Are great actors/actresses those who can play multiple roles or themselves well?

Okay, I know truly great actors/actresses are generally considered to be those that can completely immerse themselves in their roles and ‘become’ the character/person. But how do we rank those that play a version of themselves, real or not? Woody Allen is the best known example, but what about people like Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen. Okay, I know they’re not great actors, but still, they do a great job of bringing their personalities to their roles, which makes it so entertaining.

What brought me to thinking about this is because one of my favorite directors, Hong Sang Soo’s latest string of films features his real life paramour Kim Min Hee (Min Hee is her first name) in roles that often parallel what may or may not be what they’ve experienced in real life. The most autobiographical (though Hong has continually denied it) is his On the Beach Alone at Night in which Kim plays a young woman who had an affair with a director and is waiting in Germany for him to leave his wife and come to her.*

Kim is a fantastic actress able to immerse herself completely in her roles, but now in Hong’s current films (which are the only ones, she’s acting in as she’s been blackballed from South Korean cinema because of her affair), the line between her on-screen character and her (and Hong’s) persona(s) are blurred.

*In real life, Hong is married and seeking a divorce, and began his affair with Kim during the filming of *Right Now, Wrong, Then * which plays out two scenerios of a married director who contemplates an affair with a young artist (Kim).

Not sure this exactly what you mean, but Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” is largely based on his relationship with Joey Lauren Adams, who plays the character that he based on her (although he’s said that the real-life issues they had when they were dating paled in comparison to the experiences that Alyssa Jones - Joey Lauren Adams’ character - has in the movie).

Are you asking about how important range is to an actor, and whether we can call an actor truly great if they have a very limited range but are incredibly effective in their sweet spot?

Ahh…a good summary of what I’m asking. Yes.

No matter what role Woody Allen plays, there’s always a bit of his neurotic self in it that makes his role funny or real. On the other hand, whenever I see Don Rickles in Kelly’s Heroes I keep waiting for him to break into his wise cracking character, which he never does.

I immediately thought of Jeff Goldblum when I read the OP. Particularly over the past decade (and, probably, for even longer than that), Goldblum consistently plays essentially the same character (either that, or his “character” is just himself). He does it well, and he’s clearly not hurting for work, but I have a hard time picturing a director picking him for a role in which he doesn’t want “Jeff Goldblum playing Jeff Goldblum,” just as I have a hard time imagining that Goldblum is ever going to win an Oscar or a Golden Globe.

A Few Good Men was just on the tube, and it made me think about Tom Cruise’s range (or lack thereof). It’s a movie that uses him really well, but where he’s also doing a character that’s extremely familiar to us from his other movies.
The question of what makes actors great is obviously very subjective. For me, I’m most impressed when an actor can be what I’d call "convincing." A recent example: all three leads in *The Favourite, *especially Olivia Coleman.

Does being convincing as an actor require having “range?” I guess across a long career it might … when I look at the examples people have put forward of well-known actors with limited range, I don’t know that I’d call any of them particularly “great.” (I like some, and might call them “fun” “cool” or “entertaining” or something, or talk about them having a great performance or three…)
Should we also consider that sometimes actors might have range but not get many chances to show it off? I dunno, how about Robin Williams – he was capable of playing different sorts of people, but generally got hired to play someone who acted a lot like himself (or his public persona).

I agree with this. I use the word “conviction” a lot when I stumble on a great performance, but it’s the same thing. It’s not about how extreme a character can be, so bugger off Jared Leto et al, it’s all about understanding the character, how they’d behave in any situation, and what the style the story is trying to be. Comedy acting can run the gamut as much as any drama in terms of different styles, but there are plenty of examples of movies where some actors clearly don’t know what the other actors are doing and playing it all wrong. No consistency.

It’s frustrating to see a guest actor come into an episode and completely be at odds to what everyone else is doing. But it’s delightful when someone not only understands, but elevates it just enough that it pushes everyone else’s game to make an episode stand out.

I think that I do a perfect job at playing me. But I also don’t think that that’s any sort of notable accomplishment, because everyone else does a perfect job at playing themselves, too. For some people, being themselves might be quite entertaining, but it’s still not acting.

People tend to downplay the ability if actors to play “themselves,” and it’s more complicated than just talent.

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, actors were expected to play the same sort of role. This could change over their career (Humphrey Bogart went from sneering villain to hard-boiled romantic hero, for example*) and sometimes an actor would try something different, but the studios made more money if an actor was a known commodity. Audiences went to a Katherine Hepburn movie to see Hepburn play the same general sort of role, for instance. Even people known at the time as great actors (e.g., Spencer Tracy), were stuck within a set range of character types.

It started changing as the Hollywood system broke down in the 50s, but not all that fast. Once an actor hit it big, they would look for similar roles (and were offered them).

Even now, many actors stay within a set area. Tom Hanks, for instance, nearly always plays a decent guy. But there are a growing number of actors who do immerse themselves in a role.

Ultimately, an actor’s greatness is determined by their work. Cary Grant played the usually charming character, and made a bunch of great movies. Same with James Stewart (it’s hard to imagine Stewart cast as a killer, even though he was). If the actor makes a lot of great movies and has memorable roles, it’s hard to say they’re not great, no matter how much range they show. Often, playing themselves is what everyone wants and what the director uses in making the film.

So the question is unanswerable. It depends on what you prefer.

*A later example is Jack Elam, who went from a stone killer in a bunch of westerns to a loveable sidekick after he grew a beard.

I’m not so sure. I sometimes suspect that there are people, myself included, who would be more successful in life if they were better at playing themselves.

And when you start talking about people playing themselves on screen or stage, it’s even more dubious. If you make a biopic of a living person, it’s not necessarily the best choice to have that person play themselves.

You mentioning that movie made me think of a prime example for this thread, Jack Nicholson.