I've been thinking about Paul Haggis' new movie In the Valley of Elah (9 screens). It's not a good movie, with its awkward mix of mystery and soapbox and its blatant attempt to snag a few Oscars. Poor Charlize Theron is stuck in the same kind of role that netted her an Oscar (Monster) and another nomination (North Country), wearing boxy clothes and no makeup and working in an all-male workplace, teased by her heartless co-workers. But Tommy Lee Jones' performance struck me as something special. Like Theron, he is also repeating a previous performance. But while Theron's role is all about its external factors, its layers of significance, Jones' performance has sprung organically from his personality.
For The Fugitive (1993), Jones won an Oscar for playing the relentless, meticulous pursuer, chasing Harrison Ford throughout the picture, and -- by some accounts -- stealing the film from its star. Jones made the role unique by dropping the typical "obsession," a word that is overused in Hollywood today, and concentrating on emotionless process and routine. It's a stripped-down performance; he saves his energy for his clipped, barked line deliveries. But at the same time, Jones' sad, droopy eyes revealed just a hint of his character's origins. He repeated the role, literally, in U.S. Marshals (1998), and again, figuratively, in Double Jeopardy (1999) and The Hunted (2003), as well as a comic version in Men in Black (1997).
Watched back to back, these films each reveal something different about the character and about Jones, but they also offer a comforting familiarity, a sense of order in the world. Many of the great movie stars of the past 100 years relied on this kind of solidity, playing variations on the same character over and over: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Bruce Lee, John Wayne, Woody Allen, Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, and now Jones. Becoming associated with a singular screen persona connected these stars to their public like old friends. The same phenomena can be witnessed on any hit TV show, in which actors perform the same characters for years at a stretch, adding subtle layers throughout. Certain directors, such as Yasujiro Ozu, did the same, reworking the same plots and using the same actors and techniques again and again, all in an attempt to more fully understand their particular territory.
The downside of this phenomenon is that these performers tend to lack the prestige and acclaim that comes to other, more versatile performers. For example, actors like Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart could effectively play a greenhorn city slicker as well as a range-weary cowboy. Or take Viggo Mortensen, who plays a slick, hard Russian gangster in David Cronenberg's excellent Eastern Promises (15 screens), which feels a million miles away from his small town killer-in-hiding from A History of Violence, or his warrior/hippie/cowboy roles from earlier films. Johnny Depp -- currently in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (252 screens) -- is another actor who revels in the chance to play something completely oddball, and to immerse himself totally, using many different voices and accents, costume items, makeup, and assorted decorations and bangles to disguise himself.
The ability to play many different kinds of characters is seen as superior, which is a mistake. We're simply talking about two different kinds of acting. I maintain that you could name any acclaimed actor from the last 100 years, Olivier, Tracy, Brando, anyone, and none of them could do precisely what John Wayne did in The Searchers. The same goes for any big star. Only Garbo could play a Garbo role. Bette Davis or Joan Crawford would have killed Queen Christina. Frankly, it's wonderful, almost magical, when an actor and a certain type of role find each other and make a connection. Otherwise, we wouldn't have Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. But as enjoyable as it is for the audience, it can be a curse for an ambitious actor to find himself "stuck" playing the same role forever, doomed to popularity but not acceptance. This is why many comedians try to "go serious" at some point (see Robin Williams and Jim Carrey for two tragic examples).However, it's possible today for an actor to have his cake and eat it too. Clint Eastwood managed to turn his stoic, murmuring tough guy persona into a truly outstanding directorial career. And Bruce Willis -- back this past summer playing his trademark John McClane in Live Free or Die Hard (231 screens) -- supplements his action career with amazingly potent little turns, ranging from cowardly to comical, in oddball movies like Billy Bathgate (1991), Mortal Thoughts (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), Nobody's Fool (1994), and this year's The American Astronaut and Nancy Drew. It's true that Willis has yet to earn his first Oscar nomination, but he will. And in the meantime, he's made audiences, and himself, happy. And now, if you'll pardon me, I'm in the mood to go back and watch some more Tommy Lee Jones movies.