A production friend of mine staunchly avows that there is no such thing as good acting, only perfect casting.
Having seen great acting – most of it by Brits – I disagree, but only partially. Much of what passes in American movies for fine acting is simply a matter of matching the actor to the role. You see it again and again in Oscar-nominated performances, and particularly in Oscar winners who thereafter never really do much else. Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Reese Witherspoon, and the list goes on. It’s particularly interesting to watch the actors who’ve won twice, basically for doing the same thing. Hillary Swank’s accent is a tad thicker in Million Dollar Baby than in Boys Don’t Cry, but the character’s no different – and pretty much every other movie she’s been in has earned her lukewarm reviews. Kevin Spacey in American Beauty and The Usual Suspects is a joy to watch; you can also throw in his scary turn in Se7en. All 3 roles make full and thrilling use of Spacey’s alert, watchful eyes and barely contained, repressed rage; even in his tender moments in Beauty, there is a sense that he will always be able to spring out of the way like a cat. The guy exudes self-preservation at any cost, which is one reason that the ending of that movie shocks as hard as it does. But subsequent movies, which try to stretch him and make more cuddly, are….well, can you name any of them?
I won’t even attempt to touch on British acting here, other than to say that there’s a discipline and ability to disappear into a character that very few Americans have. One of the things that makes Americans American is our general self-confidence, solipsism, and utter belief in ourselves (read some Emerson before you accuse me of making sweeping generalizations). To be anything other than ourselves, even when that self is conforming to a particular set of social rules, is tough. We Keep It Real even, or perhaps especially, when we’re faking it.
Good performances by American actors are, I think, a combination of perfect casting, good directing and editing (do not dismiss the editor’s power; I have sat through multiple takes and trust me, that moment that seems so natural is hard won and sometimes just plain lucky), and, for the actor, complete honesty. For a fine example, I encourage you to check out Acts of Worship, a tiny movie from 2001, shot in a Spanish Harlem that does a respectable job passing for the Lower East Side back when it was still dangerous.
(It’s interesting to me that Dennis and I lived mere blocks away from each other in the early 80s and are pretty sure we crossed paths more than once in the decade before we knew the other existed. Husband 1 had a huge 1 bedroom for under $200 a month on Orchard below Houston, a dodgy area at night, and only on the outer fringe of yuppification by day. DP lived a few blocks over on the even dodgier Norfolk; each block was progressively more dicey at that point in time. He and I frequented a lot of the same places, particularly Theater 80 on St. Marks.)
The 80s is clearly the era that writer director Rosemary Rodriguez is out to capture in her autobiographical film, because even in 2000 when the movie was shot, the Lower East Side had succumbed to condos, bistros, and glitzy boutiques; I’m sure Karl’s apartment had already been sliced in half and was going for 15 times the rent he paid at that point. No matter. The story, about a crack addict’s path through and momentary escape from addiction hell, needs a setting so gritty that even the film stock looks as if it had picked up additional dirt from the location. There’s little music, not much sentimentality, and a sad reality in this completely unvarnished portrait of life lived for the blissful release of glass pipe and needle.
The script isn’t perfect – and that’s where the acting comes in. As Alix, the protagonist, Ana Reeder is nothing short of extraordinary. A feral child with wild hair and haunted eyes, she slices up a rock deftly as if born to the task, a gleam of bone-chiling, heartbreaking joy in her eye.
It’s the actress’s willingness to show that she’s still a kid that makes this work. When Alix rages, she’s a little girl having a tantrum; when she whines about being “sick,” her euphemism for needing a fix, you can see the same manipulation that kept her home from school probably less than a year before. A nice scene shows her eying an art book, stopping on a beautiful painting, then carefully closing the book before slipping it under her jacket. As you begin to think, hey, she has an artist’s heart, you realize the appreciation is for the book’s worth; she hands it over without ado to a guy with a table on the sidewalk to score drug money.
As I watched Reeder blaze through the movie, I thought of Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar nom for Winter’s Bone. I’m glad to see any good tiny movie get some love, but I remain mystified at the swooning over Lawrence. She’s well-cast, she’s herself, and if she does anything else of note, I will eat a party hat (provided it’s made of something edible; I do not wish to, Herzog-like, consume actual felt). Winter’s Bone required stoicism and one scene with a lot of crying, and yet the raves and higher agent fees rolled in. Reeder has done little work, according to the IMDB, and while she was nominated for an Independent Spirit “Best Debut” (she lost to Paul Dano in something called L.I.E.), I can’t help but wonder if, 10 years ago with so much less access to smaller movies, the timing for her just kind of sucked.
Balancing Reeder is Michael Hyatt, who’s fortunately worked quite a bit since the movie. She has a rare camera face, with large features that manage to be intensely expressive in and of themselves, with barely any movement . Her presence is powerfully calm, and her beauty sneaks up on you. In a part with a fair amount of unbelievability written into, Hyatt makes it work.