I have been working on a list of best film actors of all time, but I keep running into a bit of a snag: what is the definition of great acting?
Making a list of best directors is a bit easier because the skills needed are a bit more subject to objective observation. There is a such a stronger subjective element to an actor's performance that I've been running in circles for weeks.
I reject out of hand Brando's definition of good acting as simply when the actor feels the pure emotion of the character. He thought that his job was to completely inhabit the character's mind and heart. My problem with this is that it only works if it translates into performance. Apparently Brando would often mumble his words so that the audience couldn't hear. He didn't care because he felt like his character. But if you neglect your audience, you are not doing your job as an actor.
Another criteria I reject is the chameleon quality. Sometimes we marvel when an actor is completely different from film to film or they sound and look just like a real-life person they are portraying. And to be sure, that is a skill that must be taken into account when evaluating a performance. But impressions are not the heart of acting. Bill Hader, for example, is a great impressionist, but that does not mean that he is a great actor (this isn't a comment on his acting, just that the impressions are not enough). If you look at Jimmy Stewart, he does not disappear into each role. In every movie, he is Jimmy Stewart.
Charisma is another quality that I reject as essential to great acting. I went back and forth on this, because performance requires something at which to look. There needs to be something to draw your attention. But someone could be charismatic without being skilled. John Wayne always commanded attention on screen and he was larger than life. But that in and of itself did not mean that he was at the top of his craft.
So what makes a great actor?
The one key factor I have found is this: believability in the role.
The actor needs to inhabit the character in a way that we believe in their reality. They can accomplish this by disappearing into a role like Johnny Depp or Gary Oldman. Or they can bring their use their own life to make the character tangible, like Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart.
Believability means that I the performances should make me emotionally invested in the character. Investment should also come about through directing and story, but a great actor will pull you in with their performance. Their journey should move you to love, hate, heartbreak, fear... whatever the story requires.
Believability also means that you shouldn't catch the actor "acting." The words and actions should feel like they are coming spontaneously from the mind and heart of the actor. Some actors simply put on a persona and go through the motions. Samuel L. Jackson has had some amazing performances. But often you see where he simply acts lout and large to make a big show, instead of simply inhabiting the character. The same is true of Johnny Depp and Adam Sandler.
Finally, the mark of a great actor is if they can bring that believability to several different roles. Acting is not only a talent, it is a skill. And if you have a good technique, you should be able to summon your talent at will. One of the marks of a poor actor, even one very talented, is one who cannot give a good performance because they aren't "feeling it." A great actor will be able to perform well in several different projects. Also, it is possible for a great director to cobble together a good performance from reams of footage. A great actor should be able to work with several different directors and still make his performance shine.
So with that in mind, I will begin my list of 25 Best Movie Actors of All Time. After that, I will make the list of 25 Best Movie Actresses of All Time.
Feel free to send me your suggestions and I look forward to your feedback.
(And no, Steven Seagal does not make the list)