How does a director make an actor suck so bad?

I saw the thread about Hayden Christensen being a good actor and I had this question, but I thought it would be too much of a hi-jack to post it there:

How, exactly, does a director cause an actor to become bad?

As much as I like movies and as much as I like to read about trivia and watch behind-the-scenes footage, I just can’t get my head around this.

I definitely agree that Lucas must have at least been a part of the reason that everybody in the Star Wars prequels was so terrible. I like the entire (adult) cast of the prequel trilogy, but they are uniformly terrible in those movies. But I just can’t imagine Lucas actually telling them to be bad. (“Less emotion! Take 35!”) I mean, even performances in Uwe Boll’s movies haven’t been as bad as the SW prequels. So, what gives?

Anybody have any good stories about infamously bad directors and their highly ineffective methods? Any other good examples of famously bad performances by famously good actors, and clear reasons for it?

From what I understand, Lucas went with first takes the majority of the time. First takes on a green screen set should be enough to deliver the desired effect.

Actually, directors say that a lot – or something very much like it. Everyone who has been to film school and many who haven’t have been taught to beware “theatrical” acting, so you get a lot of “bring it down a notch,” “make it smaller,” etc. from directors who don’t know what else to say but think they have to say something. Obviously Lucas isn’t totally averse to theatrical moments ("Noooooooooooo!), but overall he seemed to favor a stoic sort of flatness. Now a good director will help an actor develop alternative ways of showing character and emotion, and a great actor can sometimes deliver a compelling performance within whatever constraints the director imposes. But many, if the only message they get is “Do less of what you’re doing,” will shut down completely.

Not a famous example, but a friend of mine directed a short film (hi-def video, actually) a while back. In the first take, his lead’s performance was big, over-the-top, theatrical. Take after take my friend encouraged him to bring it down, make it smaller more real. During editing, he realized the actor’s choice had been correct, the first take was by far the most entertaining, and that’s the one he used. A less humble director might not have been able to do that.

Some actors are just crappy, like James Caan. Directors can manipulate them so they don’t appear to be so bad, but when they don’t, the actor’s true lack of ability comes out (see movies such as “Elf” for a prime example).

Conversely, directors who limit an actor’s range by insisting on having them behave a certain way can cause the acting to come across as stilted and forced. Can’t think of a good example right off hand.

I’ve directed voice acting, not theater, but it’s not hard to wreck a performance.

Good acting is a flow. Because the actor is constantly plunging forward through the scene, he can’t pause and think his way rationally through all the things he has to do. Like a good athlete, a good actor practices a lot so that when he’s actually in a performance his actions are natural and reflexive. You can’t think your way step-by-step through hitting a home run. Instead you have to get yourself into the physical and mental space where hitting a home run is the natural outcome of your reflexive actions.

So, when you’re directing, you have to work indirectly. You can’t say “play the scene exactly like this”. Instead you have to give guidelines that move the performance from where it is to where you want it to be. If you try to be too specific and micromanage the performance (“Do it EXACTLY like last time but slightly slower and with a little rising inflection at the end of the line!”) then you can easily break the actor out of playing the role and put him in a bad space where he’s THINKING about playing the role.

Even if you have the world’s greatest actor, not every scene will be perfect. It’s not hard for a bad director to use the worsts takes in the final cut.

On the other hand, if an actor gives a great performance, a bad director can tell him to do something different. An actor is not getting paid to create his own character, he is there to act the way the director wants him to act. An actor can always disagree with the director, but the final choice is usually with the director (unless the actor is also a producer, in which case he’ll get more say).

Then there are directors like Tarantino, who seems like he could get a good performance out of Al Gore if he wanted to.

You’d have to know what goes on during production to see if a director is really screwing over an actor. It’s not always apparent on screen.

I think there are a lot of mediocre actors who can turn in great performances when they have the right director. Bruce Willis falls into this category - mostly he turns in a pleasant Bruce Willis performance, but was much better than usual with John McTiernan directing him in “Die Hard”, and was absolutely amaing in “12 Monkeys”

I agree there are some directors who have the magic ability to take truly amazing actors like Terrence Stamp, Alec Guinness, and Liam Neeson - actors I have never seen turn in a bad performance elsewhere - and make them look like wooden dolls. An almost-ran like Hayden Christensen or a newbie like Natalie Portman never had a chance with Lucas directing.

Lucas, for reasons of his own, wanted the stilted delivery he remembered from his beloved Republic serials. Please watch American Graffiti to see him get a very moving performance out of non-actor Wolfman Jack. And while you’re at the video store, rent Leon (aka The Professional) to see how talented she was in her very first film - at 11.

Some directors, like Kubrick, will do multiple takes to wear the actors down to get a calm and natural performance.

I take it you’re not a Futurama fan.
“I have ridden the mighty Moon worm!”

Except himself.

Newbie? gaffa already mentioned her lead role in Leon, but she also had great roles in Heat with Al Pacino (she was his troubled stepdaughter), Beautiful Girls (she was the wise-beyond-her-years next door neighbor*), as Drew Barrymore’s sister in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and as the President Jack Nicholson’s daughter in Mars Attacks!, after which she took time off to go to college (graduated from Harvard).

