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View Full Version : What makes a "great" actor?


godzillatemple
11-26-2003, 11:07 AM
All right, you've got your "superstars" and then you've got your "character actors". As far as I can tell, the main difference between them is that character actors lose themselves in each role they play, whereas superstars always play themselves.

Anyway, I've often wondered what makes somebody a "great" actor. One option would be the ability, like a character actor, to accurately portray somebody very different from yourself. Another (not necessarily mutually exclusive) option would be the ability, held by many superstars, to evoke a plethora of emotions on demand so that the audience truly believes that they are happy, sad, angry, etc.

Now, I know that character actors get all the credit for their acting chops, whereas superstars usually get lambasted by the critics. I just want to know whether somebody can be considered a "great" actor if they basically play themselves in every movie, yet do a convincing job of displaying a range believable emotions. Or, in other words, does an actor have to be able to lose himself in a role to be considered a "great" actor?

Barry

Eve
11-26-2003, 11:12 AM
A lot of it is looks and luck, too. Margaret Hamilton and Edna Mae Oliver were great actresses, but because of their, ummm, "non-beauty," they never became stars and were rarely given the kind of roles that would stretch and show off their talents.

There are also people who were promising but who died young or who were in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . Lyda Roberti, Judy Tyler, Robert Williams . . .

SpoilerVirgin
11-26-2003, 11:19 AM
No actor "basically plays himself" in every movie, unless every movie he makes is about being an actor. As for those actors who basically play the same character type in every movie, if they are convincing enough in that character type that you believe in the emotions and motivations of their characters, and feel like you're watching the character rather than just the actor, then I think they are demonstrating acting talent.

The best example of this kind of thing is actors who play long term television roles. An actor can demonstrate great skill at playing the same person over a period of many years, as long as the character has depth and believability.

The one element of skill that an actor playing the same or similar parts lacks is range. I think to be truly great, an actor needs to demonstrate some degree of range. If an actor never steps out of his or her comfort zone to play a different type of part, then it's impossible to know how much range he or she has.

To answer your final question, yes, I believe that an actor must be able to lose himself in a role (from the perspective of the audience -- some actors never lose themselves emotionally because they act in a more technical way) to be considered great. I think it's possible that an actor could lose himself in only one role or one type of role and still be great, but without the ability to become the character you are playing, you are not really acting.

well he's back
11-26-2003, 12:30 PM
Yes I think an actor must be able to lose himself in a role. That's why (looks completely aside) Johnny Depp is a great actor and such folks as Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, etc. are "merely" celebrity superstars. When an actor such as Depp (or Ian McKellan, or Ian Holm, or [insert name of your favorite great actor here]) loses themself in their part the viewer really is able to connect more with the story. When acting is too wooden, it is harder for me to suspend disblief for the duration of the show.

kunilou
11-26-2003, 12:41 PM
I've always thought that three things define a great performance -- and it's damn hard to find anyone who can do all three at the same time.

1) to have such a physical presence that the audience can't take their eyes off you, no matter what else is happening

2) to bring the script to life and make the dialogue credible

3) to play the character so convincingly that the audience forgets who you are and focuses exclusively on the character

The big problem, as I see it, is #3. Whether you're talking about the stage, scren or TV, by the time you've become a lead character, the audience recognizes you as a "star."

It's difficult enough to do all three for one type of character, but to do it consistently with a variety of character types is damn near impossible.

Kalhoun
11-26-2003, 12:50 PM
I don't know the specific thing that makes a great actor, but I know it probably can't be learned. You have to feel the part so deeply that you can wrap yourself around it and become that person. Some folks that have "it":

Robert DeNiro
Cate Blanchette
Sean Penn
Jack Nicholson

There are lots of others, but I can't think of them offhand.

DaddyTimesTwo
11-26-2003, 01:08 PM
Then there are the bad actors that play themselves in every movie:

Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris come to mind.

