About Me

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Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I am a Montreal-based actor, writer and comedian. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy was shot, I was three days old. I cried all day. My favourite books of all time are Moby Dick by Herman Melville, The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis and The Ewoks Fun Time Activity Book by Chirpa and Pamploo. I am a member of The Vestibules, On The Spot Improv and The Best Buy Battery Club. Except for the Battery Club, I've been at all this stuff for over 20 years. Enjoy my blog.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Kristen Stewart Conundrum

"She is a real force with terrific instincts." 
-Sean Penn on Kristen Stewart

"Kristen isn't interested in blurting out her emotions all in front of her, and that results in really intelligent and interesting performances."
 -Jodie Foster on Kristen Stewart

"She is unique, and I don't see-outside of maybe two or three people much older than she is- a uniqueness in actresses today. She is a one-of-a-kinder".
-Bruce Dern on Kristen Stewart

"This is a gutsy woman....young, bright, wonderful, talented, observant…"
-William Hurt on Kristen Stewart

“Stewart is, quite simply, a wonderful actress."
-Roger Ebert on Kristen Stewart

There are no doubt a great many people who just had a major WTF moment while reading the above quotes. Are these people talking about the same Kristen Stewart? The really bad actor in those awful Twilight movies? The same one that is now, quite unjustifiably, the highest paid actress ever? 

What in the hell are these otherwise respectable people on about?  I mean, c'mon, there are Facebook pages, memes and YouTube montages that are dedicated solely to confirming that which everybody already knows: that Kristen Stewart simply can not act. 

What if, though, just for a moment, we consider the notion that maybe Penn, Foster, Dern, Hurt and Ebert are not just talking out of their asses (though I would pay good money to see that)?

For instance, let's take a look at this scene:

No, Kristen Stewart did not guest star on The Sopranos.

That is a scene from the 2010 film, Welcome to the Rileys starring Stewart, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo and directed by Jake Scott (son of director Ridley Scot). The movie is about a middle aged man (Gandolfini) who, after the death of his own teenage daughter, attempts to become a father figure to a 16 year old drug addict runaway turned sex worker (Stewart).  I see a many things in Stewart's performance in this clip but I do not see anything that suggests that she "can't act". 

Welcome to the Rileys premiered in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival to an unusually positive critical reaction to her performance:

"The discovery once again is Kristen Stewart. Who knew she had these notes? I'm discovering an important new actress."
Roger Ebert's Sundance Journal 

"But the film belongs to Kristen Stewart, raw, uncompromising, magnificent at every turn, delivering a ferocious and emotionally-charged performance." 

"She comes off like a rabid dog, completely unpredictable...See it for Stewart’s electric performance."
Laremy Legel Film.com

"Stewart's strung-out, frowzy performance is a timely reminder that the girl can act."
Robbie Collin, The Telegraph U.K.

It turns out that Stewart has got a surprisingly long list of performances in smaller independent films for which she has received an impressive number of glowing reviews from both critics and the public alike. Speak (2004), The Cake Eaters (2007), Into The Wild (2007),  The Yellow Handkerchief (2008), The Runaways (2010) and Welcome to the Rileys are amongst the films where Stewart is arguably doing her very best work. Virtually nobody has seen or even heard of these movies. On the other hand, everyone does seem to know about the Twilight movies which comprise what are arguably the weakest performances of  Stewart's career (which, BTW, comprises 31 IMDB credits since she began acting at the age of  9).

That is where the conundrum comes in. 

I remember seeing Welcome to the Rileys not too long ago. I was familiar with some of Stewart's other work, both Twilight and non-Twilight, and already thought she was a pretty solid actor. I was even more impressed with her performance in the film. What I took away from it, more than anything else, is that I barely recognized Kristen Stewart in Welcome to the Rilys as the same person from the Twilight movies.

It was around this time that the reviews for Stewart's latest film, Snow White and the Huntsman, began appearing. I was stunned when I read some of them:

"The elephant in the room, however, is Stewart...she’s dreadful."

-Tom Clift, Moviedex.com

"It doesn't help that Snow White is Kristen Stewart, an actress who seems to have just the one expression at her command..."
-Andrea Chase, killermoviereviews.com

"I believe it proves my theory that Kristen Stewart is the Keanu Reeves of her generation." 
-Annalee Newitz, i09.com

Woah! Quite the critical turnaround, huh?

I found that last one particularly surreal. I remember thinking, "Seriously? You're putting her in the same sentence with the go-to 'insert bad actor here'  punchline of the last 20 years?". Things got even more surreal when I started seeing that line turning up all over the internet and racking up the "like"'s on Facebook.

