"Phoning in a performance?"

In quite a few movie threads, I’ve read the above phrase. Generally, this means that an actor isn’t doing his/her best in a particular role. Can one tell if this is because the role isn’t what the actor thought it would be, they’re not being paid enough, the doughnuts on the craft services table are stale? Why would a presumably professional, mature actor do any less than his/her best in a role if they signed on to the production of their own free will?

Comments, anyone?

“Phoning in a performance” means that the actor/actress is being very wooden and unconvincing. As for why, it probably varies. Maybe they’re having trouble connecting with the part. Maybe they were up snorting crack 'till three in the morning. Maybe they’re just like that all the time, like Keanu Reeves.

Most of the time, when I see an actor “phoning in” a performance, it’s because he clearly feels that

  1. The material is beneath him (perhaps he just took the job because he needed the money), or

  2. What seemed like a promising script now looks like a disaster in the making.

And while that sounds awful, let’s be honest: do YOU always give 100% at work every day?

You’ve never had a day when you put in the bare minimum amount of work necessary, and watched the clock every second of the way?

You’ve never had to work on a project that you thought was silly or pointless, and found yourself giving a half-hearted effort?

I expect you have. You’re human. And so are actors.

Clearest example is Walter Pidgeon in “Forbidden Planet.” He thought the whole movie was just plain silly, so he recites his lines with little life or interest.

Lawrence Olivier was famous for taking bad parts toward the end of his career just for the money. He didn’t work particularly hard at the roles.

Until recently, a performer didn’t generally sign on to a particular production. During the days when movie studios were more powerful than they are now, an actor would sign a contract with MGM, Warner Brothers, or another company. In exchange for a yearly salary, the “contract player” would then be committed to that studio, and required to make whatever pictures the moguls decreed. Thus, an actress who fancied herself a romantic lead might not give her best effort when she was assigned the role of a “Plain Jane” or a chambermaid.

I think there’s a third case as well. The above examples suggest that the actor just doesn’t want to put anything into the part. The phrase “phoning it in” is often used to describe this situation- often as a criticism.

I think the phrase is also used to describe an actor in a role that simply didn’t require much effort. Nothing wrong with the material, nothing wrong with the project, no bad attitude on behalf of the actor. The actor gives all that is required by the role, it’s just that it happens to be very easy.

In this third case the phrase is actually used as a very mild compliment. Suggesting that the talent and professionalism are such that the actor can turn in the work with great ease.

However, I think the first two uses of the phrase (listed byastorian) are the most common uses.

Could it also be a character interpretation that just didn’t come across as well as it should have? One person may see a character as being laid-back, whereas someone else may see the actor as lazy.

Obviously, I didnt cover all the reasons for “phoning in” a performance.

One other reason I didn’t cover: sometimes, an actor gets pigeonholed in a certain type of role, one he’s played a thousand times before. When he gets hired to do that same type of part again, he’s liable to get bored with it, and simply go through the motions, doing the same schtick he’s done countless times before.

Good example? Jack Nicholson. Now, when Jack is playing a role that interests him, he can still be a brilliant actor. But far too often, he gets hired just to do his patented Crazy Jack routine. In many cases, that’s all the directors WANT him to do. And in those cases, it’s pretty obvious from his performance that he’s just going through the motions, and demonstrating the quirks, tics and mannerisms that he knows people expect from him.

It could be the director, not requiring the actor to do his best. I was on a shoot once where the actor was not really convincing. The director was so concentrated on just getting the scene done, that he didn’t really pay attention to what the actor was doing. As the cameraman, it was not my place to offer direction; but I pulled the actor aside and suggested, “Why don’t you try this?”. He did, and that take ended up in the film.

Now, this was a “nobody” actor on a no-budget shoot. He’d been in a couple of films, and has potential. But he’s not a professional actor, and he needs direction. If a “name” actor is phoning in a performance, it is up to the director to get him to do it right. A “name” should know better. But a director might be intimidated by a “name”. “How can I tell Jack Nicholson that he’s not doing it right? He’s Jack-freakin’-Nicholson!

While we’re at it, what’s the origin of the phrase “phoning it in?”

I believe it refers to newspaper reporters who would, instead of industriously coming to the office and writing in the newsroom like happy little worker-bees, just write their story at home and then call and dictate it to a steno over the phone, thus “phoning it in” instead of actually showing up to work.

Then again, I have no idea where I got that etymology, so I could be 100% wrong.

A classic example of this might be Sir John Gielgud in that atrocity Caligula. I remember reading that he hadn’t read the script when his agent accepted the role for him. Imagine the surprise . . .

You’re right, Astorian, sorry if I sounded terribly offended by the audacity of an actor to be only human. I wasn’t trying to to be obnoxious; most of the time I can’t tell when an actor isn’t performing to his/her potential. I go to enough movies that I’d like to be educated as much as possible so I can make an educated guess as to why a scene falls flat.

Thanks, everyone, for your responses.

I could be wrong about this, but I think that it originated with Steve Martin on a Saturday Night Live broadcast. IIRC, he was either running late, or trying to be funny, or simply had no interest in his monologue. So he very literallty phoned it in, meaning he called on the telephone and an SNL sound technician held the telephone up to a mic while Martin delivered his monologue.

At least I think that’s what I’ve read.

I always thought Pidgeon was just convincingly playing a very repressed man.

I’ve seen this happen too when the direction was just… inadequate.

If the director is not activley taking a role in shaping a scene things can get messy and chaotic. Compentant actors could provide 50 different interpratations of the same line. If a director isn’t providing adequate feedback to let them know which way to go with it… or actively participating by providing the actors with what they need to successfully fulfill a part in a “master plan”… then there’s not much they can do other than just make sure they say the right lines in the right order.

I am fairly certain that the phrase has been around much longer than that - I think of it as part of the “phone slang” that was popularized when the telephone became a common part of the culture - like “dropping the dime on someone” means using a dime to phone the cops and rat someone out. So I think jackelope is probably right…

I don’t remember that particular SNL bit, but if it happened like you say, I would guess it was more of a case of Martin acting out the phrase in an attempt to be funny.

FTR: The monologue HeyHomie remembers was from Tom Hanks’ fifth appearance on SNL. He described the various stages recurring hosts go through. First time: excited to get this exposure. Second time: glad to be asked back, plus pushing a movie. Third time: trying to make up for lackluster second appearance. Fourth time: blatantly pushing a movie. But the fifth time…you get to join the Five-Timers’ Club. Whereupon he goes backstage to join the other Five-Timers, who in that season (1990?) were Paul Simon, Elliot Gould and Steve Martin. One of the perks, of course, is that he gets to phone in the rest of his monologue.

But yeah, what jackalope said. The expression goes way back before SNL.