I argued with my senior year English teacher that Chuck Norris was a great actor because he could portray the full range of human emotion with the same look. I couldn't convince him.

Kizarvexius
11-26-2003, 01:40 PM
Keep in mind also that stage and screen acting are very different. It's entirely possible for someone to be "great" in one and come off poorly in the other.

Gary Cooper, for example, had a tremendous screen presence that did not transfer well to the stage. While filming High Noon Lloyd Bridges (IIRC) noted that he could watch Cooper performing a scene and think nothing special about the delivery. But the exact same performance, when viewed on screen, had an unbelievable power and intensity.

Chastain86
11-26-2003, 01:46 PM
There's that special je ne sais quois that some actors have that others don't -- that special "X" factor that makes you want to watch them.

Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey basically play themselves in nearly every role, but they do so convincingly, and both possess that special something that makes you want to watch.

Seth Green has it. Samuel Jackson definitely has it. Vin Diesel does not.

Ray Liotta's a great underrated actor. You just can't take your eyes off the guy.

Tusculan
11-26-2003, 01:57 PM
If one looks at these persons we agree are 'great' actors, it does seem to be that the factor which distinguishes them from those actors who are merely extremely competent is most captured by this word 'dignity'. Of course, this merely begs the further question: of what is 'dignity' comprised?

Sorry, I've got a penchant for obscure references

lissener
11-26-2003, 02:51 PM
eek. I usually refrain, Tusc, but that last sentence was just fingernails on slate: if it was a quote, there should be a '[sic]' after both "begs the question" and "comprised."

Anyway, Alec Guiness said something like an actor needs to have very little of his own personality, so that there was room for the personalities of the characters he played. Or something. Katherine Hepburn claimed never to have acted at all; she had no conscious technique.

When he was filming Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman prepared for the scene where he's tortured by Laurence Olivier by going without sleep for a couple days and starving and exhausting himself. Olivier's reaction upon learning of this (paraphrasing from memory): "My dear boy, wouldn't it be easier just to try acting?"

SPOOFE
11-26-2003, 03:49 PM
I always make the distinction 'tween a good performer and a good actor. Someone who has good energy and presence on screen (or stage), even if they're not necessarily "acting", is a good performer. Think of Christopher Lee.

Other folks become a totally different person. It took me forever to realize that Philip Seymour Hoffman was in The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Almost Famous, and Punch-Drunk Love.

Sanscour
11-26-2003, 03:59 PM
You forgot Red Dragon, Spoofe.

A good actor has marketable skills. A great actor has marketable skills and talent. Also what can separate good from great is who is telling the story and their vision, and if the actors share that vision. A good actor who shares the vision of the story with a good director will create a movie worth seeing. A good actor who does not share the director's ideals and vision will cause the movie to suck ass.

imho,
Sanscour

Tusculan
11-26-2003, 04:07 PM
lissener, it's from Remains of the day. I hadn't realised the English was questionable.

shannablu
11-26-2003, 04:20 PM
I always thought Gary Oldman was great, in some of his roles, you can't even tell it's him. I think that's what it takes to be a great actor is the way they can throw themselves so into the role.

Eve
11-26-2003, 05:03 PM
Originally posted by lissener
When he was filming Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman prepared for the scene where he's tortured by Laurence Olivier by going without sleep for a couple days and starving and exhausting himself. Olivier's reaction upon learning of this (paraphrasing from memory): "My dear boy, wouldn't it be easier just to try acting?"

OK, lissener, now I am going to just start inserting that story into threads that have nothing to do with acting at all . . . Cooking, computers, politics, sex: all of 'em get the Dustin Hoffman/Laurence Olivier story!

