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By Martin Keady · March 24, 2015
It is often said that theater is the actor’s medium whereas cinema is the director’s medium: it is on stage that an actor can exert the greatest degree of control over their work, while on screen they are ultimately subject to the decisions made by a film’s director. Perhaps that is why there are so many more great films about actors than great plays about actors, many of them written by actors themselves who were frustrated by their lack of control over their own career.
Here are the Top 10 Films About Actors.
10. THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973, Directed by Douglas Hickox)
Theatre of Blood is the ultimate revenge-fantasy for actors, especially actors forced to undertake work they consider beneath them. Vincent Price plays the marvellously named “Edward Lionheart” (the name is a good clue to the film’s wonderfully over-the-top silliness), a famed Shakespearean actor who is snubbed for a major award and consequently decides to take revenge on the critics who had overlooked him. And his is the most poetic revenge as he kills each critic in a re-enactment of a particularly bloody or brutal murder from one of Shakespeare’s plays, culminating in his attempt to blind the head of the critics’ circle in a manner similar to the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear. (A critic to the last, he would rather die than alter his original judgment.)
Despite (or perhaps because of) its inherent ridiculousness, Theatre of Blood is telling about the desperate need of actors to try to assert some degree of control over what is usually the most uncertain of existences. My best friend is an actor – indeed, that rarest of things, a working actor – and I know from him how wonderful, but arbitrary an actor’s life is. And not even successful actors are immune from that uncertainty and lack of autonomy. Vincent Price himself always regarded his performance as “Edward Lionheart” as one of his finest on screen, largely because he himself had been typecast as a “horror-movie star” when, like most actors, he longed to tread the boards and declaim Shakespeare. In Theatre of Blood, he finally does (and rather well, too).
9. SHAKESPEARE WALLAH (1965, Directed by James Ivory)
Shakespeare Wallah was inspired by, and partly based on, the real-life experiences of Geoffrey Kendal, father of Felicity and another daughter, Jennifer, who was also a successful actress. After entertaining troops in Asia during World War Two, he eventually formed his own touring company, Shakespeareana, staying on after India’s independence to travel up and down the subcontinent in the 1940s and 1950s spreading the good words of Shakespeare and other great English authors.
Shakespeare Wallah, which starred both Geoffrey and Felicity (albeit playing members of a family with the suitably Shakespearean name of “Buckingham”), is especially good at showing what life is like for a touring theatrical company; it is essentially itinerant and uncertain, with the actors performing one day for the wealthy and the next day for disinterested schoolchildren. Of course, such a peripatetic lifestyle also takes a toll on an individual’s emotional life, as they form relationships that struggle to withstand the rigours of life on the road. In Shakespeare Wallah, Felicity Kendal’s Lizzie finds herself forming one side of a love triangle that involves another stage actor and a Bollywood film star.
Shakespeare Wallah is also important as it was the first major international success of the Merchant-Ivory team, which in many respects should have been renamed the “Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala” team, as screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote so many of their films, including this one. It is interesting to reflect that originally they set out to make films set in India, but ended up becoming synonymous with England and classic English literature, with later films such as Room With A View and Howard’s End. Perhaps they learned all they needed to know about the English class system and its prejudices in India, the jewel in the English imperial crown, and consequently when they relocated to England they retained an understanding of “Englishness” that had largely been lost among native English people.
8. THE GOODBYE GIRL (1977, Directed by Herbert Ross)
The Goodbye Girl is a superb Neil Simon comedy that is not so much about actors as the kind of people who are irresistibly drawn to them. Usually solid, stable types themselves, there is something about the romantic and exciting lifestyle of actors that exerts a magnetic and even fatal attraction for them.
Marsha Mason plays such an “actor-hag” (for want of a better term), Paula; indeed, she is dumped by one actor who then sublets her apartment to his actor friend, Elliott, played by the great Richard Dreyfuss, without telling her. Forced to live together, alongside Paula’s young daughter Lucy (who, unlike her mother, has learned to be suspicious of actors), the pair eventually fall in love, but Paula lives in fear that she will end up being a “goodbye girl”, someone who is inevitably left behind by others when they move on to bigger and better things.
The Goodbye Girl is itself a testament to the power and subtlety of great screen acting. It was the culmination of Dreyfuss’s stunning mid-1970s run of box-office and critical smashes, including Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and won him a Best Actor Oscar. (At the time, and aged only 30, he was the youngest man to win the great prize.) But Marsha Mason was also a sublimely gifted comic actor, who at the time of The Goodbye Girl was actually married to Neil Simon and something of his muse. She would be later seen to similarly stunning comic effect in Frasier as Sherry, Frasier’s father’s coarse, banjo-playing girlfriend.
One final line: The Goodbye Girl may just feature the best ever fictional review of a fictional actor’s performance (or excuse for a performance). When a depressed and drunken Elliott returns home after receiving the first dreadful notices of his performance as Richard III (who he is forced to play, at the director’s insistence, as a latent homosexual), he reads aloud the worst of them, which describes his performance as “PUTRID…Capital ‘P’…Capital ‘U’…Capital ‘TRID’.” “Capital ‘TRID’” remains my own favourite way to describe a truly awful performance.
