What Makes a ‘Great’ Acting Performance?

The idea of this post has all come from Heath Ledger. ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ are two of my favourite films ever, and I’m three or four films away from watching every film Ledger ever appeared in. I’m yet to dislike one, or to not think he steals the show in any. I don’t like rom-coms traditionally (okay, I like some…), but I really liked ’10 Things I Hate About You’. From watching all of these, and the documentary, ‘I Am Heath Ledger’, it would be clear to anyone that in 2008 we lost one of, if not the, most talented actors of his generation. Basically, watching him in some of these films made me think, what would it have been like to still have him around? What huge parts that other actors have taken would have been his? Would he have been Hugh Glass in ‘The Revenant’, or Keller Dover in ‘Prisoners’, or Lee Chandler in ‘Manchester by the Sea’? He would have been incredible as James Hunt in ‘Rush’, and maybe we would’ve got to see him in the MCU. Who knows. But all of this got me thinking about why his Joker was just better than anyone else’s. Why his Ennis was so beautifully tortured,  and what really makes a great acting performance? Rather than just rank some great acting performances, or ramble about a few, I thought I’d steal an idea from CineFix on YouTube, and break it down into opposite ends of different spectrums. I’m also going to do my best to keep it post-2000, to keep it accessible for everyone.

Dramatic vs Comedic: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) vs Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover)

Now that I’ve begun this list, I realise the chances of anyone agreeing with me on a single caseychoice is just enormously unlikely. But I plough on. To be clear, these performances are ones that sit on the uttermost edges of the spectrum. For the dramatic role, I had to choose one completely devoid of comedy, and vice versa for the comedic. In ‘Manchester by the Sea’, Casey Affleck delivers one of the great performances of recent times, which I sincerely mean with no exaggeration. Affleck is, in my opinion, one of the finest actors working today, and he portrays Lee with such introverted emotion which is so difficult to do. There are no respites in this harrowing film, very few moments of joy, but Affleck manages to be strangely magnetic, withdrawn, aggressive, and simply heartbroken. To so clearly show all these emotions with very few ‘big’ scenes and not even that much dialogue is special, and he was the obvious winner of the Academy Award in 2017.

On quite literally the other end of the spectrum, we have Zach Galifianakis in the hilarious ‘The Hangover’. Alan is genuinely a classic character, and in a film filled with hilarious moment2009_the_hangover_034s and characters (Ken Jeong was really close to me choosing him), Galifianakis manages to steal the show in nearly every scene he’s in. Blissfully ignorant, idiotic, and plain dangerous are all words that would accurately describe Alan, but I guess he is well intentioned, even if his methods aren’t always the most well thought through. There are seriously too many classic Alan lines to choose my favourite. Watching the film back, nearly every scene he’s in makes me laugh.

Protagonist vs Antagonist: Ryan Gosling (‘Drive’) vs Christoph Waltz (‘Inglorious Basterds’)

There were so many to choose for this one. I thought about the classics, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Rocky, Jason Bourne, who might all still be better, but what better way to portray a protagonist that literally know nothing about him other than that he’s the maxresdefault (1)protagonist. My method of thinking was to find a character who we just always root for in the movie from start to finish, we want them to be happy. In ‘Drive’, we don’t even know Ryan Gosling’s character’s name, he’s just The Driver. A throwback to a protagonist out of a Western, Gosling spends the film toothpick-in-mouth, adorning a horrendous white jacket with a golden scorpion on the back. He is literally the ‘white knight’ trying to protect the woman he loves from danger. He is brutal, smart and above all, always trying to do the best thing for everyone. There are no evil or bad qualities about him. He doesn’t sexualise women like James Bond, he’s not cocky like Indiana Jones, he is just the perfect protagonist, and Gosling does an excellent job of getting us to root for him.

So, when I was choosing a protagonist, I was looking for someone we root for the entire movie, so obviously Ithought the opposite for the antagonmaxresdefaultist. Throughout ‘Inglorious Basterds’ (my 2nd favourite Tarantino film behind ‘Django’, very controversial…), Tarantino delivers a masterclass in suspense and character building. From the very first scene of the film, we know everything we need to about Hans Landa, even halfway through the scene. He is evil, calculating, intelligent, ruthless and wickedly polite. Whenever he’s on screen, you just want him to be punished. There are no redeemable features about Landa. He is a racist, violent villain, and Christoph Waltz performs brilliantly. Waltz’s deadpan stare and hammed up manners add to the frightening aura. Tarantino plays with the audience in all of Landa’s scenes, stretching suspense out as far as possible before we see his wickedness. Samuel L. Jackson in ‘Django Unchained’ was a really close second, but you can’t beat Christoph Waltz.

Method vs Yourself: Heath Ledger (‘The Dark Knight) vs Ryan Reynolds (‘Deadpool’)

I didn’t really know what to call this spectrum. What I mean by this is comparing actors who take on roles that are just so different to themselves that they have to disappear into the part, as opposed to actors who suit a role so well that they’re basically playing themselves. Luckily for me, my first two thoughts of these both appear in superhero heath_ledger_the_joker.pngmovies, so that’s a really useful comparison, although these characters literally could not be more different. I could, quite literally, write for hours about how incredible Heath Ledger was, but I wouldn’t be telling you anything you don’t already know. I’ve seen ‘The Dark Knight’ an absurd number of times, and even when I try to look at The Joker as Heath, I can’t: he was fully unrecognisable. I won’t go into how amazing he was, because everyone who’s seen the film knows. Daniel Day Lewis in ‘There Will Be Blood’ and De Niro in ‘Raging Bull’ came really close, but my popular (I think) opinion is that this was the greatest acting performance of all time. There isn’t a lot more to say.

