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.