Friday, June 25, 2010

What Makes An Actor Great?

I’ve often wondered what makes an actor a great actor. It’s not as obvious as it may seem. Indeed, to answer the question of what makes an actor great, you need to start by asking what it is that we ask of actors? But that’s really where this whole problem begins. For it appears, that we want two contradictory things from our actors. And in the end, I think that truly great actors need to deliver both things. . . even though that sounds like a contradiction.

Looking at the films Hollywood has produced, it appears that actors generally fall into one of two categories: those who play themselves in each role and those who disappear completely into their roles.

Indeed, in the first category, you find people like Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger. No matter what role they play, they remain Tom and Arnold -- just try to name the characters they’ve played. But that’s not to denigrate them. In fact, Tom and Arnold did wonders playing themselves. They managed to put millions of rear ends into seats across the entire planet, people remember their roles and still quote their dialog, and their movies still have staying power today. But something is missing, isn’t it? There is something about Tom and Arnold that keeps us from calling them great actors.

At first, I thought this might be a problem with the category itself, but that doesn’t seem to be the issue. I say this because Robert De Niro and William Hurt, both of whom have been called “the greatest actor of our generation,” fall into this category as well. And before you try to tell me that De Niro is “versatile,” tell me when he hasn’t played an Italian mobster or an Italian cop? And do you have any doubt that what you see on screen isn’t what you would meet in person? It’s the same thing with Hurt, though it took me a lot longer to realize that he fell into this category, because the roles he chooses are so varied.

So what is the difference between Cruise/Schwarzenegger and De Niro/Hurt? Could it be as simple as De Niro and Hurt sticking with drama, whereas Tom and Arnold stick with action flicks? Perhaps. But I think there is more to it. Indeed, I can’t see Tom or Arnold playing any of the roles in The Usual Suspects, Glengarry Glen Ross or L.A. Confidential even if they wanted to -- though De Niro or Hurt could do that with ease. So there must be something more missing than simply their choice of roles.

To continue, let’s leave that category for a moment. The other category includes actors who simply vanish into the roles they play. These actors so thoroughly become the characters they are playing that we all but forget they are actors. Instead, we see their characters as real people. Some of the better character actors fall into this category, as do guys like Daniel Day Lewis, Robert Shaw and Jeremy Irons.

But simply disappearing can’t be enough either. Tim Curry and Christopher Lloyd disappear into their roles quite nicely, yet they aren’t considered “great actors.” And if disappearing is all it took to be considered a great actor, then shouldn’t anyone who pulled off a monster suit character be considered a great actor? Again, there must be something more to it?

I think that “something” is the ability to stand at the top of both groups. Cruise may be at the top of the first group, but he simply can’t disappear into a character. Shaw became whoever he played, but people didn’t clamor to see his movies. But when you look at someone like Johnny Depp, you suddenly see the difference.

There is no doubt that Depp’s name on a movie pulls people into theaters, just as Cruise’s name does. There is something about Depp that is simply compelling and makes you want to see him act. Part of this could be that we know from prior experience that he will bring great acting to the role, but part of it must also be that there is something we like about him personally. Indeed, the fact that his interviews pull high ratings tells us this. But Depp also gives us more than Cruise. We know that once the film starts, Depp will not be playing “Johnny Depp as the spy.” Indeed, Depp more than anyone these days disappears into his roles so believably that we no longer see Johnny Depp at all. Instead, we see the quasi-inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean or that the slimy, cowardly, and yet compelling Dean Corso of The Ninth Gate. And that, I think, is the real difference. To be a great actor, an actor must have the compelling personality that makes us want to spend time with them, but once the film begins, they need the skill to vanish into the role so that all that is left is the character. The audience can’t be left seeing “Johnny Depp the pirate.”

Another actor who fits into this category would be Gene Hackman, who is a compelling actor but also presents compelling characters. Bogart and Jimmy Stewart pulled this off as well. I would add Harrison Ford to the list, at least until the last few years. From the actress ranks, I’d offer Glenn Close.

If I’m right, and I leave that up to you to decided and to comment upon, then the best advice we could give an actor would be to carefully hone a public persona that is irresistible to the public, but also to work hard to lose themselves in their roles.

So what do you think? Am I right? If not, what makes an actor a great actor? And tell us who you would include in that list?


Joel Farnham said...


I would include Robert Downey Jr to that list.

For me, it is when I see it. I don't try to analyze it. Kind of like beauty is in the eye of the is a great actor or actress. BTW, Sandra Bullock is getting there.

AndrewPrice said...

I consider that, that it couldn't be defined. But like beauty, it turns out that there are certain things that are objectively beautiful and objectively talented. In fact, they've found that what we consider beautiful is consistent across the planet, even despite cultural difference.

I like Robert Downey Jr., but I wouldn't put him in the great category. I'd put him into the Tom Cruise category.

