Physical transformations make the headlines, but what is it that really MAKES an actor’s performance?
Much of the praise for Matthew McConaughey’s Oscar winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club stems from the actor’s massive weight loss, from the pounds he shed in order to fully realise his character’s potential. McConaughey’s physical transformation shows a commitment to his craft and is also symbolic of the actor’s new image: no longer is he the ripped pin-up or the shirt shedding superstar of Kate Hudson’s affections. He is now a serious actor turning in performances of both class and gravitas, and his transformed physique suggests he now cares more about his projects than he does his appearance.
Physical transformation can mean any number of things. It can be subtler than losing six stone, but every bit as powerful
This is all very refreshing, but does a physical transformation from an actor actually guarantee a better performance? Certainly, in the eyes of some, a drastic loss or gaining of weight improves an overall performance, if only for the fact that it shows intense commitment to the role (even if the performance in question were deemed bad, the actor couldn’t be accused of not trying). But too often a performance can be over-praised by those impressed with binge eating and weight-lifting. This isn’t to say that physical transformation is to be sneered at, but rather that one should appreciate more the techniques and impulses and gestures that truly make a performance great.
When physical transformation is mentioned, the implication is that it’s in the guise of the rapid weight loss or gain mentioned above. But physical transformation can mean any number of things that an actor does to his or her body in order to more accurately portray their character. These things can often lift a performance into a greater realm of quality, despite the fact that they often go unnoticed. They are subtler than losing six stone, but every bit as powerful – think Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, as Truman Capote (in Capote) and using only his posture, appeared to shrink himself down, contorting his whole body to mirror the diminutive figure of the great writer; or think Brando, greasing his hair and stuffing his mouth with cotton to give us the aging, bulldog-faced Don Corleone in The Godfather. Sometimes less is more.
Physical transformation then, impressive as it can be, is pretty much a side-act to any final performance. It no doubt takes a lot of effort, but the fact remains that, with enough willpower, most actors could do it. Hell, 50 Cent even did it (for All Things Fall Apart), and that’s surely an antithesis to great acting if ever there was one. Great performances rely on technique, gesture, impulse, delivery. They rely on the actor to find meaning in the words they have been given and to deliver them so, perhaps finding some deeper purpose in the process, perhaps even channelling some of their own demons along the way.
Charlize Theron could not have convincingly played Aileen Wurnos in Monster without gaining weight
Consider Jack Nicholson, who, apart from a change of costume, looked pretty much exactly the same in every role he played. He was never a champion of any kind of method acting – though one must be careful when correlating physical transformation and The Method – and nor was he known to undergo any great physical changes during filming. Despite this, he consistently gave us some of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid. How he did so is copy for another article, but just know that in one lift of the eyebrow, or in one clench of the fist, Nicholson could tell you more about any character than any amount of press-ups ever could.
To be fair here, a lot of physical transformation in movie acting is necessary: Charlize Theron could not have convincingly played Aileen Wurnos in Monster without gaining an alarming amount of weight and, similarly, Christian Bale, today’s most prominent shape-shifter, could not have played Patrick Bateman without bulking up to something akin to an Adonis. This is looking the part, but it is only through the great performances after the fact (of transformation) that Bale and Theron became the part.
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An entirely different entity is Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. This is where the physical transformation becomes the great performance, rather than part of it. De Niro mirrored Jake La Motta’s actual weight fluctuation, thus playing, effectively, two versions of the man. This stands out because it presents a convergence of both The Method and the physically transformed performance (which has always been a distant cousin of The Method anyway, what with its taking on of The Method’s notion of “living the role”). De Niro used his body to the effect that it became not only necessary, but paramount. Indeed, there are many facets of the physical transformation that can determine the outcome of a performance, but only very rarely does the physical transformation become the performance.
No amount of body theatrics can match an actor at the height of his powers, using his mind to create a moment of genius
I return though, as any piece on great acting should, to Marlon Brando. Impulse is important, and that, to an extent, includes improvisation, too. And no amount of body theatrics can match an actor at the height of his powers, using his mind to create a moment of genius. Just a moment came in On the Waterfront. The script read that Brando’s Terry Malloy should “play with” Eva Marie Saint’s glove as the couple walk along. Instead Brando, in a moment of exquisite, understated tenderness perhaps not yet matched in cinema, puts the glove, delicately, on. His character’s hands, so used to the tough leather of a boxing mitt, were now attempting to put on the soft cotton of a ladies glove. Marie Saint did not expect Brando to do this, and what follows is a genuine moment of both affection and acting – a pure fragment of a perfect performance.
Some movies thrive on transformation: Dallas Buyers Club is all about performance
Featured image: Lions Gate Films
Inset images: United Artists/Sony Pictures Classics; Media 8 Entertainment/Newmarket Films