Thursday, February 04, 2010

"I am not under any orders to make the world a better place"

I get the feeling with a lot of actors that they're boring. That if I met them in real life they would have nothing of interest to say to me, or nothing of interest to say to most anybody. And why should they, I guess. They get paid for being pretty, for being good at pretending to be other people, for playing a nice game of dress up. Its especially true of young actors, the young leading men and leading ladies of modern cinema. Older stars - the likes of Jack Nicholson, say, or even an actor whose onscreen presence was always a little bland and muted; Robert Redford, they seem like interesting men, with life experiences and interests that would be worth hearing about. Could the same be said for Robert Pattinson or Taylor Kitsch or Chris Pine? Maybe it could, but I just don't see it.

Ethan Hawke was once just such a young actor. Worse, he was a child actor. There he is at the tender age of 14 alongside River Phoenix, playing the lead in the thinking child's Goonies; Joe Dante's superb Explorers (1985). Somehow, Explorers flopped, and Hawke didn't act again until Dad (1989), and didn't really make an impression on anybody until Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989), in which he is haunting and moving as the scholarship kid in a school full of little rich boys. This was the stage when his career should have stumbled, but instead this is where Hawke basically set the pattern for how he would run it which has continued to this day. First, he took the commercial option, taking the human lead in Disney's White Fang (Randal Kleiser, 1991), and following it with a bad teen-comedy - Mystery Date (Jonathan Wacks, 1991) - but then he chose to work with two youngish directors in promising, vaguely arty projects based on acclaimed novels. First, he joined the terrific young ensemble (Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Gary Sinise, Frank Whalley) in Keith Gordon's adaptation of William Wharton's A Midnight Clear (1992), then he took a part in Stephen Gyllenhaal's film of Graham Swift's Waterland (1992). Neither film made any money, but both were worthy and more intelligent than most Hollywood cinema even aspires to be. In each, there was nothing starry about Hawke. He disappeared into the ensemble, perhaps a tribute to his roots in theatre, where being part of a company of regular players is expected.

He was part of another ensemble for his next big studio film, Alive (Frank Marshall, 1993) but he crystalized his image as a sort of super-slacker with his role as Troy in Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994). A studio-engineered attempt to tap into the Generation X demographic which was considered a potential goldmine but also regarded as impossible to predict and difficult to market to, the film was written by Helen Childress while she was a 19 year old College Student, and it bends over backwards to be friendly to the generation it tries to portray. So its characters trade in pop culture references, are depressed about their McJobs but generally too apathetic and lazy to do much about it, and want to work in the arts (Troy is in a band and Lelaina makes documentaries). The whole thing is self-consciously youthful, with its satire of MTV and its soundtrack full of slightly-too mainstream alternative Rock and retro Classics ("My Sharona" and "Baby I Love Your Way" stand out). Hawke is almost comically slackerish - a poster-boy for a sterotyped generation - and his performance is sullen and lacking his usual sensitivity, though there are flashes of wit. But this role did seem to nudge him toward Richard Linklater, who would become perhaps his key creative partner over the next decade.

His second big slacker role was in Linklater's sublime Before Sunrise (1995), in which he is likable and funny and believable as his somewhat lost young man spends a day wandering around Vienna with Julie Delpy's French stranger. With that film, Hawke gave himself a new cachet - he and Delpy were absolutely crucial to the film's success, and it did seem that each gave a lot of themselves to their characters. So Hawke's image as the intense, slightly too serious young bohemian Millionaire Hollywood actor was sealed. But he defied it, and this is what I respect about him. He doesn't care what his image is, he just wants to do the work. So he wrote a decent beat novel, The Hottest State, in 1996, and continued to make interesting films with interesting Directors. Over the next five years, he would publish another novel, direct an arty drama (Chelsea Walls, 2001) and appear in a diverse selection of fascinating material, from Andrew Niccol's minor masterpiece Gattaca (1997), through the flawed auteur-meets-a-modern-studio misfires of The Newton Boys (Linklater, 1998) and Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuaron, 1998) to Michael Almereyda's excellent Hamlet (2000) and Scott Hicks' lifeless but lovely Snow Falling On Cedars (1999). He was stretching himself and testing his chops as an actor and leading man. 2001 would be a big year for him. It seems a watershed, in fact.

