One thing everybody who’s seen the Nick Hornby-scripted An Education seems to agree on is that 22-year-old Carey Mulligan’s lead performance as a 16-year-old London schoolgirl is magnificent.
You can spend a lot of time debating what constitutes good acting but when you see a performance from an unknown that illuminates a film like a 1000 watt light bulb — and hits the dimmer when required — you don’t really need to argue. The charisma and talent is obvious for all to see, just as it was when an obscure actor named Jack Nicholson warmed a cool Easy Rider up to a hot sizzle — only to let it get cold again as soon as he was written out of the story.
Yes, Mulligan will almost certainly figure in the next Oscars. Yes, she may even win one of those gold statuettes, and if by some fluke, neither happens, it won’t be for want of admirers. She’s already on the path to stardom, probably the more rarified variety represented by Cate Blanchett, who is habitually offered chewy parts in interesting projects.
But good acting isn’t always so obvious. The fact that Oscars so often go to actors for largely sentimental or socio-political reasons shows how many factors affect the assessment of a performance. Think of those performances by actors who get the gold for playing a handicapped or a real-life figure, or for doing a lot of yelling, crying and screaming.
Some people’s idea of great acting is embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis’s oil mogul, Daniel Plainview, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Many critics — and the Academy members who voted Day Lewis best actor — seemed to think this must be a great performance because they could see him, right there in front of their eyes, performing.
When I say "performing", I mean that the viewer could easily apprehend that there was something called acting going on. This acting thing seemed to involve a lot of physical effort — especially in that John Cleese-worthy silly walk Day Lewis adopted in the final scene. Much toil was also lavished on the character’s accent, a distracting impersonation of legendary Hollywood director and occasional actor John Huston.
Above all, what distinguished this performance was the visible effort that went into creating a "larger than life" character. Fans of Day Lewis’s performance argued that he wasn’t indulgently chewing the scenery in look-at-me fashion. Apparently, he was embodying a personality of gargantuan dimensions. A similar defence can presumably be applied to charges that an earlier Day Lewis performance — as the wildly over-the-top Butcher Bill in Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York — resembled nothing so much as that meat much beloved by butchers the world over: ham.
I, for one, don’t like being rudely grabbed by the lapel and told to bow down in obeisance. Great screen acting perfectly embodies a character — and the fact of a character being showily egotistical and extroverted does not make a performance more impressive or prize-worthy. Indeed it can mean the opposite: that the actor has gotten so carried away that the temperature needle has shot into the red-for-danger zone.
Good films — and sometimes even mediocre ones — are full of great acting that goes unnoticed. That’s why they’re great — we’re not meant to notice the craft behind them. Genuine performances don’t have tickets on themselves. Sadly, this means they often pass uncelebrated.
For instance I can’t recall anyone ever writing that Alfred Molina, who plays the father of Carey Mulligan’s schoolgirl heroine in An Education, is one of the greatest British film and TV actors currently working — which he so clearly is. Incredibly, I’ve never read a single interview or profile of the man, whose long line of screen credits stretches back as far as a 1981 appearance in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not once has he been nominated for an Academy Award.
Yet there is a very good reason he keeps on getting so much work. Molina is one of those actors — and oddly we call them character actors, as if there were any other kind — that most viewers recognise, but whose name is known by few outside of a small circle of film critics and screen industry professionals.
Molina is always a joy to watch, a highlight of whatever film he’s in. The son of a Spanish father and Italian mother, he was raised in the UK. Like Ben Kingsley, his ethnically difficult-to-place looks have often made him the first choice for directors who want a brilliant actor to play a "foreigner". Among the various nationalities he’s embodied in a totally convincing manner are Russian in Letter to Brezhnev, Iranian in Not Without My Daughter, and Mexican in Frida, in which he played the muralist Diego Rivera.
Other memorable roles have included Joe Horton’s lover Kenneth Halliwell in Prick Up Your Ears, the crazed drug dealer at the end of Boogie Nights and himself — in a hilarious sparring duet with actor-comedian Steve Coogan — in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. And let’s hear it for the 1991 British telemovie Hancock, in which Molina portrayed to perfection the late British radio and TV comic, Tony Hancock, as a self-torturing depressive.
It’s not that Molina always does quiet and subtle. Some of his characters have been almost as big as Daniel Plainview, particularly in Boogie Nights. His amusingly class-conscious 1961 suburban dad in An Education is just on the right side of caricature.
But Molina is never less than absolutely believable in these bigger roles, never hammy. Indeed he seems to be able to play any character and bring them to life, switching where needed from light and jocular to twisted and fiery as if at the flick of a switch.
Mere character acting? Let us pause for a moment — before the next round of Oscar hype starts to heat through — and give Alfred Molina the spotlight he’s due.
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