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Hailing the Understated and the Overblown

November 11, 2000

Stephen Farber's commentary ("Over the Top for an Oscar," Nov. 6 ) is quite shortsighted. It seems to me that the subdued performance is quite often the preferred one for the Oscar. A perfect example is Gregory Peck's award-winning work in "To Kill a Mockingbird" versus Peter O'Toole's emotionally charged performance in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Farber's definition of Gary Oldman's work in "The Contender" as being "way over the top" compared to Jeff Bridges' "extraordinary job" in the same film is also inaccurate and biased. This happens to be one of Oldman's more understated performances. Having studied acting for more than 10 years and involved somewhat in the business, I consider Oldman an enormously talented actor with a range far wider than any actor working today.

Many artists will "go over the top" but very few achieve "artistry." I find it exhilarating and inspiring to see a great performer demonstrate his or her range, but only if they are truly talented will it work and have an exciting effect on the audience. To quote from another great actor-artist, Sir Laurence Olivier, "A truly great actor is one who dares to be bad."

GIUSEPPE MIRELLI

Los Angeles

*

I agree that understatement and subtlety in movie acting are qualities that almost consistently go unnoticed by the academy, and hats off to Farber for using the underappreciated work of Jeff Bridges and John Cusack as examples (two of my all-time fave actors).

However, I would like to take a moment and defend Ellen Burstyn's work in "Requiem for a Dream," which, yeah, is showy and big and, yeah, she does drool, but I think Farber is missing the point. Burstyn's performance may be big and over the top, but it fits into the scheme of this movie, a movie that presents the descent into madness (brought on by substance abuse and addiction) as a hellish sensory overload.

In my opinion, the best scene in the movie, ironically, is also the quietest one. It occurs smack dab in the middle of the flick, where Jared Leto's character visit's Burstyn with the intent of delivering a present to her, in the hopes that she might forgive him. True, Burstyn begins the scene as a whirlwind of energy, but watch her closely as Leto presses her when he suspects that she may be "on uppers," as he puts it. Burstyn is truly magnificent as she quietly moves from transition to transition, hopelessly trying to defend her actions while desperately trying not to tip her hand. One "junkie" to another, both playing the denial game, both not at all believing what they're saying to each other, but not showing it, because they still cling to the dream referred to in the title. It is a wonderful example of an actor doing two things at once and it is the crux of the movie.

J.R. ESPOSITO

Los Angeles

*

How can Farber call Bjork's performance in "Dancer in the Dark" or Ellen Burstyn's in "Requiem for a Dream" a "stunt performance" or "showy"? I sat in the theater after "Dancer" absolutely floored by Bjork's performance, wishing more actors could balance truthful acting and an intense story line the way she does. She possesses incredible stillness throughout her entire performance despite the unrealistic ingredient of musical dance numbers.

Burstyn's performance is exaggerated and larger than life. How else could the diet pill-addicted mother fit so perfectly with the film as a whole? That role crept under my skin and stayed there for hours, a sign to me of a successful and believable character. It made me feel uneasy and uncomfortable, emotions a delicate performance may not have evoked.

JORDAN CATAPANO

Santa Monica

*

I nodded in thoughtful agreement as I read Farber's comparison of the over-the-top type of performance with the restrained elegance of a naturalistic performance in which technique dare not speak its name. (I came away from a performance of "Sunset Boulevard" with a profound appreciation of the scenery, so amazed was I that any was left after Glenn Close had finished chewing it.)

Then I came to Farber's reference to John Cusack, whose virtuosity has long been appreciated in this house. The coffee spewed from my lips. "Yes, yes!" I shouted. I rose from the table to do a victory dance during which I broke my coffee cup and badly frightened my cat. I'm so ashamed. But at least I didn't whimper.

JUDY SOLOSKI

Pacific Palisades

*

I would like to add one more thing to Farber's list. How about a moratorium on acting awards for women playing hookers and men playing mentally challenged people? They are always sure-fire ways of getting an awards nomination and they are almost always unbelievable.

The problem is that an understated, nuanced performance is much harder to pull off than an over-the-top, brash performance, and the rewards are not always commensurate in terms of awards or public acclaim. Just look at what happened to Tobey Maguire last year with "The Cider House Rules." He turned in a wonderful, understated performance that Jack Lemmon described as by far the best acting performance of the year. He did not even get nominated for either an Academy Award or a Golden Globes Award, with its expanded categories.

BILL CODY

Los Angeles

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