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How ‘Back to the Future’ Explains the Crisis in American Acting

How 'Back to the Future' Explains the Crisis in American Acting

Is American acting in crisis? The Atlantic’s Terrence Rafferty thinks so. In a piece called “The Decline of the American Actor,” he bemoaned the current generation’s lack of acting chops, suggesting it’s to blame for the epidemic of American roles being filled by English and Australian actors doing variably convincing spins on a Yankee accent. (Peak Brit, he suggests, was last year’s “Selma,” in which Martin Luther King, his wife, the president of the United States, and the governor of Alabama were all played by actors from the U.K.) Some of this, he admits, is down to the available material, but he mainly puts the blame on a lack of training and experience in the theater. “In the fertile moviemaking environment of the 1970s,” he writes, “De Niro and Pacino and Gene Hackman and Jeff Bridges didn’t need the theater and its deep repertory in order to satisfy their creative urges and grow as artists. It’s fair to say that American culture isn’t providing a high level of sustenance right now, and actors—like so many others in the every-man-for-himself climate of 2015 — have to figure out, on their own, ways to get what they need. The question is whether they can muster the imagination, and the stamina, to maintain their technique (and their spirits) while dealing with the sort of material available to them in this movie culture: cop dramas, superhero adventures, rom-coms and bro comedies, the occasional earnest, glacially paced indie. It’s not impossible, but it can be a heavy lift.”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody countered that Rafferty is woefully constrained by a theatrical definition of what constitutes “good acting,” and that he, like the Oscars, favors showy, technically flamboyant performances of the kind that classically trained actors are indeed better equipped to give. “With his complaint about the state of American movies over all, Rafferty looks to the studios to produce a new generation of actors, as if today were the nineteen-thirties (or even the nineteen-sixties) and the studios were more or less the only game in town,” Brody writes. “Rafferty praises the crew of young actresses whose talents grace contemporary screens, but wonders where the young men are. Yet for critics and viewers paying appropriate attention to the world of movies at large, including independent films, there’s an entire generation of young actors (borrowing Rafferty’s definition, actors under forty) who may or may not have theatrical training but who have powerful talent and electrifying onscreen presence. These actors should be winning acclaim from critics, and should be attracting the attention of filmmakers in all levels of the industry who are looking to discover new stars.”

There’s one more explanation for why American actors, particularly young male ones, aren’t doing better work, and it comes, of all places, from  Lea Thompson, as quoted in Caseen Gaines’ “We Don’t Need Roads,” a new history of the “Back to the Future” trilogy. “Future” fans already know that Michael J. Fox was not the production’s first choice for Marty McFly, and that Eric Stoltz was fired after three weeks of shooting. Gaines goes into unprecedented detail about exactly how Stoltz’s painful removal went down, and elicits this insight from the future Mrs. McFly.

For Lea Thompson, the news of Stoltz’s dismissal was bittersweet. “It was hard for me because I was really good friends with Eric,” she says. “Eric is such a different actor and he could be very difficult. It was a time when we were emerging from the seventies. All the young actors wanted to be like De Niro and Pacino, which was good in a lot of ways. Now a lot of young actors are just like businessmen. It was a different time. But it was not the right movie to behave like that. Eric had such an intensity. He saw drama in things. He wasn’t really a comedian, and they needed a comedian. He’s super-funny in real life, but he didn’t approach his work like that, and they really needed somebody who had those chops.”

Actors have always looked after their careers, or at least hired people to do it for them. But especially with young American men, the question isn’t when they’ll sell out but how, which blockbuster franchise or comic-book adaptation they’ll sign onto in an attempt to boost their box-office cred. Critics, including Rafferty, are to blame as well: He slights Jesse Eisenberg for only taking “roles that require him to look bummed all the time,” but gives no sign of having seen Eisenberg’s work in “The End of the Tour,” “Night Moves,” “Adventureland,” or “The Squid and the Whale,” let alone “The Social Network.” Michael Cera might seem to play only variations on the same awkward manchild, but that’s only true if you haven’t seen him rip apart that image in “Magic Magic,” “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus” or “The End of Love.” It’s hard for actors to do good work, but when they do, it’s often in movies that don’t get the attention they deserve. I’d argue that Eisenberg and Cera’s muddled, self-lacerating masculinity is as emblematic of their time as De Niro and Pacino were of theirs, except it doesn’t sell as well. Can you blame them for keeping an eye on their careers as well as their art?

That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to, say, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, but once actors have fallen into the blockbuster trap, it can be hard for them to find their way out — and worse, when they do, the movies they make tend to be overlooked or pushed aside. When those attempts at megastardom, like Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” fail, it’s like a bullet has been dodged. There’s been much written about the death of the midbudget film, but it’s mostly been from the perspective of writers and directors who can’t get their movies made, rather than the characters unrealized. If there’s a crisis in American acting, it’s more to do with the parts actors have to choose from than the way they play the parts they get.

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