Tuesday, August 11, 2015

façade: gary cooper (and his brothers)

It's a given.  Extroverts have always been well-liked, admired, even celebrated, while introverts remain unpopular and, quite often, suspect.  And social media has only exaggerated these extremes by simple virtue of the fact that it is more compatible with narcissism than with modesty.

I bring up the extroversion/introversion contrast because, to a degree, it applies to actors. Much like show "American Idol," whose participants predictably belt, shout and scream unmemorable songs to the rafters, acting in modern American movies has become a matter of overkill.

More is not enough.

For years now, whenever actors speak of what performer from the past they most admire, the usual suspect is invoked - that master of overacting, Marlon Brando. Every actor has delusions of being the next Brando or his itchy protégé, James Dean - men you can see "acting."

This is my roundabout way of honoring Gary Cooper, an actor often described as "laid-back," meaning that he largely underacted, never so effectively than in his 1941 Oscar winner, Howard Hawks' compulsively watchable, "Sergeant York." Given the heated acting climate today, where actors underline and italicize everything, it's difficult to image this particular Cooper performance commanding any respect from people who should know better (read: other actors and, yes, movie critics).

Cooper's quiet acting style represented an ineffable brand of manhood that's also gone missing: He effortlessly projected strong innocence and innocent strength. Yes, innocence - now an undesirable trait for men/actors to embody (as evident in the dubious acting choices of Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Robert Downey, Jr. and - well, I could go on).

Gary Cooper has had his on-screen heirs but they've also been largely underrated and dismissed. I'm thinking of Kevin Costner and his appealingly casual acting style (as well as his penchant for socially-conscious material), and Steve McQueen, who found stillness in his tough-guy roles and was even better in his atypical parts ("Baby, The Rain Must Fall," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "The Reivers").

These are men you can't catch "acting."  Not for a second. Coop's boys.

Note in Passing: My friend and colleague, Carrie Rickey, wrote a compelling essay on this subject for her Flickgrrl site on 26 January, 2011 when she was reviewing for The Philadelphia Inquirer. In the piece, Carrie questioned, "Is the Oscar for Best Acting or Most Acting?," anchoring her query to the over-the-top, Oscar-winning work of Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in David O. Russell's "The Fighter."  It's an astute question, given that Mark Wahlberg's quiet title-role performance is actually the most satisfying one in that entertaining, if somewhat chaotic, film.

But few people acknowledged Wahlberg's work back in '11 - or his subtly comic performance in Russell's "I ♥ Huckabee" which, for my money, was arguably the best male performance of 2004.  Again, no-frills acting.


David Bygott said...

I read your observation with a sigh. I also am tired of screaming singers and actors who show off more than act. Unlike most people, I find performers like Cooper to be formidable, a word usually applied to the Brandos among actors. He was a strong actor who never broke a sweat.

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Millie said...

Well said! I utterly agree. I have often noted a direct line between Cooper and McQueen. And, while at least Cooper got some recognition in his time, it's interesting (and depressing) how McQueen's work is often diminished to "simply" screen presence or some kind of elusive cool factor. Yes, he was undeniably cool, but his work is so quietly powerful.

It is perhaps a little heretical, but I personally find a similar presence in a couple of notably maligned actors working today: Keanu Reeves and Sam Worthington. I think both are very quiet actors on the whole, and excel best when they are allowed to be subtle.

joe baltake said...

Millie- I agree. Both Reeves and Worthington are terribly underrated, particularly Reeves who has been derided for decades now