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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    It’s hard work delivering an effortless performance

    BeingGeorge Clooneyin aGeorge Clooneymovie is a wise place to start if you areGeorge Clooney.

    A crushingly obvious truth, I suppose. But a rarely understood aspect of movie-star acting is range — and that an actor may appreciate his own range and use it to his advantage is even less understood, which (thus far) has saved us from Clooney as Hamlet orWilly Loman. Instead, we get that stoic brow, those bedroom eyes, the constant hint of a smirk and an effortless cool. He may veer an inch toward gravitas, or an inch toward silliness, but he’s always within a narrow range.

    Which, on Sunday, makes the Oscar race for best actor a competition laced with a few awkward truths.

    One of which is that Academy Award voters prefer disguises, raw bluster and a certain naked emotional untidiness — and, generally, neither Clooney nor his competition,Jeff Bridges(whom conventional wisdom has pegged to win), offers much in the way of ostentatious. What they offer, again and again, is themselves, in minutely varying degrees. Bridges, 60, has more range than Clooney, 48, as well as more than a decade of experience on him. What they share, though, is that rather than disappear into characters, both use the illusion that the line between their roles and themselves is nonexistent.

    So, we see a Clooney movie or a Bridges movie, and, once again, they’re “”playing themselves.””

    But does it really matter which movie a movie star like Bridges or Clooney receives an Oscar for? Clooney won a supporting actor Oscar for “”Syriana,”” and Bridges may well win for “”Crazy Heart”” — clearly voters require at minimum a gut and an unkempt beard before they can be convinced that real acting is occurring. But neither role is that far afield for either actor. They give good performances and bad performances like any other actor, but when a star makes a career of playing himself, can we really separate those performances anyway?

    “”He just plays himself””: There’s often a wallop of contempt in that charge, lobbed by contemporary audiences at stars with the implication that an actor has grown lazy. But it conveniently ignores that big movie stars intend a degree of repetition, and that the savviest want audiences to believe they know them, not as actors but as people. It’s also a charge that forgets what makes movies work, and that good actors who happen to be stars have an uncanny understanding of the pros and cons of playing themselves.

    Clooney, nominated for “”Up in the Air,”” plays no-bones businessmanRyan Bingham, so ideal a character for an actor who oozes confidence that Bingham even delivers motivational speeches. Clooney could coast, but he doesn’t. Vulnerability enters his eyes, works its way into his voice, then his gait, which is rigid at the start of the film, but dawdling as the consistency in his own job (flying around the country and firing people) is thrown to the wind. The truth, however, is we’re always watchingGeorge Clooney.

    Just as, no matter how bad Bridges’ Bad Blake in “”Crazy Heart”” gets — losing children in crowded places, getting sauced every night — the lonesome voice with a hint of mischief, the loose way he carries himself, always stays Bridges. We like him — just as we like him playing the villain in “”Iron Man,”” throwing a jovial arm aroundRobert Downey Jr.with the same good ol’ familiarity he has pulled out in movies with, you know, pick­up trucks and muscle shirts. His motivations may be less naive than in “”The Last Picture Show,”” and his head less clouded than in “”The Big Lebowski,”” but the amiable exhaustion, our sense that he always understands more than he lets on, leaves a smile on our faces. Each performance is a smidgen different from the last.

    This is not a bad thing.

    The Golden Age of Hollywood’s studio system treated contract players as specific brands and assigned them a narrow range, thereby giving audiences what was expected. What it allowed a strong personality to do was create his own reality, which is what Clooney and Bridges do. It’s whatCary Grantdid, andTom Cruisedoes, andJames Cagneydid, andJulia Robertsdoes.

    The con to a ready-to-go movie persona is the same as the pro: Actors can fall back on it. When they stop offering anything fresh, it’s a liability. The uncomfortable truth is that some of the best never give a strenuous performance.

    And we want to see strain, as do award voters, but it’s not fair. That lack of sweat is what has hindered Bridges and Clooney; it’s why we don’t consider them the equal ofMeryl StreeporPhilip Seymour Hoffman. They don’t work to win our affection. But because they have less room to play in, and because they rarely coast in the narrow range allowed, they do cut deeper and get closer, and, illusion or not, we know them.

     

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