Sunday, August 29, 2010
I watched an utterly fascinating film on The Sundance Channel yesterday. It was called "NIck Nolte Interviews Nick Nolte" and it was exactly that. At first glance it appears to be a vanity project, much in the same way "Looking for Richard" is for Al Pacino. But as I kept watching I realized it was something else altogether. It is an artistic exorcism of sorts. Nolte, at the age of 67 (it was made in 08), rationalizing some of his behavior and artistic choices over a fairly distinguished career. There are some fine insights, I must say, and some of them really struck a chord. He addresses his alcoholism, his sometimes questionable attitudes about his on-set behavior, his ideas of 'good work' as opposed to bad work and finally, his fascination with Marlon Brando. Why Nolte would feel compelled to do it at all is interesting. He's always been a rather private actor, marching to the beat of his own drummer, openly criticizing Hollywood sometimes.
I have always liked Nolte as an actor. I've never been knocked out by his work, although his stuff in "Q and A" and even Streisand's much maligned "Prince of Tides," is certainly watchable. The thing about Nick Nolte is he has never surprised me as an actor. It's the one thing above all else that he clearly aspired to do, too; surprise people, be unpredictable. And clearly, as the film unfolds, this is his ultimate goal as an artist. Nonetheless, it has eluded him. As I watched, I realized this comes from his Method training, not so much from Nolte himself. The Method, as I've outlined several times in this blog, encourages lowest common denominator acting. It does not allow for eccentricity. It fails to take into account the most fascinating part of the human character: whim. Nolte is an acolyte for the Method. So it is not really in him to be unpredictable. He is solid, infinitely believable, honest, thoughtful, subtextual, committed, in the moment, fun and funny, but ultimately predictable as an actor. And yet he holds the work of Brando, as do so many others, up as an example of genius. He is right to do so. The problem is, he doesn't see that Brando long ago abandoned the tenants of the Method and played straight into the one truly magical gift of the human spirit: whim and whimsy. And not only that, Brando acted upon it every chance he got. Brando was never really, honestly, down-deep interested in absolute truth on stage. He was far more interested in absolute fascination. He instinctively understood that honesty is easy. Especially for someone as gifted as an actor as he was, but honesty was and is only the first step. No one pays to see honesty. Lots of people can do that. Just attend any church anywhere for free on any given Sunday. Honest acting is a dime a dozen acting. But eccentricity stemming from the very fact of being human...well, that's something entirely different. The Method disdains ambiguity. The very lifeblood of the Method solidly rests on the rock hard agenda of "making a choice," picking a feeling, pinpointing an emotion, the magic, "if", play it this way, not that, let the audience know what you're thinking at all times. Brando, in his bottomless grasp of human behavior, inherently understood that that makes for good scenework, maybe, but dull characterization. Being honest and making a choice came to Brando as easily as lacing one's shoes does to someone else. Go back and look at "The Men," his very first film. It is often hailed today as a forgotten gem. Mostly from Method actors. Brando abhorred himself in that. Thought he was boring. He was 24 years old. He learned fast, however. That's why he's Brando. His next time at bat was "Streetcar Named Desire" and his Stanley Kowalski in that film forever changed the face of acting. I watched the film again just a few months ago. It was then, and remains today, one of the most unpredictable, ambiguous, eccentric performance in all of filmdom. It is the kind of work Nick Nolte has spent forty years trying to emulate. It is the difference between Brando, a brilliant actor, and Nolte, a very good actor.
To his credit, Nolte is not alone in chasing Brando's countless examples. Any truly fine actor (and there are fewer than one might think - in a career of thirty years as a professional actor, I have met maybe...MAYBE five or six) can see that Brando's work towers over the usual A to B to C work of the pedestrian yet well-meaning Plebean artist of the stage. Now, of course, most young actors have no idea who he even was, outside the name recognition. While teaching for many years in Chicago I finally had to put together a reel of Brando moments so that my students might finally understand some of the references I was making. In one instance I remember a promising young actor saying, "That's fucking awesome, man. Who IS that" as he watched Brando accuse Steiger of ruining his career in the backseat of a car in "On the Waterfront."
I see it over and over and over. Actors steeped in the teachings of Sandy Meisner or Uta Hagen or Lee Strasberg steadfastly refusing to embrace the most fascinating part of the human condition - unpredictability. They have been taught, to admittedly over generalize here, to play a sad line sad and a happy line happy. It is a dead end, artistically speaking, allowing no room for simple whim. Look at Brando's work in the "tango" scene in "Last Tango in Paris," arguably the finest performance I have ever seen on film. Watch how he veers from hopelessness to giddiness to lust to full-out comedy to pathos and back again to hopelessness. Watch how, in the same film, he turns his anger at his ex-wife in the coffin to a full-blown accusation of God himself. Watch how he takes the simple action of turning a light on and off while thinking into a moment of unspeakable private angst. He has, in the words of George C. Scott, gone beyond acting and into the realm of impressionism.
Nolte is not to be blamed for his inability to emulate Brando and in effect capture lightning in a bottle. Just as countless other actors are not to be blamed for seeing Brando's brilliance but being unable to reproduce Brando's brilliance. In other words, Nolte and thousands of other actors, have been taught math. Brando is working with quantum physics.
Honesty on stage, on screen, is easy. Good actors can do it for the exact reason they ARE good actors. That's what they do. They've realized early in their lives that it IS easy. That's why they've chosen the incredibly difficult path in life of being a professional actor. Other people can't do this. Ninety nine point nine, nine, nine, nine, nine percent of the world CAN'T do it. It's a mystery to them. But even these actors, the ones with "the gift" of honesty, can't step into the new, undiscovered country of acting when they've been taught not to take that chance. The very essence of Method work disallows unpredictability. Nolte has never been able to see past those erred teachings. Brando discarded them as easily as Picasso discarded realism. Therin lies the uncomfortable truth of "Nick Nolte interviews Nick Nolte." Understanding genuis is not the same as being a genius.
See you tomorrow.