old vs. New Actors

Who else here agrees that almost all the actors working today have no talent. It seems their only talent is to mug incessantly and generally insult one’s intelligence by underlining every emotion, making sure even the most dense understand. They do not seem capable of subtlety, wit or true passion, which are some of the qualities of great acting.

Who here appreciates the old actors, the men and women with class, intelligence and sophistication? Actors such as Cary Grant, Leslie Howard, Montgomery Clift, Peter O’Toole, Irene Dunne, Kate Hepburn.

It seems clear: actors have been steadily getting worse. What do u guys think?

I think you’ve been watching the wrong movies. Take a look at last year’s In the Bedroom or Sunshine State or two films I’ve seen recently that stood out from the pack: Far from Heaven and 13 Conversations about One Thing.

Not to mention LA Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Dangerous Liaisons, Jackie Brown, and Moulin Rouge.

i have to take exception to many of hastur’s examples. most of them have actors who have been round the block for quite a few. they are so old that i think that nicole kidman is the youngest! (haven’t seen moulin rouge).

more to the point however, most of the new ones are horrid. there may be one or two of the ones coming up in the last 5-10 yrs who may be developing talent.

Well, are you comparing all modern actors to those few you mentioned? In other words, are you asking if Hugh Grant, a top star of today is as good an actor as Cary Grant, a top star of yesterday? Or are you asking if any actor today can hold a candle to any actor of the past?

I once griped to my brother that if I listened to an oldies radio station, I would hear pretty much nothing but great songs - as opposed to current-music stations that seem to play mostly dreck with a few good songs scattered in here and there. My theory was that music was just better in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. He pointed out that oldies radio stations play only the good stuff from their eras and we never hear the countless, untold pieces of crap that probably got a lot of airplay in their day. If you read a cinema magazine from the past, you’ll find that Hollywood cranked out a lot of films back then. A relatively small pool of those movies are shown on TV or offered for home viewing today. These tend to be the classic hits of that era - giving the impression that the films Hollywood made back then were all fantastic. (Anyone who has watched a few episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would realize that’s a misconception.)

I’ve seen older movies that have some pretty terrible over-the-top, posturing sort of acting - such as um, well, I can’t think of any offhand because I tend to blot those out in favor of the ones I remember enjoying immensely. :wink: (Again, Mystery Science Theatre is a treasure trove of 3rd-rate movies with lesser stars.) The great past actors you mentioned above probably had first dibs on the screenplays written by the best writers - and the quality of writing can’t be dismissed when it comes to delivering lines. A bad script can make the greatest actor look foolish (Supergirl - Peter O’ Toole).

Some good examples of modern acting have been mentioned - here are a few more to check out:

Sense & Sensibility - Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant

*When Harry Met Sally * - Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Out of Africa - Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria Brandauer

Chariots of Fire - Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm

Elizabeth - Cate Blanchett, Joseph Fiennes, Christopher Eccleston, Geoffrey Rush

You paint with a pretty wide brush (as others have pointed out) but if you limit the accusation to the new crop of up-and-coming actors, I’d agree pretty much whole-heartedly.

The pretty-boy/girl factor is a major cause of this but I think another big reason this has happens is that most of these people go straight from high school to college to acting. They’ ve mostly never held a responsible adult job or had to live through difficulties before. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that American life has gotten pretty easy, but it’s partly because actors come to the field so young now. Without having a relatively wide experience of the world, they have no personal memories on which to draw. So, when they have to play a part that requires portraying deep emotion, the best they can come up with is an imitation of something done by another actor, not a genuine performance based in their own experience.

Another thing about sophistication and intelligence:

From the 1920’s till sometime in the 1960’s (I think), Hollywood self-censored itself using guidelines known as the Hays Code. These guidelines required certain elements to be shown in certain ways. For example, you could show a prostitute in a film, but she had to come to some sort of a bad end - thus reinforcing to impressionable youngsters in the audience that prostitution was bad. Sex scenes were pretty much out of the question - as was “vulgar language”.

Nowadays, things are rather different. You can show all the sex you want (provided you don’t mind an NC-17 rating - which limits your viewership/ticket sales). It’s not that characters of old didn’t have sex, it’s just that it was implied, not shown. Rather then simply toss two characters into bed - which is the current shorthand to show they are falling in love, characters in the past had to resort to witty, intelligent dialogue (assuming they had a good script) to convey the same thing. The most recent romance film that I think does this is When Harry Met Sally (someone please alert me if there have been others more recent).

It’s not just the fault of sex, of course. There are other factors. Despite my comments above, I am not suggesting we return to the Hays Code. I think sex, profanity, violence, etc. have their place in films - although they often get overused and misapplied.

Overall, I think acting has gotten more subtle, understated, and realistic. If you watch a classic film from every decade from the 20th century, I think you’ll see that we’ve steadily evolved away from the heavy (but necessary) pantomime of the silent era.

it is true, perhaps i ‘paint with too wide a brush’-but let me try a more specific appoach. When i say ‘classic’ i mean everything from the late 60’s back, not just the 30’s and 40’s. Actually, number of performances from the 50’s and 60’s represent in my mind the height of great acting, rarely witnessed since.

consider peter o’toole in Lawrence, Becket, and Lion in winter-
paul newman in the hustler, Hud, and cool hand luke
brando in streetcar and on the waterfront

i ask you, does our era have performances to lay beside the undeniably powerful performances?

also, how can we explain the fact that many actors ruin their integrity by doing silly movies. De Niro appearing in ‘Rocky and Bullwinkle’ is the epitome of this trend.

