Internet ads for the Oscars took a blatantly star-oriented spin this year. “Heath vs. Philip!” blared one, flashing a photo-shopped image of cowboy-hatted Heath Ledger glaring down a meekly spectacled Philip Seymour Hoffman. Though it perhaps makes for no life-changing revelation that the Academy Awards largely promote themselves with the stars they honor, this obvious celebrity face-off marketing angle seemed like barefaced acknowledgement that the whole best actor/actress game tends to award performers more than their performances.

Jess Cox

Of course, that’s cause for little complaint. Watching the big names get dolled-up for competition is unapologetically Oscar night’s big draw. Nonetheless, the widely debated predictions leading up to the big night do beg the question of quality in acting, and the query remains pertinent even as Hollywood gradually steps back from the self-obsession of its frenzied awards season: how much of any performance is truly acting, and how much is a star’s external persona?

The acting style lauded in bygone Hollywood eras tipped decidedly towards persona. Cary Grant, for instance, cited by many film buffs as one of the greatest actors of all time, boasted irresistible charm, commendable sense of timing and an impressive list of revered movies. And yet, in all honesty, whom did Cary Grant ever play but Cary Grant? Whether cat burglar, newspaper man or bewildered newlywed, Grant’s roles came fully equipped with his trademark quirky speech pattern and suavely polished look, rendering him, like many legends (Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Steward), more character-brand than actor.

That’s not to imply that either Grant or his style is any less entertaining or cinematically important. Just the opposite – there is something wholly satisfying about the dependability of a favorite actor’s persona. Why else return to our favorites again and again? Why else stop dead in the middle of Blockbuster and reach for a straight-to-video B-flick of which you have never even heard just because there’s a familiar face on the box? Not a bad policy of selection, incidentally, though a decidedly dangerous one – witness “Blue Juice,” the 1995 surfing classic so many misguided Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ewan MacGregor fans have been suckered into renting by their pre-fame, wetsuited bodies on the cover.

That Grant-style personal branding, however, has become increasingly less common, resulting in two fairly distinct types of film stars – on one hand, acting celebrities, famous for a certain personality; on the other hand, celebrity actors, respected and consistent performers for whom fame just seems an occupational hazard.

While the distinction itself is no new trend, the recent developments of reality TV and constant entertainment-news coverage have both contributed to a widening of the gulf. With the tabloids devoting most of their headlines to the abundance of 15-minute, reality-star “celebs,” general pop culture itself forks into a dichotomy of celebrity. It seems literally everyone wants to be famous (E!’s “Gastineau Girls,” anyone?), and this growing breed focuses almost entirely on persona alone. Sure, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson have both utilized prefabricated images as clout for promoting new movies, but their brief and uncelebrated cinematic forays are less exercises in actual acting than mere extensions of their established personal brands.

And they’ve effectively taken on the celebrity burden. Their style of omnipresent checkout-aisle fame allows other performers to sidestep the headline-filler celebrity duties and earn their renown on acting instead. Once termed mere character actors, these latter types are finding more and more recognition as top-billers in their own right. Take, for example, a certain Philip Seymour Hoffman, this year’s freshly-minted best actor. His terrific work, while consistently good, is all the more impressive for its variation – his range extends from “Boogie Night’s” naive and timid porn-set hanger-on to “Punch-Drunk Love’s” aggressive sleazeball to last year’s polished portrayal of Truman Capote.

Hoffman belongs to a different sort of Hollywood A-List, along with the likes of Steve Buscemi, Don Cheadle and Paul Giamatti. These are the guys whose familiar mugs invoke nods of recognition and approval, even if many audience members can’t quite remember their names. Granted, they probably can’t sell an issue of GQ like George Clooney. But they’ve earned widespread industry respect all the same, as go-to guys who can not only enliven the most tepid of parts but also successfully avoid the trap of a single typecast role.

That’s not to say that much of modern cinema doesn’t still play more or less by rules of persona; certain movie genres always call for types. After all, when it comes to slinging guns or out-running bad guys, it’s not some huge gulf of acting talent which separates Will Smith from Bruce Willis from Tom Cruise. Will simply does it with inoffensive wit, Willis with gotta-do-whatchu-gotta-do masculinity, and the tragically overrated Mr. Cruise with an arrogant, coldly inhuman glower (I hate Tom Cruise).

But beyond those pre-set sort of roles or poor performers merely typecast at every turn, few current actors maintain a constant guise as consistently as Cary Grant once did. Perhaps Owen Wilson is fairly dependable as the charming Everyman/borderline cad. Maybe Al Pacino has cornered the market on tough, loud and slightly scummy. And, of course, there’s Paris and Jessica, making blondes everywhere groan with their cheerful submission to the airhead stereotype. But keep an eye out, too, for the industry’s rising Hoffmans and Cheadles. They’re a safe bet for that next bout of Blockbuster browsing, for even if the movie turns out a dud, they can guarantee a solid, and singular, performance.

Kristin can be reached by e-mail at kmacd@umich.edu

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *