On the Auteurship of Actors
Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 10, 2009
We normally ascribe a movie to the director and, to a lesser extent, writer. Not that actors don’t get any credit – acting is as important for the success of a movie as direction – but that a movie is, in some way, the director’s rather than the actors’.
The director is definitely an artist, an auteur, because he has a vision. The actor, too, is in one way an artist, because what he does to his role is as important to it as how the director visualises it. I mean, can you imagine Raging Bull or Taxi Driver without De Niro, or No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem? But it’s still a Scorsese movie, or a Coen brothers film. Obviously, this is because it’s Scorsese or the Coens who visualised it. They made the right casting choices, they did a countless number of things right. Amidst all this, the actor comes out looking like nothing more than a pawn the director moves around to do what he wants to.
The question I’m wondering about is, is this pawn an artist? In the trivial way I’ve already explained, the answer is yes. But, art is about expression. Whether you believe it’s the expression of an individual qua individual or that of an outlet of society, it’s about expression. How is this pawn expressing himself? This pawn has little choice about what projects he can become part of, because it’s finally the player, the auteur, the director, who chooses what he does. Yes, there is some amount of self-expression involved in bringing yourself to a character, or bringing a character to yourself – as the case may be – but with most artists – directors, writers of both books and screenplays, painters, composers – we can look at the oeuvre as a whole and deduce something of what drove this person to live, to create this art.
Obviously, an important part of expressing yourself in this way requires choice. An actor may see some project close to his heart, but not be able to join it for various reasons. He may have to take up Snakes on a Plane (Samuel L. Jackson) or2012 (John Cusack) to perform his pet-puja. Of course, we can ignore these massive aberrations, but what about small aberrations? There is, for example, a man called Adam Sandler, who is certainly a certified auteur; all his roles are one and the same (let’s ignore quality). It took a great filmmaker (look at the word) called Paul Thomas Anderson to understand the point his movies were making. This is why Anderson made Punch-Drunk Love, which has famously been called a piece of film-criticism. Of course, you might argue, how do you know you get the point a director, or a writer or a painter, is making? Well, at least I can come up with something. There was, on the other hand, a sum total of one person who understood Sandler’s movies, or even came up with a theory of understanding of his movies. Till him, everyone just dismissed Adam Sandler as a buffoon out for profits. On the other hand, every roadside drunk can theorise about Woody Allen and where he is missing his point.
One thing I said was that actors don’t have choice. This is where the star system comes in handy. Here’s a clip from Waking Life which advocates a new paradigm of movie-making (I suspect that this is how I started thinking about this):
Till a couple of days ago, I thought typecasting was a bad thing. Whenever someone told me Jack Nicholson was a great actor, I’d think, “In his type of role, yes”. Now, it occurs to me that that reservation might be the very thing that makes him a great actor, an auteur in his own right, a man about whose oeuvre you can think of in much the same way as that of Elmore Leonard. Of course, it might also be something which resulted in an inhibition of self-expression because he isn’t considered for other roles, but I think a star has enough clout to be auditioned for any role he wants.
While it seems that the whole business is settled, it’s not. A De Niro night go his whole life without finding his Scorsese, while a director need make only the type of movie he feels like, using either the new generation of actors who believe in moulding themselves to suit the movie’s needs or the old-fashioned audition. I suspect that actors who are called great – De Niro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Peter O’Toole – are the ones who found, and consistently kept finding, roles that suited them, both by means of clout and of choosing the right roles to mould for their own self-expression. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just pawns who fought remarkably well, pawns who got to the opposite end of the chess board to become queens. Then, the real question is: how much does it matter which it is, whether he was just a great pawn or someone who transcended his pawnhood to perfectly resonate with the player? The answer is: I don’t know. Yet.