Firstly, he was brilliant in Linklater's Tape, a digitally-shot adaptation of Stephen Belber's intense three-hander play alongside his then-wife Uma Thurman and old Dead Poet's alumni Robert Sean Leonard. Then, he took the atypical decision to accept the key supporting role in Training Day (Antoine Fuqua). He had never really done any genre films before. But Training Day was as pulpy as Big Hollywood films ever get - a tale of dirty cops, ghetto politics, drug deals gone wrong, backstabbing and gunplay, its David Ayer script was elevated somewhat by a star of Denzel Washington's magnitude. Hawke just added to the air of classy slumming, and acting opposite Denzel obviously helped him up his game - in the film he is utterly sympathetic; vulnerable yet tough, confused yet wily, intimidated yet standing his ground. His performance supplies the foundation for Washington's much showier grandstanding. Last he directed Chelsea Walls, an obscure and somewhat tedious - but nicely directed - adaptation of Nicole Burdette's play with a great Jeff Tweedy soundtrack.

Training Day had changed the way the industry saw Hawke, however, and he seemed eager to be regarded as a versatile, commercially viable leading man. So he guest-starred in an episode of Alias in 2003, before reuniting with Linklater and Delpy for the plain magnificent Before Sunset (2004). Around this time his marriage to Thurman was disintegrating and he worked a lot, demonstrating a marked - and new - enthusiasm for genre material in particular. First he took a role in D.J. Caruso's potboiler thriller Taking Lives (2004), perhaps the most obviously "paycheck" role of his entire career. He followed that by appearing in Jean-Francois Richet's remake of John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (2005). Richet's film is every inch the modern b-movie. Medium budget, midranked actors, action but no great spectacle, predictable in every particular, it just about works. Hawke plays it like hes doing Chekov, and this has been the most satisfying element of this phase of his career: he takes it seriously and never condescends to the material, even when it deserves condescension. So in the trashy, derivative Daybreakers (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2009), he seems earnest in his portrayal of the conscience-stricken vampire scientist searching for a miracle blood substitute, and his performance introduces the only discernible note of human emotional interest. He is in a good position and at a good age for an actor - the fact that he is neither a pretty boy nor a tough guy give him a rare versatility. He can play regular guys; blue collar workers and family men, as well as the usual cop roles and romantic leads. And he can act. His handsomeness is not perfect - he is vaguely horsey and adenoidal, but his intelligence is obvious in that quick wit and his facility with irony. And he retains the puppy dog quality Weir put to such good use in Dead Poets Society - sad, soulful eyes and an air of the overgrown boy hang around him in many roles. It makes him a compelling, unusual presence for a leading man, and gives him access to the sort of material denied to many of his generation.

His background in theatre gives him a slight air of pretension by the standards of his peers, but that is a large part of why he is interesting. His recent career choices seem to centre on a handful of gritty morality plays in which he plays flawed men racked with problems, and these are the films which suggest most forcefully just how much he wants to do good, meaningful work. In Sidney Lumet's wrenching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) he is brilliant as the jittery younger brother set on robbing his parents jewellery store while also sleeping with the wife (Marisa Tomei) of his complicit, disintegrating elder sibling (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). In What Doesn't Kill You (Brian Goodman, 2008) he plays a South Boston smalltime criminal sliding towards his doom and taking his best friend from childhood (Mark Ruffalo) with him. The upcoming Brooklyn's Finest and Staten Island both seem to have similarly morally-charged subject matter and drab settings in the world of the minimum wage little-seen in the majority of contemporary Hollywood cinema.

Most interesting to me, however, is another project with Richard Linklater, possibly to be titled Boyhood, and not due for release for another five years or so. Linklater has been filming one sequence a year for the last seven years, each sequence following the development of a young boy from his early years up through High School. Hawke plays his father opposite Patricia Arquette as the mother and Hawke talks a little about it (alongside a whole lot of other stuff) in this excellent interview.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay Hawke is to say that if I see that he is attached to a project, I am automatically more interested in that project. I trust his taste to a certain extent. He seems intelligent and articulate, and the fact that he and Delpy cowrote Before Sunset with Linklater attests to this, I think. I can imagine him having been around in the 1970s, working for the likes of Cassavetes and Coppola and Bogdonovich and Altman, in leads and character parts. That is not something I can say about many of his peers.

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Blogger Monsieur Le Capuchin said...

Thanks for a great article, and for linking that interview. Good stuff.

10:21 p.m.  

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