Monday, December 6, 2010

Can a Good Film Have Only Bad Performances?

At a panel interview with the Hollywood Reporter Mark Ruffalo and Jesse Eisenberg compared David Fincher’s shooting technique – one in which he shoots many takes – to that of legendary director Stanley Kubrick. After the comment, actor Robert Duvall commented that Kubrick’s films contain “the worst performances I’ve ever seen.” He did add that they may be good filmsbut he still thought the acting was terrible.

I currently do not subscribe to the Hollywood Reporters online service so I do not have access to the full quote. You can read more about it on The Onion AV Club here.

I have no interest in criticizing Duvall’s comments (interviews can cause people to simply say things) or point out the great performances Kubrick got out of the likes of Kirk Douglas, Peter Sellers, and Malcolm McDowell – to name a few. What does interest me is whether or not a “great” film can exist with poor performances from its principal actors.

One common thread in modern film criticism is to point out individual actors that give excellent performances in lesser films. Popular recent examples include Kate Winslet in The Reader, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (hmm…all Oscar-winning performances). However, it is very rare for critics to praise a film while dismissing the principal performances.

Kevin Smith’s Clerks finds itself in this small group. While Smith wasn’t working with then professional actors, Brian O’Halloran (Dante) and Jeff Anderson (Randal) give sometimes hard to watch performances relative to their performances in the sequel. Each performance is there to reiterate the script, which is interesting considering a popular rumor that Smith never allowed his actors to improvise – a myth he dispelled in the comic-con panel for Zach and Miri Make a Porno. That being said, Clerks is a hilarious film. From its release to this very day, its’ refreshing dialogue opens viewers to a unique brand of comedy and dialogue.

As charming as Smith’s first film is, there is something special about a movie that combines a compelling story, interesting idea and excellent performances. Nearly all universally praised films like Goodfellas or Casablanca are exalted for their themes, technique, and story, directing and yes…acting. These are also all rated higher on iMDB than Clerks. While this can’t be taken as gospel, (movie criticism is subjective…imagine that!) audiences clearly recognize certain films as being “complete,” in this regard.

It’s very rare for a film to earn praise without at least one solid to astounding performance. It’s definitely more common in first films like Clerks or Darren Aranofsky’s Pi. It’s certainly possible, however a poor performance can go a long way to pull viewers out of a film.

What do you think? Are there any films you love that don’t have any especially great lead performances? Is it possible for a film to be great but not have a single good performance? Post your thoughts in the comments below or share them on Twitter @audible_motion.

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