Talking Movies

April 16, 2012

The World Will Be Watching

I feel that I’ve been quite mean to Sam Worthington of late, so I’d like here to put forward a theory of his acting which applies equally to Kristen Stewart.

I was watching Conan a few weeks ago and Sam Worthington was on, promoting Man on a Ledge. I was amazed to see a relaxed, funny, and charming Worthington. I scratched my head wondering how such an affable screen presence could fail to carry over into his movie persona. The answer is I think related to what might be dubbed a cinematic version of stage fright. I came across Worthington in a pre-fame Australian crime comedy late one night and he was quite watchable. Yet reviewing Act of Valour I dubbed Worthington the baseline of competency in film acting, and reviewing Man on a Ledge I noted that he was an adequate leading man, and not much more; with his ever wavering American accent a constant distraction. Where did this divide between affable actual Worthington and stiff screen Worthington start? I think it was Avatar, where I noted that he wasn’t a particularly charismatic presence. I think the constant duel to the death he’s engaged in with his American accent is a major factor; he’s concentrating so hard on not slipping into Aussie vocal strains that he has barely any mental capital left to spend on emoting in a given scene; but I think Avatar is also the first time that he had to think seriously about the prospect of far too many people seeing his work – and so arrived the cinematic version of stage fright. Stage fright on an epic scale, though, because rather than freezing at the thought of stepping out in front of 300 people it’s cinematic stage fright at the prospect of being judged by over 100 million punters (a very rough approximation of 1 billion in ticket sales at 10 dollars a ticket) that one could expect a Cameron movie to pull into movie theatres.

I think this idea of freezing in front of a camera when fame hits applies equally to Kristen Stewart, and has been commented on far more in her unfortunate case. I don’t think Stewart has relaxed in front of camera in any of the Twilight sequels, simply because she is now painfully aware of how many people will be watching her, and picking hyper-critically over every detail of her performance; down to making sarcastic YouTube videos of how many times she bites her lip. Her original turn as Bella Swann was a sterling performance that masked the flaws in the original writing of Stephenie Meyers’ bafflingly anaemic heroine (the super-massive black hole at the heart of the Twilight phenomenon, whose passivity, immaturity and self-pitying and self-destructive nature would drive Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley, Scarlett O’Hara and Veronica Mars around the bend) by virtue of pure charisma and charm… Pre-fame Stewart was quite a competent performer, from Panic Room to Into the Wild and on to her superb performance in Adventureland, but now she’s incredibly wooden at her worst moments; sadly frequent these days. I think a performance like Adventureland is now impossible, purely because, like Worthington, she knows that whatever she does will be scrutinised by millions of people. Her performance in The Runaways wrung substantial emotion from the weak material but it’s dispiriting to think that a talented actress is going to be reduced to ferreting out roles in un-commercial movies purely to get away from excessive destructive scrutiny.


Excessive destructive scrutiny naturally leads us to Keira Knightley. I think Knightley suffered this cinematic stage fright at a later stage in her career than Worthington or Stewart, and also is afraid not so much of ordinary cinemagoers as vindictive critics. I’m thinking here in particular of the ridiculously personalised savaging that greeted her West End turn in The Misanthrope. Knightley’s early roles were characterised by a delightfully disdainful cockiness (The Hole, Dr Zhivago, Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates) but by the time she’d renounced blockbusters after Pirates 3 I’d started to look out for what in reviewing The Duchess I dubbed brittle acting. Joe Wright seems to be the only director who can now be guaranteed to coax a truly confident performance from Knightley and her performance in The Duchess suffered from comparison with Fiennes and Atwell as in some scenes you could almost visibly see a lack of self-belief flutter across her face. Knightley seems to have taken the Stewart escape route of small movies like London Boulevard, and in Never Let Me Go chose the smallest role of the triptych as the villain and excelled as she regained her dash. Hopefully Knightley’s Anna Karenina will also swagger.

Which brings us to the great Jennifer Lawrence, who, like Ellen Page, doesn’t freeze in front of a camera when fame hits. Lawrence dominated Winter’s Bone, which she could safely have expected no one to see. She skilfully portrayed an arc from contempt to compassion in The Beaver, which she could safely have expected not that many people to see. She was affecting as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, personalising the clash in philosophy between Xavier and Magneto and evincing real terror, in a film she could safely have expected everyone to see. And now she’s equally assured as she’s been in all those movies in carrying The Hunger Games, a film which she could safely expect at least 80 million people to pay in to. Lawrence has the self-confidence that Worthington, Stewart and Knightley lack. It doesn’t matter to her that the whole world will be watching: Bring it…

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September 8, 2010

The Runaways

Twilight co-stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart re-unite for a biopic of 1970s all-girl rawkers The Runaways featuring a number of classic songs, by other bands…

Writer/director Floria Sigismondi’s opening image of a drop of menstrual blood falling on the ground, as an unprepared Cherie Currie (Fanning) dashes to a toilet during her first period, promises an innovative feminist rock flick. Instead we cruise along the boulevard of rock cliché as singer Cherie finds booze and pills the only way to handle the sudden transition from miming Bowie at school talent shows to rocking Japan after she joins Joan Jett (Stewart) in The Runaways. Jett is the feminist, refusing her patronising teacher’s insistence that she remain unplugged and learn ‘On Top of Old Smoky’, “I know you play ‘Smoke on the Water’. Teach me that one!”, but both girls are barely characterised beyond facile pop-psychology about flakey fathers driving them to rock.

Fanning and Stewart wring substantial emotion from the weak material but against these blankly inarticulate girls, Whip It! star Alia Shawkat is literally silent as ‘the bassist’ for legal reasons, Michael Shannon has little trouble in stealing the film as their mentoring (and deranged) producer Kim Fowley. He even articulates the trangressiveness of Fanning’s performance by exclaiming “Jail-f******-bait, Jack-f******-pot!” on learning Cherie is 15. Just in case you didn’t get the in-camera apology Jett later complains that Cherie will ruin them on their Japanese tour by performing in a Cabaret style suspenders and corset outfit. Sigismondi frustratingly alternates between such sledgehammer subtlety and elliptical dreaminess. Lines like “Girls don’t play electric guitar” herald ‘This is a Man’s World’ on the soundtrack, while she hilariously literalises endless critical ramblings about the homoerotic attraction between singers and guitarists by having a dreamy love scene between Cherie and Jett soundtracked by The Stooges’ ‘I wanna be your Dog’. This incident is then never mentioned again as Cherie goes back to sleeping with their roadie.

Such inconsequential vagueness afflicts everything. The impression that Cherie quit mid-way through recording their debut album and that 8 months later the band imploded having only had fleeting success in Japan is totally wrong, but this is a film where you never see The Runaways hang out with The Sex Pistols at CBGB’s, you just see Joan spray-painting Sex Pistols on her t-shirt while their music plays. Sigismondi’s biggest problem is that while The Runaways paved the way for The Bangles and L7 their music has been justifiably forgotten. ‘Cherry-bomb’ is the only song they perform here which rises above being merely efficiently crunching mid-1970s hard rock and Jett plucking out the riff of her solo hit ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ only emphasises that. There is a trio of fine performances at the heart of this film but like the band this film may be classified ‘important’ rather than good.

2.5/5

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