It's all about The Dark Knight this week. Part of the hype is the twin performances by Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, which is not undeserved. But both Bale and Ledger belong to a certain school of acting, and it's worth discussing the other schools, especially since one type tends to overshadow the other. When it comes time for acting awards to be doled out, I'm afraid that these two performances will blot out others, especially Robert Downey Jr.'s in Iron Man (375 screens). Actors use many different methods in their craft. One is what I'll call the "Brando" school. When Marlon Brando exploded onto the movie screen in the early 1950s, he brought a new style that was dubbed "raw" and "sensual." He used his entire being in his performances; his study of the "Method" taught him to reach deep into his own experiences to find real emotions to adapt to his characters.
The other school is the "always plays himself" school, of which John Wayne was probably the most pre-eminent member. Wayne had a very limited range and couldn't play all the various characters that Brando could, but he had a very specific onscreen personality that was emotionally satisfying all on its own. Moreover, within his small range, not even Brando could beat him. No one could have been better in The Searchers (1956), for example. Robert Downey Jr. belongs in this second school. Although he happens to possess the skill to play a wide range of parts, he remains chiefly true to his own personality. When you see him, it feels like you're visiting him again, rather than seeing a whole new person. His hijinks in Iron Man are wonderfully energetic and hilarious, but they bear a resemblance to his similar, wiry performances in Home for the Holidays, Two Girls and a Guy and other films.
For some reason though, critics and fans have always elevated the "Brando" school far above the "always plays himself" school. I think the main reason for this is that it's easier for non-actors to see and understand the performances of the "Brando" school. The performances actually show; you can see all the tools and choices that went into them. Daniel Day-Lewis's Oscar-winning turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a perfect example; it's a huge grab bag of acting excellence, but you never get a sense of just who Day-Lewis is and what he brings to the part. A part is not just a part; the actor is the part as well. If the actor disappears completely it sometimes leaves an emotional hole. That can never, ever happen with a Downey performance. After seeing a certain number of his films, we feel we know him, and it feels good to see him again.
The "always plays himself" school especially gets cheated in the Oscar department. Wayne won one Oscar, a token, late in his life. Cary Grant never one, nor did most comedians who usually "play themselves." To date, Downey has only one Oscar nomination, for Chaplin (1992), a biopic, incidentally, which the Academy always loves, regardless of who stars in it. His un-nominated performances include, but are not limited to: Short Cuts (1993), Natural Born Killers (1994), Richard III (1995), Home for the Holidays (1995), One Night Stand (1997), Two Girls and a Guy (1997), Wonder Boys (2000), The Singing Detective (2003), Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), A Scanner Darkly (2006), A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) and Zodiac (2007). Perhaps it's because he's so enjoyable in these roles that the Academy overlooks him; if he's so much fun, the material must not be very "important."
It's also interesting that Paul Thomas Anderson -- who guided Day-Lewis to an Oscar win -- also made a film with Adam Sandler, another member of the "always plays himself" school. Sandler usually works with his same, comfortable crew of writers and directors and usually comes up with the likes of You Don't Mess with the Zohan (261 screens), but Anderson found something truthful inside Sandler and brought it out for Punch-Drunk Love (2002), a kind of combination of sweetness and rage that the other comedies only hint at. That film proved that Sandler was as capable an actor as anyone who earned an Oscar nomination that year. I fear, however, that Sandler lacks the initiative to keep trying.
A third, utterly fascinating actor from the "always plays himself/herself" school is Zooey Deschanel, who sprung on the movie scene practically fully formed with a quirky supporting role in Mumford (1999). I've always been amazed by Deschanel and have had a difficult time describing her particular skill other than she always seems to be totally immersed in a scene, but always simultaneously hovering above it, as if aware of her effect on things. Her rhythms are always slightly different than those of the scene, like a drummer finding a different groove without the band's knowledge, but it always works. She has no Oscar nominations to date. Currently she's in The Happening (242 screens), and it's unlikely she'll be noticed this year, either, but hopefully her day is coming.