I have gotten a little feedback from my earlier post about the great man theory and the dangers of deification. Here are a few comments from some clients and friends. The first comment is maybe the most important, a friend mis-read the title and thought it said "The Great Man Theory and Avoiding the Dangers of DEFECATION." I shudder to think of the myriad of dangers defecation poses for the actor. My main piece of advice in this area is something I tell all my clients, from beginners to big stars....Don't shit your pants! It is a simple piece of advice but it can take you a long way in this business, or any other. While there is a chance your career can bounce back from a pants-shitting, you are better off not risking it and avoiding shitting your pants at all costs.
The other question I got was, "what are some examples of some actors who fell into the trap of deification?" (not defecation). I am usually pretty hesitant to criticize actors even if they are big time well known stars. The reason being is that actors, even big stars, may not have all that much power when it comes to the performance we see on the screen. If it is terrible, it may be the fault of the director, of the script, of meddling producers, you name it. Also, I just like actors so I don't like to attack one of my own tribe. With that said, I do think there is value in critiquing a performance in order to learn something from it as opposed to indulging in shadenfreude.
A generalized good example of deification can be seen in virtually every portrayal of President Kennedy. Lots of actors have played the role, and everyone of them gets stuck trying to impersonate the former President. His speech is so distinct that actors get lost trying to imitate it and they end up playing the public JFK as opposed to the private Jack Kennedy. The other issue with films about Kennedy is that filmmakers and audiences have deified him as well so they don't push for or want a nuanced performance, they want JFK to be a simplified hero because of his tragic death. This is understandable and as I said in the previous post on the topic, the same is true of Martin Luther King Jr. People are old enough to remember King and Kennedy or have seen video of them, so portraying them in a unique, honest and artistically complex way is nearly impossible because of the audiences expectations, and therefore the producers and directors expectations as well. While a film about the less respected parts of their lives, like their womanizing, would be very interesting, it wouldn't get made because it would feel disrespectful to two tragic heroes of the American myth. So we end up with one dimensional performances in generally simplistic films.
Speaking of historical figures, let us take a look at the Academy Award winning performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Speilberg's "Lincoln". You may be wondering how Daniel Day-Lewis is mentioned in a posting about failures in acting? Let me say up front, Daniel Day-Lewis is arguably the greatest actor walking the planet today, and he did deservedly win an Oscar for his portrayal of Lincoln. The issue though is deification, and while Mr. Day-Lewis wasn't guilty of it, Mr. Speilberg most certainly was. Day-Lewis' performance was pitch perfect. He created a truly unique Lincoln, with a higher pitched voice than others who have played him for example, and an emotional and human frailty missing from other actors attempts at the part.
Where the film fails, and I think it fails spectacularly (or miserably depending on your perspective), is in Speilberg's handling of the material. For instance, Daniel Day-Lewis has zero control over the soft lighting that framed Lincoln like a halo whenever he was on screen. He also had no control over John Williams' score that would soar like a valiant American eagle whenever Lincoln so much as entered a room or opened his mouth. Day-Lewis had no control over Tony Kushner's trite screenplay, nor over Doris Kearns Goodwin's book upon which it was based. Daniel Day-Lewis could only control his own performance, and he did it wonderfully, but he couldn't control Speilberg's worship of Lincoln and hence his turning the film into the canonization of St. Lincoln. The film fails because while Day-Lewis created a living and breathing very human Lincoln, the rest of the cast and Speilberg and his creative team, undermined his performance by treating his Lincoln as if he were the dead Abe Lincoln resurrected and giving him the reverence and doe-eyed fawning that scenario would deserve. None of us have seen Lincoln alive nor heard his voice and Daniel Day- Lewis was able to build Lincoln from his own creative genius. Sadly, Steven Speilberg's creative genius seems to be only of use when sharks, dinosaurs or aliens are involved, and thus we are left with the wasted performance of a master actor in a self-righteous mess of a movie.
One performance that was scuttled due to deification cannot be blamed on the director. The film was "Ali" (2001) directed by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith as the heavyweight boxer and self proclaimed greatest of all time.
Will Smith is a major movie star and one of the biggest box office draws of all time so his playing the greatest of all time felt like a perfect fit. "Ali" seemed to be an attempt on his part to try and garner more respect as an actor as opposed to a movie star. He did receive an Oscar nomination for his performance but that may have had more to do with Hollywood politics than it did with his performance. Will Smith is not only a movie star but also a rapper and had a hit tv show, "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" so he is someone who is known for oozing charisma. He's made a phenomenal career out of his charisma. Yet, when playing Muhammed Ali, one of the most charismatic men of the last century, Smith became wooden and dull. He fell into the trap of deifying Ali, which is an easy trap to fall into since Ali is such an amazing man. Smith wanted Ali to be the coolest man on the planet, but Ali wasn't cool, he had an inferno of rage blazing within him. Rage against the injustice of racism he grew up under in Louisville, Kentucky. Rage against the establishment that wouldn't recognize his greatness due to his religion (The Nation of Islam) and rage against the government that sent thousands of young men to die in a far off land for a fight that made no sense. Ali was a cauldron of rage. He may have channeled it into charisma, humor and his athletic prowess...but it was the rage that fueled him.
Smith's performance fails because he refused to see the complexity that made Ali so charismatic and electric. Ali wasn't the charm, the smile, the rhyming poems or the tomfoolery. Ali wasn't a 'nice guy'. He was a rough, tough badass of a man. Ali had a side to him that was nasty, mean, brutal and menacing. Ali physically tortured opponents like Floyd Patterson whom he intentionally didn't knock out so he could inflict more harm to him round after round because Patterson refused to call Ali by his Muslim name. He racially attacked and humiliated a friend, Joe Frazier, who gave him money when he wasn't allowed to fight due to his refusal to serve in the military. He called Frazier an 'uncle Tom' and said he looked like a gorilla. This is vicious, brutal stuff but it's what also made Ali the greatest of all time. He was a merciless assassin who would carve up his prey and brutalize them into submission. Ali certainly is a great man, but what made him great wasn't the surface stuff but rather the internal life that propelled him to that greatness.
Will Smith was creatively overwhelmed trying to play Ali. When an actor of inferior ability and imagination comes up against a part demanding complexity and skill they either do the hard creative work and rise to the occasion, or they don't. Will Smith didn't and we were left with a wooden, lifeless performance that fell flat and was an injustice to the complex greatness of a man like Ali.
Another reason Smith may have felt restricted in how he could play Ali was that Ali is still alive, and maybe in the back of Will Smith's head he was thinking to himself, "What will Ali think of this?". Like millions of other people, Smith reveres Ali, and rightfully so, but that type of deification may have been what held him back from giving a more dynamic and complex performance.
Part of the struggle for an actor like Will Smith is that he is a movie star first and foremost and that is different from being an actor. Being a movie star can be a wonderful thing for your wallet but a terrible hindrance to the actor's creative spirit. But that is a topic for another day.
I hope these few examples helped show what the dangers of deification can look like and help you to avoid falling into them. The main lesson is this, when playing a great man (or woman), do not deny their shadow, their inner darkness. Embracing the shadow of a great man (or woman) will help you create a more complex character and give a more nuanced performance.
My apologies to Will Smith and Steven Speilberg if my critiques offended. I genuinely meant no personal harm as I understand you both to be two of the nicest and most generous people in the business. You have my number if you'd like to discuss this posting.