March of the himbos
Balancing the actor-man ledgers: talent versus hunkdom.
By Dennis Harvey
Among the least -expected things about 2005 was that it would turn out to be the Year That Heath Broke. Who'd have guessed? Just a few months ago, he was a later-model Ryan Philippe with an Aussie surfie accent. OK, he was good as the suicidal son in Monster's Ball, and as Ned Kelly in that mediocre film, but otherwise his résumé was filled by roles any cute young thang could've done and done about as well. A Knight's Tale? The Order? These are movies that float twentysomething careers doomed to expire at age 30.
But whoo-hoo: His Moondoggie-like Skip in the undervalued Lords of Dogtown was a thing of outsize comic beauty. By contrast, Ennis name as constipated as his emotions in Brokeback Mountain was one of the most profoundly moving studies in reticence and repression yet committed to celluloid. That film is so sure-footed it might still devastate with a less-inspired central turn but thank god other actors declined it before Ledger. Both these performances seem drawn from a well deeper, and a craft more matured, than his 26 years would lead one to expect.
For my money, Ennis trumps the extraordinary, similarly award-baiting immersions by Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote and David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. Partly because those sorts of roles, re-creating actual personalities we can still witness on film or video, invariably carry a whiff of "stunt" about them. But more, Ledger has the benefit of fiction's neater tragic arc (truisms aside, real life generally makes for inferior drama) and of surprising us by rendering unrecognizable the pretty-boy actor we thought we knew.
This year was even worse than usual in terms of opportunities for leading actresses. But for leading actors, it was a very good annum as well as an instructive one. Guys who had banner years including Ledger, Ralph Fiennes, Peter Sarsgaard, Jeff Daniels, Johnny Depp, and even Kevin Costner did so largely because they were willing to mix up large and small films, primary and supporting roles, "star" ones and unsympathetic or slobbish characters. Nothing about Hollywood (for simplicity's sake we won't deal with the year's foreign films here) is tilted toward encouraging performers to "reinvent" themselves. Safe bets are invariably favored by a bottom line-focused industry. So ultimately it's up to an actor alone to stay nimble and relevant.
Good careers do happen to bad actors, the merely hot or right-place-right-timing. But genuine talent is always plentiful disadvantageously so, given the musical-chairs nature of movie stardom. How many excellent performers fade because their overly catered-to image becomes stale, or they rack up too many good-on-paper vehicles that fail in execution? In the latter department, some guys never get the right break: Eric Bana and Thomas Jane have had "breakthrough" roles in movies no one saw over and over again. (Having starred in several movies everyone saw, Orlando Bloom might now be considered a legitimately failed "star.") Yet perennial also-ran Christian Bale finally made it, it seems, via Batman (one of his least-challenging parts) in '05.
Commercial expectations versus artistic cred remains a difficult balance to maintain for everyone who hasn't reached untouchable iconic status à la the Pitt and the Cruise, where media skepticism no longer matters. (Of course, you can still fry that flameproof barrier by other means like becoming heir apparent to Michael Jackson's celebrity nutjob throne.) Will Smith and Matthew McConaghey, to name a couple, are occasionally striking actors who too often choose generic vehicles; Training Day aside, Denzel Washington seems uneasily backed against a wall at present as his generation's Sidney Poitier.
At least they appear sane. Prestige thespian Russell Crowe has burned too many bridges as an off-screen jerk, and Colin Farrell leaving the year with the two illnesses most likely to be suffered in a press release, "exhaustion" and "addiction to prescription medications" is his premature matey-in-waiting. They're good actors, mostly. But can (or should) anyone survive so much self-generated ill will? On the flip side, can a surplus of goodwill prevent Joaquin Phoenix from flaming out? The world doesn't need another too-sensitive-to-live James Dean. We'd rather find out what Dean could have accomplished (and Phoenix is already way beyond that).
Meanwhile the star-making machinery churns on. In terms of delight per screen-time minute, Steve Zahn should be a huge star already. But can movies exploit his peculiar genius center-frame? (Cuter and more versatile, Rupert Everett and John Leguizamo are other recent illustrations of how a brilliant but "niche" actor gets sidelined.) Ditto the Rock, who unlike Vin Diesel has a good deal of lightness and wit for such a big man. But when was the last time a bodybuilder transcended freak status? (Answer: Never. No, Schwarzenegger is not an exception.)
It's anyone's bet whether talented but so far uninspiredly cast actors like Ryan Reynolds or Jake Gyllenhaal can survive to the point of someone like Pierce Brosnan, whose delicious turn in The Matador makes hay of expired hunkdom. Even once-untouchable luminaries like Pacino, DeNiro, Newman, Redford, and Hoffman (let alone poor Sly Stallone) have found the path to graceful late-career character roles uncomfortably mined by prior expectations and reductive projects. As ever, it's a buyer's market and the deals so often end up as empty as the current Casanova, which manages to return Ledger to his pre-2005 status as smirking himbo.
Dennis Harvey's 10 little shining moments of 2005
1. Pipe sliding right through Paris Hilton's skull in House of Wax. We knew there was only jelly in there!
2. America Ferrera's climactic telephone scene in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
3. Seann William Scott making sweet verbal love to his Dodge Charger at the end of The Dukes of Hazzard
4. The tribal-love-rock explosion of "Let the Sunshine In" that closes The 40 Year-Old Virgin
5. Illeana Douglas's archetypal Mill Valley organic-label grocery shopper in The Californians
6. Peter Sarsgaard's memorably mixed-emotional orgasm in The Dying Gaul
7. The Florida-retired porn producer discussing mob connections while his wife keeps telling him to shaddap in Inside Deep Throat
8. Ryan Reynolds's chest in The Amityville Horror at least something was fully developed
9. Actual "Frank" Ballot and writer-director Steve Ballot turning up at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to accept kudos for their 1996 John Waters-goes-New Joisey bad taste festival, Bride of Frank. "Yoo ga ah nize ath," indeed.
10. Brokeback be damned, the übermacho gay moment of the year was the line "Fuckin' females is fer poofs," harumphed by Brit gangster-rapist Crazy Larry (Jason Flemyng) in Layer Cake.