AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
Whenever Americans get seized by a eulogistic fit about Britain – or just want to find something nice to say when they're over there – "We love your actors" takes pride of place above even "We love your royal family" and "We think your policemen are wonderful." And for many awed non-Britishers, British acting belongs right up there with the royals and the men in blue.
Britain is the country of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Bernard Shaw; of Garrick, Kean, and Olivier. It represents – at least in reputation – the aristocracy of theatrical tradition, the lawbook of theatrical style, and the yardstick of theatrical achievement. Only a few years ago at the Oscar ceremony, Jon Voight (in the audience) looked as if he was having an orgasm at the sight and sound of Lord Olivier (onstage), delivering a few harmless, florid platitudes in response to a life-time achievement award.
The hype about British acting is, like all hype, hyperbolic. Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Scofield and Company have all given their fair share of rotten performances over the years, in among the tours-de-force. And they often visibly have trouble adapting an unwieldy theatrical technique, trained by decades of throwing their voices, gestures, and facial expressions to the back of the gallery, to the medium of cinema.
Slowly, though, the rise of movies as a second force and second recruiting ground for British actors has meant that each new generation of young thesps has become more adept at developing amphibian skills. They can move around on land – treading the firm boards on Shaftesbury Avenue or in Stratford-on-Avon – and they can also swim in that strange, foreign, viscous medium called cinema.
Right now, roused by the late
Eighties film renaissance in Britain, the country's acting scene is swarming
Today's young British actors
are so quick-change and versatile it's hard to put faces and personalities to
each of the names. They not only shuttle freely between stage and screen,
they're equally fleet of foot between high-contrast roles. Surely the Rupert Everett wearing
long hair and doling out a king-size Cockney accent as the rock star in Hearts
of Fire can't be the same Everett we remember as the velvet-throated aesthete in Another
Country? Surely this youngster who's a dead ringer for Joe Orton can't be
the same one who was a dead ringer for Sid Vicious? And what about Miranda Richardson –
can the careworn woman in Empire of the Sun be the same actress who
incarnated the hard-bitten blonde with a murder talent in Dance with a
This new generation of actors
is a startling contrast, in more ways than one, to the last major wave of
British thesps: the ones who emerged in the Sixties
and grew out of what the United Kingdom quaintly calls its "regions."
This can mean anywhere outside London, but it usually refers to far-flung
places with funny accents like Manchester and Liverpool, or even Wales,
Scotland, and Ireland. Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Julie Christie, Richard
Harris, Tom Courtenay, and the like were the first to break the mold of
approved acting provenance, whereby you had to come from the south – or
appear to – and speak with a posh accent if you were to make it big on stage
and screen. Tearing up the rule-book, this mob broke not only into films,
where the kitchen-sink mood of the day (This
Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, et al.) suited
their regional brogues; they also invaded the theater, happily annexing
everything from Shakespeare and Shaw to Pinter and Osborne.
But perversely this triumph against the stereotype of pedigree produced another one in its place. Finney, O'Toole, and the rest became tarred with their own high-profile iconoclasm. The Sixties heroes, born of a class revolution in acting, became fashion plates for a new kind of British acting that repeated itself just as much as the old. Its keynote was a hell-raising-ham style.
O'Toole – after brave early
self-subduing work on Lawrence –
gradually became a florid, silver-ranting playboy from movie to movie,
whether playing Henry II, Lord Jim, or Don Quixote. Finney, despite a
seemingly desperate search for the widest variety of parts – from Scrooge to Hercule Poirot
to Daddy Warbucks – began to seem bizarrely
identical from role to role: a stocky, pugilistic drawler finally apotheosized,
with full ham trimmings, in The Dresser. And Christie plied from film
to film – whether in Hardys Wessex or Pasternak's Russia – the same
Today's young actors in Britain, by contrast, don't have to pay the price for being class and culture heroes in an acting revolution. They're not front-page events or chat-show-destined icons of a swinging decade. And in terms of class and background, the mold has already been broken for them, the revolution already won. They don't all have to come from the regions, though many do. And they don't all have to come from private schools, Oxbridge or RADA, like the British acting generations before, though again many do.