Charlie Tan
11-26-2003, 05:11 PM
I agree with shannablu. Andf I don't think Bobby De Niro is all that great. For me, to be a great actor, the person has to be believable in a wide variety. De Niro always laughs in the same, sorta strained way. Brando mumbles and think that adds credibility. Streep weeps and tries too hard.
I'm not gonna get a lot of support here, but I think Nicole Kidman is a superb actress. Watching her in 'Birthday Girl', 'The Others' and 'Moulin Rogue' show an incredible range.
Some other favorites, exposing the same wide range:

Giovanni Ribisi
John Goodman
Cate Blanchet
Billy Bob Thornton
Ed Norton (Not in 'The Italian Job')
Morris Micklewhite
Brendan Fraser
Geoffery Rush
Kate Winslet
Tim Robbins
Martin Landau
Jodi Foster
Jean Reno (né Juan Moreno in Casablanca)
Max von Sydow (né Adolf von Sydow)

riserius1
11-26-2003, 05:22 PM
Originally posted by Kalhoun
I don't know the specific thing that makes a great actor, but I know it probably can't be learned. You have to feel the part so deeply that you can wrap yourself around it and become that person. Some folks that have "it":

Robert DeNiro
Cate Blanchette
Sean Penn
Jack Nicholson

There are lots of others, but I can't think of them offhand.

I have not seen enough work by Cate Blanchette to judge, and I do agree that Sean Penn is great at losing himself in roles(it's hard to believe that Jeff Spicoli and Matthew Poncelet are played by the same person), but I would respectfully disagree when it comes to Nicholson and DeNiro.
While both are great "performers", neither one is capable of losing himself in a role, at least by this point in their careers. It is obvious from the moment they are onscreen that they are "playing themselves" and it reallly just becomes a guessing game of how intense they will get.
They are both what I would call "character actors", i.e., people who have a limited range, but perform very well within that range, and so are hired to play a specific type of role(Nicholson, the psychotic and DeNiro, the tough-guy).
Because of the way Hollywood works, most actors)I think) are hired in just this way, not for what they CAN do, but what they are EXPECTED to do.

Chris W

sirtonyh
11-26-2003, 05:30 PM
It is the "IT" factor. You don't know what it is, you just know they have it.

Actresses on the hand are defined as great by appearance, therefore Jennifer Aniston is the greatest actress ever :D

lissener
11-26-2003, 05:33 PM
I think one of the most astonishingly versatile and convincing actors of his generation is Leonardo DiCaprio; it's a damn shame Titanic came along and messed things up.

There are very few actors I'll watch in ANYTHING, but he's one of them. Along with:

Marisa Tomei
Clare Danes
PSHoffman
Renee Zellweger
Johnny Depp
Crispin Glover
Sean Penn
Bette Davis
Barbara Stanwyck
And, increasingly, Bill Murray.

Charlie Tan
11-26-2003, 06:39 PM
Lissener and sirtonyh, even if we don't agree on nuancees, I feel we are on to something common. I very much agree on Aniston, who's the most under appreciated actress of her generation.
Your list, lisener, added some names I thought of, and some I didn't even remember, but agree with.
Especially Bill Murray. Seeing him in 'The Royal Tennenbaums' it's quite obvious that he has a range few produers have credited him with. He's young enough for me to think that he'll go on to surprise a lot of people/win awards/finally get recognition.

Zoe
11-26-2003, 11:35 PM
I'll have to disagree about Meryl Streep. I think the best performance by an actor on screen ever was her performance in Sophie's Choice. Compare that character with her role in Out of Africa.

One of the best actors to watch in action was Spencer Tracey. I could never figure out how he did it. Just couldn't catch him acting.

Listening is the first step.

Billy Bob Thornton could play the role of the Shenandoah Valley and be convincing. There is nothing he can't do when he makes up his mind to it.

don't ask
11-26-2003, 11:46 PM
Originally posted by well he's back
That's why (looks completely aside) Johnny Depp is a great actor and such folks as Ben Affleck, Tom Cruise, etc. are "merely" celebrity superstars.

And due to his cuteness Cruise has won 3 of the 5 Golden Globes he has been nominated for and earned 3 Oscar nominations.