Off-screen lives can enrich actors' roles

Commentary

November 11, 2005|By MICHAEL SRAGOW

Will audiences flock to the pitiful Derailed to see how Jennifer Aniston was handling her split from Brad Pitt when she was filming it a year ago? Has Robert Downey Jr. overcome the notoriety of his drug busts so that audiences can see what's evident in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - that he is the most gifted actor of his generation?

Pundits blame the fiasco of Gigli on the over-covered affair of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez - just as they ascribe the box-office success of Mr. and Mrs. Smith to the over-covered affair of Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

Yet as sickening as media hype can get in our all-hoopla, all-the-time era, it would be a mistake to say that the off-screen baggage of an actor cannot add to the depth or quality of a performance or the genuineness of a viewer's response to it.

When Frank Sinatra broke through as Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953), it was partly because the role brought his innate volatility to the fore and made sense to fans following the ups and downs of his loves and career.

No actress made a more spectacular transformation than Elizabeth Taylor from the luminous ingenue of films like Father of the Bride (1950) and the achingly empathic love object of A Place in the Sun (1951) to the woman of appetite in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). And her turbulent private life had a lot to do with her casting and acceptance in those roles.

As long as there are movie stars, there will be seepage between their brand-name personae and the characters they play.

What may be more damaging to the art of movies than the debacles of Derailed or Gigli is the failure of 50 Cent to make a compelling drama out of his own life story in Get Rich or Die Tryin'.

Ever since movies began, nonprofessional actors from the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker to the gangster and the gangsta have brought a welcome whiff of reality into movies.

Tapping into rap

For a while, rap appeared to be a promising source of new material and energy for movies - not just when Ice Cube appeared in John Singleton's Boys 'N the Hood but when he co-starred with Ice T in the thriller Trespass. Ice T gave his gangland character, King James, a baronial stature and an uneasy-lies-the-head-that-wears-the-crown brand of torment, while Ice Cube made Savon, his lieutenant, magnetically caustic. The movie capitalized on their bad-boy reps - it put the guerrilla-theater tactics of their records into a context that made them scarily palpable.

Musicians of all kinds have often given Hollywood a hook into a fresh new subculture. Coal Miner's Daughter won an Oscar for Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn, but it should have also gained one for Band member Levon Helm as her father. In his own way, Helm really did what 50 Cent only tries to do in Get Rich or Die Tryin' - he drew us inside his character by holding back any overt emotion. (50 Cent's performance just made you feel he had no internal emotion either.) Helm's face became a definition of stoic heroism, a map of Appalachian resignation.

Under the guidance of the right director, the associations that non-actors and non-performers can bring into a movie often fill out its texture and raise its level of excitement.

Roger Donaldson's 1985 muckraker Marie told the story of how Marie Ragghianti (Spacek, again), as chairman of Tennessee's Board of Pardons and Parole, stood up to political corruption when Gov. Ray Blanton's administration started selling clemencies at scalpers' prices.

A familiar role

Fred Dalton Thompson played Fred Dalton Thompson: the Watergate counsel whom Marie hired to sue Blanton for unfair dismissal. Thompson gave the male performance of the movie, coming off in the courtroom finale as the intellectual equivalent of Joe Don Baker in Walking Tall: a big man (6-foot-6) unafraid to talk and walk loudly and carry a big stick.

Movie history is speckled with specialized performances by "amateurs" who, with the right director, can use the rest of their life experience to forge a galvanizing performance out of instinct and experience. Most famously, in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), Dr. Haing S. Ngor, who played New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg's Cambodian partner, Pran, was a Cambodian refugee, not a trained actor.

But in the movie, when the Khmer Rouge took over his native country, Nor's sure intelligence came to light. In a nail-biter of a scene, he negotiated with the Khmer Rouge for the lives of Schanberg, a photographer (John Malkovich) and another reporter. The scene rested on a quick, covert eye signal to Schanberg, and Nor pulled it off with a tensile subtlety.

In John Boorman's less celebrated but even greater Beyond Rangoon (1995), U Aung Ko, a Burmese expatriate who plays a character named after him, does more than complement the star, Patricia Arquette - as a professor turned tour guide under a repressive junta's regime, he arrives at a state of grace. He and Arquette engage in an emotional and sociocultural give-and-take that dramatizes the gulf between East and West.

Arquette's Laura explains the shriveling of her belief that if she did the right things, happiness would follow; Aung Ko replies, "Here we are taught that suffering is one promise life always keeps; when happiness comes it is a precious gift which is ours only for a brief time."

Partly because of their gifted amateurs, films as different as Coal Miner's Daughter and Beyond Rangoon will be around long after Get Rich or Die Tryin' is just a reference on a record jacket.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Listen to Michael Sragow talk about war movies at baltimoresun.com/sragow.

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