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The new crisis in American acting

Marlon Brando’s role in On the Waterfront changed the face of American acting. Photo: Supplied More Big Picture ColumnsMovie session timesMovie session times
Nanjing Night Net

How much is a one-way ticket to Palookaville? That’s what Brando said he got instead of a shot at the title in On the Waterfront, the film that changed American acting.

I was thinking about Brando this week because there has been much talk of a crisis in American acting. Michael Douglas gave an interview in which he said there was “a little crisis going on amongst our young actors”. They were losing all the best parts to their British counterparts. He broadened this later to include the Australians flooding in and taking all the sexy masculine roles. “The issue I hear from casting agents is that young American actors now are very self-conscious of their image. So rather than playing truthful and themselves – it might be because of so much cable, so much internet – they are almost kind of capturing an image of what they think they should be, rather than playing it.”

He was talking about women as well as men. “I think a lot of that has to do with how London works … You can jump fairly easily from television to movies to theatre. And also, as young British actors, they know American films are still your worldwide platform, that they have to learn an American accent. So it’s relatively effortless for them. And then they happen to be pretty well-trained, disciplined actors, not concerned about their images as to just playing the role and the part.”

Reading between the lines, he’s saying young American actors are brats who’d rather take selfies than throw themselves deeply into a role. It doesn’t take a minute to list the many young actors who could prove him wrong – Emma Stone, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ezra Miller, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – but Douglas may still have a point.  How long since an American actor showed you something that made you think, wow, just WOW? Me neither.

It’s true that casting directors are choosing Brits and Australians over Americans – especially in big superhero roles. Christian Bale as Batman, Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man (although he’s a dual citizen), Henry Cavill as Superman, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. These are all capable actors, but that’s not necessarily what’s getting them the jobs. John Papsidera, casting director on The Dark Knight Rises, told Vulture a few years ago that American leading men are no longer manly.”You look at the list of American leading men, and in their  20s and 30s, they’re very boylike … Take Jesse Eisenberg: I put him in Zombieland, but he’s not going to play Superman. He’s much closer to what Dustin Hoffman turned into than John Wayne or Steve McQueen. It’s hard to find movie stars that live up to the needs of the story. Leo [DiCaprio] is growing into it, but for a long time, he seemed young and boylike … You need to find guys who carry that heroic-ness with them.”

Which brings me to Dustin Hoffman, speaking recently to Elvis Mitchell on his radio show The Treatment, broadcast out of KCRW in Santa Monica, California. The show is recorded in a studio in the basement of what used to be Santa Monica City College – a place that kids who flunked high school went to improve their grades to get into college. Hoffman, a terrible student, went there in 1956. He wanted to be a jazz pianist rather than an actor, but he took an acting class because it was worth three points, and they never flunked anyone. “It was kinda like gym,” Hoffman says. Nevertheless, it sparked something that was fed by what he was seeing in American actors of the era – particularly Brando and James Dean. Leading men had been pretty and two-dimensional in the ’50s.  Brando was “an extraordinary looking man, and yet his characters were not two-dimensional, because they were full of vulnerability”.

‘It was a new kind of acting,” Hoffman says. “He was doing something, and I thought my friends Duvall and Hackman tilted the axis of acting, in that you saw their bone marrow. It was further than just ordinary vulnerability, deeper than that. It’s hard to explain … I think James Dean worshipped Brando. It was at that time where we were seeing change. The American hero was not going to be John Wayne forever.’

You see the contradiction here. Are we to assume that Brando’s breakthrough, opening the emotional door, leads to this parade of milksops and metrosexuals?  Is it true that American actors have forgotten how to be masculine – everyone except Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington? And what does that say about we subjects of Her Majesty? Are Australians getting these great jobs because the casting agents think we can still go the biff? All aboard the 5.38 from Marrickville to Burbank, not stopping at Palookaville.

I don’t really buy it. I think it’s true that the best British and Australian actors come with a strong work ethic. When you’ve graduated from the grindhouse of Summer Bay, you know how to hit your mark and work long hours. And in both countries, the teaching of acting has a long and honourable tradition, with government support. Geoffrey Rush has said that government-supported theatre and acting schools were crucial in producing the generation of Australians now dominating Hollywood. If actors are cattle, as Hitchcock famously said, that support helped to make them export quality.

Twitter: @ptbyrnes

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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