7. BIRDMAN (2014, Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is probably the most successful film about actors, having won the Best Picture Oscar this year. In doing so, however, it may have actually reduced the chances of future films about actors being made, because it triumphed at the expense of the more widely lauded Boyhood and thus seemed to confirm the outsider’s view of Hollywood as a place obsessed with navel-gazing at the expense of actual artistic achievement. (Incidentally, in overlooking Boyhood, a coming-of-age movie that filmed a real boy growing up over the course of a decade, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences continued its ignoble tradition of ignoring genuinely groundbreaking films, Citizen Kane being the most obvious example.)
Nevertheless, Birdman is still a fine film and it is particularly good about an obsession of many actors: the fear that the work they are most celebrated for (and that is consequently most lucrative) is not actually worthwhile. Hence, Michael Keaton, himself a former Batman of course, was perfect to play the role of Riggan Thomson, who obsesses about his inability to shake off the shadow cast by another winged-superhero role.
6. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998, Directed by John Madden)
It is easy to forget (certainly many academics do) that the greatest writer who ever lived was also an actor, but Shakespeare In Love redresses that imbalance: the Shakespeare of Shakespeare In Love barely ever leaves the theatre (as would have been the case for the real Shakespeare). The film shows how Shakespeare, for all his literary genius, was completely grounded in the spit-and-sawdust world of the stage and that all the plays he wrote were formed, at least in part, by his own first-hand experience of standing on a stage and trying to keep an audience spellbound.
The audition scenes are especially good. When a sleepy Shakespeare listens to prospective actor after prospective actor reciting Marlowe’s immortal lines – “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” – he can barely stay awake. It is only when Gwyneth Paltrow, playing an aristocrat’s daughter who dreams of being an actress and who consequently disguises herself to try out for Shakespeare’s company, starts reciting some of his own lines (from Two Gentlemen of Verona) that he sits up and pays attention. In this way, the film shows how even a great actor-writer such as Shakespeare is not immune to self-obsession, which is almost an occupational hazard for actors. After all, they are forever playing other people to the point that they can forget (or never even learn) who they really are themselves.
5. THE ENTERTAINER (1960, Directed by Tony Richardson)
The title is telling: Laurence Olivier is not an actor but an entertainer, a once-famous music hall star reduced to eking out a living in a near-deserted seaside town. He, and it, become perfect symbols of Britain’s post-war decline.
The Entertainer was written by the great John Osborne specifically for the equally great Laurence Olivier, who had initially been dismissive of Osborne’s seminal Look Back In Anger but eventually realised that it was exactly the kind of “break” with traditional theatre that he had been looking for, in an attempt to reinvent himself. It is a testament to Olivier’s ability as an actor that he – arguably the greatest actor who ever lived – could so successfully play a man who could not play anyone but himself, or versions thereof: a seedy, self-absorbed, rather silly man.
Of course, there is a serious side to Archie’s self-absorption. Even as his family falls apart, and his own son is killed during the Suez crisis, he is only really interested in trying to resurrect his own career. In this way, he is the exemplar of the type of single-mindedness that all successful actors, indeed all successful creators, need. It is easy to mock, or even condemn, but as Archie would be the first to say, “The show must go on,” even in the face of appalling personal tragedy.
4. THE DRESSER (1983, Directed by Peter Yates)
It is another truism of the theatrical world that the best stories happen not on stage but backstage, and The Dresser is the great backstage movie. It was based on a play by the playwright and screenwriter, Ronald Harwood, which was itself based on his own experience as the dresser to the legendary actor-manager, Sir Donald Wolfit, in the 1950s. Of course, the term “based on” is probably the most wide-ranging and nebulous in cinema, covering everything from “inspiration” to “pure fantasy.” In this instance, The Dresser is almost certainly Harwood’s fearful imagining of what his life would have been like if he had not been able to escape from the dressing room and become a successful writer.
Ironically, Harwood’s fictional dresser, Norman, is stuck in the closet. At a time (pre-1967) when homosexuality was still illegal in England, Norman (beautifully played by Tom Courtenay in one of his finest ever screen performances) cannot admit to loving the star he looks after, who is universally known only as “Sir” (and who is equally superbly played by Albert Finney). Indeed, he only realises it himself after Sir’s death.
Fittingly for a film about the co-dependence of a star and his assistant, The Dresser is one of only four films for which both male stars have been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar, the others being From Here To Eternity in 1953 (for which Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster were both nominated), Sleuth in 1972 (for which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine were both nominated) and Network in 1976 (for which Peter Finch and William Holden were both nominated). And of all the illustrious members of those great acting double-acts, only Peter Finch actually won the Best Actor Oscar – and he did so posthumously, having died before the 1977 Academy Awards. Actors (and indeed artists of all kinds) everywhere will appreciate the irony that often the only way to win an award is to die before you can receive it.
