Small Performances

Jimmy McNaulty’s dead. Renée Zellweger did it.

After five seasons of The Wire I knew Jimmy pretty well. Our acquaintance had grown over sixty hours of television. We should have been on first-name terms but when he ate lead in the opening minutes of Chicago I realised that I hadn’t a clue who the actor was. Maybe the hyper-reality of the series was so high-pitched that I hadn’t seriously thought of it as acting, after all I had to play it with the English subtitles on just to work out what they were saying.

Modern fame goes backwards as well as forwards. Now, aware of him, he suddenly leaps out of old productions such as Chicago where he previously slipped past unnoticed in the opening minutes of the musical. His name, I found out, is Dominic West. In The Wire he is a Baltimore policeman, off screen he is from Yorkshire with an accent to serve up with the roast beef. A filmed interview gives the impression that Baltimore Jimmy has gone undercover, and that his real voice is the result of either bad acting or bad drugs. Now when I spot him in something I’ve seen before, like Chicago, I’m adding something, a new layer of appreciation, to the part he is playing. William Hazlitt wrote truly of the relationship between audiences and actors when he stated that we develop “a personal intimacy with them”. We certainly do and the friendly interest we take in players is our contribution to their performance. I was suddenly riveted by West when his appearance took me by surprise in Chicago. Is his performance now better because I have a new connection with the drama? I don’t know, but on this first sight of “Jimmy” I suddenly leap forward in my seat. It’s what the drowsing dogs do when a familiar doorbell sound rings out of the television, or when a long-dead pooch barks something presumably offensive at them out of an old movie.

The Wire used something newish in naturalistic acting that is a direct product of the medium. It’s the real-time ageing of kids which is incorporated into the parts they are playing. You also see this happen in The Sopranos. Series Four of The Wire followed four young adolescent boys, miserable inhabitants of a drug-violent world. They moved through the episodes with a slight hope that it would not eventually recruit them to its drug-selling corners. When a new year’s season began changes that didn’t seem like scriptwriter’s words or acting had taken place. Their fates seemed written into their flesh as the camera captured the fact that they had aged, coarsened and lost.

In Fielding’s Tom Jones countrified Mr Partridge sees a London play for the first time. Scornfully dismissing the actor playing Hamlet as only doing what any other person in his place would have done, he prefers the performance by the King, who “speaks all his Words distinctly, half as loud again as the other. Any Body may see he is an Actor.” So much for naturalism. Though Fielding was making sophisticated fun of Mr Partridge and over-acting actors, Mr Partridge has a point. Audiences may not appreciate over-acting but we do have a special affection for some actors who we see are Actors.

As the credits roll at the beginning of British films and television series there are names which immediately have me preparing for pleasure to come. It’s probably a very personal thing. Those in my pleasure list aren’t always top billing. In old films Alastair Sim or Martita Hunt for instance. Margaret Rutherford, of course. Now, there’s Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, Zoë Wanamaker and others. Not long ago the French film industry consisted of half a dozen actors who were in everything you saw, and gave much the same performance in everything, only the costumes and the subtitles sometimes changed.

All these actors have undergone theatrical training and yet in each production they are very much themselves and at the same time someone completely different. On a good day their usual bits, which I like, fit new characters. Bill Nighy, with his coughing regurgitating laugh, can be an old rocker, equerry to George V, newspaper editor, spy, and still be his spidery self. In Stephen Poliakoff’s Gideon’s Daughter Nighy’s character sat in the audience of a school concert watching his daughter sing a French song—a performance which would have had Virgin records throwing her a contract. The pose was Nighy serious, not Nighy giggly. Lips tightly pursed, one eyebrow slightly raised as he watched. On the couch I did the same: monkey see, monkey do. It was agony. Aching actor’s brow and sore head. The triumph of mannerism over naturalism comes with much suffering.

Ian Richardson, another whose fame goes backwards. Every time his name comes up on some old entertainment I’m hoping that he’ll be doing a premature House of Cards. And I’m usually disappointed.