Obviously this comparison isn’t going to try and put Ryan Reynolds on a par with Heath Ledger. But Reynolds was rescreen-shot-2018-02-05-at-8-56-33-amally, really perfect as Deadpool. He fought tooth and nail just to get this film made, and that’s awesome. He really brought it, and watching him in interviews it’s genuinely hard to differentiate between Wade Wilson and Ryan Reynolds. They’re literally the same person. The quick wit, foul mouth and sarcasm is brilliant, and Reynolds has fully become Deadpool. You might not think the acting is up there with the best, and I guess it probably isn’t, but in terms of an actor taking their own personality onto the screen and killing it? You can’t really beat this performance.

Whole Film vs Supporting: Jake Gyllenhaal (‘Nightcrawler) vs Michelle Williams (‘Manchester by the Sea’)

When you look back on what you consider memorable acting performances, some actors have an entire film to build an incredible, layered character that we meet, get to know and form a complex opinion of. Some have minutes to make the same impact and lasting impressions. These are two very recent performances, but two of the best in the last few years for sure. In ‘Nightcrawler’, one of my favourites, Jake Gyllenhaal is on screen the nightcrawler-750x400entire time. He’s in every scene. Like his character, we can’t get away from him, he creeps into our eyes and we get to see Gyllenhaal deliver an effortless performance that, as I have mentioned before, deserved recognition. Lou Bloom is a product of a capitalist culture, and Gyllenhaal perfectly portrays arrogance, intelligence, brutality, and plain scary in this character. There’s so many layers to this oddly likeable psychopath, and you should read my full review for all my thoughts. Jake Gyllenhaal is my favourite actor or actress working today, he’s been in so many films that I’ve loved, he can play so many different types of character and I cannot wait for him to win an Oscar.

I know right, I’ve already mentioned Casey Affleck, how can I talk about another performance from the same film, I should really broaden my horizons. No, silly reader, because Michelle Williams is amazing. Seriously amazing. She’s one of those actresses that delivers every single time she’s on screen, and this was never more apparent than in michelle-williams-manchester-by-the-sea‘Manchester by the Sea’ when Williams made everyone cry with about 5 minutes of screentime. Her performance shone in that film, as did everyone’s, but she’s in about 5 scenes of the whole film, if that. We barely see her, yet we remember her performance long after the film ends. She is a master at big, emotional scenes, and her scene near the end of the film talking to Lee is gut-wrenching. She delivers every line with such purpose, that she needed no more than a few minutes to make a huge impression.

Dialogue vs Action: Julie Delpy (‘Before Sunrise’) vs Tom Hardy (‘Warrior’)

Okay, I wanted to do 10 performances in total, so I couldn’t really think of a great category for this last one, but actually it makes a lot of sense. Acting involves far more than just delivering lines, it requires the actor to get into character physically too. The question is, which is more difficult? Is it trickier to act well when all you have is dialogue, everything else stripped back, or when you have to think about your character’s physical side as well? That brings a good comparison between Julie Delpy and Tom Hardy. I, like many others have always thought that Tom Hardy is the new Julie Delpy, so this was a comparison we all wanted and needed. You are welcome. In ‘Before Sunrise’ (shit, just realised I’ve strayed from my post-2000 rule), the entire film is two 002Ncharacters walking around Vienna and talking. That’s it. There’s nothing else but long takes of Delpy and Hawke walking together and falling in love. It sounds really boring when you describe it, but it’s seriously brilliant. For that reason, all Delpy had for this performance was her words, and yet her acting is still incredible. Armed with nothing but a script, she is strong, carefree, philosophical (if slightly pretentious), and idealistic. We learn so much about Celine from the subtleties of Delpy’s performance, she does such a great job of truly bringing a person to life, to the point where we almost forget we’re watching a movie, and just watch two people fall in love.

In ‘Warrior’, Tom Hardy does his best to channel his inner Julie Delpy, and unfortunately misses the mark. He delivers an aggressive, angry, brutal performance as MMA fighter Tommy Riordan, with the help of an outrageous set of traps and a specific way of moving as Tommy. Hardy thinks about how Tommy walks hunched over, how he pierces people with his stares and even how he fights, and all of this gives us the impression of the 2-tommy-conlon-warrior-1441734032character. Hardy goes far beyond the script to develop this character, and uses everything at his disposal to cover all the bases and bring us another brilliant performance. ‘Warrior’ isn’t the subtlest of films, but there is some super acting, Nick Nolte in particular stands out, but in terms of conveying a character physically, Tom Hardy does a great job. It’s interesting to note his ability at this type of acting. In a number of roles (Mad Max, Bane, Farrier), he has his face covered, and so relies on his eyes and physical embodiments of the character to really elevate his performance.

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