Do performances matter?
We love certain actors, and we love certain performances. There are easily a good ten or fifteen male and female actors that I would gladly plunk down full price to see in a showcase role, usually Daniel Day Lewis, or Phil Hoffman in The Master. And sometimes there are film so eerily dependent on an actor's presence that it would be a botch-job without anyone else in the part.
But when it comes to great movies, I tend to feel that Hitchcock was decades ahead of his time when he said that "actors are cattle." The French New Wave and the American indie movement meant a wider net was being cast, filmmakers tabbing either less-than-attractive actors, or even non-actors, for lead roles. Were these actors good? It didn't matter - they were manipulated into enhancing the film experience by the writers and directors. Puzzle pieces in sometimes wonderful puzzles.
As a result, the old days you used to have actors who starred in ten or fifteen masterpieces all on their own. Today, take one really terrific actor, maybe one of your favorites, and you'll be surprised at just how few "classic" movies they've been in. One of the top box office draws is Tom Cruise, and more often than not, he's always worth watching in a movie. But are his movies worth watching? Maybe five or six. If you're only looking for GREAT great movies from him, that number shrinks considerably. Nevermind someone like Paul Giamatti, who has a couple of great movies to his name, but has been fantastic is SCORES of terrible films not worth watching a second time.
At a certain point, does it matter? Of course, if you want DDL to play Lincoln, it's going to rule no matter what. But what about someone like Cruise? He was recently in the terrible "Rock Of Ages" where his performance is sort of a Brechtian masterpiece of odd tics and insecurities, buried underneath a superstar's mask. I kind of think he's absolutely masterful in the role. But the film itself, including a few of his scenes, isn't exactly appointment viewing. It's quite awful, and despite the fondness of Cruise's performance, I'll never sit through that again.
I find it really odd that people continue to offer critiques of some performances as well, as if some performances can be "good" or "bad" when they need only be functional. Hollywood employs so many terrible actors right now who are nonetheless either professional and/or great to be around, and for the most part, they don't damage their respective films. Keanu Reeves has an appealing Zen-like quality, but can you seriously go to bat for him being an interesting actor? At best he's been functional, like in "The Gift," a part that would have been compelling had any number of Hollywood studs played it. Hell, imagine that role played by John Hawkes. Imagine it played by Bryan Cranston. Anson Mount. Doesn't really matter, does it? We remember that role because we're already familiar with Keanu, maybe the most famous dude in that movie.
I want to boil this down to "an actor is only as good as his material" but that feels too pat. I just feel weird critiquing, say, Kirsten Dunst in the "Spider-Man" movies - she's alright, pretty good in the emotional scenes. But what's the point of offering an opinion? She's playing "the girl" in a big blockbuster. She's written as functional. Credit to Raimi that she's more of a presence than the (otherwise wonderful) Emma Stone in the new Spidey, who has more to do, superficially, but not more to play, so to speak. What makes the two similar is that these are not demanding or interesting roles. Both serve their purpose.
It's starting to make me feel jaded. Bryan Cranston is so good on "Breaking Bad" and when he used that clout to start showing up in movies, I got excited. Then I started seeing them. The guy's been showing up and doing five or ten minutes in each movie, from tiny indies (Detachment) to big budget spectacles (Red Tails). He doesn't make these movies any better or worse, and it just kinda bums me out that such a good actor can only be "functional" in these scenarios.
I get awards and prestige. And some performances are wonderfully transformative things (Crowe in The Insider, Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter, Bassett in What's Love Got To Do With It). But I've started to feel that, at least in movies, performances themselves feel like entirely superficial elements that do nothing to affect a movie's quality, more or less.
After all, I'm still watching John Travolta movies. And he's terrible!
So I dunno, I hope I didn't ramble on too long. What do you think? Do cinematic performances really matter? And why?