In an essay on Ralph Richardson, Kenneth Tynan writes of his “professional trademarks” which included “the pop-eyed, poleaxed look, with one eyebrow balefully cocked”. Tynan also had his professional trademarks and one was writing like this (also on Richardson): “There was his balsawood lightness of movement, which enabled him to fall flat on his face three times in the course of a single act—a rare feat for septuagenarians.”

I want to see Zoë Wanamaker give that look and do the tight thing with her mouth. I want Celia Imrie to look flustered and hopeless. Michael Gambon is a voice—kindly, reassuring, dependable. He’d make a marvellous serial killer—a British serial killer, that is. I like Gambon to look, and sound, like Michael Gambon—though that didn’t quite work when the role he played was an already established mannerism—Maigret. It works better, I suppose, if we have no prior expectations of the character the actor is taking on, though even disasters can be minor triumphs. Filming Agatha Christie, Margaret Rutherford was brilliantly herself while being simultaneously completely un-Miss Marple, while Joan Hickson fitted perfectly. 

“There is a part of them that is a part of me,” says Alex Dimitriades, talking of his role in the ABC production of The Slap. Sure thing, exactly what Koko from Red Dog would have barked if he had won (as he should have) the Best Actor Award (entire male category) this year. It sounds the right thing to say and expresses a suitably professional and clinical view of acting that is a world away from these small performances in which the actor brings to the character their whole acting personality. Maybe that’s partly why so many Australian television and film productions don’t take off; there is a tone of falseness and embarrassment in the playing that makes Australian audiences equally embarrassed. So many local productions are strangely ponderous and overly serious even when they are at their most vulgar.

From these films it’s not charm, that freezing word, it’s tradition that reaches out in these actor-centred performances. It’s the illusion behind the reality that moves us in acting. We are seeing, and appreciating, actors acting. Though it must drive theatrical theorists crazy and drama teachers even crazier, some acting careers have been built more from long hours pulling faces in bathroom mirrors than indoctrinating term times in drama schools. While theory-burdened serious theatre sweeps away these sorts of actors’ affectations, they allow into the vacated space a directors’ theatre allowing new dictators to impose their own quirks, tricks and mannerisms—which is exactly the theatre of Barrie Kosky. Actors do have their tricks and mannerisms and surprisingly often these can be successfully applied to readings of the very different parts they play. Plays bomb when they get this wrong, and soar when it’s right. The players are bound, more or less, by the playwright’s words. Dictatorial directors simply ditch the words and play their own egos (ditto Kosky et al).

In Foyle’s War Michael Kitchen’s mannerisms fit around Chief Superintendent Foyle. The character being played is a smart, murder-solving policeman in Second World War-time Hastings. Though Kitchen wears an overcoat with distinction and a hat with panache, the best bit is his face. He thinks before speaking, often, and the internal word assembling tightens the lines about his eyes and as the thoughts behind the eventual sentences are being put in order they bounce about alarmingly inside his mouth. From the internal walloping his face receives he may have swallowed a linotype machine. The good scripts, by Anthony Horowitz, who wrote for the dullest of all series Midsomer Murders, make the words that eventually come out surprising, so that the face contortions are a visual pleasure before the word pleasures. Return to a DVD of Poliakoff’s 1980 televison film Caught on a Train (don’t, it’s very boring), and there a much younger Michael Kitchen’s face does what it will be doing in Foyle all these years later—though without the wrinkly smiles. Playing a young man, a publisher, he’s tiresome and pretentious; as an older policeman he’s very good, though is it acting or mannerism that wins the audience over? In real life this face pulling, which so suits policeman Foyle, would be both tedious and theatrical. It’s a bit too Melbourne University history department to work in real life.

The best acting and best productions are on television. The best audiences are the people at home watching television with enthusiasm: the worst are those who have bought overpriced theatre tickets and will applaud absolutely anything. The best actors are those who have that personal thing that makes us respond to them, and the ones with the least pretentions about their business. On the set of Muriel’s Wedding Rachel Griffiths reportedly said to Bill Hunter, “I’m kinda waiting for them to find out that I can’t act.” Hunter replied, “Rachel, I’ve been waiting forty years, and they never find out!”

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