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Open Thread: Is Playing Yourself Still Acting?

Last week we had one of our periodic Flavorwire editorial meetings, and the conversation turned to Zooey Deschanel. Contrary to whatever direction you might presume we’d lean on her, there were a wide variety of opinions in the room, from indifferent to stubbornly affectionate (yours truly) to exhausted (“I’m about up to here with her”). While everyone basically agrees that her new show New Girl is nothing to write home about, there is a divergence as to why — some say it’s ill-conceived and mediocre, while others place the blame squarely on Ms. Deschanel. When I heard the phrase “She always just plays herself,” my ears perked up. Here’s a favorite topic that I’d not had the chance to engage in for a while: the question of persona vs. versatility in acting.

What we tend to forget is that this notion of the actor as chameleon was not always in place. There were certainly exceptions (like the great Lon Chaney, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”), but for the most part, in the first half of the first century of movies, the idea was quite the opposite: actors should be recognizably and identifiably themselves. An actor’s onscreen persona was carefully cultivated, developed over years into a recognizable brand, and that persona was much of what made them a movie star. Chaplin’s “Little Fellow,” Keaton’s “Stone Face,” Lloyd’s “Glasses” character, Clara Bow’s fun-loving flapper, Mary Pickford’s young innocent — these were what made those actors stars. They were identified with a particular type, and that type was what sold the picture. Nobody ever accused Mary Pickford of just playing herself over and over.

Or Cary Grant, either. In contemplating Grant for a 1975 New Yorker essay, Pauline Kael put her finger not only on the specific quality that made Grant a star, but other persona-based actors like Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, Cooper, Mitchum, Peck, and Hepburn (Katharine and Audrey). “It’s his sameness that general audiences respond to,” Kael wrote. “They may weary of him, but still he’s a guaranteed product. (It’s the pictures that aren’t.) And if he didn’t grow as an actor, he certainly perfected ‘Cary Grant.’ One does not necessarily admire an icon, as one admires, say, Laurence Olivier, but it can be a wonderful object of contemplation.” In other words, an actor like Grant may not have had the versatility of an Olivier, but he had something else: he was a movie star.

The corollary of that kind of recognition and identification was that those actors could, if they chose, also explore roles that sprang from that carefully-cultivated image — and that subtly shifted that persona, just a touch. The fact that we have come, over decades of viewing and dozens of pictures, to see Bogart as a man of honor is exactly why his turn in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so effective. The lightness of Grant’s other films is what makes the darkness of None but the Lonely Heart so astonishing. When we’re attuned to an onscreen personality, then we’re better equipped to sense the power of the shifts that a Robert Mitchum and Katherine Hepburn made in their more daring moments — while still conforming to the image that we knew and loved (the rebellious hell-raiser, the practical independent woman).

All of that changed in the 1950s, with the explosion of the Method and the subsequent idolatry of first James Dean and Montgomery Clift, then Marlon Brando, and then the 1970s flood: DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, Streep, Beatty, Cazale. For these actors, creating a defined and recognizable persona was the antithesis of their style; they wanted to disappear completely into their roles, taking on new accents, looks, weights, personalities. This has become the defining acting style of the last several decades, seen in disciples like Edward Norton, Nicole Kidman, Christian Bale, Hillary Swank, Heath Ledger, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sean Penn, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh. This is the kind of acting that garners glowing reviews and wins Academy Awards.

But is it, necessarily, better (to the degree that you can quantify that type of thing, anyway)? Those who write and talk about acting in film tend to ghettoize the actors who “just play themselves,” or who “always play the same character,” and to be sure, there are some actors who do just that — until they don’t. Yes, Jack Nicholson spent a good twenty years playing variations on his raised-eyebrow rascal; then he dropped all of his surface tics and affectations and did About Schmidt, and the fact that Good-Time Jack was up there playing that lost widower made the performance all the more devastation. Tom Hanks perfected his fast-talking screwball character over the course of a decade, and then knocked us out by taking that character seriously (and giving him a serious illness) in Philadelphia.

The point here is not to deny the irrefutable skill and potency of a performance like Daniel Day-Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood, or Charlize Theron’s in Monster, or Ryan Gosling’s in The Believer. The point is that, too often, we demand or validate one approach over the other — and that it’s only real acting if we can see it, in the well-studied dialect, the shaved hairline, the additional 30 pounds. That’s one way to go. It’s not the only way.

What do you think? Is the personality-based actor a thing of the past? Is it okay for an actor to keep working within the same range? And what the hell does New Girl have to do with any of this? Let us know in the comments.

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