Re-watching Some Like it Hot I was struck once again by the problem I have believing anything Jack Lemmon does on screen. I simply see him acting all the time in a way that I don't experience with either Tony Curtis or Marilyn Monroe. It's partly the difference between showing and sharing that I write about in my book: where Lemmon is continually showing us what's going on, with exaggerated reactions that border on gurning, Curtis and Monroe deftly find the line between credibility and the comic hokum of the plot.
But I also see, in Lemmon, an overwhelming need to be liked. It affects almost every performance of his that I've seen, with the one possible exception of Glengarry Glen Ross. It's something that often seems to affect comic actors, especially those who’ve been stand-ups. Long before the tragic suicide of Robin Williams it was evident that, having become a star as a manic comic turn, he craved credibility as a serious actor. As Mrs Doubtfire he was fabulous. But any poster featuring him sporting a beard moreorless guaranteed an unwatchable performance of toe-curling sincerity, usually in a counselor/psychiatrist/wise-man role e.g. Good Will Hunting and Awakenings, as he sought the audience’s love as well as its laughs. (To his great credit, in Insomnia and One Hour Photo (both 2002) he seemed to have let go of the need to be liked and consequently delivered a pair of terrific performances).
It’s said that no one who becomes an actor got enough love as a child and I suspect it's true. So most of us crave applause as approval. But letting go of this is essential if you’re serious about your craft.
Clearly the hero(ine) has to be likeable and most good actors can deliver this with ease. But likeability alone gets boring pretty quickly unless you’re Will Smith and there’s not many of him around.
Much more compelling is the mixture of dark and light that exists in us all. The actor who is always concerned with being likeable has no room for the dark. But without the ugly, or at least its possibility, there’s no depth. Robert McKee makes the point that there's little as interesting as a good character who does something bad or a bad character who does something good.
And in his fabulous book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes how most Hollywood stars subtly use their power to engineer the insertion of scenes that can turn their character's motivation from selfish to selfless.
To allow yourself to be ugly takes a lot of personal maturity. It's about more than simply being the bad guy. Terrific as his performance was in Twelve Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender was not risking much in portraying the cruel slaveowner.
Much more impressive were the performances of David Tennant and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch. Both played characters who were, on balance, likeable, but who were also messy, incomplete human beings struggling with selfishness, just as we all are.
Perhaps an even better example was James Nesbitt's woefully under appreciated performance in Five Minutes of Heaven. He played an emotionally stunted failure of a man, struggling to contain his own hurt and anger, at times both physically ugly and morally squalid, in a performance totally lacking vanity. Incredibly impressive in an actor who has charm and likeability in spades.
And then there’s the devastating performance of Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. His character is a super-intelligent but repellant software designer who has succeeded in creating artificial intelligence. Part of Isaac's brilliance is the inner tension he creates between the character’s arrogance and his desire to be liked. There’s almost no explicit backstory about his past emotional life but it’s crystal clear that this is a deeply bitter man who has had to create artificial life in order to experience love. And having succeeded, he both fears and anticipates that his creation will love another more than she loves him, such is his boiling rage at past rejections.
This kind of profoundly imagined and realised inner world is the work of an actor who has moved way beyond his own desire for approval.