"Magnificent at Every Turn" vs "She's Dreadful"

Snow White and The Huntsman and Welcome to the Rileys are very different roles in very different movies. Nonetheless, I still found it truly bizarre that two vastly divergent opinions about the same actor of equal yet opposite force can co-exist in the same universe. When you read some of the glowing praise back to back with some of the brutal reviews, it's hard to believe that are even talking about the same person. I found the whole thing perplexing enough to motivate me to do some research and watch some more movies so I could finally get the bottom of what I call The Kristen Stewart Conundrum.

For the record,  I don't care about how much money Stewart makes, her personal life, her relationships, how she deals with the press, her looks, her weight (though, God, that whole issue in show biz could be series of posts unto themselves) or any of the other media obsessions surrounding her and celebrities in general. 

All I care about is her acting and what people think about it. 

Acting is craft that a relatively small of amount of people know the in and outs of but that everybody has an opinion about. Whether it be critics, the average movie goer or even actors, what constitutes a good performance is a highly subjective matter. 

What fascinates me about the wildly differing opinions on Stewart's work are the questions it raises about what constitutes good or bad performances in the eyes of critics and the public and how major mainstream success can influence and shape an actor's image and credibility. 

"The Twilight Nonsense"

In November 2008, the first movie of the the Twilight series was released. It and the films that followed were, and still are, by far Kristen Stewart's biggest movies ever. The films were based on the best selling books written by Stephanie Meyer.

Stewart played the female lead, Bella Swan, an "average" teenage girl who gets caught up in what can best be described as a Gothic tween soap opera involving a love triangle of vampires and werewolves. The role was both the best and the worst thing that ever happened to Kristen Stewart.

"Too bad Stewart's talents are being wasted on the Twilight nonsense"
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak (2004) 

The major difference between the Stewart fans and "haters" is that, basically, they are watching her in different movies. The fans know (but often don't like) Twilight. From what I've seen, though, the "haters" don't know and don't want to know anything about any performances in obscure movies that might change their opinion of her. Of course, there is also a small but vocal contingent that dislike her in any role, no matter what.

It reminds a bit of when Jessica Lange made her film debut in the 1976 version of King Kong. Knowing nothing about her other than that she was a model turned actress whose big screen debut was in one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, the critics were brutal. "Worst performance of the year" and "She'll never work again" were typical reviews. Six years later, Lange won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Francis. I knew people who were still incredulous about her win even then.

Reviews, good or bad, can be like political talking points. Truth, lies or distortion, it makes no difference. Once they are repeated often enough, for many people, they become true (though aside from producer Harvey Weinstein's Oscar voting campaigns, there are rarely agendas driving movie reviews). I have come across people who have not even seen a single movie of Stewart's yet are still are under the impression that she can't act.  She's not by any means in the same league as Lange but I do think that Twilight is Kristen Stewart's King Kong.

I first saw Kristen Stewart in Twilight. Yes, I have seen every Twilight movie to date. I'm a geek. That's my job.

She did not make much of an impression on me at the time, good or bad.  It was not until I started seeing Stewart in other roles like Adventureland (2009) and The Runaways that I really got a sense that there was way more to her than the role of Bella Swan might suggest. From there on in, I watched her in the Twilight movies with different eyes. 

The first thing I got a sense for with those new eyes is that Stewart seemed to be holding back. It occurred to me fairly quickly into watching the second film, Twilight: New Moon, that she seemed to be directed away from playing anything that was too strong in any direction (and I can tell you from experience that directors can indeed make a big difference in actor's performance). 

"...a series of movies that clearly constrain her acting ability and makes her seem as boring as her character, Bella Swan."
David Blaustein, ABC News

"What surprised me was how much I admired Kristen Stewart, who in Twilight was playing below her grade level."
-Roger Ebert on Adventureland

In the Twilight movies, I got the impression that Stewart was directed to play a blank slate that the target audience of tween girls could project themselves onto. I have not read any of the Twilight books (my dedication to this blog only goes so far) but I'm told this is very much what the character of Bella Swan is like in the books as well.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), is indeed passive and blank, a transparent proxy for the audience.
-Dana Stevens, slate.com 

In that sense, Stewart was doing her job. She was giving the franchise what it needed by not alienating as much of the target audience as possible. It's an accomplishment that did her no favours.


"...her plain, expressionless face and deadpan voice was almost painful to watch."
-IMDB User Review of Twilight

"Miss Stewart - however cute she may be - seemed to be only given one direction, and that was to 'stare longingly into his face with your lips slightly open'."
-IMDB user review of Twilight

Watching Stewart in the Twilight movies quickly became frustrating as hell. It felt like she was working at about 10% of her true potential. It's no coincidence that both Stewart and co-star Robert Pattinson were often criticized for their work in Twilight but then got much better responses to their roles in other films. 

