Saturday, October 15, 2011

Everything New is Old Again Part 1: From Matt Damon to Leonardo DiCaprio

      A couple of weeks ago I posted that Brad Pitt is the new Paul Newman because of his talent and image (I’ll get into the whole Brad/Jennifer/Angelina contretemps in Part 2, no fear).  However, the most versatile movie star right now is Matt Damon.  He is capable of playing almost anything onscreen and pulling it off in an American vernacular.  His two missteps (The Brothers Grimm and Invictus) happened because although he’s a diligent actor, he is not comfortable in a role where he has to champion his technique (the polar opposite for his generation is Kate Winslet, more about her later) and his foreign accent work is not entirely accurate.  He disappears effortlessly into his roles and the world of the movies in which he appears.  I remember seeing him in School Ties as one of the anti-Semitic WASPs and he didn’t really stand out, but I was pretty astonished by what he did in Courage Under Fire (one of those mid-90s movies where Meg Ryan strenuously tried to prove she could act even though she was wonderful on TV and in Top Gun – she and Anthony Edwards were the only convincing actors in that film as a young, married military officer couple – but it was all about the hardware and the rah-rah Reagan era ‘take out the Russkies’ conflict) because he practically evaporated before my eyes and, although he was playing a heroin addict, the weight loss did not seem an attention getting Method exercise.  

The Dexter Equation being worked out
by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting
      He became a star (and Oscar winner for his writing) because of Good Will Hunting, where he again was completely convincing as a townie custodian who’s a genius.  The bromance with Ben Affleck was more compelling than his romance with
Minnie Driver (what’s up with her?  She hasn’t had a major movie role in years and she was so refreshingly non-ingenue, non-fake sex kitten that it’s a shame that she’s had to turn so soon to TV with The Riches.  On the other hand, probably as many people saw her TV show as saw her movies) and I wish that someone besides me would realize that he and Affleck would be terrific in a movie version of James Salter’s short story “American Express” one of the best stories of the 1980s and a penetrating examination of youthful American ambition and the slow middle aged freeze of what happens after all your prayers are answered.  

      Since then, he’s played All-American good guys with vigor in Saving Private Ryan and The Rainmaker, but he came into his own playing a psychopath having to kill those he loves in The Talented Mr. Ripley, an edgy pickpocket who’s also Brad Pitt’s son in the Ocean’s series, amnesiac spy-assassin Bourne in the definitive action series of the past decade, a wildly funny sociopath in The Informant! that he should have been Oscar nominated for it instead of Invictus, and two very different performances in 2006 in The Good Shepherd as the intensely patriotic and loyal head of counter-intelligence, unwilling and then unable to express his feelings at all, and The Departed where his enthusiastic nice All-American guy is a calculated veneer over which he finally loses control.  The first was under-rated while the second was over-rated.  He’s had a nice frisson with Tina Fey as her pilot boyfriend in 30 Rock and he worked well with Jeff Bridges in True Grit, though he played the role for real and actually had less star charisma than Glen Campbell displayed in the original.  Earlier this year, he starred in The Adjustment Bureau, a sort of second-rate mash up of Inception, Wings of Desire, and Bourne.  However, for the movie to work he had to display instant chemistry with Emily Blunt and did so.  If anyone’s thinking in Hollywood, please get these two into another movie together.  Their charming looseness together made them a great team.  Also, get Anthony Mackie a really good role soon.  He’s the most elegant, feline actor in American movies, but he’s always looking after someone like Damon or Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker and even Anna Faris most recently.  If Matt Damon is anyone, he’s Jimmy Stewart’s heir.  Viewers forget that Stewart was an All-American idealist, a romantic lead, a Western hero, an action star and, in his Hitchcock films, a voyeur, a desperate and guilty father, and an obsessive lover who practically commits emotional necrophilia.

Meryl Streep, one of the
2011 Kennedy Center Honorees
      Meryl Streep is routinely compared to actresses from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but her intense technique, mastery of foreign accents, and ability to seem like she’s completely become the role, while making the viewer completely aware that that is what she’s doing really makes her this generation’s Laurence Olivier.  It’s fun watching both of them perform because they really play the ultimate game of dress up and act their hearts out and make the audience complicit in that joy. Viewers watch them making intellectual as well as emotional choices in the way in which they play their roles, which is the definition of interpretation.  They really are the best interpreters in English-speaking film.  One thing Streep cannot do is be sexily mysterious, which is why The French Lieutenant’s Woman didn’t have much going on in it except watching her and Jeremy Irons play double roles.  Olivier was extraordinary in suggesting almost demonic levels of mystery and sexuality in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Richard III.  On the other hand, Olivier never gave himself over to a musical as Streep did in Mamma Mia.  He sang and told jokes in The Entertainer, but it’s not a straight-on musical, it’s a burlesque with music commenting on the political reality of Suez Crisis era Britain.

      The actress who should be compared to a ‘40s actress is Kate Winslet because her verve and range are right out of the Bette Davis school of acting.  She’s tough and determined, even when on the edge of death in Revolutionary Road and despair in The Reader.  She’s never made a crappy, useless movie or sold out, though she can be part of a cast that makes a commercial, though artistically pedestrian, work like The Holiday shine.  She goes all out and she’s always interesting.  I couldn’t wait for her to be back onscreen in Iris.  I realize Judy Dench had the touching, poignant scenes, but I thought it was as drab as hell and I thought I was going to be sick when their wretched housekeeping was revealed.  She was robust, sexy, and completely real as a frustrated suburban housewife in Little Children without ever patronizing the milieu.  Of course, she’ll always be remembered for Titanic, where her spirit could not be drowned, frozen, or compromised.  If there’s ever another remake of All About Eve, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or a biopic of Bette Davis, she’d be my first pick.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio

      Her great screen partner is Leonardo DiCaprio and his various activities as a producer, environmentalist, and actor, who’s ready to try just about anything even if it doesn’t work (amazingly for such a big star, many of his movies haven’t) puts him in the league of the adventurous Hollywood stars of the ‘50s like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, who worked all over the world and produced many of their movies in the ‘60s even when some of them didn’t work.  DiCaprio’s persona is that of a romantic lead because he’s tall, thin, and good-looking, but he does everything he can to undercut it.  He’s become Scorsese’s go-to actor over the past decade probably because of his talent, but also because I think Scorsese wants some hits.  His masterworks of the ‘70s and ‘80s were critically worshipped, but they weren’t box office blockbusters.  He was the soul of The Departed and frightening as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, though Tommy Lee Jones gave a great performance and looked almost exactly like Hughes in the ‘70s TV mini-series.  DiCaprio reminds me somewhat of Marcello Mastroianni who always seemed to imply that yes he knew he was good looking and sexy, but wasn’t it all sort of wearying?  Maybe DiCaprio should consider traveling to Europe or Asia to work on a movie.

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