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Homogeneity is The Enemy, musings on Comics & Hollywood

So anyway, I was thinking about Chow Yun Fat. He’s great, isn’t he? Cool as hell, and with charisma to burn… yet he doesn’t seem to be able to make it in Hollywood.

Why is that? Some people put it down to him being Asian, and Asians are usually shoved into stereotypical ‘silly Chinaman’ roles… but I think it may be because he’s not an actor… he’s a Movie Star.

And Hollywood doesn’t do Movie Stars anymore. You know the ones – Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Vincent Price, Errol Flynn… they weren’t naturalistic. They didn’t ‘submerge themselves in their role’… they pretty much played themselves in every picture and made their reputation with charisma and force of personality.

Probably the closest we’ve got to that these days is Clint Eastwood. He always plays Clint Eastwood, but he’s such a primordial force of nature that we just don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Dustin Hoffman. But it seems that ever since the adoption of Stanislavski and in particular The Actors’ Studio’s version of it, it’s become the default setting. Suddenly, if you’re not submerging and ‘becoming the character’, you’re not acting…

Which brings me to comics.

When Marvel comics introduced ‘superheroes with real problems’ in the Early 60′s, it was groundbreaking. Spider-Man couldn’t get a date, The Thing hated his appearance, The X-Men were feared and hated by the very people they were trying to protect… Similarly, in the 80′s we had the deconstructionist antics of Moore and Miller where they broke the heroes down into their parts, looked at them and asked, “But what does this MEAN?”

Both of these things were cool and groundbreaking.
But they’re OPTIONS. They’re WAYS of telling stories. And it seems to me that rather than examining them and using them as options, they’ve become The Default Setting. People can’t see around them because they’re in them up to their neck. They don’t realize that there are different ways to tell a story besides Deconstruction and ‘realism’, when there are an almost infinite number of ways.

It’s words and pictures. Words. And Pictures.

In infinite combinations. Some which suit the story in question, some which don’t…

The secret is to find the BEST way to tell the story you want to tell. Some characters don’t work as ‘superheroes with real problems’, and some stories just break when you try and take them apart. I think it’d be neat if some of these guys took a step back so they could see that the little foxhole they’ve exiled themselves to isn’t the whole wide world – that there’s a vast and expansive plain all around them and maybe, just maybe we could get outta this damn rut we seem to be in just now.

19 Comments

I dunno, I tend to think we still have elements of the star system in Hollywood — Tom Hanks, The Ladykillers and his pre-fame shlock comedies notwithstanding, basically plays nice guy “Tom Hanks” in different circumstances or with different ailments; likewise, Jennifer Aniston seems to play someone not terribly removed from her Friends character in virtually all of her films; and the 1980s was replete with Movie Star movies, like…well, every film Ahnuld and Stallone ever did.

Hrm. I can see your point, but it’s like Hollywood has decreed that that sort of ‘broad’ acting is bad. You can’t really imagine what Jennifer Aniston, Ahnuld or Stallone do ever being given as examples of ‘good’ acting.
Same with comics. Deconstructionism and ‘Realism’ has the stigma of quality, while escapism and broad ‘punch-on-chinnery’ is seen as hackwork.

Submerging yourself into the act of someone is the essence of acting. To say that learning the intricacies of a character to be acted on is one of many ways of doing things is like saying telling a comic with sequentially arranged pictures is one of many ways of telling a story. That is the nature of comics, and submerging oneself with the role is the nature of acting. Humphrey Bogart isn’t remembered so great critically, but nostalgically because of the charisma he exuded, but being one note in acting is as poor as being one note in telling comic stories. Bogart, and all of the examples, only had one character to pull from their hat, just like modern comics writers only have one view of superheroes to pull from their hat. Bendis has his naturalistic dialogue and Bogart has his tough guy attitude. Both limit how well art can be.

I remember when Bendis was praised because of his style, even though all of his stories were crime dramas involving a lot of talking heads.

I’m not talking about actors. I’m talking about Movie Stars.
While Bogart may not have had range, he was tremendously entertaining. And there are many ways to entertain people. Sometimes, you want meticulously-crafted drama with actors who are naturalistic, and who have fully invested themselves in the role… and sometimes, you want broad strokes and melodrama.

I am annoyed by the idea that there is a ‘right way to do things’. And as much as ‘submerging yourself in a role’ may seem like the right way to act in a film, I don’t really require it from a Jackie Chan film, for example.

Well, the general opinion on Tom Cruise has always been “he may not be a great actor, but he’s a great movie star.” Same with a guy like Harrison Ford.
I agree with you, that charisma is sometimes more important than ‘method’, but you know, I think most people would agree with that. It’s hardly a forgotten art.
And I agree that for awhile, it might have seemed like the only way to find praise in comics was to go the deconstructed, decompressed route, but I really feel the pendulum is swinging back the other way.
I mean, think how the critics (justly) fell over themselves to praise the recent done-in-one work of Morrison, Slott and Dini. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I really think ‘simple’ escapist fiction has been regarded fairly highly in comics’ critical circles lately.
Still, nice food for thought.

I agree with you, that charisma is sometimes more important than ‘method’, but you know, I think most people would agree with that. It’s hardly a forgotten art.

I would never say that any one way is more important or better than another… my problem is when any one way becomes the ONLY way.