The great irony of Stewart's now extremely successful career is that the one role for which she is best known is her most atypical and one that is not truly indicative of her talents.  

"A Flawless Performance" vs "Cannot Handle the Drama"

In 2004, Stewart starred in Speak, a low budget indie film originally made for the Showtime/Lifetime cable networks. The film is about a 14 year old rape victim and her struggle to tell someone, anyone, about her ordeal (and I gotta add here that I find it very troubling that it has become necessary to make movies about such an issue for so young an audience).

Just 13 when the movie was shot, Stewart's performance was well received.

 "Kristen Stewart doesn't just shine, she burns...a flawless performance."
-Chris Parry, efilmcritic. com

 "Wow! Kristen Stewart. An impressive performance."
- IMDB User Review of Speak 

"She does things with her face that actors twice her age with twice her experience only wish they could do"
-IMDB User Review of Speak

"Kristen Stewart played the full range of emotions from debilitating despair to righteous anger and made the character completely believable."
-IMDB User Review of Speak 

 "Kristen Stewart's performance and expressions--incredible"
-IMDB User Review of Speak 

Granted Stewart is playing a character that doesn't talk all that much but it is still fascinating that, even so early in her career, the first thing many of the reviews mention is her "expressions". In this case it is as a positive, not the negative "inexpressive" and "one expression" type comments that will come up time and again later on. It is again something of a conundrum that throughout her career Stewart has been alternately praised and condemned for the exact same thing: her "expressions" or alleged lack thereof.

What I see in her performance in Speak is this 13 year old kid reacting to events going on around her with incredible instincts that are beyond her years as well as an uncanny ability to communicate those feelings to an audience. Stewart and the character she plays become one in the same. 

Meanwhile, on Rotten Tomatoes, we start to see the first evidence of the impact Twilight would have on Stewart's image and credibility as an actor. In reviews dated around late 2008 and early 2009, just after the release of the first Twilight movie, the first truly negative reviews of her work in Speak start rearing their heads on the popular movie site.

"Stewart cannot handle the drama the role brings"
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

"I see nothing in her face or movements that betrays anything worth looking at. "
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

"Perfect role for Kristen Stewart's expressionless face."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

Amazingly, Stewart is now suddenly getting criticized for having an "expressionless face" for the exact same role for which she was previously praised for her "incredible" expressions (to be fair, there were still good reviews of Speak post-Twilight). It is evident that audiences, and later critics, seeing her for the first time in Twilight were beginning to make those weaker performances their baseline opinion of Stewart's talents in general.

"Expressionless Face" vs "Incredible Expressions"

The issue of Stewart's "expressions", "face" and "look" come up negatively again and again in many reviews. To one degree or another, these types of criticisms haunt her in every role.

"Fear, uncertainty, determination and love; they all look the same on Stewart’s inexpressive face."
-Tom Clift, Moviedex.com review of Snow White and The Huntsman

"This young actress can convey more with one look than most veterans can with an entire monologue."
-IMDB User Review of Speak

So what is it about this aspect of her performance that so polarizes critical reaction?

Well, for one thing, she will often play scenes muted, at times with a seemingly neutral gaze, allowing only glimpses of emotion sparingly.

In this scene from Speak, she has just snuck into a hospital room to escape the world as she reflects on what is still her completely solitary emotional trauma:

The emotions of this scene are powerful yet understated. In t
his case, as in much of the movie, she is being helped out by her own voice over. Still, though, it showcases a common thread in her performances. The text provides the context of the story and she, with various degrees of subtly,  fills in the emotions.

In this scene from Welcome to the Rileys, Mallory's (Stewart) would be father figure  Doug (Gandolfini) is paying her $100 a day in rent to live in her home. In the process, he is fixing up her run down dwelling and attempting to instill some sense of structure and discipline into her life (in what presumably is a part of long term plan to get her off drugs and away from sex work ).

Take a look:


The way she looks at him towards the end of the scene is great. She says almost nothing in reaction to his lecturing. She doesn't have to. The look is very much alive: she is at once angry, frightened, conflicted and vulnerable. She both needs yet rebels against his guidance, authority and caring. Once again, the script creates the context, she subtly supplies the emotions.

But what about the multitude of people that seem to see nothing in her face, those who frequently use words like "inexpressive", "one expression" and "expressionless"?  Do they just not "get it"? For some, this may be the case but I don't think it's quite that easy.

