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That One Role: Seeing a Star Differently…

I saw Magic Mike last week. And I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. Part of the fun of the film was revelling in a superb performance from Matthew McConaughey as the incredibly sleazy manager Dallas. Watching the film, I found it almost hard to believe that this was the same Matthew McConaughey who had headlined such nightmares as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Sahara, Failure to Launch, The Wedding Planner, Fool’s Gold and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, to keep the list brief. It’s amazing how one performance can really change your opinion of an actor’s abilities, serving as something of a revelation of talent and ability that maybe you had never really seen before.

It’s a kind of magic…

Of course, perhaps I’m being unfair on McConaughey. The actor had, for example, proven himself a more than competent leading man in A Time to Kill and The Lincoln Lawyer. He first established himself with a great supporting role in Dazed and Confused. I honestly thought he was one of the unsung heroes of Tropic Thunder, even if his comedic turn was overshadowed by Tom Cruise. I have yet to see him in Killer Joe and Bernie, both of which are recent releases which apparently also see the actor turning in some fantastic performances.

And yet, his turn in Magic Mikereally knocked me for a whirl. I don’t want to condescend. After all, I never really thought that McConaughey was a truly bad actor. As much as he seemed to make a string of really poor casting decisions in the last decade or so, I never thought him untalented. He certainly would never have given me pause to consider purchasing a ticket or watching a film. The movie itself would sell me on the experience. I just never imagined a time when I would cite McConaughey as the cardinal virtue of a given film.

A crowning career moment?

It is, of course, not the first time I’ve been surprised by an actor in a movie. Colin Firth was, to me, a dramatic revelation in A Single Man, a year before he earned his Oscar for The King’s Speech. While I enjoyed some of his earlier projects, Firth never really seemed to jump out at me – even while watching Pride & Prejudice. I adored Hugh Grant’s central performance in Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, despite being somewhat lukewarm on the actor beforehand.

I’m almost ashamed to admit it, in retrospect, but Heath Ledger is another sterling example of an actor who managed a revelatory performance. Like McConaughey or Firth, I’d never had a major reason to dislike Ledger. Ledger was, after all, charming enough in 10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight’s Tale. I wasn’t as impressed as most critics by his leading role in Brokeback Mountain. So his performance in The Dark Knightwas quite simply amazing – I still think that Ledger’s Joker is perhaps the most iconic villain Hollywood has produced since Hannibal Lector.

Setting the screen alight…

Of course, sometimes it’s the audacity or the challenge of the role itself that seems to endear an actor – I am always curious to see an actor branching out a bit. I would be lying if I didn’t say that that I am very curious to see the performances of Tom Hanks and Hugh Grant in Cloud Atlas, even if that’s mainly because it’s not a film with which I would have associated them. It’s telling that a lot of these performances feature an actor playing against type, and perhaps there’s a sense of novelty to seeing actors associated with a particular genre branching out.

For McConaughey, for example, Dallas seems almost a spoof or a vicious parody of all those charming Southern gents the actor has brought to life over the years. The ladies love him, and it’s hard to deny he has a charm, but he’s also manipulative, egomaniacal and sleazy. It’s weird to see McConaughey playing a character who is genuinely intended to be sleazy, rather than one who comes across that way due to bad writing.

Stealing the show…

However, I don’t think that playing against type is an essential ingredient in a performance like this. Ben Affleck had appeared in a long string of crime movies before The Town firmly reestablished him as an actor to watch. Meanwhile, Will Ferrell and Steve Carell have both appeared in well-respected dramatic films, but neither has really proven themselves to be an exceptional dramatic performer in the way that, for example, Robin Williams has shown himself to be.

(That said, like his comedic roles, Williams’ dramatic performances tend to be highly variable. He was superb in Good Will HuntingDead Poets Society, Insomnia and One Hour Photo, but rather dull in What Dreams May Come, while being pretty bad in Jack, Jacob the Liar or Patch Adams.)

It’s a tough one to crack…

Perhaps it’s the script. After all, Quentin Tarantino has a gift for finding obscure talent the perfect opportunity to shine. Samuel L. Jackson undoubtedly owes a lot to Tarantino, as does Christoph Waltz. Even old genre stars like David Carradine, Pam Grier and Robert Forster arguably gave their best performances while working with Tarantino. Still, I find it hard to believe that it’s all on the script or the director, though undoubtedly finding the right script is an essential ingredient.

It’s very weird to look at an amazing performance from an actor you’d never really thought capable of it. It’s a rare cinematic surprise, a treat you really can’t see coming. No matter how many people might warn you about a performance like that, there’s still an element of “seeing is believing”– the notion that you won’t make up your mind until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. I know the same could easily have been said about a good movie, but I think a performance within that movie is somehow more singular. While a movie is the result of countless variables coming together, the performance could arguably be said to belong more completely to the actor.

We’ll sea about that…

So, what about you guys? What are your favourite revelatory performances?

10 Responses

  1. Chris Evans as Captain America, definitely. An actor best known for playing arrogant bad boys manages to nail Steve Rogers where so many others have failed, coming across as sweet and heroic without being bland or smug.

    Then again, if you watch Cellular and Sunshine, there was something there all along. I’m glad Captain America brought that out.

    • Fair point. I think Evans was great. I do think Hemsworth doesn’t get enough credit as Thor though (overshadowed by Downey and Evans), not that I’d seen enough of him before that point to really be surprised.

  2. Tobey Maguire in Brothers.I didn’t think he could play traumatized that well, but imo he nailed it

    • I think Maguire did something similar in Wonder Boys for me. A lot of depth there.

      • I just remembered another one. The Good Girl, with Jennifer Aniston. She actually gives a good performance in it

      • I really liked that film. Depressing as hell, but – I think – one of the few times I’ve been genuinely impressed with Aniston. As I recall, it came after a string of awful romantic comedies like Picture Perfect, and then she just knocked it out of the park.

  3. Talking about Batman actors, Michael Keaton proved critics wrong when they though he was nothing but a comedic actor and could not play the Caped Crusader. The same goes for Tom Hanks prior to his one-two Oscar punch with “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.” Also, let’s not forget what Tarrentino did for John Travolta’s career. Prior to “Pulp Fiction,” he was largely considered a joke of an actor, but afterward he was one of the biggest actors in Hollywood (even before he gained weight).

    • Yep. It’s hard to remember, but Hanks was effectively a comedi lead actor for most of the eighties, wasn’t he? Splash and Big and stuff? It’s interesting to look back at that now. And Travolta is a great point.

      Keaton is another actor I don’t think gets enough credit for his portrayal. I think that Burton’s Bruce Wayne is a flat character who becomes incredibly fascinating thanks to Keaton’s introverted and withdrawn portrayal. He just got overshadowed by louder performances, I think.

  4. Linking with Magic Mike, Channing Tatum in 21 Jump Street surprised me because he was genuinely, really funny. I always thought of him as the muscle-bound body from Step-Up but saw him in a completely different light from that film.

    • Yep. I think he actually has a really endearing charm to him that I honestly never would have predicted having seen Dear John.

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