Tag Archives: actor

On Robert Duvall in Get Low

Get Low is a misshapen, well meaning, squishy-hearted half-feature that’s both too short and way, way too long. But Robert Duvall is in it.

Mr. Duvall is one of those actors that makes everyone around him look like they’re in a very good high school production of The Glass Menagerie, that is to say, ridiculous. A few scenes into the picture, it becomes clear that alongside Duvall even Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray – on his own one of the cinema’s great miniaturists – can’t find their way to the buried, haiku-essence of things. But not our Bobby. Before he opens his mouth, Duvall lets you know just where his nerve endings are, and after only a few shots-worth of his company, he manages to unfurl himself out like a map. For the rest of the picture, he goes about dropping hints – and always indirectly – to the buried treasure.

In real life, closed off people don’t tell you who they are. They hide. In movies, where we have to see inside of people, weak actors try to cheat around it. They give their astringent, opaque characters unearned changes of heart brought on, generally, by trembling strings, the love of a good woman, or the pressures of running time. This is why no one who saw Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People will ever forget it. She never once condescended to the level of her character’s “arc,” but instead built wall upon wall upon wall, until, near the end of the picture, and at the absolute precise moment, she shattered the whole edifice and – without the help of strings – there she was. Ah. Of course. It was you all along.

In Get Low, Duval is working with a similar mechanism. A lesser actor (one, say, who worshipped Daniel Day-Lewis,) would have emphasized the odd-duck, Boo Radley elements of this character, declaiming his weirdness like a missionary his religion. But not our Bobby. He reveals by showing us how he conceals. Soon the patterns emerge. A little later we begin to understand. And by the end of the picture, we may be convinced we saw something invisible.

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Goodbye, Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper has died.

In the coming weeks, and months, I think we’ll begin to learn more about Dennis Hopper’s great range of talent, not just as an actor and director, but also as a photographer and painter. From what I understand, late in his life, Hopper had become something of a serious fine artist. I’ll leave that aspect of his career to those who know more about pictures, and look instead to my favorite piece of Hopper, his scene in True Romance.

Film craft aside, what I love about this scene is how un-Hopper like Dennis Hopper is. All the manic volatility we see in the Hopper of Blue Velvet and Apocalypse Now has been shut down, and his signature brand of gesticulation – as wild and menacing as his I’m-going-to-eat-you-now grin – is nowhere to be found.

But they are implied. Because he is Dennis Hopper, and we know what it means to watch Dennis Hopper, the suggestion of sudden implosion is present throughout. It lends a time-bomb feeling to the scene. We wonder, will he or won’t he go off? More succinctly, Will Hopper hopper?

Of course, credit is due to director Tony Scott for using Hopper so cleverly, and for throwing a bit of light on the bulging veins in his forehead as if to say, “Don’t forget, this is where the time bomb lives.” If you find yourself smiling at the brutality, that’s why; we’ve been let in on the inside joke. Even though we know Hopper’s character is going down, because it’s Dennis Hopper we know it’s going to be a fair fight; more than fair, it’s going to be a fun fight.

Part of what makes Hopper such an eerily addictive screen presence is the feeling of childlike joy he imbued into deathly circumstances. In Blue Velvet, for instance, the contrast is terrifying, but here in True Romance, it’s actually touching. Playing a man who knows death is upon him, Hopper, toward the end of the scene, can’t help but show a smile, and not because he has a morbid death wish, but because, above all else, he is a man who loves the ride. Even at his darkest, you could see him on a rollercoaster, throwing his hands up in the air when everyone else was holding on for dear life. That’s the kind of man – and actor – he was. Whether it was up or down, Dennis Hopper just wanted the trip.

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The Arthurian Romance

Well, it had to happen. They’re remaking Arthur. With Russell Brand.

The original Arthur, written and directed by Steve Gordon, and starring Dudley Moore in the title role, is one of those almost-great movies with so much great and non-great in it, it’s hard to not not watch all of it, over and over again.

What it has is a sensational first half, loaded with rapid-fire one-liners so well-crafted, rhythmically attuned, and deliciously delivered (by Moore, of course), one can’t help but compare the high points of the film to Noel Coward’s best moments. The difficult thing about one-liners, as low-level productions of Coward and Wilde have famously shown, is that, when mishandled, they can come off as arch, or improbable to the point of distancing the players from the play. They can sound like spoken literature, not dialogue.

In Arthur (and while we’re at it, Arthur 2: On the Rocks), Dudley Moore surmounts the challenge by speaking his lines not to declaim the joke, but as if to entertain himself. And only himself. Watching Moore, we understand that Arthur, who laughs sometimes just to laugh, is an unyielding, almost compulsive hedonist of humor. He even finds his own laughter funny, which is funny. In fact, Arthur gets such a kick out of Arthur, he doesn’t seem to care that no one else does. That makes him a kind of stand-up deposed, and creates a pathos lacking in most contemporary interpretations of Coward, or Wilde, or even Preston Sturges, who often hurries his jokes on through without stopping for a moment to ask why.

It means that Moore’s Arthur, for all of his frivolous whimsy, is absolutely real. Chaplin had that too.

The first twenty minutes of Arthur are among the funniest twenty minutes of film ever shot. Then Steve Gordon lets it get sentimental, he pushes Moore to mush, and before our very eyes, Liza Minnelli (oh yes, she’s in it too) seems to shove a pluck-filled hypodermic needled into her best vein and overdose for two hours. It’s a shame. But that makes it good fodder for a remake.

If there is one thing in Arthur that never flags, it’s John Gielgud. As Arthur’s butler/nanny, Gielgud is unspeakably gud. Like all brilliant actors, Sir John had the rare ability to fuse one attitude with its opposite, and linger, somehow, in the gulf. To observe him negotiate irritation and devotion is to witness a lifetime’s accumulation of skill distilled into a single performance. And as a former Cowardian, and onetime muse to Coward himself, Gielgud knows his way around a bon mot. Tynan described the actor’s technique as a feat of nimble grace. In 1953, he wrote, “Gielgud, seizing a parasol, crosses by tightrope.”

As I write this, I see that Meryl Streep is rumored to take on the Gielgud part. I’ll alert the media.