Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mimicry? It's Always Transcendant!

Oscarwatch continues to give us the headsup that the mainstream's most famous critics are getting VERY excited about Phillip Seymour Hoffman's work in Capote. And that he's nearing 'lock' proportions in the upcoming Oscar race. The latest gushing? It's from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman who says:

"Hoffman, in his sublime, must-see feat of a performance, plays that famous foppish lilt like a hypnotist's instrument, getting you to forget, in 30 seconds, that you're seeing an impersonation..."

I have to say that it will take more than solid mimicry to convince me, though I do plan on seeing the film. It seems that every year when a biopic or five are released you hear the same type of responses: "OHMYGOD [Insert Famous Actor's Name Here] LOOKS.SOUNDS.MOVES.ACTS. JUST LIKE....[Insert Famous Person's Name Here] BUT ALSO DELIVERS A PERFORMANCE THAT TRANSCENDS MIMICRY!!!!" In all seriousness I must say this: Wake me, please!, when someone does mimicry well and people don't also think there's a transcendant performance attached to it. It's so weird to me that mimicry is considered the highest pinnacle of the acting arts.

Is this my natural anti-biopic bent speaking? I often find them awkward as films go...without the structural or narrative discipline that most great films have. Is it my Hoffman revulsion? I've said it before that I find him to be -by a large margin -the most overpraised actor working. For instance, he was SAG nominated for Flawless which I think is one of the worst performances of the past several years. I've in fact never seem him give a performance that I thought was award worthy (FWIW: The exception to the rule? I think he's very good in Magnolia). Or is there something about mimicry that I don't understand? Is it really harder for actors than any other type of characterization? It seems to me that it would do most of your character-building work for you, thus making it easier. I must confess that when it comes to the Academy's love of biopics and biopic performances, I just don't get it. The ability to mimic others seems to be a fairly common skill among actors --you hear about them doing it at parties, you see them doing it in interviews and talk show appearances, many of them seem adept at changing their voice for voiceover characters, etc... Doesn't seem that rare of a gift to me.

Ah well. At least I'm not entirely alone in being suspect about biopic star turns. Mike D'Angelo formerly of Time Out New York and now with Nerve, shares his doubts in his Capote capsule:

"it still strikes me as 80% expert mimicry and only 20% acting. (I didn't understand all the hosannas for Blanchett's Hepburn last year, either.)".

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

My favorite Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance is in Owning Mahoney - a film from a few years ago. I wasn't all that impressed with his performance in Magnolia, which is odd because of my undying love for that movie, but I did enjoy his brief bit in Almost Famous.

-Erik

Javier said...

I am *sick* of mimicry, but I admit to having a bias against Jamie Foxx or Philip Seymour Hoffman - I really couldn't care less about these two and Foxx's performance did *nothing* for me last year. And even though this is depressing, I already believe that Hoffman will take the oscar for this.

Why cant they honor genuine acting talent like that of Liv Ullmann or Ralph Fiennes (to name two) who can practically create entire characters from thin air. Why isn't the world a fair place? ... Yes, kill me now.

I *loved* Cate's Hepburn perf, though. Now if that amount of energy and emotion is mimicry, then perhaps mimicry ain't that bad. But most of the time this is just not the case.

adam k. said...

LeoDiCaprio has been asked whether biopic acting is easier or harder than creating one's own character... I recall him answering diplomatically, like "well they have different challenges" etc. but he did acknowledge that there's something uniquely difficult about coming up with a character on your own. It's more, sall we say, "creative".
I think the bias for mimickry comes from people getting tired of actors "playing themselves" and thinking that takes no effort. And a kind of "they know how to do it the RIGHT way" sentiment as opposed to "they're just doing whatever they want". It's rather like realistic vs. abstract art. Really, mimickry is the "technical" surface stuff and "transcendence" is the depth. Obviously. But people have trouble telling them apart. It can be tricky like that to judge acting.

dusty said...

I actually like P.S. Hoffman -- when he's toned down. In that, he reminds me of Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. He is flamboyantly TERRIBLE in Punch Drunk Love and Cold Mountain, but...he's fantastic in Almost Famous, Love Liza and (especially) Magnolia. So I'm not dreading the possibility of a Hoffman win for BA, even if his performance bests more "creative" talent like Ralph Fiennes or Heath Ledger.

Besides, who's gonna win if it ain't Hoffman? Joaquín Phoenix?

damian b. said...

so, just out of curiosity nathaniel: what biopic performances are you a fan of? I personally choose Angela Bassett in What's Love Got to Do with It. I never for a second thought I was watching an impersonation of Tina Turner, whereas with Jamie Foxx last year I often felt like I was.

Gerard said...

