What Makes a Good Actor Good

In Gods Like Us, the author Ty Burr tackles the notion of stardom. The book is quite readable, packed with examples of movie stars, Hollywood history, and insightful analysis as opposed to too many celebrity-based books which are really just lists of accomplishments or scandals. Gods Like Us is comparable to Molly Haskell's Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in Movies and is slightly more readable (Haskell's book is quite good and far less angry than the title makes it sound; like Burr, she is both a critic and an aficionado).

Burr is focused mostly on stardom, not on what makes an actor good or bad. However, his comments on stardom got me thinking. In many ways, I'm thoroughly a member of my generation (between Yuppie and X) in that I believe a good actor is one who is subsumed by the role. 

So, for example, I consider Daniel Day-Lewis a good actor because while he is playing Lincoln, I forget, however temporarily, that he is Daniel Day-Lewis. Gary Oldman likewise disappears into his roles. Gordon-Levitt doesn't (like Keanu Reeves, his face--which has been with us Americans since his childhood--is somewhat iconic), but one senses that he could.

But then I thought, "Well, what about Will Smith?"

I never forget that Will Smith is Will Smith. Ever. And yet, I consider him a very good actor. I also don't forget that Robert Downey, Jr. is playing something (anything) as Robert Downey, Jr. (which is kind of the point of Robert Downey, Jr.). And Tom Sellack will always be Magnum (but that could be because he just keeps playing Magnum). These are all actors that I consider to be quite strong and gifted in their different areas.

So there are actors who are their roles and actors who are their stardom or, at least, their star personas. But are there actors who can be both?

I think there is exactly one:

Cary Grant is the only actor I can think of, off the top of my head, who both utterly vanishes into his roles and who one never, ever ever ever ever forgets IS Cary Grant.

I just watched North by Northwest, not one of my favorite Hitchcock's but worth watching for Cary Grant. Half-way through the movie, I went, "Geez, exactly how old was this guy when he played this role?" (Answer: 55). At 55, Grant is incredibly handsome, but the thing that threw me is how well he moves. Not even Harrison Ford, that action man, moved that good in his 50s. (Bruce Willis doesn't either, but it matters less with Willis; as Gibbs says of Tony, "He's a brawler." Willis is supposed to fight tough and mean and limping.)

At the same time I was looking up Grant on www.imdb.com, I was wholly sold on him as Thornhill. He WAS Thornhill. Not Grant-as-Thornhill. Just Thornhill. 

This is true of all Grant's parts. There's Cary Grant, oh yeah, in big lights. And yet, he's also Devlin, Brewster, Warriner . . . He does comedy, effortlessly; gentleman wit, effortlessly; bumbling everyman, effortlessly; mad, bad, and dangerous to know, effortlessly.

There is something utterly feline about Cary Grant, something wonderfully ambiguous that may find its roots in his sexuality but probably not. Emma Thompson once referred to Stephen Fry as 10% "Other." Cary Grant seems to be all that and yet, at the same time, everything we think he is. Slippery. Impossible to pin down. Now you see him--STAR--now you don't. So he is THAT GUY--that Cary-Grant persona. Yet not. He seems to act completely by instinct, to know what a role requires while remaining completely himself. The result is that he is there, yet not, the star but also the part all at the same time.

Maybe Hollywood needs more Cary Grants, but I think it had enough trouble handling the one it got. There's a place for all those other actors, those who disappear in their roles or live through their roles or sell themselves as stars first and foremost. And maybe, with so many options, another Cary Grant will never come along again: perhaps the age has passed.

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