3. SWINGERS (1996, Directed by Doug Liman)
Swingers shows the reality of life for most actors: a desperate struggle to survive, against all the odds, and often at the expense of one’s own personal happiness. Jon Favreau’s Mikey is the archetypal out-of-work actor, who has tried (and failed) to make it big in Hollywood and dreams of returning to New York and the girl he left behind (who had, in reality, dumped him). And Vince Vaughn’s Trent, or ‘T’, is the archetypal “best buddy,” another actor who is infinitely more interested in securing “digits” (the phone numbers of attractive women) than fretting about his “art” (and his inability to succeed at it).
Swingers is the American Withnail and I, and it is not only the subject matter of both movies that is similar but their structure. Withnail can be summarised as “Here-There-Here”, adapting the famous line, “Here hare here” (the message that Michael Elphick’s terrifying poacher leaves on the cottage door), to reflect the actors’ journey from desolate London to freezing-cold Cumbria and back again. Similarly, Swingers starts with Mikey being rescued from his depression by T for a trip to “Vegas, baby” (for once, the sheer ordeal and tedium of driving overnight from LA to Vegas is depicted in some reality), which, utterly unsurprisingly, does not go to plan, before the pair beat a retreat back to Hollywood to continue plying (or trying to ply) their trade.
Unlike Withnail, however, which is set in London in the late 1960s, Swingers is set in pre-millennial LA, where everybody (or seemingly everybody) is an actor (or writer, director or producer, or even all three simultaneously). This is a world where even a humble cocktail waitress knows all about “West Coast Booking Agents” and the like. In fact, it is a whole world of actors, where it is virtually impossible to tell the real from the fake: everybody here is a Swinger of some kind or other.
2. ALL ABOUT EVE (1950, Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
All About Eve is the great film about actresses. Although both male and female performers can be referred to as “actors,” an actress’s lot is often much harder than that of a male actor, because women are often judged on their looks (and the supposed deterioration of them with time) in a way that men usually are not. And All About Eve shows that it is not only men who are quick to dismiss a woman as being “too old” to go on performing but other women – especially if they are as ambitious, manipulative and scheming as Anne Baxter’s Eve.
Baxter, of course, is initially the understudy to Bette Davis’s grande dame, Margo Channing, before she tries to oust her, first from her work and then from her own life, by trying to seduce her fiancé, a successful playwright who she hopes will write great plays for her in the future.
So many films about actors, such as Swingers and Withnail and I are about unsuccessful actors, but All About Eve shows how even the most successful actors (and especially actresses) continually have to fight to stay alive, or at least in work. In other professions, seniority might bring a measure of stability, even comfort, but in acting it only increases an individual’s vulnerability, as there is always someone younger waiting to take their place. Of course, Eve herself discovers that herself when a young star-struck fan inveigles her way into her apartment (and her life) and begins setting out to replace her, just as she had replaced Margo.
1. WITHNAIL AND I (1986, Directed by Bruce Robinson)
Withnail and I is the greatest film about actors, but of course like all great films (and all great works of art) it is not solely about its supposed subject matter. Instead, it is essentially about the endless Darwinian struggle simply to survive, and the related struggle – how to cope when others, especially those closest to you, succeed instead of you.
It is Withnail’s “Congratulations,” offered to “I” when he learns that “I” has secured, first, a role in a play and then the lead role, that is perhaps the single most significant thing he says – and not so much for the word itself, but the way he says it. It is the only time that Withnail says something completely sincerely, without complaining, lamenting or lambasting someone or something else, and as a result it is extraordinarily moving. There are many reasons to admire Withnail, but never more so than for the sincerity with which he salutes his friend’s success, even though it kills him inside.
Richard E. Grant, who plays Withnail, has often said how even supposed “A-list” actors love the film, because they remember all too well the periods of their life when they, too, were struggling to make a living (and surviving on little more than booze, barbiturates and potato-peelings). And that is the great irony of Withnail: although a complete failure himself, he has become, because of the brilliance of Bruce Robinson’s script and direction and Richard E. Grant’s performance, probably the most celebrated fictional actor of all. On-screen, Withnail may only play Hamlet to the wolves in London zoo, but off-screen, as it were, he is one of cinema’s greatest stars.
IN PRAISE OF ACTORS, NOT AVATARS
In 2002’s Simone (or S1m0ne, to give it its full ungainly title), Al Pacino played a film producer who creates a digital, pixellated star to replace the real-life one who walks off-set in a huff, and of course the “fake” star ends up eclipsing the real one. In reality, however, there remains an appetite for real flesh-and-blood stars: more than a decade on from Simone, no computer-generated star has won an Academy Award yet. It seems that for all we decry actors, and regard them as self-obsessed narcissists who only care about themselves, we still care about them deeply. For all their flaws, as depicted so memorably in so many of these films, we still see ourselves in them and their endless struggle to survive.