They neither have a common pedigree
nor a common style. They don't even have a common lifestyle. In this last
respect, the Brit Pack bears no relationship at all to America's Brat Pack:
their un-clannishness is dazzling. They aren't seen together at parties or
in restaurants or in gossip columns. And since British cinema has had no
equivalent to Hollywood's Eighties conveyor-belt youth movies – Weird Science, About Last
Night..., St. Elmo's Fire, et al. – they don't keep re-meeting each other
on-screen either. This produces the refreshing feeling that the Western
world's late-teen generation isn't made up entirely of the same six or seven
people. It also means that, like jokers in the pack, the young Brits can turn
up as surprise wild cards from movie to movie, rather than be condemned to
play with each other forever in some sectioned-off cinematic playpen called
the "teen pic."
In such an acting climate, the
film-goer has an exciting time. He walks unarmed
and compassless through a landscape of guerrilla
acting feats. Young British actors today specialize in camouflage, disguise,
and surprise. Actors you've seen before but can't quite recognize suddenly
jump out of a movie's undergrowth and turn out to be, say, Gabriel Byrne with an Italian accent (Julia and Julia), or Jonathan Pryce as a
two-minute deus-ex-machina romantic
lead (Jumping Jack Flash),
or Daniel Day Lewis, who
we thought was that peroxide-quiffed punk in My Beautiful
Laundrette, turning out to have a double
life as a bespectacled toff in A Room with a View.
All this, as well as being a backlash against the condemned-to-stardom fate of the Finney-O'Toole generation, is in the best time-honored tradition of British theatrical upbringing. The part comes first, the actor's personality second. And here national character reinforces professional integrity. The British, reticent by nature, love disguises. That's why they make the best spies and the best character actors. Even apparently flamboyant personality-performers like Olivier rejoice in the self-annihilation of the false nose, the limp, or the wig. And publicity-shy actors like Guinness or Scofield like nothing more than to hide behind a faceful of beard and makeup or, failing that, behind a persona of British stoicism (A Man for All Seasons) or mandarin impenetrability (Guinness' Smiley).
When Britain does occasionally spew forth a movie star – Richard Burton, Dirk Bogarde, Julie Christie, Michael Caine, or Sean Connery – they tend to come from way outside the charmed pentacle of West End theaterland or the well-bred Southern counties. The Welsh Burton, the Dutch-fathered Bogarde, the Cockney Caine, and the Scottish Connery – and, for that matter, the North country Finney and the Irish O'Toole – had to hew careers for themselves from unpromising backgrounds and thus learned how to megaphone rather than moderate their egos and personalities.
The less embattled acting times in which modern British players live and work means that few have had the momentum of adversity that can help project an actor – voluntarily or involuntarily – toward stardom. Hard-working professionalism has replaced loud-hailing ambition. And chameleon versatility, such as most of the Brit Pack boast, is the truest enemy of stardom. When the public elects a star, they want to see him or her go on playing himself or herself from film to film. The iconography of individualism must scream off the screen: Dustin Hoffman's bird-beak nose and adenoidal voice, Jane Fonda's violin-string tautness, De Niro's gunpowder pauses, Keaton's gosh-golly gaucherie. And even when a star rings Oscar-winning changes with wigs or accents, like Meryl Streep, the star-quality core of idiosyncrasy – in Streep's case, the tendency to sign-write entire subtexts to each performance with her little shrugs, sighs, murmurs, and mannerist asides – can be strong enough to avoid any threat of ego meltdown.
The British acting personality, by contrast, seldom rises or wants to rise above the changing characteristics of each role. The key interim actor between the Finney-O'Toole era and the Brit Pack era is probably John Hurt. For years, in the early Eighties, he seemed the lone leading man of British cinema: suffering for art in movies like The Elephant Man, Champions (as a jockey with cancer), and 1984. Hurt turned the craft of British screen acting away from its hiccup era of glamour and self-promotion in the Sixties back into an arena for monastic self-abnegation. Hurt by name, crucifixion-prone by nature.
