Sunday, June 21, 2009

I'm luvvie-ing it

Is an A-list star necessarily a great actor? Are all theatre actors unsung heroes? I asked some casting agents to throw light on the issue in yesterday's Irish Independent...

It's a star turn
Jude Law gets rave reviews for his stage Hamlet, and proves that it is possible to be both a tabloid celebrity and a great actor, writes Susan Daly.
Saturday June 20 2009

Jude Law is without doubt a famous man. Unfortunately for the classically-trained actor, much of his celebrity has stemmed from a dramatic personal life rather than his portrayal of dramatis personae.

A turbulent marriage to Sadie Frost, an engagement to another, younger, actress, Sienna Miller, scuffles with the paparazzi and then Nannygate -- when he slept with his children's minder -- have earned him inches in all the wrong columns.

It must be gratifying for Law to now find himself featured further towards the back of the newspapers, where he is receiving rave reviews for his turn as Hamlet in London's West End. Law's performance apparently shows "rare vulnerability and emotional openness". As the theatre critic in The Guardian put it: "People who come to patronise him [Law] as a movie star essaying the great Dane will be in for a shock."

That, as the prince might say, is the question. Jude Law is not tabloid fodder because he's an actor -- it's because he's a movie star. And snobbery from old stage hands would dictate that a pampered film star is not really up to the job of treading the boards. "It's quite reductive, that notion that because an actor has experienced an emphasis on fame and celebrity, talent should be excluded from that bracket," says Holly Ni Chiardha, casting director with the Abbey Theatre.

AIndeed, while stars like Julia Roberts and Matthew Broderick made critically-savaged turns on Broadway, Ireland has witnessed its fair share of famous movie faces making a successful transition to the stage. The performances of Ralph Fiennes, James Cromwell, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and Frances McDormand in Irish theatres have all been well received. It is worth noting though that most were returning to roots which they firmly planted on the stage in their youth. Law, too, was a celebrated young stage actor before finding on-screen success in films like The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain.

Alii Curran, a former director of both the Dublin Fringe Festival and the Peacock Theatre, masterminded the appearances of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, Samantha Morton and of Frasier star John Mahoney, in Dublin. "It was clear from Tim and Susan that their background was in theatre," she remembers.

She says that the opportunities in television in particular are such that an actor can now mould an entire career without ever doing stage work. "They can establish themselves as popular stars very quickly because of luck and iconic status," she says. So are they not proper actors if they don't have stage craft? Curran laughs unabashedly: "I belong to the old school, so I would say: No!"

Not that there are only movie stars without great talent, adds Curran, citing Mickey Rourke in last year's The Wrestler, and Halle Berry's Oscar-winning turn in Monster's Ball, as examples of genuinely transformative performances. "The best actor for the role is not always box-office so they are not cast," says Curran. "The movie industry is very cynical." This is how the term 'bankable star' is applied to such questionable talents as Adam Sandler, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy.

Alan Stanford -- actor, director and producer for over 40 years -- believes that a great film star can also be a great actor. "I watched Laurence Olivier when I was a drama student, as he came to the end of his time on stage, when he was running the Old Vic [in London])," says Stanford. "He trained for the theatre and he was the matinee idol of the West End. Then he went to Hollywood, where he did Wuthering Heights and was a major star. Then he had another major stage career as director of the national theatre, and then went back to have a second film career in his later years."

Holly Ni Chiardha points to Stephen Rea as a very recognisable movie actor who started in theatre, working with the likes of Beckett and Sam Shepard and who has now rekindled his relationship with the Abbey, acting this year in a new Shepard play written especially for him and fellow actor Sean McGinley.

"Any actor is a very brave soul to jump into that career," says Ni Chiardha. "It can be difficult for a Hollywood star to go onto Broadway because the press has preconceived notions about them." Katie Holmes for example, better known as Mrs Tom Cruise and star of Dawson's Creek, surprised critics by acquitting herself brilliantly in a revival of All My Sons last year on Broadway.

Much of the contrast between screen and stage acting, says movie and TV casting director Thyrza Ging, is simply a matter of technique. "Obviously the two mediums need different styles -- in the States, young actors grow up acting for camera, whereas ours still essentially start with theatre and go from there."

Ging believes that all of the Irish actors who have become film stars got there on talent. "There is an element of the big break, but make no mistake, Joel Schumacher [director of Colin Farrell's breakthrough film, Tigerland] wouldn't have taken a chance on Colin if he hadn't thought he had the acting chops to do it."

Alan Stanford, who has worked with many of Ireland's most famous names in his time, agrees: "Brenda Fricker, Donal McCann, Daniel Day Lewis, Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy, Gerard McSorley -- they were stunning stage actors as well as successful film actors. Daniel Day-Lewis gave a Hamlet that was very highly regarded."

On the other hand, there are brilliant actors in Ireland who are not easily recognised by the public and work extensively in theatre. The names Eileen Walsh, Tom Vaughn Murphy, Marie Mullen, Ali White, Derbhla Crotty, Dearbhla Molloy, Aidan Kelly and others constantly pop up when you ask any Irish casting director to name their favourite actors of today.

Even on celluloid, some of the best actors can mine away on the seam-edge of fame. Orson Welles once claimed that "the greatest actor who ever lived" was a French character called Raimu.

"It is great to see someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman finally get recognition," says Ali Curran, "because he's not the classic good-looker, but he came through with great roles and crossover roles, much as Heath Ledger did."

So are we being a bit tough on our A-list stars -- will we ever see them as great actors? When asked to name his acting greats of the current generation, Alan Stanford namechecks Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, middle-aged men both. "I'm a great believer in a degree of survivability to be considered a great actor," insists Stanford.

"Meryl Streep was always wonderful but she's now unsurpassable. Despite what Shakespeare said, you are not born great. You are born with the potential for greatness."

ALL A-BOARD: Famous (and infamous) screen to stage transitions...
JOHN GIELGUD in Hamlet, New York (1936): Gielgud played the Danish prince many times to universal acclaim before he became more latterly associated with movies. A stark contrast to that famous review of Laurence Olivier’s 1937 Hamlet in the Old Vic: “Mr Olivier does not speak poetry badly. He does not speak it at all.”
LAURENCE OLIVIER in Macbeth, Stratford-upon-Avon (1955): Hollywood power couple Olivier and wife Vivien Leigh created one of the most enduring Macbethian couples of the 20th century.
PETER O’TOOLE in Macbeth, London (1980) Alan Stanford tells it: “His Macbeth in the Old Vic was a bit disastrous and he did a terrible Dublin accent for Juno and the Paycock in Dublin. But he was an extremely fine Hamlet.”
CYD CHARISSE in Grand Hotel, New York (1992): Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s old screen dancing partner was cruelly savaged for her debut Broadway performance at the age of 71 for coming across “as someone mistakenly embalmed while still alive and now trying hard to emerge from premature mummification”.
JULIA ROBERTS in Three Days Of Rain (2006): Roberts “staggered hesitantly” through this dreary comedy-drama, but her star power ensured its 12-week run sold out immediately.

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