Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"Theres always free cheese in a mousetrap"

When I was in College, a friend of a friend was involved with DramSoc, which was what the Drama Society was called. All the societies had similar names - FilmSoc, LitSoc etc. It always seemed a Burgessian conceit typical of a University which bloomed in the 1960s and which had just become generally accepted, unquestioned and unquestionable, the way things were. The Drama Society was pretty good, even heavyweight as such bodies go. It had decent resources and a reputation for producing actors, playwrights and directors of note (Conor McPherson is the most famous old boy I can think of, a few years before me). My friend's friend was a costume designer on a relatively acclaimed production of Christopher Hampton's "Dangerous Liaisons". Acclaim at that level means good reviews in all the College papers, and this got raves. I remember her telling us one day in a crowded canteen that the production was difficult because the leading man and one of the leading ladies were having a torrid affair.

Even then, I knew there was a precedent for this. Those two roles: Valmont and Lady de Tourvel; seem to do something to actors and actresses. Maybe its the story's insistence on seduction as its subject, the level and nature of the chemistry it demands. Consider that during the shooting of "Dangerous Liaisons" (Stephen Frears, 1989) John Malkovich began an affair with Michelle Pfieffer which led him to leave his wife, actress Glenne Headly, for her. Then, playing the same roles in Milos Forman's "Valmont" (1991), Colin Firth met Meg Tilly and they later married and had a son. And then there is the case of "Cruel Intentions" (Roger Kumble, 1999), on the set of which Ryan Phillippe met Reese Witherspoon. Marriage and two children soon followed. Nine years later, so did divorce. Of course Malkovich and Pfieffer didn't last long either, and Firth and Tilly split after six years or so.

When they met, Reese Witherspoon was in a much cooler career place than Ryan Phillippe. She chose her roles well, and she always seemed to be great in them. Since the instant acclaim of her debut in "The Man in the Moon" (Robert Mulligan, 1991) she had bounced between TV parts and good-girl roles in a mix of material, some good, some bad. But immediately before "Cruel Intentions" she had shone in "Pleasantville" (Gary Ross, 1998) and her next three films saw her move into edgier, more indie territory: "Election" (Alexander Payne, 1999), "Best Laid Plans" (Mike Barker, 1999) and "American Psycho" (Mary Harron, 2000). She was particularly brilliant in "Election", her wit and intelligence allowing her to make Tracy Flick a banal, realistic and yet truly monstrous creation. Witherspoon has some advantages - she is pretty but not beautiful in an alienating way, obviously intelligent and with fine comic timing. She is convincing as a normal person where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman can struggle. And she has managed her career cannily - she appeared in a few episodes of "Friends" around the time of "American Psycho"s release, covering her bases admirably.

Phillippe has had a harder time of it. His looks - obviously what get him his parts - have been a curse as much as blessing. He is pretty, blonde, and seemingly, early on, destined for roles as generic soldiers in the background, the heroes friend. But he obviously has interesting tastes, and is willing to follow them. Many of his early roles suggest a young actor trying to stretch himself and unwilling to be typecast. And indeed, even as he has grown more successful, he has had to mix independent, passion projects with the paycheck gigs which any non-Superstar actor must fill out his c.v. The first evidence that he might be capable of escaping from the roles he was still getting pointed towards was in "The Way of the Gun" (Christopher McQuarrie, 2000). Here his looks aided him, for there is something faintly cruel about Phillippe's prettiness - a bored, sulky quality. He always seems about to break into a sneer. The violence and apparent amorality of Mcquarrie's brilliant opening scene saw Phillippe in an exciting new light, but one which made a strange sort of sense. He was cold, harsh, malevolent in intent, believably tough. Those pretty boy looks seemed curdled, truly nasty. And you could tell he just loved it.

Witherspoon, meanwhile, was heading closer to superstardom. She followed "American Psycho" with an appearance in "Little Nicky" (Steven Brill, 2000), which turned out to be the first outright flop of Adam Sandler's career. Yet it had still been seen by more people than all of her other work and demonstrated her willingness to follow the mainstream route to success. Her next film, "Legally Blonde" (Robert Luketic, 2001) gave her that success. She followed it with "The Importance of Being Ernest", outwardly a credibility-guaranteeing period film but in reality yet another romcom, albeit one written a hundred years earlier. Her next film was the more rote "Sweet Home Alabama", which was a big hit. The public trusted her in this genre now and she was the new Chickflick queen, picking up the baton dropped by Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock, harmlessly appealing and ever more bland, her face on the covers of magazines across the world. This sort of success must impact upon a relationship between two people in the same profession. Phillippe's career was acquiring the pattern it would follow from that point on - he followed "Way of the Gun" with "Antitrust" (Peter Howitt, 2001), an awful corporate thriller in which he took the anonymous lead part and seemed bored and baffled by the whole thing. So he began to alternate - an interesting supporting role in an ensemble piece here, a generic lead in a "commercial" film there. So solid, intriguing work in "Gosford Park" (Robert Altman, 2001) and "Igby Goes Down" (Burr Steers, 2002) is followed by a DTV-esque thriller, "The I Inside" (Roland Suso Richter, 2003). More young actors should follow this plan, though it is extremely risky. There is always the possibility of ending up stuck in a DTV action movie purgatory and being forced to make a desperate dive for a TV show, ala Skeet Ulrich.