Stewart's "look" or "expressions" can be very understated and subtle. So much so that people could either miss them completely or, more likely, are just plain frustrated by the lack of forthright emotion.

"Kristen Stewart is always on the verge of emoting but never quite gets there."
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

In the case of Twilight, where the text is not providing not enough context or weak context, these "looks" and "expressions" exist in a vacuum and come off as "blank" or "inexpressive".

Snow White and the Huntsman is another case where Stewart's understated expressions were poorly received. Take a look at this scene:


That incredibly subtle look is just so very Kristen Stewart. It's a  boldly small way to play off of something so big.  Knowing her other work, I can appreciate what she is trying to do in that scene. Without that knowledge, though, it's a moment that could easily be subject to other interpretations.

"Touching Her Hair Non-Stop"

The "hair touching" criticism is right up there with "inexpressive". And it's not just that Stewart is apparently touching her hair "non-stop" in "every scene", there are also complaints about lip biting, stuttering, exhaling, and just about any other twitch or tic (or whatever you want to call them) that anyone has ever seen her have.

One movie where that where these types of comments come up a lot is Adventureland (2009). Directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad) and co-starring Jesse Eisenberg and Ryan Reynolds, the  movie is probably Stewart's most critically divisive role. From what I've seen, it is also the one with the most complaints about her contentious tics and twitches, for lack of a better term (calling them tics and twitches is a bit unfair as that implies involuntary or sub-conscious physical actions and I'm quite certain that they are deliberate acting choices on Stewart's part).

In Adventureland, Stewart plays a teen who is emotionally damaged by her father's quick remarriage after the death of her mother. She enters into an increasingly problematic relationship with Eiesnberg, who is working at the same amusement park as Stewart in his first post graduate yet minimum wage job. 

Predominately aimed at a youth audience, the film very much lives under the shadow of Twilight. For Stewart, that is not a good thing.

"Oh, and Kristen Stewart is, as always awful."
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart gets too much criticism for her acting....don't judge her off of the Twilight series."
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart does her trade marked emotionally crippled teenager bit and despite myself I still cared about her."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"Kristen Stewart harbors too much teenage angst while touching her hair in what appears to be every scene"
-Netflix User Review of Adventureland

"I was getting annoyed seeing Kristen Stewart touching her hair nonstop and chewing on her lip."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

Initially, I was perplexed that so many people were so hung up on such small details of her performances. Isn't this just her version of Jack Nicolson's smirks, Al Pacino's yelling and  Christopher Walken's quirky offbeat line readings? In terms of audience tolerance, not in the least, apparently.

I think understand where the annoyance is coming from. 

In Twilight, for instance, the character of Bella is so blank that any time she does anything remotely distinctive, like the hair touching, for instance, it stands out like a sore thumb. Nobody likes sore thumbs.

Once her tics and twitches are noticed, they can create a vicious circle: the more they are talked about, the more it creates a hyper awareness of them. And, on the internet, almost everything gets talked about a lot. 

When I went back and watched her performances, I even found myself constantly watching for them at the expense of everything else. It becomes like Bob Dylan's nasally high pitched singing or William Shatner's staggered delivery. Issues of artistic merit aside, those aspects of their performance have been commented on and joked about so much that it reaches the point that audiences fixate on them and thus can see little else. It's a byproduct of overexposure.

Yet the problem does not begin and end with Stewart's Twilight overexposure. The powerful  negative reactions to her tics and twitches are very real for a lot of people. They seem to me to have a disproportionally emotional element to them.  It is like these tics and twitches become the focal point for other less easily articulated aspects of her acting that just plain rub some people the wrong way. 

There's kind of an emotional rawness and realness to some of Stewart's performance that can, at times, be a bit unsettling to watch. One of the ways these elements manifest themselves in her performances is via the tics and twitches.

Take a look at this scene from Adventureland in which Eisenberg has just caught Stewart cheating on him with a married man, played by Ryan Reynolds.

 "Stuttering + twitching = great acting"
-YouTube comment on the above clip

I would got along with the above quote if that was the only thing she was doing in that scene. It's not. 

She is living the emotional reality of the scene. The way she is working off of Eisenberg is very real. At one point, she echoes back his "fucking idiot" line, but now directed inwards at herself with a whole new and much sharper intensity. 

The "stuttering" and the "twitching" become the physical manifestations of her emotions. She is in pain in a way that you can just feel. That kind of emotion may put some people off, quite possibly even subconsciously.