Hurt in turn handed on the
baton of high-minded masochism to Ben Kingsley, and to Jeremy Irons, the
latter suffering consecutively for love (The French Lieutenant's Woman), exile (Moonlighting), and
God (The Mission). The
patron saint of this hairshirt acting movement was
probably the Blessed Vanessa. Born
as a screen star in the Sixties, La Redgrave has
been far more at home in the dourer late Seventies and early Eighties. She
never really seemed happy playing the glitz-and-glamour Hollywood field. Not
for her Camelot and its ilk when she could, later, don the rough fatigues
of martyrdom, acting her tortured heart out in Julia or Playing
for Time or Wetherby.
Heirs to two such giddily contrasting movements – Sixties self-promotion and post-Sixties self-flagellation – it's no surprise that the Brit Pack actors sometimes seem to spend their lives tumbling around in a historico-cultural blender with no idea in what form they're going to pour out in each new role. Traditions in British acting have been so shaken up over the last 30 years that there's no longer any terra firma for the aspiring thespian. And combined with that lacuna – the lack of a reigning orthodoxy in style, background, or training – is the lack of any coherent "movement" in modern British cinema. For all their richness and prolixity, UK movies today tend to be a bunch of lively one-offs rather than a cogent school or tradition. In the past, actors could go through periods of honing their craft from movie to movie by sharpening it on much the same whetstone: whether Ealing comedy, or Hammer horror, or "Carry-ons," or the kitchen-sink wave of the Sixties.
the young actor can find himself flung like a pinball all around the map of
histrionic possibility. In one year, he or she can careen from a James Ivory
period pic to a rough-trade
Derek Jarman fantasy, to a gnomic Peter Greenaway fable, to a dour
state-of-Britain Channel 4 docudrama. Between movies, he or she will fill in
time with a quick stage role at the National or the Royal Court, a pop video
or two, and a lightning cameo in a TV sitcom. No wonder the new British actor
is a moving target, one whom critics find hard to define and evaluate and
filmgoers find hard even to identify. The current pack-leaders are undoubtedly
Gary 0ldman, Miranda Richardson,
and Daniel Day Lewis.
§Everett has been a fancied horse ever since he shook his Byronic fetlocks in Another Country (the play, then the film). Defiantly weird-looking, his lanky physique, his stoop, and his gaunt, pale, aquiline head seemed to condemn him to a lifetime of playing cloistered aesthetes or sickly aristos. But hardly had the moviegoer dropped him into his Filmofax (under E for English and Effete) than Everett reappeared, mutated beyond recognition, in other roles at other ends of the movie compass. He was a sleazy, womanizing racing driver in Dance with a Stranger, a boorish violin prodigy in Duet for One, and a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed rock star in Hearts of Fire. Currently he is a macho-mysterious Spaniard in Rosi's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. There were even rumors that he was going to don three tons and play Orson Welles in a movie about the Mercury Theater's heyday.
§Gary Oldman emerged from a copious apprenticeship in the London theater and British TV to win, in successive movie years, both the Sid Vicious and the Joe Orton look-alike contests. Since he also bears a stunning similitude to the young John Osborne, British author of Look Back in Anger, his career as a showbiz spitting image could be only just beginning. To the natural advantage of physically resembling everyone you can think of, 0ldman adds a rare plasticity of speech and mannerism. The hunched and grungy yobbishness of Sid Vicious is light years away from the preening cockiness of J. Orton, and yet 0ldman played both – indeed made a meal of both – as to the mannerisms born.
§Miranda Richardson – insanely underused by filmmakers so far – is the most talented British actress since the Blessed Vanessa. Her biggest role to date – as murderess Ruth Ellis in Dance with a Stranger – had a psychotic gentility that summed up for eternity the British way of killing. (Mind the blood doesn't get on the chintz curtains, dearie). The wondrous thing about Richardson is that she can scoot about between totally different roles – as a wacky-infantile lecturer's wife in Simon Gray's black comedy for TV After Pilkington, as a young farming girl in John Mackenzie's The Innocent, as an imperiously prankish Elizabeth I in the BBC sitcom Blackadder and as a ghost-like POW in Empire of the Sun – lending as common denominator only a pale beauty and a piercing intelligence. Once she's off the screen – as with most Brit Pack actors – you'd have a hard time giving the police a description of her. In the best actors, though, this elusiveness of personality goes hand-in-mitt with a startling talent for Protean change. To a generation looking for ways to out-wrestle the predictability of simple heroism, the Brit pack keeps changing the shape of things to come.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 1988 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.