Witherspoon is stuck in another, more high profile purgatory. Her career since "Legally Blonde" has consisted of more romantic comedies ("Legally Blonde 2" "Just Like Heaven", "Four Christmases") together with high profile Oscar-bait dramas like "Vanity Fair" (Mira Nair, 2004), "Rendition" (Gavin Hood, 2007) and "Walk the Line" (James Mangold, 2005). The comedies give her the commercial clout to make the dramas, and yet they are all big films, made so by virtue of her very presence. Though she is now an Oscar-winning marquee name, she can only dream of Phillippe's ability to slip into low-profile but worthy projects like "Franklyn" (Gerard McMorrow, 2008), from which the picture at the top of this post is taken. Even if she could, her stardom would unbalance them precariously. Despite her undoubted ability as an actress, she now brings baggage, which in many of her roles is part of the appeal - she is the sunny Southern spitfire with a good heart and a take-no-shit attitude. Audiences know this and expect it of her. She will have problems shaking those expectations in the future. Her ex-husband, meanwhile, has made a series of interesting mid-budget films and taken good parts in big ensembles in successful work like "Flags of Our Fathers" (Clint Eastwood, 2006) and "Crash" (Paul Haggis, 2005).

Some actors make me interested in a project for no reason other than their presence - they instantly make everything they appear in more intriguing. This does not always have anything to do with the consistency or quality of their work, either - I mean the likes of Val Kilmer, who has made a dozen bad films, but is always worth watching even in those films, working at his own agenda, whether it be slyly mocking the film itself or stupidly intense in his portrayal of a character he believes in in the middle of a narrative undeserving of such focus and attention. Or Mark Ruffalo, possibly the finest actor of his generation but destined never to be a star. Or even Ethan Hawke, who switches between arty personal projects of great quality and b-movie actioners with a relish I can only applaud. Phillippe has suddenly joined this group due to his work over the last few years. It began with "Way of the Gun", I think, but he obviously learned from that experience. The two films he made after his sterling work in "Flags of Our Fathers" are both fine examples of how he has matured into an interesting, accomplished actor of the kind nobody who saw him in "I Know What You Did Last Summer" could possibly have predicted. In "Breach" (Billy Ray, 2007) he made the most of a part that was all compression, the hardest thing for an actor to do - hold everything in and yet allow the audience to see exactly what is being held in. Opposite Chris Cooper giving perhaps the best performance of a career full of great performances, Phillippe held his own. He seemed to possess a quality reminiscent almost of Harrison Ford - he allows us to work out the story through him, to shift gears with him.

However, the film which prompted these musings about Phillippe and Witherspoon and the radical divergence their careers have taken is Kimberly Pierce's "Stop Loss", released this year. Here Phillippe carries the picture, its moral and narrative weight all upon his back. And he does it effortlessly, with the ease and assurance of a natural leading man. Phillippe plays a young volunteer staff Sergeant returned from Iraq and forced to stay in the army by a "Stop Loss" who then goes awol while he weighs up his options. Its an odd, ambitious, angry film; a study of post traumatic stress disorder, an old-fashioned "boys are back in town"-style celebration of camaraderie and masculinity and Texas, and a blistering condemnation of the way the American working class have been betrayed by their Government. It was also produced by MTV films, which means it crackles with a strange tension - Pierce's realist, arty instincts creating friction with the more commercial demands of her backers. So that for all its determination to be authentic and simple and real, its cast (also including Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Abbie Cornish) is just too attractive, too Hollywood for comfort, its Chris Menges photography making everything just that touch too movie-beautiful, its screenplay too full of undeniably "movie" moments (a fight at a funeral graveside between two best friends stands out). But it works anyway, its gripping in its way, from the vicious opening streetfight in Iraq to the quiet, understated ending. It always tries to avoid the obvious, even if it sometimes fails, and Phillippe is great, anguished and angry and proud throughout.
It flopped, of course. I get the feelings most of his films will from now on. But better to make good unsuccessful films than bad successful ones, I think. I wonder if Witherspoon would agree.



Blogger Beezer B said...

God, really? I've only ever noticed him as a stoppy looking piece of wood.
That said I don't think I've seen any of the films you really like him in.

Perhaps my regard for his ex made me dismiss him as some pretty boy. I can be like that I spose.

But really?

1:58 am  
Blogger David N said...

Yeah, really. I'm not saying he's Marlon Brando, but I am saying that he's quietly been doing some interesting work. And I generally hate pretty boys. You should see some of the films I mention. Haven't you seen Way of the Gun? As post-Tarantino crime films go, it's about as good as it gets.
I don't get Reese's appeal. Far too square-jawed and sexless for me.

2:19 am  
Blogger Beezer B said...

I like her as an actress you big penis. You know when women do stuff other than look nice?
Haven't seen Way Of The Gun. It's a man film. I don't see them. I have friends that really like it. Um. I'll watch it if I stumble upon it while channel hopping.

2:07 am  
Blogger David N said...

Do they?

Oh yeeaah. But this isn't that sort of blog...

She's a good actress who makes bad movies. Its a pity. And "my regard" suggests appreciation for physical beauty, to me. When we're talking about actresses, anyway. Would she have had the same level of success if she was pig-ugly? I think not. Beauty is always part of the discussion with actresses. Less so with actors, obviously, which is sexist and terrible and all but a subject for another, far worthier blog.

"Man movie"? Coz its got guns etc in? You don't watch? Thats just silly. Samurai movies are man movies and you watch them, no?

12:40 am  

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