Why the best actors are British


With UK stars threatening to storm the Oscars, American writer Charles McNulty explains why his country's actors can't compete

Thursday February 22, 2007
The Guardian

Helen Mirren in The Queen
Centre stage... Helen Mirren is nominated for the best actress gong at the Academy Awards. Photograph: AFP

What do British actors have that US film actors, generally speaking, don't? The question emerges directly from this year's Oscar race. With Helen Mirren and Judi Dench front-runners in the best actress category (which also includes Kate Winslet), and Peter O'Toole the sentimental favourite for best actor, we Americans might find ourselves reluctantly waving a union flag on Sunday night.

Theatrical training is the standard answer for what distinguishes our acting cousins from across the pond. And it's hard not to marvel at the virtuosic command of speech; the way Dench, Mirren and O'Toole make music out of spoken thought. Steeped in Shakespeare and a culture committed to live performance, they have by necessity developed their physical instruments and, in particular, that region of the body that lies between the back of the throat and the tip of the tongue.

Listening to Dench narrate, from her character's perspective, the lurid events unfolding in Notes On a Scandal is like listening to a Stradivarius. You can practically feel her vocal cords luxuriously vibrating as she unfurls a commentary that is at once ruthlessly aggressive and perfectly civilised.

And in Venus, when O'Toole's Maurice recites - no, verbally caresses - Shakespeare's famous Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?") to the young woman he has fallen haplessly in lust with, storm-clouds of emotion blow in, as if his articulation carried the very beauty and loss animating the poem's vision.

But it's not just glorious sound that sets British veterans apart. It's their ability to wring complex meanings from a single line. They invite us not just into their characters' minds but into their intricate thought processes as well. Still, it's not a strictly realistic affair. These talents are drawn from a theatrical heritage that recognises drama as more than a slice of life. Too many US actors have become enslaved to a form of behavioural banality in which the highest value is placed on mimicking everyday life; at its worst fetishising the commonplace at the expense of the revelatory.

Let's face it: realism for realism's sake grows tedious. But don't blame the Method, whose greatest practitioners, such as Marlon Brando, were master stylists, selecting and distilling their actions to endow an appearance of reality with interpretive understanding. When Dench's Barbara, a human-scale villain with Shakespearean cunning, mordantly describes the pupils in her school as "proles", one assumes that not only has this fearsome history teacher read George Orwell, but the actress herself is conversant with the author - and knows how to italicise a cultural marker for maximum effect. The same is true for Winslet in Little Children, who, in playing a passionate woman trapped in a suburban New-England version of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, conveys a fine-grained literary understanding of her situation that's appropriate to her over-educated character.

One doesn't get this sort of intellectual frisson from, say, Leonardo DiCaprio - not because he doesn't read (I'm sure he had plenty of Joseph Conrad to dip into on the set of Blood Diamond) but because the roles that often come with his level of stardom have little interest in these, shall we say, more delicate values. Action films don't have time to revel in the inner life, never mind the colour, nuance and literary rumblings of words. Distracted by irony for too long, an adventure hero could easily find himself with a bullet in his brain.

So maybe the difference has as much to do with the types of independent films British actors are likely to star in as it does with the qualities the best of them bring to their work. There's something mutually reinforcing about this scene, which is of course nourished by a long-standing and still vibrant theatrical tradition that accepts ageing and doesn't need to prettify everything for a big, phony close-up.

Of course, the Brits and Yanks aren't the only ones in contention for best actor and actress honours this year. Spain's Penélope Cruz, the muse of Pedro Almodóvar's hypnotic, if rambling, Volver, and Canada's Ryan Gosling, who definitely earned the praise heaped on him for the otherwise uneven Half Nelson, are also in the running. And, yes, there are homegrown talents who can go toe to toe with anyone. Forest Whitaker, who has struggled to find parts commensurate with his gifts, is allowed, in the British film The Last King of Scotland, to present a depiction of humanised villainy that doesn't lose track of historical atrocities. And Meryl Streep inspires us to once again pay homage, as she offers glimpses of crow's feet and genuine misery in the over-the- top fashion-world comedy The Devil Wears Prada.

But there's something quintessentially American about The Pursuit of Happyness. It's the grand narrative of rags-to-Wall-Street-riches, based on a real-life African-American success story. It's the American dream, in other words, and not the great American drama, the latter having traditionally set out to puncture myths rather than reinforce them. Will Smith delivers a winning performance but, as gritty as this role may be compared with his Men in Black character, there's something prepackaged about its sentiments. We know our cues to cry, and the tears flow out of compassion for hardship rather than from any insight into ourselves.

By playing a senior-citizen lothario with problematic post-op plumbing in Venus, O'Toole is venturing into territory that makes us not quite sure how to respond. We don't really want Maurice to obtain the object of his affection, who is, after all, a teenager. Sympathy mixes uneasily with shame. We've entered a realm of ambivalence in which the dramatic conflict leaves us in a state of bewilderment. Philosophy, as Aristotle told us, begins in wonder. And Venus forces us to ponder the revivifying enchantment and destructive chaos of Eros.

Nothing is more involving than observing a figure lost in thought. Don't believe me? Take Hamlet from your shelf. Mirren exploits this brilliantly in The Queen, which requires her character to maintain a stoical majesty even as her world is threatening to come apart at the seams after the public outcry over the royal family's muted response to Princess Diana's death. "Nowadays, people want glamour and tears, the grand performance," she says to Michael Sheen's Tony Blair. "I'm not very good at that. I never have been. I prefer to keep my feelings to myself. And foolishly, that's what I thought the people wanted from their queen - not to make a fuss or wear one's heart on one's sleeve. Duty first, self second. That's how I was brought up; that's all I've ever known."

As Mirren speaks these words, you see the battle between tradition and modernity subtly writing itself across her face. But that's not all you get. You're also given a view of an actress able to subsume herself so wholly in a part that it becomes, not a vehicle for the star, but a vision of a woman it would have seemed impossible to ever really know.

Our protagonist has two tearful moments, and neither extracts more from the situation than is suitable. The first occurs during a private moment of breakdown on the grounds of Balmoral. The Queen is swaying under pressure to ratchet up the public display of her grief. But her poise is restored by the sight of an imperial stag reminding her of her own - increasingly vulnerable - glory. The second comes when she visits a neighbouring estate to pay homage to the recently hunted-down animal. Eyeing the carcass, she notices that the creature was badly wounded. "Let's hope he didn't suffer too much," she says sombrely. And then, without further ado, she crisply remarks: "Please pass my congratulations to your guest."

Mirren knows we're not supposed to warm to her character. She's playing a queen, not a chum at a barbecue, and her mission isn't to seduce but to clarify. Ironically, by proceeding with such scrupulous British tact, she manages to accomplish both.

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