Well, you no longer have the studio system, so DeNiro is free to do whatever he and his agent want him to do. Where in the studio system, the studio was very concerned about protecting Cary Grant’s image.

Peter O’Toole was great in Lawrence - and charming, but certainly not great acting in How to Steal a Million.

A young cast doing great acting - try “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”

I don’t think actors have been getting worse. I think you are seeing the cream of classic cinema - and missing the dreck - while the stuff you have lived through, you’ve had to live through the dreck.

Morgan Freeman is simply majestic in Nurse Betty. He takes an incredibly tricky and difficult character and fools you into thinking it’s easy.

Julianne Moore in Safe.

Billy Bob Thornton in A Simple Plan.

Helen Mirren in Gosford Park.

Emilio Echevarría in Amores Perros.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (a rare example of the Oscar going to the right person).

Tom Hanks, Big.

Catherine Keener, Lovely and Amazing.

David Thewlis, Naked.

Robert Duvall, The Apostle.

Tony Leung, Happy Together.

Edie Falco, Sunshine State.

Chris Cooper, Lone Star.

Emma Thompson, Wit.

Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher.

Johnny Depp, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Moritz Bleibtreu, The Experiment.

Guy Pearce, Memento.

Nigel Hawthorne, The Madness of King George.

Ulrich Thomsen, Celebration.

James Gandolfini, week after week on The Sopranos.

I’m sorry, what were you complaining about again?

Actually, I think I know what you’re talking about, and while I think you’re wrong about the quality of acting, I think there is something to your point of view.

First of all, you’ll notice that the majority of the quality performances I’ve named above are the work of older actors; the average age is probably around 40. The explanation has two components: First, it takes a few years for an actor to build up the life experience necessary to create a complex characterization. And second, the marketplace demands that movies starring younger actors be targeted at younger viewers, which by definition means simpler, more superficial work. Hence even very talented actors don’t get to shine right away; see, for example, Josh Hartnett in O, surprising everybody with a rich portrayal before going back to better-paying but schlockier projects like 40 Days and 40 Nights.

Second, the naturalistic revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s has changed the way we perceive our cinematic idols. Cary Grant, for example, is an icon because he’s so polished. The number of times “classic” actors portrayed deeply flawed, imperfect people is dwarfed by their performances as, basically, screen deities. Can you imagine Spencer Tracy shaving his hair into a Mohawk and blasting a filthy den of drugs and prostitution into an ocean of blood, a la De Niro in Taxi Driver? The consequence of this, I believe, is that we perceive those actors differently, as larger than life, whereas our modern actors are concerned with reality and verisimilitude and as such come off the screen with a very different energy — one might say reduced, though that isn’t the right word, exactly. Less godlike, certainly.

The acting is just as good as it’s always been, and in many cases better. Any of the performances I named above, taken purely as an example of actorly talent and craft, stands equally against anything Bette Davis or Montgomery Clift ever did. It’s just that the storytelling environment has radically shifted, and comparing performances therefore requires one to look that much deeper.

For some inexplicable reason, I have gone on a “movie agenda”, where I am watching the films of a limited group of actors (Burt Lancaster, Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Berenger, and a few others). It’s been a real education to see the variety of films these guys have done. To see their career highs and lows. I have come away with the conclusion that perhaps, “they don’t make 'em like they used to”—some of the time.

Burt Lancaster, being from the “old school”, seems to have had a prestigious career. I have seen so many excellent Lancaster movies. (“Elmer Gantry”, “Come Back Little Sheba”, “All My Sons”, “Atlantic City” and so on.) And there’s no doubt, he was a remarkable actor. But, looking at his filmography (which is impressive indeed), I see that quite a few movies have slipped into obscurity. I can’t find copies of them. For all I know, they suck. Only the “better” films are released. Which reinforces Octavia’s theory about the “oldies” on the radio stations.

Tommy Lee Jones and Tom Berenger, though—they’ve had some real highs and lows in their filmography. Both actors have been touched by Oscar (nominated, at least) so they are not acting schlubs. But they’ve done some stinkers. Both have done schlocky TV shows (Berenger was a soap star for a while) and other abysmal pieces of drek. It’s so easy to produce pieces of drek these days. So many different outlets. “Direct to Video”, Cable movies, and so on.

Because both these guys are relatively “current” actors, most the stuff that they are in is still available on video—including their embarassing stuff. 20 years from now, my guess is, we’ll only be seeing movies like “Platoon”, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord”, “The Fugitive”, “The Client” and so on. Their miserable embarrassing TV movies will be lost and forgotten. And 20 years from now, we’ll be looking at their careers in perhaps a similar light as we now look at Burt Lancaster. (Well, maybe just a little—Lancaster was in a league of his own.)