Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do the Subtle Performances Win Awards?

The recent past shows actors garnering praise for flamboyant performances. Think Johnny Depp in Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean or Daniel Day-Lewis in P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Their eccentric or loudest moments are the most memorable.

"I've abandoned my boy!"

No doubt he gets pumped for these kinds of scenes and he delivers. Going back to his work in Scorsese's Gangs of New York, I remember his opening lines best. Delivering lines is only half the battle. In Film Art, Bordwell and Thompson evaluate performances by also looking at an actor's eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. But why stop there? Why not evaluate the entire body of performance?

Again, let's look at Bill the Butcher's first scene in Gangs. He leads his gang of natives to the battleground with Vallon's (Liam Neeson) "foreign hordes." He stops at his mark and assumes a particular stance. His feet spread apart, balanced, and ready for the upcoming skirmish. His hands grab the knives at his waist. And he doesn't just hold them - his arms are flexed and prepared for battle. The Butcher's overall body language is aggressive, and not by mistake.

This is Bill's opening scene and while his character deepens throughout the film, these initial minutes display the Butcher's intimidating presence.

His opening lines may be memorable, but the reason the performance is striking is the subtlety of the rest of the film. Later in the film, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) challenhes the Butcher to a final battle. Watch how Bill handles his pipe and the way he leans against the post. He thinks for a moment and then delivers the line: "Challenge accepted." Perhaps too reductively, the flamboyant scenes are memorable, but the subtle moments win awards.

Switching to P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood, two scenes stick out that illustrate my point. One is the aforementioned "I've Abandoned My Boy" sequence. It's the showcase sequence for Day-Lewis' performance. It's the part that everyone remembers most vividly. But it is not Day-Lewis' best scene. Anybody can act crazily on screen, but to tame, temper, and taper the performance shows an attuned ability.

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