I think Hoffman is battling for the win with Phoenix.
His role is very Oscar-ish. I saw the work of Heath Ledger and Cillian Murphy at Toronto and while both (especially Cillian) are fantastic, neither are really Oscar-ish. He definately has the advantage of having the most Oscar-ish turn of the "gay" characters. I suspect Hoffman will be taking most of the critics awards and the Globe for this before going head-to-head with Phoenix for BFCA/SAG/Oscar.

Anywho, I like Hoffman. Don't love him but thought he was great in Talented Mr. Ripley, Owning Mahony, Almost Famous and especially Magnolia.
I agree he was the weak link of Boogie Nights, and also pretty bad in Cold Mountain and especially Flawless but those (especially the latter) were TERRIBLY written characters.

David Shultz said...

For some reason (and don't ask me why), I found Blanchett's Hepburn turn to be more than mimicry because I thought I saw depth shine through more than just a few times. Maybe it's my undying love for Blanchett? Who knows. I felt like she imbued profundity in her character just as she does with the rest of the roles she plays. I don't think Foxx did so at all. At. All. I still don't understand the acclaim. I don't ever think I'll understand the acclaim. Critics are just plain idiotic sometimes. And it seems that when they do award actual character creation it's something like Hilary Swank's performance in Million Dollar Baby. You know, something so thin and one-note a dying bunny could perform it and still do a better job than Swank.

adam k. said...

I know from his past comments that Nathaniel loves Ghandi and Malcolm X.

Anonymous said...

The thing with Blanchett's perf last year was that it still required 100% of her abilities. But say with Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles it was like (and sorry if this sounds offensive) pretend to be blind. Oh, and walk destinctively.

That was all i picked up. I mean, it's not even like Foxx sang for the part either (which Phoenix and Witherspoon have done this year).

I haven't seen any footage of Capote and I never saw any footage of the real Capote either so I won't comment on that yet. I am indifferent to Seymour Hoffman though. I thought he was good in Mr Ripley and Happiness but, yeah, nothing has really struck me yet. Maybe cause he always gets weird eccentric cameo parts.

I think if it came down to a battle between Phoenix and Hoffman (which for some reason, i ain't feelin right now) then both have plusses and minuses.

Phoenix would have to get over the hurdle of the fact that an actor won for a legendary singer biopic just this year. But he's still apparently great and already as a nod to his name (he's for the most part proven his worth)

Hoffman, who apparently is also great, would have to battle with the fact that, obviously, the academy hasn't warmed to him yet. If they had and with all of the talk, you'd think he'd have a nod already.

I'm still hoping above all hopes for Ledger. It's a romance, so they may (MAY) bite. Here's hoping they reward something different (anything different) than biopics, which I am also getting slightly sick of.

Anonymous said...

er, that was me just above!

-Glenn

NATHANIEL R said...

damian, some biopic perfs I love:

angela bassett -what's love got to do with it
denzel washington -malcolm x
ben kingsley -gandhi
james franco -that jimmy dean tv movie
peter o'toole -lawrence of arabia
robert deniro -raging bull,

etc...

but even then i don't think all of those deserved a statue. It's not that I cant' find them as worthy as other performances. It's just that they don't equal (automatically) BEST to me. It's the same problem I have with the academy's love of "de-glam".

just because you do a certain 'type' of thing... it doesn't automatically make you better than your competition.

Gerard said...

Nathaniel, just was wondering what your Best Actor ballot of 1989 would be?
Because the two most revered turns from the year- Tom Cruise and Daniel Day-Lewis- are both biopic performances.
Who would you winner be (I can't imagine it's any of the other three nominees)? Martin Landau (incorrectly categorized by AMPAS)? James Spader? Matt Dillon?

david m said...

Agree with the comments that Blanchett's performance was more than mimicry. I never thought she was channelling Katharine Hepburn, but rather gave us her interpretation of Katharine Hepburn. That added a richness that wasn't there in Foxx's very good impersonation of Ray Charles.

I have enjoyed P.S. Hoffman... especially in Happiness, Magnolia, Ripley, but I doubt he will win the Oscar for Capote. Despite the accolades the film has very limited box office potential.

Anthony said...

Forgot about "Happiness" -- PSH was very disturbing in it, though, like everyone else, "Magnolia" takes the cake.

Anonymous said...

bah. That whole experience (ie; Magnolia) was just unpleasant.

Unlike most of the movie fandom world I am yet to be entirely impressed by Anderson. Boogie Nights was good enough but... yeah.

Do movies like Norma Rae, Silkwood and Erin Brockovich count as biopics? I know those three are all about very similar things but they came to mind first. Because Field's Nora Rae perf is one of my all time faves.

-Glenn

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