"...there's a quality about her that I find affecting, a sort of contradictory flinty fragility, like she's easily broken but also quick to temper.  And she's guarded, making those few moments where she relaxes and lights up something special."
Drew McWeeny, Hitfix.com review of Adventureland

That sense of authenticity is the key to the reason behind the twitches and tics. For me, in Twilight, for instance, when I see Stewart touch her hair in an emotional moment, it's the only time I feel like I'm watching a real person. 

"She’s been criticized for being very twitchy and there’s some negative things said about her in regards to her acting affectations, but they’re not affectations, they’re who she is and that’s how she is. And she’s very open and honest and authentic in herself and it really comes down to authenticity. "
-Jake Scott, director of Welcome to the Rileys

Take, for instance, this scene from the 2008 film The Yellow Handkerchief, starring William Hurt, Eddie Redmayne and Stewart. In the film, ex-con Hurt and troubled teens Redmayne and Stewart are thrown together into one car by circumstance in what is essentially your basic emotional road trip movie . In this scene, the three complete strangers are forced to share  a motel room for the nightTake a look at the scene from The Yellow Handkerchief by clicking here (it's a lengthy clip, you can stop watching around 6:20 or so)

Again in this scene, the often dreaded hair touching is, to me, very real. It's the way Stewart is living through the scene, rather than just acting in it. It's the kind of behavior I've seen from real people in real life. I think, though, that you need to get be able to get get past the fixation on the twitches and tics to see it. 

"Stewart largely disavows the tics and tells her best-known role entailed—the gnawed-on lip, the downcast eyes—in favor of a more forthright relationship with the camera." 
Christopher Orr, The Atlantic  review of Snow White  and the Hunstman

"An Amazingly Real Sad Girl"

"I am now really convinced that Kristen Stewart does not have a happy bone in her body."
Netflix User Review of Adventureland

If I were playing Stewart's part in Adventureland and somebody wrote that about my performance I would consider that the highest compliment anyone could ever pay me. That is very much what her character is: she really is that fucked up.

"Kristen Stewart plays an amazingly real sad girl."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review of Speak

That is another description that comes up a lot when discussing Stewart's work, "real". In the 2010 movie, The Runaways, she got a new and different opportunity to play more of that "realness".

Music video director Floria Sigismondi had, for some time, been planning a film about the first major all girl punk band, The Runaways. Breaking onto the scene in the mid to late 70's,  The Runaways would be become an underground sensation that would ultimately launch the career of rock legend Joan Jett. 

Kristen Stewart was cast in the role of Joan Jett. Dakota Fanning was cast as The Runaways lead singer, Cherry Currie. Fanning was also trying to break the mold of public perception by distancing herself from her career as a child actor.

Stewart immersed herself in the character. She changed her look, her hair and took on the attitude and mannerisms of a young Jett. She added to her musical talents (see Into The Wild) by singing and playing guitar just like Jett, coached by Joan herself.

"Stewart's vocal impersonation of Jett is uncanny. She can be a compelling performer when allowed to do something other than mope around a Twilight movie. Stewart is something of a revelation, full of fire and attitude..."
Grek Maki- Maki at the Movies

"Stewart just plain nails the role -- she's tough, she's hungry and she loves playing rock star as much as she loves playing guitar. Stewart makes you want to watch the movie."
Tom Long, The Detroit News

"Stewart is very spot on as Jett...The slouch, the snarl, the open-legged sitting position, and the raw, powerful voice..."
-Netflix User Review of The Runaways

"I now recognize Kristen Stewart as a serious actress."
-Netflix User Review of The Runaways

-"I am such an un-fan of Kristen Stewart that I was skeptical about her as Joan. I loved it though"
Netflix User Review of The Runaways

-"She actually managed a smile and a semi angry look for this film. There may yet be hope."
Netflix User Review of The Runaways

My respect for Stewart as an actor was upped a notch watching her in The Runaways. I also remember thinking "God, she must hate those Twilight movies more than anybody else does".

Kristen Stewart's performance as Joan Jett is the kind of role they like to hand out Oscar nominations for; the chameleon like portrayal of a real person or "pulling a Meryl Streep" as some call it. However, Jett is just a bit too obscure a figure for the Academy and The Runaways features underage girls in a great many sex, drugs and rock and roll scenes. Not to mention that Stewart was not yet on the industry's radar in that way and that practically nobody saw the movie in the first place. 

"Audiences tend to avoid Kristen Stewart's non-'Twilight' movies like vampires fleeing daylight. Believe me, it's their loss."
Lou Lemick, New York Post

Nonetheless, The Runaways does showcase one the cornerstones of Stewart's best performances: the understated realness of many of her roles.

Take a look at this scene where Jett is composing while taking a bath.

