(See my Blue Jasmine review here: http://www.americanpoplit.blogspot.com/2013/08/blue-jasmine-surface-and-depth.html)
How do we define great film acting?
There are three kinds of film acting.
Think Richard Burton in any film role. Theatrical, using the tools of performance: eyes; hands; voice. The ability to suddenly amplify the voice for dramatic effect. Cate Blanchett does this in Blue Jasmine.
In movies like The Ten Commandments and The King and I, Yul Brynner performs for us, striding and pronouncing. Meryl Streep in her every role performs for us. With Streep, playing a variety of roles, one is always aware she’s acting. A Willie Mays losing his cap and doing somersaults catching a baseball, as opposed to Joe DiMaggio gliding to the ball, making every catch look natural.
This applies to actors who present the same persona over and over. They merely add touches to the eternal character. Archibald Leach spent a lifetime creating the character “Cary Grant.”
Western movie stars like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood fit this category. They’re effective not for their acting, but for who they are. In his mature years John Wayne could simply stand and emit a few lines in his trademark drawl and dominate everything around him, from big-name co-stars to the vast Western landscape itself. The effectiveness of the playing isn’t overt. It’s subliminal. We react on an instinctive level. Cinema is a unique art, because of the closeness of the camera, in allowing this.
See the 1954 Western Vera Cruz, in which A and B styles of acting co-exist. Burt Lancaster grins, laughs, leaps, twirling his revolver at every opportunity, the former circus performer unleashed on a movie screen. As his partner-in-larceny, Gary Cooper underplays. He stands still and carefully, oh so slowly moves a hand to caress a rifle, before firing it. Let the viewer judge which actor is most effective.
In Blue Jasmine, Alec Baldwin has attained the level of Be-ing. He’s playing: Alec Baldwin! A familiar role, onscreen and off, that he does very well.
The difference between Alec Baldwin and John Wayne is that Baldwin, while he’s become familiar, isn’t larger than life. Not a great, all-encompassing persona, yet one fit enough for supporting roles.
Or could it be that Cate Blanchett’s performance is so daunting that everyone around her shrinks in comparison?
This is when a movie actor presents something deeper. When the performing allows us a look into the character’s soul, in so doing projecting emotion out of the screen into our own souls—striking resonant chords within us.
In my new ebook, About Western Movies, I write about the 1961 movie One-Eyed Jacks, in which both Karl Malden and Pina Pellicer achieve this. The director and star of the movie is Marlon Brando.
Brabndo performs, showing us several faces of his character, in the way Cate Blanchett does in Blue Jasmine. Brando pulls something greater out of his co-stars.
Pina Pellicer as his love interest is the human animal stripped naked. Embarrassment; shame; hurt; pain—everything is laid out for us. This is neither persona nor performance. She uses her eyes not to act, but as openings into herself. We jump into them.
Karl Malden as Brando’s rival does virtually the same thing. He amplifies his voice and uses his eyes, as Blanchett does, but the eyes don’t move. They become fixed, so that we the moviegoers have no choice but to see into them, to see into the character’s contradictions and conflicts.
Few film performers ever attain this level. Brando in On the Waterfront. Marilyn Monroe and James Dean perhaps in a couple of their movie roles. It happens when the actor blends performance with persona in such a way as to become larger than the film.
One-Eyed Jacks was made in 1961. Curiously, that was a special year for film acting—even when one excludes the two award-winning flicks of the year, West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremburg. ESPECIALLY if one excludes them.
As I’ve mentioned, One-Eyed Jacks includes terrific ensemble acting. So does the 1961 adventure classic, Guns of Navarone, in which stars Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, and David Niven give us a blend of persona and performance.
Then there’s The Hustler, starring Paul Newman in his best ever role as pool shark Eddie Felsen. Like a Cate Blanchett now, Newman’s at his best. He gives a top-notch dramatic performance full of gestures and rage, working the eyes, voice, and body to fullest extent.
Piper Laurie and George C. Scott emote mightily to keep up with him. The overall effect is dazzling.
As memorable as any of them is Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. He becomes the character. Or makes the character him. Defines him. Makes Fats one of the most distinctive characters in the history of film. More than any of them, he’s a joy to watch. We can’t wait until he’s back on screen. His sadness at Eddie’s departure—his melancholy farewell—reflects the audience’s sadness that the game and the movie are over.
A similar acting battle takes place in The Misfits. Clark Gable is the tragic, Jasmine-like character at the center of the movie; growling, smirking, staggering, collapsing as a role, an actor, a persona in front of us. The part is fascinating because Gable is destroying his career-long creation, “Clark Gable.” By movie’s end, in his desperate, futile, mad fight with the mustang stallion, we’re at the stripped-down man. Fitting that this was Gable’s final role—that he died upon the completion of the movie.
As poignant, in a good-bad way, as Gable’s fight to establish himself as an actor is to us, he’s nearly overshadowed by two of the most resonant actors ever, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, here doing quite a bit of resonating. Going places few if any actors have ever gone.
As I said, curious that a single year, 1961, would give us perhaps the greatest ensemble movies ever.
(With that, the best film of that year, IMO, is El Cid—which when viewed on a large movie screen is every bit as emotional and powerful as these others. In fact, more so.)
That Blue Jasmine isn’t quite up to the level of the very best ensemble films isn’t due to Cate Blanchett. Her performance is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s fully a performance, one that stays with you—which means that, acting tricks and all, maybe it does resonate to us, just a tad, after all.