Tennessee Jed said...

I would put Kevin Costner in the first category. One of the very best actors in my opinion falls into that category as well; Gene Hackman. Hackman tends to play himself, but he always sells the role AND can play a variety of characters from Buck Barrow to Hoosiers. Since Hackman is "everyman" he is not limited to a single genre.

The other great, great actor is Dustin Hoffman. He plays an astonishing variety of roles well (Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Papillon, just to name a few.) Dustin, I think, was more of a disappear into the role kind of guy

Overall, I tend to agree (surprise) with the criteria you have chosen. But then . . . great minds think alike.

Tennessee Jed said...

p.s. I mistakenly implied Costner is a great actor. Heis a likable actor and has done a couple really nice jobs, but he is not great. He does, however, play himself sort of like the Duke did. Costner does southern cal mellow.

The others (hackman and hoffman) mentioned are, in my mind truly amongthe best of their generation

Tennessee Jed said...

Probably one of the greats in the play themselves category is Sir Anthony Hopkins. I never forget that I am watching Sir Anthony, but he acts the hell out of every role he plays and is, like Hackman, almost never guilty of overacting. I love understatement in most things including actors.

Another thought since you have peaked my interest. I think it is easier to be a "disappearer" early in your career. Sticking with the Hoffman example, the three roles I mentioned came earlier. Eventually, when you become an icon, it is pretty damned hard to disappear into any role.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I'm always happy when you agree with me because that means I'm on the right track! :-)

I absolutely agree about Hackman (as mentioned in the article) and Hoffman too. Both have big names and they have something about them that makes us want to watch them in interviews and the such, and see their films. But once they get into movies, we have no problem at all believing that they are who they are playing. Indeed, it's rare that I leave movie staring Hoffman or Hackman that I didn't "get lost in the character." They even had multiple icon roles that they played very differently, which is a pretty good sign that they can disappear into roles.

I agree about Costner being a first category guy too. I liked a lot of his films (Field of Dreams in particular), but I would never consider him a "great actor." He played himself over and over -- indeed, you could move any of his characters from one film to another without missing a beat. And when he did try to disappear into a role, it was usually pretty disasterous. Take for example, Robing Hood where his accent became the thing of ridicule because he couldn't maintain it.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Believe it or not, I had a little section on Anthony Hopkins in the article before I edited it out to shorten the article. I consider him great as well. He definitely draws you in and you always know it's him, but he's also extremely good at disappearing. For example, think about a character like Hannibal Lecter. Hopkins became Hannibal Lecter so well that it was hard to see him as an actor playing a role. I've felt the same in many of his other roles, even minor roles like when he played Lt. Col. Frost in A Bridge Too Far. You just never see him as "Hopkins playing ___."

I agree as well that it's easier to disappear early in a career. I think this is partially because you aren't as well known yet, but I think it's probably also because the actor hasn't developed a style yet (or said more cynically, maybe they haven't gotten lazy yet)?

If you look at a guy like Harrison Ford, for example, his Star Wars Han Solo and Raiders Indiana Jones characters were significantly different than the more standard Harrison Ford we would get later in his career. You could not substitute his "persona" in his early films, but you definitely can in his later films.

Ironically, I think that Cruise and Schwarzenegger both have tried to get better at disappearing into their roles later in their careers, but just couldn't do it at that point.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Yeah, when it came time to choose a picture, how could I possible not pick Shatner -- who is almost universally considered one of the biggest over-actors of all time!

I actually think Shatner wasn't a bad actor at all until after he left Star Trek. It's hard to say he was great, but he gave Captain Kirk (in the series) exactly what the character needed -- can't think of anyone who would have been better. And he did a pretty good job in The Twilight Zone episodes as well.

But sadly, after that, he kind of became a caricature of himself.

JG said...

I would add Dustin Hoffman. He's one of those that, watching him, I forget that it's Dustin Hoffman being the character, and it's just the character.

However, I also appreciate the era when you went to see a Jimmy Stewart movie or a Kathryn Hepburn movie (although Hepburn was more versatile).

AndrewPrice said...

JG, I think there are really good actors in both categories. I would even argue that there are borderline greats in both categories. My point is just that to be truly great, you need to be able to deliver in both categories.

I agree that Dustin Hoffman falls into the great category. He's charismatic enough that people keep wanting to see him, and yet he manages to thoroughly vanish into each role so that you don't think of him as "Dustin Hoffman as ___."