I really like this scene but it also makes me think that this kind of thing can easily register to some audiences as "nothing".

Jett's unique blend of allure and threat, apathy and determination, gets a mumbling hyper-naturalized take from Stewart—more Brando than Bella Swan. Her performance is largely internal."
-Karina Longworth, The Village Voice

Wow. Kristen Stewart has now been compared to both Marlon Brando and Keanu Reeves. That is one divisive actor!

There are times when Stewart has emotional explosions and then there times that she just lets little bits of her inner turmoil out in more low key scenes. Take, for instance, this scene in Welcome to the Rileys where Mallory has just met Doug''s wife Lois (played by Melissa Leo) for the first time.

This is scene is where, as Jodie Foster points out, Stewart is not "blurting out her emotions all in front of her". There is a lot of pain beneath the surface. She plays it close to the bone, remaining guarded yet not completely invulnerable. That, and she's holding her own in a scene with Melissa freakin' Leo.

"Some accuse her of being flat and emotionless in her films but the more I watch her work, I see that what makes her work stand out is that she is real. Never overacting or trying to play the heavily emotional scenes...it's like your viewing a real person in life"
IMDB User Review of Welcome to the Rileys

"It Doesn't Help That Snow White is Played by Kristen Stewart"

However, "a real person in life" does not always work for her. Take, for instance some of the reviews for Snow White and The Huntsman, ie: "dreadful", "one expression at her command" and the infamous "Keanu Reeves of her generation". Stewart
 is again having same problem that she has always had with both the influence of Twilight and, perhaps more significantly,  the way that audiences sometimes react to and/or interpret Stewart's acting. 

"As Snow White, Kristen Stewart is terrific. I have not seen any of the Twilight films, but on the basis of Panic Room, Runaways, and now this, I have to say she’s among my very favourite younger actors."
-CJ Johnson, FilmMafia.com

I have not seen Snow White and The Hunstman but, going off of the short clips posted on YouTube,  what I see is that Stewart is approaching the material with her usual understated, internalized and naturalistic performance.  I think the reason why she keeps getting negatively singled out in reviews is that she's playing a different game than the other actors. It's almost as if  her co-stars, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, are playing Shakespeare and Stewart is in a documentary. It is certainly an esoteric and ballsy choice to make in a big mainstream blockbuster.

"Stewart, with her contemporary edge, seems to be acting in the wrong era."
Peter Rainer, The Christian Science Monitor

"Snow White is meant to be "the fairest of them all" when Kristin Stewart is one doggy lookin bitch."
-Rotten Tomatoes Audience Review 

That last comment is a bit harsh but it is an otherwise astute, insightful and completely reasonable critique of  Stewart's performance in the film.

"An Actress Who Isn't Horrible"

Once seen in the broader context of Stewart's career, the assertion that she "can't act", in my opinion, does not hold up to scrutiny. Other criticisms such as "one expression", "blank" and "touching her hair non-stop" are, at the very least, open to debate. 

Having learnt more about Stewart and her work than any 48 year-old man should, I find the divergent critical opinions of her work to be much less of a conundrum now.

"All in all, my all time favorite movie, starring an actress who isn't horrible, as most of the world apparently believes"
-Netflix User Review of Advdentureland

While not nearly as inept and untalented as some would have you believe, Kristen Stewart does have a certain raw and unrefined quality to her performances. That rawness can, depending on the role, work for or against her.  

"I can’t think about it as logic. I can’t put too much sense on to it like that. If I ever think about something too hard I will leave the scene after we are done shooting and it’s like: ‘I didn’t go through that. That’s not real. I didn’t just go through that and I faked it.’ I used like these tools that I learned over the years that I’ve been able to fake it. And that feels horrible." 
-Kristen Stewart on her own acting

Clearly, Stewart can rise to great heights in smaller indie movies where the writing and directing are there to back her up. She also has a special talent for quite effectively bringing to life some very emotionally damaged characters. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that her transition to mainstream blockbusters has been, well, somewhat problematic. 

“She’s very vulpine—very wolfish—and wily, kind of twitchy. Directing her is kind of like wrangling a herd of cats.”
-Jake Scott

As I said earlier, she's not in the same league, as say Jessica Lange (there is rarely any debate surrounding actors of that caliber), but Stewart certainly has the potential to get there.

Despite the major critical backlash, the box office success of the Twilight series, and now Snow White and The Hunstman as well, has put Stewart in a position where she can afford to play more interesting roles in smaller movies.

The early buzz on Stewart's role as Marylou in the upcoming film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's On The Road is predominantly good (shot right here in my hometown...though I am not in it...hmmm) .

