Playing Themselves

If I'm oversimplifying, I would say there are two kinds of actors. The first are chameleons. They rarely play the same role twice, and immerse themselves so thoroughly in each part as to be nearly unrecognizable as themselves. The second kind discover a niche, certain mannerisms and deliveries that they carry with them from film to film. This isn't always a bad thing, and they find work doing what they do on a regular basis. Occasionally, the latter brand of actor might take a chance and move beyond their typecasting. Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and even Adam Sandler are among those rare examples of celebrities who've broken the mold and taken chances with more serious and challenging roles outside their image as comedians. Chameleons include the likes of Johnny Depp and Tom Hanks. And what of those actors who settle into doing the same thing every time? Christian Slater comes to mind, but then he shattered his prior incarnations with his role in He Was a Quiet Man. Maybe he'll jump right back to doing what he always does in the future though. Certainly, many of the following actors have stretched once or twice, only to stretch back.

I chose ten only as a nice round number; these are in no particular order, and certainly not all examples, but these are some of the major ones:

1) Al Pacino: At some point in the ‘90s, around the time of Scent of a Woman and Heat, Al traded his whispering suave Italian guy image for “guy who shouts and RANDOMLY emphasizes certain WORDS!!” We still love him for it though, and still want to see him doing his thing.

2) Robert De Niro: Like Pacino, he's one of America's greatest stars, and certainly had some classics under his belt already by the ‘70s and ‘80s. But as he got older, he settled into this nodding, squinting caricature of himself, peppering his speech with a “l'il bit” of truncated words and phrases. When you hire De Niro, that's what you're hiring him to do. When you go to see a De Niro flick, that's the guy you're going to see.

3) Chris Tucker: Unlike legends like Pacino and De Niro who made names for themselves before settling into routine, Tucker always played the fast-talking, high-pitched wiseguy that he perfected by Rush Hour, at which point that series seemed to be the only work he was doing.

4) Joe Pesci: Okay. Okay. Okay. He did come out of retirement as a favor to De Niro to take a small role in The Good Shepherd, and he was a lot more subdued and barely recognizable. But prior to that, everything from Goodfellas to Home Alone to My Cousin Vinny to Casino starred the same little quick-speaking Italian guy we know and love.

5) Stifler: Admit it. When you see that sarcastic, crooked smile and spiky blonde hair, you think ”Stifler” before you think “Seann William Scott”. If I didn't give you his name, you'd be looking it up right now...

6) Tony Danza: He almost always seems to play a good-natured Italian guy named “Tony” in all his sitcoms. Taxi. Who’s the Boss? Hudson Street. The Tony Danza Show. Then in 2004 he became the host of a daytime talk show with the same name as his last sitcom. Again, not a lot of range, but he seems like a nice guy you like seeing on your screen. I don't know why so many Italian-American actors fall into this category. Not even Matt LeBlanc, heir to the Danza throne, could explain the pattern.

7) Lisa Kudrow: To explain why Phoebe Buffay on Friends was so similar to her previous character Ursula in Mad About You, writers decided to reveal the two characters to be twin sisters. That's all well and good, but is every character she's played in movies related to the Buffay sisters too?

8) Julia Roberts: Some might disagree with this one, but Julia Roberts honestly plays Julia Roberts in nearly everything she's done. I submit for example Ocean's 12, in which her character is supposed to impersonate the “real” Julia Roberts at one point because of their striking resemblance. That could be a fun challenge for any actor, to play the role of a character impersonating the role of the actor. Julia put on a hat and sunglasses and wore a pillow under her dress. Hey, it fools Bruce Willis...

9) Jack Nicholson: He's yet another veteran that's earned the right to just be himself on film, because that's who we're going to see. If I were to make a case in favor of Heath Ledger as the better Joker in The Dark Knight, I would point out that his delightfully anarchistic sociopath was a completely different person from Ledger, whereas the Joker in Batman was just Nicholson in facepaint and a wig.

10) Keanu Reeves: Like....whoa....'nuff said.


Blogger desirelines said...

i'm just gonna comment about the two actresses you chose. although god knows, i got things to say about the other choices. can you watch more movies please? you list lisa kudrow. have you even seen her best movies, namely the opposite of sex and happy endings? her characters in those movies are way different that that she essayed in friends. and julia roberts.. have you seen closer? erin brockovich? confessions of a dangerous mind? i know you're entitled to your opinions and stuff but cmon, WATCH more movies please. why i even commenting in your blog? how the hell did i even come across this? ugh.

9/23/2008 5:49 AM  
Anonymous MCF said...

Erin Brokovich and Confessions are both on my Netflix queue, and I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and see what she does in those roles. From what I've heard Brokovich was particularly a deviation from her standard part. I didn't care for Closer, found it slow and a lot of the times everyone seemed to be whispering the dialogue. Ultimately, it annoyed me to watch four self-destructive people keep ruining their lives with these relationships and I kept hoping for some spark of redemption in any of them. Maybe the point was a portrait of helplessness and despair, but it wasn't what I was in the mood for at the time.

Honestly I threw Roberts in there as a controversial choice; a Juliette Lewis or a Tilly sister probably would have been safer. I originally had Samuel L Jackson and Steve Buscemi on the list but wanted to include some females. I'm surprised Kudrow garnered that much defense, though I will check out the movies you mentioned. I've only seen her in the Analyze... movies as well as parts of Marcy X and Romy & Michelle..., and in every instance I couldn't separate any of those characters from Phoebe. I've seen over 2,000 movies; perhaps not the right movies.

One final note; the fact that a lot of these actors have found their niche isn't necessarily a bad thing. I like Phoebe. I like watching De Niro squint and say "L'il bit". Pacino's random volume increases make for a great drinking game. It's just that there are some actors like Depp or Hanks or Sean Penn or Frances McDormand that consistently bring something different to the table every time.

9/23/2008 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Darrell said...

Wait, wait, wait ... you're saying Stifler isn't that guy's real name?

Next you're going to be telling me that Booger, Radar, Norm and Urkel aren't their real names, either.

9/23/2008 3:21 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow said...

When the post's topic sentence ends with the word "actors," should we really end up talking about Chris Tucker and Tony Danza? Those guys are to acting what Velveeta is to cheese.

And Julia Roberts is the female Keanu Reeves. All hat and no cattle, as the old cowboys used to say.

9/23/2008 5:32 PM  
Anonymous MCF said...

D: Who the frak is "Gary Burghoff"?? ;-)

SS: THANK you. I may have to start using that phrase. :)

9/23/2008 6:06 PM  

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