I would also say that Jimmy Stewart falls into the great category, even though he largely played Jimmy Stewart. What I think he did so well was to give you a very broad Jimmy Stewart, who could occasionally disappear into his role. Take his performance in Vertigo for example, that's not the same Jimmy Stewart of It's A Wonderful Life, and it's again a different Jimmy Stewart than in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

At that time, the studios were big on branding their actors. They wouldn't even let actors play roles that they thought might hurt their image with the public -- which is why they never let Cary Grant play a villain, even though he wanted to in Suspicion. But Stewart managed to push that about as far as the studios would let him and then a little bit. That's why I think he does belong in both categories, and in the great category as well.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: The actor I find amazingly versatile even though I can't stand him outside his film roles is Johnny Depp. He plays himself sometimes, but at other times he completely disppears into his roles. Even by the time Jack Sparrow became a caricature of Jack Sparrow in the third incarnation of Pirates of the Caribbean, the role was still hilarious.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I'm not sure Depp's ever played himself. If he has, I can't think of the role where he did it. Every single one of his roles has been extremely different from the prior ones, and I honestly have no idea what he's like in person. But he is also very charismatic, which is why I use him as the example for great actors.

Anonymous said...

Andrew: At least in his younger life, Depp was a lot like his role in Fear and Loathing. His Viper Room night club in Hollywood was a high-priced drug den (the one that River Phoenix died outside of). After moving to France, Depp has taken on the role of "cosmopolite," looking down on America as too primitive and too violent for his sensitive tastes. Still, unlike Sean Penn, I can completely separate Depp the person from Depp the actor.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I've heard a couple things from Depp, but overall he's been relatively quiet about his politics. And except for the guys who go way over the top -- like Penn or Glover, I pretty much ignore their rantings. As I said in a prior article, I think it hurts their careers, but the big question is how overt they are about it. I don't think Depp has been particularly overt.

StanH said...

Another great actor in my mind is Jack Nicholson. “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, The Last Detail, The Shinning, As Good as it Gets,” there are many. Also an actor that has real acting chops is Russell Crowe, a bit of a jerk but makes a watchable movie. Clint Eastwood developed into a fine actor and director in his later films, “Unforgiven, Gran Torino,” but he’s always Clint. I agree with Johnny Depp, he always delivers good work.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I agree. Nicholson has produced some incredible characters that were so well acted that you literally began to wonder if Nicholson wasn't as crazy as his characters -- The Shining and Batman are too good examples.

I absolutely agree about Russell Crowe too. He seems like a total jerk, but he's an incredible actor and really does have drawing power. He's another one (like Depp) who always delivers something different every time you see him, but never anything that doesn't fit.

I like Eastwood, but I would put him into the first category only. He's always "Clint" to me.

MegaTroll said...

Ok, you pushed your luck. . . Shrek! Ha!

Seriously, I think this is an interesting idea and the more I think about it, it makes a lot of sense.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, Somehow I don't quite see Shrek on that list! LOL!

I think this does explain a lot. It's certainly not the whole theory of everything combined, but it explains why we don't think a guy like Cruise is a great actors despite his stunning success.

FB Hink said...

Gary Oldman is one of the very best, I believe, at disappearing into a role. Ralph Fiennes is another.

I've never been a Johnny Depp fan. He just gives me the creeps.

Unfortunately, politics now colors my attitude toward an actor (another reason I despise Depp). You shouldn't let that happen because you would never watch another movie but it's when they cross that line, where they ridicule half of their audience because they reside in flyover country. I think Sean Penn has become an elite actor but because of his childish, irrational stands I just can't watch him anymore.

I'm surprised no one has brought up Meryl Streep. I don't particularly care for her but she is very good at what she does.

AndrewPrice said...

Hink, I'm a big fan of Oldman. He's done some really great work, and he usually fits the role perfectly.

I know what you're saying about the politics. In fact, I did an article on it a couple weeks back -- about liberalism killing Hollywood careers (Click Me). I can ignore most of the politics. But at some point, they just cross that line where it becomes impossible to ignore. Penn has definitely crossed that line, which is too bad because he was really becoming a very good actor.

I like Streep as well (as an actress, not politically), though I'm not sure that she doesn't keep playing the same character each time.

rlaWTX said...

I love Cary Grant, and I've been trying to figure out how to add him to your "overall" great list, but, alas, he is just at the very, very top of the "plays himself" list. Although, I can make an argument that he was not playing himself because he didn't know who he was -- he did play the same "type". All lot of the blame goes to the studio for that...
I wonder if he could have been one of the "overall" greats if the studios hadn't found him so bankable as is?
I did a psychology paper over him several semesters ago and discovered all kinds of interesting things about him - including the fact that he created his accent that he used on and off screen in order to be very middle of the road. I figure if you can do that...

Unfortunately, Matthew M is just a "good-enough" actor, and only "great" to look at! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, I totally agree about Grant. He's one of my favorites, in the top 5 for sure, but he did always play himself.

I do blame the studio for that though because they were very strict about what roles he could take. I think he probably could have been very versatile if they'd let him. He gives glimpses of having "a dark side" in some of his roles.