"Kristen Stewart, fine and untwitchy"
 Manohla Dargis, The New York Times review of On The Road

The film got a reported 11 minute standing ovation at Cannes. Like Welcome to the Rileys, there is already Oscar buzz for Kristen Stewart.  Yes, I just put the words "Kristen Stewart" and "Oscar" in the same sentence for the second time.

Should such a thing as an Oscar for Kristen Stewart ever come to pass, given everything I've seen about her on the internet, I sure as hell want to be online when that envelope is ripped open.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ernest Borgnine's Top Nine

Sorry, Ernie, I just could not resist that title.

Ernest Borgnine has always been one of my favourite actors. He's one of my few faves who have stood the both the test of time of my learning something about the craft of acting.

Above all, the man had presence.  He also had an amazing ability to make just about any line of dialogue his own, no matter how badly written it may have been. It's no surprise that Borgnine had a 61 year career in which he racked up -get this- 203 IMDB screen credits.

He didn't even appear in his first film until he was 34 years old. In fact, he didn't even take up acting until after leaving the US Navy at the end of World War II.

Mr. Borgnine kept working right up till the end. He was nominated for an Emmy at the age of 92 for his performance in the final episode of ER. He's still got one more movie,  The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, coming out later this year. 

On top of that, how many actors do you know of whose obituaries read "Star of From Here to Eternity and SpongeBob SquarePants Dies"?

These are nine of my Ernest Borgnine faves.

9. The Devil's Rain (1975)

Ernest Borgnine is The Devil.

Okay, I'm going to admit to a bit of bias here.Any movie that's got Borgnine and William Shatner  in it can't be all bad, right?

Um, well, not so much.

This is where that part about Borgnine being able to own even badly written dialogue comes in. More than anything else, though, I just love the idea of Borgnine as The Devil.

I know. I know. Typecasting, right?

Well, in fact, Borgnine plays more of a centuries old warlock who leads this coven of witches. The Devil thing comes later. Oh, and along the way, he transforms Shatner into an unwilling servant of Satan.

In his 2008 autobiography, Ernie, Borgnine talks about working with Shatner: "Bill Shatner is a hoot. He has a kind of florid style, as do I, and he's just so entertaining to watch on the set and on the screen."

8. McHale's Navy (1962-66)

There are not a lot of actors who could pull off the kind of career move Ernest Borgnine made with McHale's Navy. He had a successful career as an Oscar winning dramatic actor but Borgnine basically set all that aside for four years. From 1962-66, he starred in McHale's Navy, a half hour TV comedy series about a wacky US Navy PT boat during World War II.

The show contained some pretty over-the-top and dated comedy. Borgnine starred alongside future Carol Burnett Show and Dorf star, Tim Conway. 

Such a move may well have killed the careers of many actors (especially back in the days when there was little or no star crossover from TV to movies),  but not Borgnine. Once the series was cancelled, he managed to pick up his dramatic career once again with roles in big movies like The Dirty Dozen and Ice Station Zebra. 

7.Willard (1971)

Borgnine was often typecast in the likable sidekick role. Every once in a while, though, he'd get to play the heavy (no pun intended, seriously). 

In Willard, Borgnine plays the boss of the titular character. It seems this boss is attempting to take control of Willard's deceased father's company and squeeze Willard out of the business completely. Complicating things is the fact that Willard is an oddball social misfit whose only friends in life are rats. 

Willard trains his rats to become lean mean killing machine rodents. Borgnine is so perfectly unlikable in the role that (SPOILER ALERT) the audience is not really all that broken up to see him get eaten alive by a pack of viscous attack rats while falling out a window. 

In those pre-CGI days, you just know that at some point Ernie had to deal with real rats crawling all over him during shooting.

Remade in 2003 with Crispin Glover as Willard and R. Lee Ermey in Borgnine's role.

6. SpongeBob SquarePants (1999-2011)

Around the mid 90's, when Ernie was still a spritely young man in his late 70's, he began doing animation voice-over work. In his book, Borgnine describes voice work as "almost like stealing money, to put it bluntly." He's right. It can pay very well sometimes; better than TV or movie roles, in some casesand under decidedly less demanding circumstances.

Aside from the allegedly easy cash, Borgnine suddenly found a whole new audience in animation. There is a whole generation who only know him as the voice of the superhero Mermaid Man from extremely popular animated series SpongeBob SquarePants.  Borgnine voices the aged version of Mermaid Man, a character that is clearly a satirical take on the DC comics superhero, Aquaman (and 1960's TV series of the same name). Mermaid Man's sidekick, Barnacle Boy, is voiced by Borgnine's old co-star from McHale's Navy, Tim Conway.

