A couple months ago I had a discussion with an elderly woman at my church concerning my future as a film director. We discussed some of her favorite films such as Gone With The Wind (1939) and Breakfast At Tiffany's (1961) (both being very great and enjoyable movies), but she then made the remark that "actors today don't really act anymore." I did not feel like debating with her, but I lightly responded after an exchange of a few compromising words that there are in fact wonderful films being released every month which truly do require well-trained acting (The King's Speech (2010) was my example).After leaving and moving on with my day, her words stuck in the back of my mind. It seems that many (though, no where near all) older people agree with her sentiment.
However, I must humbly disagree.
One of her greatest arguments concerned the prevalence of special effects in movies today (which she claimed were actually leaving computers and animators to create the acting). Although that is partially true as seen in Star Wars Episode 2 (2002) in the fight sequence between Yoda and Count Dooku (played by, then, 79 year old Christopher Lee who is currently 89), or The Matrix Reloaded (2003) which featured a computerized version of Keanu Reeves who wielded a cement-covered pole as a weapon against a couple hundred Agent Smiths... they are still acting. True, it is not direct acting, but to quote American film-legend Stanley Kubrick, "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed."
Although they were artistically rendered upon the screen performing violent backflips – and otherwise – danceable martial arts, their faces were filmed separately (and in Keanu Reeves case, his body was mapped in a motion capture shoot). If anything, advancements in technology have enabled screenwriters and directors to provide more acting opportunities for their actors. A movie such as The Matrix (1999) would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago (and certainly better-suited for the realm of graphic novels), but with advancements in technology, Neo was able to dodge bullets in slow motion (bullet-time camera technology) which only enhances our understanding of the character Neo's physical abilities within the Matrix.
Up until, relatively, 1972 (the year of The Godfather), actors barely knew how to die on camera. Though entertaining, films such as 007 Thunderball (1965) featured horrible acting from Sean Connery as he spear-gun battled hundreds of scuba divers or in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) when John Wayne theatrically died smoking a cigarette at the top of Mt. Suribachi.
What creates this acting transition between a decade of cinema?
The desire for reality.
A film like The Godfather or The Deer Hunter (1978) almost feels like an answer for lovers of the real world. The stories were fictional yet socially relevant, entertaining yet believable, and needed actors who could capture true brutality even in scenes that were not violent. An actor like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro is not necessarily as attractive as Frank Sinatra or Humphrey Bogart, but when film directors began making movies solely to tell a story with a theme and emotion, pretty faces just wouldn't cut it. If anything, acting has progressed since the days of Gone With The Wind. This progression is easily attributed to the social nature of the late 1960s and early 70s compared to the decades before. Counter-culture and Vietnam hardened the hearts of many and asked for honesty within both politics and entertainment.
It is not particularly easy to act Shakespeare, but it is easy to act as though you're acting for the stage in a motion-picture. Frank Sinatra knew his lines and could move his hands at the right time, but you never cried during Von Ryan's Express (1965). Robert De Niro portrayed Marlon Brando's character Don Vito Corleone in his younger years in The Godfather Pt. II (1974), and Robert De Niro is without a doubt a younger rendition of the Don who struggles to earn money and raise his young family; all of which is portrayed through his movements, the stroking of his chin, and most importantly, the development of his character.
Beyond the realm of special effects in modern cinema, (500) Days of Summer (2009) is flirtatious, nostalgic, and filled with pain. Essentially an instant-classic, (500) Days of Summer is a film for lovers of film and lovers of humaity. You could argue that thematically it is a modern remake of Annie Hall (1977), but that doesn't alter the way that the acting effectively presented life-rooted humor, believable heart break, and persistent desire as it was written in the script. Even in the James Bond film Casino Royale (2006), the movie is greater than the average James Bond flick. The story is moving as 007 struggles to win the affections of Vesper (Eva Green), and even the bond villain, Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), is a well developed asthma-stricken/haemolacria-cursed character whom the audience can actually sympathize with (or at least see as a believable person).
Actors act now perhaps more than ever before. Sean Penn, a straight actor, portrayed the homosexual San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant's biopic Milk (2008) (possibly one of the best biopics ever made), and Sean Penn literally became Harvey Milk on the silver screen. Even a comedic low-brow film like Talledega Nights (2006) features deep-rooted character-based acting that is humorous beyond the funny lines. With the role of Ricky Bobby, Will Ferrell is a stereotypical redneck Nascar driver who is set upon being #1 all the time. Yes, great credit goes to the writing, but Will Ferrell is notorious for his on-screen improv.
If acting is nonexistent today, then Colin Firth should return his Oscar for The King's Speech and his BAFTA for A Single Man (2009). In both of those films, you experience the pain and inner emotions of Prince Albert (The King's Speech), and the somber fears that haunt George as he mourns the death of his lover (A Single Man). It should be noted that Firth is British (as are both George and Prince Albert), but his performances are far more than simply an accent. Rather, Colin Firth is considered a great actor because of an air of existence that he exudes within the realm of acting that reflects the real world.
Actors are vessels for the work of the director/screenwriter, and the level of believability determines their respective talent. Ability is what sets Will Ferrell in a higher spectrum than Jonah Hill, but places Frank Sinatra below Marlon Brando. Great actors have always existed, but the transformation that occurred within Hollywood in the late 1960s established the standard of reality on the screen versus stage-acting caught on film. Yes, actors such as Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum (to name a few) are exceptions to past acting-trends, but that is why their films still live on today.
Though Keanu Reeves may possess a fairly blank gaze upon his face, he serves the stoic role that his scripts often demand and that viewers expect from his characters (not necessarily from him). You can argue that acting has lost its touch and flare, but the death of Hollywood glamour only brought about the natural grit that was required for cinema to align with reality.