I have read a lot of interesting things about him, and I'd heard that the accent was made up. Fascinating guy!

I hope your paper went well?

And how did I know this would get around to Matthew M.? LOL!

FB Hink said...

Andrew, sorry I missed that article. It was a good read as was the discussion following. Wish I had caught it when you posted it. I've got tons of opinions on the leftists trends in Hollywood but I'll leave it alone.

Micheal Cain deserves some mention as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Hink, No problem. You're welcome to add your opinions anytime, either to that article or to a new one. We're hear to share opinions after all!

Good call on Michael Caine. He's another one of those actors who just impresses the heck out of me every time I see him.

Ed said...

I said this before and I say it again, this is why I like coming here. You always come up with really cool stuff to think about. I keep thinking about actors I like and sure enough they fall into these groups. Good work!

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Ed. I like giving people something to think about, especially something other than politics once in a while.

darski said...

I would suggest that Karl Malden could become the character and make you forget other parts he had played.

I was amazed when I watched his part in Pollyanna. he was so believable as that pastor but it was so unlike his other stuff.

darski said...

ok.. next thought (I do have them on occasion :-D ) I think Sally field is one to remember. It's not just her two Oscars but I find her believable in serious and comedic parts as well.

Ponderosa said...

Fun topic -

I must have a higher pain tolerance for an actor's politics. I ignore the politics as much as I can. Heck, I can even deal with Penn but he picks such horrid roles. Of his 32 movies only two have grossed more than $50M. Bet he’d be a great villain.

But I digress, so anywho that said...

I've always loved Robert Redford and always will. ‘The Natural’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and one my favorites ‘The Sting’. Definitely in the Cruise category.

I have a very tough time with the names of the characters. RR plays: a baseball player, a spy, a cowboy, etc.

I need a ruling on Kevin Spacey. I checked out his roles on IMDB. He seems to play the ‘jerky everyman’ putting him in the William Hurt zone. Still I enjoy his work.

And Liam Neeson for the second category.

AndrewPrice said...

Ponderosa, I have a pretty high tolerance for their politics as well, but there are a handful who have simply gone too far. Penn is the top of that list. It's starting to bother me with Matt Damon. And there are a couple more, but not many.

I have honestly never cared for Robert Redford. I don't know why, he just has never struck a chord with me?

I really like Kevin Spacey and Liam Neeson. I think Spacey plays himself. At times he flirted with greatness, like in Usual Suspects where he was truly exceptional, but I still have a hard time seeing him consistently disappearing into roles.

I put Liam Neeson in the great category. He's very charismatic and people definitely want to see him, but he's extremely good at becoming the role. Consider how easily he became a Nazi in Schindler's List, a Jedi in Phantom Menace and then a trained killer in Taken. These were all very different characters and each time he pulled it off seamlessly.

Individualist said...

Well given that we are naming so many men as great actors I was wondering what actresses should be put in the mix. We have had Sandra Bullock and I thought of Jodi Foster then drew a blank...

according to Hollywood the top 10 actresses are: (the yes/no comment is whether I think they could be great actors)

1) Angelina Jolie - Yes
2) Jessica Alba - might be their already
3) Keira Knightly - Yes possible
4) Cameron Diaz - Good great ??
5) Jessica Biel - Could be yes
6) Kirsten Dunst - Yes could be because she played MJ well in Spiderman
7) Katherine Heigl - Absolutely
8) Elisha Cuthbert - not seen enough of her work to judge
9) Selma Hayek - Plays Herself Great/Disapear no
10) Natalie Portman - No

I say could be because nonestly I had a hard time trying to figure out what made a woman a great actor, I am sure that is me though?

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I'd say it's the same for actors and actresses. It's about being charismatic enough to make people want to see "you," but then having the talent to be able to make them see the character once the film starts rolling.

On the list you've given, I would vote "NO" on all of them, with the possible exception of two of them. For the most part, these are just standard Hollywood young hotties with no range and less depth, and I frankly can't see any of them doing anything convincing.

The two exceptions I would consider are Angelina Jolie and Jodi Foster. Jolie is very good at what she does, but I haven't seen her do anything other than generic action type movies. So I could classify her as the female Tom Cruise, but I can't say that she's capable of disappearing into a real role yet.

Jodie Foster is the other one. She doesn't have the star power of a Jolie (she did at one point, but not anymore), but she always plays herself all the time.

Think of it this way, could you see any of these women hold their own in a film like Glengarry Glen Ross.

In terms of actresses who could do this, I think it's a lot harder to find great actresses than great actors -- and I wrote about the reason for that last week. But I would think that a Meryl Streep or a Glenn Close could do it. I know that Rosalind Russell could have done it. Katherine Hepburn probably.

The problem is that most of the women who probably had the talent were hampered by a studio system that kept them from using that talent. And the women today are hired for their looks, not their talent.

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