Monday 6 February 2017
We’re at the beginning of one of my favourite times of the year for film and television. It’s award season! SAG, BAFTA, Golden Globes, Oscars, Emmys . . . all of the serious awards that the film and television industries base their futures upon are ahead. Of course, there are many other award ceremonies throughout the year; there are the ceremonies where viewers get to vote on who they think is the best, and the lesser known industry awards that perhaps don’t carry as much weight as Academy Awards or BAFTAs. And the thought of award season took my mind off of how sh!tty Tuesday is going to be for me, and on to what it is that I think makes an actor extraordinary. To do that, I need to discuss some of the actors – yes, it is a generic term, and doesn’t simply refer to the male of the industry – that I believe to fall into the extraordinary, exceptional, excellent, brilliant, awesomely talented category.
In looking at this, I could head towards those actors that everybody would likely agree are the absolute standouts of the industry: Meryl Streep; Dame Helen Mirren; Dame Judi Dench; Robert De Niro; Al Pacino; Sidney Poitier. The list is long and varied in both male and female performers. A lot of them, well, I’d debate their excellence. I think quite a number of actors have won Academy Awards due to popularity of their film, or because voters are considering the political correctness of particular nominees and their portrayals, or because whatever movie or television show they’re in or character they play is the current topic or character type that’s in vogue with audiences and voters. Some of the actors that I consider the best, I also think are underrated or underappreciated because they don’t fit the conventions of prime time or Hollywood looks, or perhaps they are particular about the roles they take on.
An extraordinary actor draws you into the world of the film or television show. That’s a no-brainer point to raise. If you’re not invested in the character, and therefore the work of the actor, then you’re not going to accept that they are exceptional, and that means the writing needs to be exceptional. There are instances where the writing has been disappointing, but an actor has elevated the film or show above the sh!tty level that the writer or director has positioned it. It can be said for all sides, writer, director, crew, or actor, that a production can be dulled by the choices of those involved.
Why am I qualified to write a post about this? D’uh, I’m a Drama Teacher. I studied Drama, and Theatre, and plays, and playwriting, and technical aspects of productions, and other stuff to do with acting, writing, and directing, and theatre history, and stuff.
An American actor who I find exceptional is Edward Norton. Here is a man who makes, for the most part, well considered, carefully thought out choices on the projects he joins, and the characters he plays. Think of Edward Norton in Primal Fear, where he plays an allegedly abused altar boy accused of murdering a Catholic Archbishop. Norton’s character, Aaron Stampler, is eventually diagnosed as having Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Personality Disorder), and he chooses to play the little intricacies in each character very subtly. His alleged alternate persona, Roy, is the strong, confident aggressor, whilst Aaron is a stammering, shy, young man. I won’t give the ending away for those who haven’t seen the film, but I will say, watch it and focus on Edward Norton’s performance. It’s remarkable. This is the film that put Norton on my radar. And check out American History X where he portrays a neo-Nazi a$$hole, Red Dragon a prequel to Silence Of The Lambs, and Fight Club. His one foray into sh!t film has to be The Incredible Hulk. Sorry, but nothing could save that film – not even Edward Norton as Bruce Banner.
Let me move on to another Norton, although no relation to Edward. This time, we’re looking at Brit, James Norton, best known for his roles in War And Peace, Grantchester as lead character Sidney Chambers, and my favourite, Happy Valley series one and two. As vicar Sidney Chambers in Grantchester, Norton plays a man conflicted by his love of religion and theology, and a woman – because a crime-solving vicar needs to have his vices too . . . in addition to his love of jazz and whiskey, and the torment stemming from his time in the war that he appears to enjoy wallowing in. Chambers is a good man despite his vices and his desire to jump into the middle of local crimes. He’s flawed, but good, and James Norton, like Edward Norton, makes very subtle choices about how he portrays his characters. Sidney is likeable – handy since he’s a vicar – and he’s the sort of bloke you might know in real life.
And then there’s Happy Valley’s Tommy Lee Royce. He’s a despicable piece of sh!t, and not even the revelation that he had a cr@p childhood can make us feel anything other than disgust and contempt for him, and horror at the crimes he commits. The thing is though, James Norton does manage to make Tommy just a lil bit likeable, and he does that by playing up the vulnerable side of this psychopath. It’s only evident in minute quantities, a look here and there, a slight change in his tone of voice, all lil alterations that bring out the humanity of this character. He portrayed Tommy Lee Royce so well that Sally Wainwright wrote into the second series the bizarre phenomenon that occurred after the broadcast of series one. Women across the world contacted Sally and told her how sorry they felt for Tommy Lee Royce, and how they believed there was no way he could have committed the crimes she attributed to him . . . because he was too good looking, and good looking people aren’t criminals. Let that sink in for a moment – the stupidity of people.
