Monday, January 14, 2013

What Makes an Actor "Brave"?


I've been seized by the desire to speak candidly on a subject that's gotten some attention in the press lately.  Apparently several actors have been referred to as "brave", most recently at the Golden Globes. There it seems that by simply doing a good performance or something which has social relevance they are considered brave.  Well to be frank, I couldn't disagree more.  Its not that "brave" to take a role which might be slightly controversial or political, because its not as if these people have their careers to worry about from this.  Also, the ideologies of the movies they star in usually have the general consensus in Hollywood, so the entire idea of calling them brave is a little peculiar to me.  You know who real brave actors were?
 Not these modern Hollywood types, who sit in comfortable sets, with every whim attended to, in an industry that has perfected itself as a conveyance of trite cinematic confections (how's that for not being critical?).  They are most often in highly controlled environments, where there is very little risk for them.  Even if there is a less hospitable filming environment, they still are afforded accommodations that make the adverse conditions negligible.  Sometimes there's usually a green screen involved in dangerous situations or a stuntman for even the most minor stunts.  Be they actor or producer, brave is hardly the word I would pick for them.

Though, to be fair, I guess it does take some courage to let your tattoos hang out at an awards ceremony.

So who are the really brave actors?  People like Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Bronson, Peter O' Toole, Jack Nicholson, Gloria Swanson and countless others who put their own physical safety and careers on the line, all for the sake of an art form that's relatively young.  It was for the sake of art and all the future possibilities of said art form.  I'm not saying that the actors today don't give good performances, but many times their motives are fueled inexorably by intense ego.  These actors from the Golden age were most often never looking for fame and fortune.  Some of them, like James Stewart and Lee Marvin had actually been servicemen and fought in wars.  Buster Keaton had many times risked his own life for the comedic stunts in his films and in Sherlock Jr. even broke his back, on camera and continued acting as if nothing had happened.  Lillian Gish battled intense heat in The Wind, where she had to dig a grave in high winds and heat "where it was never under 120 degrees in the shade".  On another film, Way Down East, she lied on a sheet of ice in the middle of a river.  An actor had to rescue her and the line beyond reality and fiction became non-existent because she could have easily lost an arm from the sheer force of the ice sheets knocking against one another or frozen to death in the water.

Also, did I mention the impending waterfall? 

I could stop here but I'd like to give one last example, one which is probably the most incredible.  In the film Male and Female, Gloria Swanson demanded that she do a scene where she lied under the paw of a real lion:

Swanson's reasons are more personal, she did this for herself.  But you know, I may be being a little too critical on today's actors.  Sure, Julianne Moore is brave for playing Sarah Palin, about as brave as you need to be to put on a wig and glasses and change your voice.  In short, those actors who are really brave are those who use their skills in service of and sacrifice for, the big picture.

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