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Over the Top for an Oscar

Exaggerated performances seem to catch the academy's eye, while understated nuance tends to be ignored. Do slobber and facial tics count more than subtlety?

November 06, 2000|STEPHEN FARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Of all the performances I have seen this year, Ellen Burstyn's in "Requiem for a Dream" may be the most staggering--and I don't mean that as a compliment.

In this grim drama about several forms of addiction, Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, a mother who goes bonkers after she gets hooked on diet pills. Beginning with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent that sounds like a bad Borscht Belt impression, this performance is a doozy. Burstyn relies on a whole bag of actor's tricks to indicate dementia--the bulging eyes, the drooling mouth, the tremulous whimpers. Burstyn has done splendid work in the past, but everything about this performance is shrill, overbearing, sadly misconceived.

In other words, she's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.

There is a certain kind of showy performance that has always polarized people. It wins awards and glowing accolades from many critics but strikes other people (admittedly a minority, but a passionate one) as the equivalent of a fingernail raked across a blackboard for an unendurable two hours. These are love-it or hate-it performances, and there is usually no middle ground.

Actors who deliver these grandstanding performances often rely on false accents, quirky vocal mannerisms or gaudy makeup; they do a lot of hysterical screaming and weeping in their blatant bid for attention. There is no shortage of recent examples of performances to die for (in more ways than one). Among those that I loathe and you may love are Bjork in "Dancer in the Dark," Brenda Blethyn in "Little Voice," Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade," Julianne Moore in "Magnolia" and virtually the entire adult cast of "Pay It Forward."

This brand of overacting is hardly a new phenomenon. Good actors have always had a weakness for stunt performances that betray their greatest gifts. Spencer Tracy won his first Oscar for "Captains Courageous" in 1937; to play Manuel the fisherman, he curled his hair and spoke in a pidgin Portuguese accent. Seen today, it's one of his few unconvincing performances. (Tracy himself never shared the academy's enthusiasm for "Captains Courageous"; he told one friend that he thought his accent sounded more Yiddish than Portuguese.

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In 1966 Sandy Dennis won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her portrayal of the birdbrained Honey in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" She beat out more restrained, accomplished actresses Wendy Hiller ("A Man for All Seasons") and Vivien Merchant ("Alfie"). I guess that was because people could tell Dennis was acting, even if she practically gobbled an entire soundstage in the process. A bundle of tics, wheezes, giggles and hiccups, Dennis is never at rest. Even then, not everyone was enthralled by her antics. Critic Pauline Kael once suggested that "connoisseurs of egregious acting are sometimes known as the Sandy Dennis Fan Club."

More recently, Robert De Niro was nominated for an Oscar for his garish performance in the 1991 remake of "Cape Fear," in which he sported an exaggerated hillbilly accent and laid on the menace with a trowel. When Robert Mitchum played the same part 30 years earlier, he gave a performance of far greater subtlety. The sense of danger he conveyed was understated yet all the more chilling as a result. Of course he got no Oscar recognition for one of the most frightening portrayals in cinema history.

I don't mean to say that all flamboyant, hyperactive performances are equally grating. There is a difference between actors who disappear into a manic, brain-damaged character--as Geoffrey Rush did in "Shine" and Leonardo DiCaprio did in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape"--and performers who seem to stand outside the character and cry, "Look, Ma, I'm acting!"

Admittedly, that line between honesty and fraudulence is elusive, and evaluations are highly subjective. Even Rush and DiCaprio had their detractors, which only goes to prove that these are the kinds of performances destined to divide people.

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British actors are probably better trained for histrionic acting than Americans. The Brits have vast experience with the classics, which means that they know how to perform grand gestures and a medley of distinctive accents without coming off like kids at a Halloween party.

It's also true that grandstanding performances seem more forgivable in a campy melodrama than in a film aiming for realism. Charles Laughton chewed the scenery as a bombastic Southern senator in "Advise and Consent," but he did it entertainingly, and the movie was no more than a juicy piece of skulduggery anyway.

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