5. The Dirty Dozen(1967)

The Dirty Dozen is something of a legend in the category of classic "guy" movies. It also boasts quite the impressive cast: Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, John Cassevetes, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas, George Kennedy and, of course, Ernie.

His role is not really that big. He plays General Worden, the man who concocts a plan to recruit a team of military prisoners for a suicide mission in Nazi occupied Europe during WWII. The General then hands it all over to a reluctant Lee Marvin. Borgnine doesn't get to do any running around or fighting in this one but, nonetheless, he is very effective in the part of the seemingly blundering General. And, man, he certainly holds his own in those scenes with Lee Marvin.

A made-for-TV sequel, The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, was made in 1986. Borgnine reprized his role as General Worden. The events of that movie take place shortly after the end of the original Dirty Dozen. One thing that I could not get over while watching the sequel was how the poor General seemed to have aged almost 20 years in just a matter of weeks.


4.From Here to Eternity (1953)

By the time From Here to Eternity made it to the screen, James Jones' hard hitting novel about US military life just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was pretty watered down. Much of the sex, violence and the existential lack of morality that made the book memorable was either toned way down or cut out altogether.

In the "toned way down" department, that included the character of the violently abusive Sgt "Fatso" Judson. Nonetheless, Borgnine's performance as "Fatso" did put him on the map in Hollywood. From Here to Eternity was his first real outing into the "big leagues", as he called it. He co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra. Borgnine's character was, well, was not so nice to the latter.  

Ernie was apparently complimented by James Jones himself during a visit to the set. Jones felt that Borgnine was, despite the script adjustments, very authentic to the spirit of the original character in his book.

3. The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch is a lot of things. In its day, it was one of the most violent movies ever released. Today, it is still considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made (and, really, kinda tame in the violence department by today's standards). The Wild Bunch is also seen as part of the beginning of the end of the genre of the Western.

Even in 1969, Borgnine was considered one of the older guys in these ensemble pieces.  In The Wild Bunch, he fit in a bit better age wise. He plays Dutch Engstrom, one of a group of aging outlaws that also consists of William Holden and Robert Ryan. He was 51 at the time and it was his most physically demanding role to date. In Borgnine's words, "it was not much fun to make." 

I bet. That final 12 minute gun battle is grueling just watching it. I can't even imagine what it woulda been like shooting that sucker.

2. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Speaking of movies that "weren't much fun to make", Borgnine speaks similarly of The Poseidon Adventure. "Fourteen weeks of backbreaking work", he called it. The result, though, turned out to be Borgnine's biggest box office success. Once again, he was part of an ensemble cast including Gene Hackman, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowell, and starring as Borgnine's wife, Stella Stevens. 

The Poseidon Adventure is one my personal faves of the 70's disaster movies. It's a pretty simple plot, really. Right at midnight on New Year's Eve, a tidal wave hits a big luxury ocean liner and turns it upside down. A group of surviving passengers try and find their way to the top/bottom of the ship before it sinks. 

Borgnine is great in this movie. He's saddled with some really cheesy dialogue in places but, boy, he nails that shit anyway. I just remember the way he stares down Gene Hackman (playing a Reverend who is attempting to lead the rescue effort) with the line "And who the hell are you? God?!".

Another favourite scene of mine is where Borgnine's wife has lost a good part of her evening gown so Borgnine takes off his shirt so she can cover herself. Clearly, this was a cheap exploitative ploy on the part of producer Irwin Allen to gratuitously make Ernie to spend the bulk of the film in his undershirt.

1. Marty (1955)

Marty is a film based on the teleplay of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky and it's the movie that Ernest Borgnine won his Best Actor Oscar for.

And it is quite a performance too. As the 34 year old socially awkward unmarried man still living with his mother, Ernie maintains an understated charm and grace. Back in 1955, apparently, a single man in his 30's' only option was, of course, to continue living with his mom.

In addition to the Oscar for Best Actor, the movie also won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The Academy tends to swing three ways for Best Picture: epics, small character driven films and films that deal with social/political issues that may or may not fit into the first two categories. Marty is part of that small character driven films category. That's why Borgnine is crucial to its success.

Up against James Cagney, James Dean, Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra, Borgnine did not expect to win the Oscar. He was so sure of it, in fact, that at the time his name was announced during the Academy Awards, he had fallen asleep in his chair.

Fair enough. The Oscar ceremony can get seriously dull sometimes.


Thanks for all the fun, Ernie!

Ernest Borgnine 1917-2012