Film & TV Muse

Atypical Performances: Reinventing Actors

Cavan Gilbey looks at performances that reinvented the stars behind them.

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Image Credit: Twentieth Century Fox

A wiser person than all of us once told the world that when opposites attract, they have great results; north and south sticking together, mature and immature people bonding, David Lynch and a touching story about a man on a lawnmower resulting in a Palme d’Or nomination. But the power couples that matter the most to us today are the pairings of actors with projects that are antithetical to what an audience knows them for. These always seem attractive to a certain kind of audience because of their otherness; it’s an interesting advertising draw when you see ‘ACTOR AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN THEM BEFORE’ slapped on a poster or trailer. However, the sad fact is that general audiences don't often see these performances because they are usually in arthouse or indie movies that don’t have the same mass appeal. We know Adam Sandler as the funny everyman because those are the movies that get wide distribution, so seeing him turn up in a Safdie Brother’s crime thriller, namely Uncut Gems (2019), is a huge and pleasant surprise. This dynamic can be a double-edged sword, however; we can’t have the surprise of an atypical performance without the film being restricted to a more niche, rather than mainstream, audience. In other words, these performances are more visible in projects with more creative freedom, where the director’s vision sees a typecast actor as having unrealised potential.

The earliest example of this trend can be traced back to the final days of silent cinema when the ‘talkie’ - the first films that used diegetic sound - was becoming more and more popular thanks to hits like The Jazz Singer (1927) by Alan Crosland. Films stars of the time were henceforth forced into adapting their own performances in line with these technological developments. Many stars of the silent screen made the jump into this new and exciting medium, although it was also common for careers to come to a rapid end during this transitional period. Stars like Wallace Beery, Laurel and Hardy, and Janet Gaynor all survived this period of being forced to play against their type and open their mouths. Greta Garbo, however, was by far the most successful actress to benefit from this transition to sound; if anything, it elevated her star status and made her more popular than ever thanks to her debut ‘talkie’ Anna Christie (1930), which bagged her an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Actress’. The film was marketed with the tagline ‘Garbo Talks!’ which further proves that audiences are drawn to the very novelty of seeing their favourite stars break their preconceived mould. Although, when considering films of this age you must approach the transition with knowledge of its significance; the idea of an actor playing against preconceptions is no longer punctuated by these major shifts in cinematic culture. Perhaps Garbo and her transitioning peers, and this is not to take away from the skill of these classic performers, are only praised for their breaking of the silent image because of the dramatic changes in how films were being made.

Would these actors be as well regarded now if they had never had to make that jump between film mediums? Could this adored atypicality be merely a result of audiences being swept up in the birth of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’? We will never know for sure, but what we do know is that it can be considered the birth of audiences’ fascination with unconventional roles.

Nowadays, comedians turning serious is perhaps the most common example of this article’s particular criteria. With this in mind, it would be best to kick off by having a look at some of the best examples and why they are so spectacular. One of the most unexpectedly emotive performances from a comedian came from Jennifer Aniston in the underrated 2014 drama, Cake, from director Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland, Beastly). The film follows Aniston’s Claire Bennet as she deals with the suicide of her close friend and grapples with her own personal tragedy. Upon its release, Cake was somewhat maligned by critics. Most would agree, however, that Aniston gave a career-best performance as a woman tortured by obsession with her friend’s death and the spiral into alcohol and drug abuse triggered by it. The scene with Aniston where she attempts to give the group therapy leader a bottle of vodka is undercut by an overwhelming loneliness; she obviously struggles with the passive aggressive tolerance of the therapist and so her lines are delivered with suitable shakiness. Even the more optimistic scenes, such as when Claire accepts the help of her physiotherapist at the pool, are given deeper emotional depth thanks to Aniston’s very moving portrayal of anxiety and self-destruction. The former Friends star has the star power to attract even the most casual of viewers, so her immensely emotional (and very underappreciated) turn here came as a real surprise to everyone and proved that a moving performance can come from the most unexpected of places.

On the flip side we have a comedian choosing to play a role of a more sinister nature. It is hardly uncommon to see comedians playing villains, but it often comes with a certain context. These roles are usually reserved for family-friendly, more camper films (see Charlie Day in 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising or Tiffany Haddish in 2019’s The Lego Movie 2). In more serious projects, however, the same comic performers can frighten and shock the viewer due to their dramatic transformation. Robin Williams is no outsider to mature roles, playing the emotional heart of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting (1997), but One Hour Photo (2002) is a real highlight of this side of his filmography. Williams plays the initially charming Sy ‘The Photo Guy’ Parrish whose daily life consists of developing photographs for a local department store, and enjoying casual conversation with the Yorkin family that frequents the store. When we first enter Parrish’s spartanly furnished apartment, we begin to get a true sense of who this lonely figure is, and when we cut to the wall of Yorkin family photos, it finally clicks that this man is potentially dangerous. Williams captures Sy’s obsession with this family through an almost childlike naivety as he simply assumes himself privy to everything they do, believing himself to be more than just the ‘photo guy’. We get our first sense of his emotional fragility once he loses his job and screams at the manager, threatening him with photos of his daughter as he enacts his long-winded revenge on the people who have hurt him. Williams’ crowning moments as Parrish come in the final act of Mark Romanek’s thriller; tracking down the adulterous Will Yorkin to a hotel room and forcing him and his mistress to be his models in a sick photography session, where Williams frightens with a calm authority which is almost paternal in tone. Williams ends the film with a monologue in which he is disgusted at what he’s done to his ‘children’, a harrowing reminder that this is an actor who can truly achieve a performance that will chill you to the bone.

Aside from comedians, the other class of actor that is not usually expected to deliver a serious performance is the child star. There is a snooty assumption from most audiences that once you’ve been in something akin to Twilight, you’ll mostly star in complete dross for the rest of your career, but that isn’t always the case. Most of these performers go on to be in interesting projects that capitalise on and subvert their popular image; Daniel Radcliffe alone has been in such a weird range of films that his career deserves its own thesis. The one who has arguably succeeded most from this trend has been Robert Pattinson, who became a household name thanks to his turn as Twilight’s Edward Cullen, but is now lauded as a star of the arthouse scene. You can pick any number of films that feature him ‘playing against type’, including 2017’s Good Time, but the one that sticks out the most is Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse from 2019. Pattinson’s breakout performance as Cullen was often quiet and reserved, resulting in his typecasting as the awkward but well-meaning love interest in films like Water for Elephants, or as the snarky upper class lead in Cosmopolis. But The Lighthouse allows Pattinson to just let it all out and play a character full of guilt, anger, and frustration; he’s a volatile individual who beats up seagulls and tries to gain power over the dominant lighthouse keeper played by Willem Dafoe. Pattinson captures the Promethean struggle perfectly with the way he slowly bottles up rage across the opening acts of the film before exploding in the final third as he buries his friend alive and realises that the knowledge he’s been seeking the entire film has amounted to nothing.

With the exception of Garbo, none of the actors discussed have received Academy nominations for these roles and are seldom talked about in relation to their oeuvre, aside from Pattinson who currently enjoys a career revitalisation and has managed to stop himself from being typecast as Edward Cullen-type romantic leads.

Perhaps that will change in due time. In each case, these typecast performers break conventions and push themselves into offering another, unexpected layer of their talents. Once you have watched these performances, you’ll want to see these actors pushing themselves on a more consistent basis. At the end of the day, everyone loves an underdog story.

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