Sure, one way isn’t ‘more important’ all the time, that’s why I said ‘sometimes’. What I mean is, in the specific cases of someone like Humphrey Bogart or Tom Cruise, charisma overpowers ‘craft’. In those specific cases, charisma is the most important element, I feel. Not saying that either of those guys can’t ‘act’, but they won’t be remembered for following Stanislavski, as you noted. So, yes. I agree with you, I just don’t think that ‘charismatic’ acting is dead yet.

moose n squirrel

July 19, 2006 at 6:19 am

I have to agree with the other dissenters. Blockbusters are pushed by nothing but “movie stars” these days. The Method had its heyday in the seventies; now every big star plays essentially the same role in every film.

I submit that George Clooney is a Movie Star.

Pol-
It seems to me that you aren’t talking about comics so much as you’re talking about superheroes. And as far as superheroes go, I agree with quite a bit of what you’re saying. But I think superhero comics have limited themselves in ways that non superhero comics haven’t. Same goes for comics not created and published in America.

As for your take on Hollywood…wow, I don’t think I could disagree more. Without wanting to be insulting, I really don’t think you know what you’re talking about on that particular topic.

To everyone who has disagree on the movie stars claim, you’re missing the point. There are no doubt people who play the same role in every film, but what they are doing is definitely not seen as acting. Compare Academy Award nominees of the 30s-50s with currents ones and you’ll see the difference.

Sure Vin Diesel is always the same, but no one seriously treats what he’s doing as art. You quite simply can’t say the same for Bogie.

I think you’re absolutely right, Ryan, but I also think that this evidences a kind of split within Hollywood between “prestige” or “Oscar season” films and summer blockbusters that simply didn’t exist until the late 1970s, when SPielberg and Lucas basically changed the industry. The studios now use the blockbusters peopled with charismatic actors to rake in big bucks and make more targeted Method actor sorts of films for the arthouse/critic-following audience. (There is, of course, significant overlap in these audiences, but for marketing purposes, they’re different.)

I tend to think this split is never more obvious than when a Movie Star takes on a deliberately Method kind of role in order to garner acclaim, as when Charlize Theron played in Monster, and when Method sorts of actors lend their presence to summer blockbuster fare, as with…well, much of Marlon Brando’s 1980s career.

“Some characters don’t work as ’superheroes with real problems’, and some stories just break when you try and take them apart.”

Very good point – and interestingly, it’s the first point that got me thinking, and a much older example. In the Silver Age, Marvel pretty much shoehorned all their heroes into the “superheroes with real problems” templates, and it didn’t always make sense or work.

If you ever read the “Essential Captain America” books, it’s amazing just how much time Cap spends moping about the long-dead Bucky. Never really rings all that true to me. If Cap *did* need to have “real problems,” I would’ve focused more on the “man out of time” aspect – one curiously little-explored in these stories.

But by and large, I think Cap’s problems should mostly be on the order of “What’s the most efficient way to smash a Nazi’s jaw?”

It’s been said way better above me, but I also think you’re dead wrong about the movie stars, thing, Pol. There are shitloads of blockbusters being made every year. Starring people who can’t act for shit, but are loved because of their personalities, which are dissected in magazines everywhere. And what those people do isn’t acting. It’s playing. It’s not done for art, but for entertainment. The difference between then and now is that almost everything was entertainment back then, so people didn’t know any better. Nowadays, the public has access to movies from all sorts of people outside of the indutry giants, so the interests have expanded, and for the better, if you ask me.

I think the main difference between today’s ‘movie star’ and your classic era movie star is that today’s crop are mostly photogenic mannequins with the charisma of used dental floss.

Good point on Captain America, too David. Man, he works so well on ‘punching Nazis in the face’ stories, and so badly in just about every other kind… with a few exceptions, naturally.
I just checked over some of those issues, and man, is moping and whining a bad fit for him.

On Captain America… I never liked the idea of an angsty Captain America, or most of the Avengers in general having “problems”, for that matter, for two reasons.

First off, the Avengers are supposed to be Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, with Cap as their ultimate ideal. If they’re bickering and engaging in Lee-esque melodrama, it kind of makes the whole hook of Spidey and the X-Men less unique. The Avengers are the first grade team, which is interesting as far as that goes, and the neuroses are left to the reserve graders.

Secondly, it just makes sense that different characters would have different personalities, just as ‘real’ people do. It doesn’t make sense for every character to be a square-jawed Captain America, and not everybody fits into the neurotic Spidey vein either.
Like Pol’s said, it’s all about variety.

“I think the main difference between today’s ‘movie star’ and your classic era movie star is that today’s crop are mostly photogenic mannequins with the charisma of used dental floss.”

Maybe, but now we’re getting into a ‘the old days were just better’ kind of discussion. If the question is, ‘does Hollywood still revolve around the ‘star’ system? Is there still a place for movie stars?’, then I think the answer is ‘yes’.
I think a guy like George Clooney, as Matthew E mentioned earlier, is a movie star, and for that matter, I think he has a ton of ‘charisma’.
Although, Clooney seems to be a self-conscious throwback to the ‘classic era’, so I’m not sure which argument his example helps.

The big two’s superhero titles are caught in something of a stylistic rut, basically using the Claremont X-Men mold (now infused with Bendis pacing) as the default means of storytelling/comic making. To a degree it’s sort of an inevitable end result of using accountant logic (see what sells and do that) to dictate your entire line direction. Basically only serving to please those who liked whatever it is you’re apeing and putting off everybody else until you slowly work your way into an almost unescapable corner.

Cary Grant played *very* different characters in The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby. The former is, I presume, what you’re thinking of as his ‘standard’ character — but check out the other.

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