that cruel). I think he's on to something, though his take on it is necessarily different because he wrote his success. Look at the other actors in The Office. None of them have been particularly successful - certainly they've made money, and had a level of fame, but that's not the same thing. If you can catch a break, you can make some hay, but managing to keep that train rolling for years at a time is a different, more solid kind of victory.

You can only do that if you make your own success (i.e. you write it/direct it/in some way have real ownership of it) or are so charismatic that even the most rubbish film fails to torpedo your career. I wouldn't like to lay my life's dreams on the second category. So most actors, if they break through, take every job they can, trusting that if even one is as good as the one that made their name, it'll keep them going. Sometimes it works, but most of the time, the house wins.

Will Arnett is a terrific actor and delivers a knockout performance in Arrested Development, but nothing he has done since is remotely as good, so as a viewer you go from loving seeing the guy who played GOB in a movie you see in the cinema, to finding his performance a redeeming note in a throwaway flick you rented, to seeing his name on movies you will never see (even on TV) because you subconsciously know they will be awful. Arnett can't help that. He just wants to work. Getting jobs is hard enough, so it takes a long time before people start getting choosy about them. (A-list stars and their vanity projects is another issue and one that I'll leave alone this time round). He might get lucky - I think he probably will, his work is sublime and he deserves it - but then so do countless others.

Anyone trying to make a living of any sort, especially in the 'creative industry' knows, or ought to, that there are countless people behind them looking to catch up, and just as many in front, worried about their jobs. it's a fairly safe bet that however good you are, there are others just as talented and a significant amount who are better. If you can't live with this, you're in the wrong place. Your success is a function of skill, talent, luck and timing. Even Leonardo didn't get all the breaks. If you write music or words, you can at least create by yourself. If someone hated your last piece, you can do another. Maybe that'll work - you'll get a book deal, sign an album, get an article published. If you're an actor, or a performer, you can't. You can't turn up to an audition and say you gave the 21st century's definitive Hamlet to your bathroom cabinet. You need other actors, writers, directors, an audience. So you take every job you can get - good, bad and indifferent and pray to every god with an altar that somebody important notices the good stuff and nobody sees the bad.

Or at least that's what I think when I see films like Monsters Vs. Aliens.

This is why nobody wants to come to the cinema with me, isn't it?

1 comment:

  1. You're writing about movies a lot here, despite all promises to the contrary. Fine with me, as long as you keep starting somewhere like Monsters Vs. Aliens and ending up somewhere completely different. I'll have to give this Montepulciano a shot too.


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Welcome to my blog. I'm a freelance writer/journalist/researcher/editor. I write about education and ideas I've had for the Irish Times. I also research, write and edit for writers, publications and websites. Here I put things that tend not to fit anywhere else. Enjoy.

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