Another actor from Happy Valley who I think is extraordinary is Sarah Lancashire. I’ve fan-girled over Sarah in one or two other posts, so it’s safe to say that you really should have expected me to mention her performances here. Her legion of fans has been dubbed Fancashires, a play on her surname, and yes, I’m one of them. Her portrayal of Sgt. Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley is remarkable, and it only gets better and becomes more impressive in series two. She’s won a number of awards for her portrayal as Sgt. Cawood, and if you’ve seen the show, you’ll understand why. Here we have a heroine leading a normal, everyday life, flawed and excruciatingly human. She’s dealing with the rape and subsequent suicide of her daughter (Becky), grandson Ryan who is the product of the rape, Ryan’s learning disability and the problems he causes at school, her ex-husband who is about to lose his job as a journalist at the local paper, the murder of one of her junior officers, a son who refuses to talk to her because she took in her grandson, the abduction of a local woman, keeping her recovering drug and alcohol addicted younger sister, and the release from prison of Tommy Lee Royce who happened to be the bloke who raped her daughter. Things are not simple in Catherine’s life, but she gets up every morning and deals with the everyday sh!t that the rest of us contend with. It’s one of the most realistic, genuine, human portrayals of a flawed woman I’ve ever seen. She’s f*!king good.
Prior to taking on Catherine, Sarah Lancashire portrayed Caroline Elliot McKenzie-Dawson in another of Sally Wainwright’s shows, Last Tango In Halifax, and as with Sally, Sarah, Happy Valley, and Catherine Cawood, I’ve covered Last Tango in previous posts. The difficulty in assessing her performance as Caroline, is that after you’ve seen Sarah as Catherine, it’s hard to get that performance out of your head, and reconcile that she’s also sophisticated Head Teacher, Caroline, who in series one of Last Tango is dealing with her husband leaving her for an alcoholic and then wanting to come back to her and their sons, her mother Celia’s blossoming relationship with and impending marriage to a childhood love Celia hasn’t seen in sixty years, and Caroline’s own need to stop pretending to be someone she’s not and admit that she’s a gay lady, which causes massive conflict with Caroline’s ex-husband, her youngest son, and Celia. In taking on this role, Sarah chose to play the humanity of the character again, and it’s this choice that makes Sarah the extraordinary actor that she is.
Every role Sarah Lancashire has played has been remarkable – from her early role as Raquel in Coronation Street, to Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights, Esther Caddick in All The Small Things, Yvonne in Clocking Off, Mavis in the film version of Dad’s Army to Catherine and Caroline – because she plays the person not the stereotype. Another reason I believe Lancashire excels at acting is because she is notoriously private. She’s never sought out fame or celebrity. Try to find an interview where she discusses her personal life, and you’ll only come across a few. She sticks to press junkets (where she has to) to promote the projects she’s worked on, and that’s just about it. Again, I think she’s a f*!king remarkable actor. Brilliant. Extraordinary.
My final choice for exceptional actor for this post is Marta Dusseldorp. I’m particularly a fan of her work in Crownies, Janet King (both series), and the Jack Irish movies. There’s a calmness, a serenity in her performances that exists even when her character is required to be emotional. It’s quite lovely to watch her minute facial expressions as emotions change, especially in Janet King. I enjoy her more gritty roles, despite first discovering her in A Place To Call Home. Yes, I know – you’re finding it difficult to reconcile that I enjoyed watching a show like A Place To Call Home. It was bloody good though – Noni Hazlehurst as a complete b!tch was a piece of casting genius. That being said, I’ve not watched it since Foxtel took over the production and broadcast. Marta as Janet King is one of my favourite pieces of casting in the Australian television industry. I don’t think anyone else in our acting industry could have portrayed her with such care and sensitivity.
Honourable mentions as exceptional actors for this post should also include:
- Nadine Garner – brilliant as Jean Beazley in The Doctor Blake Mysteries;
- Craig McLachlan – also brilliant in The Doctor Blake Mysteries as Dr. Lucien Blake, and as Dr. Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show;
- Guy Pearce – as Jack Irish . . . and in anything else he does;
- Essie Davis – as Miss Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries;
- Ian Meadows – Pete in The Wrong Girl . . . I taught him, so of course, I was going to list him as an exceptional actor, and not necessarily because of anything I taught him, but more because he has an innate ability to understand characters and storytelling.