  • with one of the greatest lines in movie history IMO. She’s got a crush on Timothy Hutton but realizes she’s too young for him and can’t compete with his beautiful and successful fiance. Talking about the fiance, she says “Two words not in her vocabulary: lunch money.”

It may also have something to do with the script. Let’s face it, there’s only so much you can do with the dialogue Lucas wrote for the prequels. A seasoned actor like Alec Guinness could have turned out a decent performance with Lucas’ material, but Hayden Christensen and even Natalie Portman, as talented as they may otherwise have been, just didn’t have the chops to pull it off.

Harrison Ford was more of a newb than Natalie Portman when the original Star Wars was made, but I think most people would agree he did well. With Portman and Christiansen I think Lucas got the performances he wanted. It looked good to him and bad to the rest of us. That’s probably common in situations like this, with the director seeing things differently from the performers and/or the rest of the viewing universe. The saying is that film is a director’s medium and that’s how it goes.

I know I’ve previously linked to an article (too lazy to search atm), from around the time Christiansen’s performance in Shattered Glass came out, in which Christiansen said that every suggestion he had for how to play a scene was shot down by Lucas.

Kubrick movies have great stories and visuals, but not great individual performances. Any Oscar-worthy performances in 2001 or Barry Lyndon? Not really. And the speaking performances in A Clockwork Orange were anything but calm and natural. As prestigious as a Kubrick film is on the resume, he did not tend to support bravura individual performances (unless your name is Kirk Douglas or Jack Nicholson). Terry Gilliam tends to overwhelm his actors, too. Alec Baldwin famously blasted Tim Burton for not letting him Act in Beetlejuice (but Burton eased up when he started working with Johnny Depp).

I read in an biography of Ethel Merman, who was a great Broadway actress, but Lucille Ball said she was so trained in theatre that when she did the Lucy Show, because she didn’t know what to do.

Everyone, including Lucy (which was rare for her to be intimidated) was so in awe of Merman that they deferred to her and Merman was so used to Broadway direction that she couldn’t act on TV. Evidently on Broadway, because it’s stage, everything has to be planned out percisely. This includes where to walk, how to walk when your saying the lines, where to look at all times. Basically all the actors movments are planned to the second.

This caused Merman a lot of trouble and Ball said it actually extended the show from one to two episodes.

There are a couple of them in Dr. Strangelove: Peter Sellers (x3) and George C. Scott, and you might want to add Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens.

And actually that’s very relevant to this thread. The famous story goes that whenever Kubrick was finished filming a scene with Scott, he would ask Scott to do one more take, as big and over the top as Scott could make it, just for fun. He promised never to use those takes… and every one of them wound up in the movie. Scott was supposedly furious and felt betrayed, but if you’ve watched Strangelove I think it’s inarguable that Kubrick made the right choice, and the movie and the performance are way, way better and much funnier for it. (Although I’ve always wondered if Scott really would have fallen for this type of thing if Kubrick did it in all of his scenes.) Buck Turgidson needed to be played in a completely over the top style or else it just would not have worked. That’s the kind of thing a director can do. And if he knows what he wants and knows what will serve the movie, it can work out great. If he doesn’t, then, well- “NOOOOOOOOO!”


Q.T. actually fascinates me for this very reason… incredibly bad acting on his own part surrounded by excellent performances. His acting is so bad in Reservoir Dogs that it is distracting. It’s almost as if he’s purposely trying to be as bad as possible. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason I can come up with.

Pulp Fiction is another example, and although he’s not as painfully bad as in R.D., he is still, by far, the worst actor in the movie. And that includes people with small roles, like the coffee shop owner, or the waitress, or anyone else that has a few lines.

He’s also one of the ugliest people to torture a camera, but that’s no excuse. Steve Buscemi has some of the worst dental work I can think of and yet he glides through scenes. No… Q.T. definitely seems to work hard at being awful. Maybe it’s his “signature”, like Hitchcock always appearing somewhere in his own movies.

This thread got me thinking about old movies (such as A Wonderful Life). To me, it seems like a lot of old movie will most likely have a different feel than anything produced today (by old I mean pre 1950?).

It always seems (again, to me) that a lot of old movies had a very theatrical feel to the acting in them especially scenes involving children.

Again, in A Wonderful Life, I could imagine a director of today repeatedly telling the actors to go “less emotion! this isn’t the theater!”

I find this interesting because so many of the actors of those days were considered so great, yet (again, to me) a lot of acting seemed so over the top.

Or he’s just a bad actor. His turn on “Alias” was painful to behold, and that presumably involved him being directed by someone else.

I’m sorry? Have you seen his resume? He had at least 25 appearances in the 17 years leading into Star Wars, culminating in American Graffiti.

Ms. Portman (the future ex-Mrs. slitterst) had a five year career leading into Phantom Menace, with only six credits.

I think she’s a fantastic and gifted actress, but there’s no way Harrison Ford was more of a newb than Natalie Portman. Sure, he was working as a carpenter when he auditioned, but that was what folks did between acting gigs.