Friday, January 30, 2009

The inherent worthiness of acting


(Note: I know your time is precious, and your desire to keep up with my blog may be overwhelmed if I update it too often. So I'm going to try not to post every day, or at least, I'll keep some of them shorter, like yesterday's. However, today I have no bosses in the office, three hours remaining in my workday, no one needing my help, and no desire to do any work. That spells blogging long-windedness.)

The other day, as I was cruising down Venice Boulevard (doesn't my LA lifestyle sound so glamorous?), I caught a billboard for Disney's Race to Witch Mountain, which is not due out for over a month. I looked up at the giant face of Dwayne Johnson -- otherwise known as "The Rock" -- and thought how proud I was of him.

He's not even using his wrestling name in quotation marks anymore. He's just plain old Dwayne Johnson, the movie star. And he's a pretty good movie star at that. I mean, you want Dwayne Johnson in your movie, don't you? Maybe not if you're making Jane Austen, but for your average popcorn film, Dwayne Johnson is a boon to your box office, and he seems like a pretty cool guy, too.

And that made me realize: I tend to think of acting as just about the most noble pursuit a person can make.

Or let me rephrase that: It's about the most noble pursuit a person who's already famous for another reason can make.

For reasons I can't quite identify, I always feel a small rush of pride when I learn that musicians, athletes, or (in this case) pro wrestlers decide they want to try their hand at acting. It's like I think they've seen the light, and decided to join the right team. And I know it's not just congratulating them on branching out. Because if it were, I wouldn't feel an equal and opposite sense of annoyance whenever an actor wants to become a musician. But I do.

Which, I realize, is patently ridiculous. Why in the world would I consider acting to be more noble than performing music? It could certainly be argued that music serves a much greater benefit to society than movies. While some people can (gasp!) do without watching movies, the love of music is pretty much universal. Have you ever heard a person say "I don't like music"? Nope, of course you haven't. But people who don't care for movies ... there are plenty of them. You probably even know one of these sorry bastards personally.

Another thing that is almost definitely true: Being a musician is harder than being an actor. You can get cast in a movie just by being particularly beautiful. And maybe, if you've watched a lot of movies, you can fake your way through to a decent performance, even if it's just using the cues of some other actor. Then maybe, if they give you enough chances, you'll actually learn enough to become a passable actor. But being a musician? That takes indisputable skill. If you're an actor (or just a normal beautiful person), you can't fake your way to perfecting an instrument or writing a song. You might be able to sing a little bit, but that's probably because you started in musical theater when you were five, like most other actors.

Yet despite all these ways that being a musician is both more challenging and perhaps more socially useful, I still feel somehow vindicated when a musician wants to become an actor. And somewhat betrayed when an actor wants to become a musician. (And yes, I know I started this post talking about Dwayne Johnson, who is not a musician. But considering that not many actors decide to become athletes, which is even that much harder than being a musician, or to become wrestlers, which would just be stupid, it's useful at this point to leave Mr. Johnson behind and concentrate on a larger theory).

For starters, there are a lot more success stories among musicians who have become actors than actors who have become musicians. The list of musicians who have received decent acting reviews is probably too long to tackle, but just off hand: Courtney Love, Tim McGraw, Ludacris, Ice Cube, Ice T, Common, Eminem, Dwight Yoakam, Mos Def, Cher (who actually won an Oscar), Jennifer Hudson (who also won an Oscar), Jon Bon Jovi, Tupac Shakur, Mandy Moore, Queen Latifah and Justin Timberlake ... I'm only stopping because I'm tired of racking my brain, and you get the point. (If you notice a lot of rappers on that list, it's no coincidence, because I believe most rappers have an innate ability to give a legitimate performance. Perhaps this is because they have the life experience to reach those emotional places that evade your average person. This is a longer post for another time.) Of course, I'm just naming modern references here. This tradition goes way back, to when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley and Sammy Davis Jr. made the transition from crooning to discovering a character's motivation. In a way, you could say that the acting ranks have always received a steady flow of talent from the music world.

Of course, this is not to say that every singer can act. There are famous cases of the singer who wanted so badly to act, but just never did it well enough -- Sting, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears are just a few.

But if you flip it around and try to chart the success of actors trying to make it as legitimate musicians, the numbers flip as well -- a small number of successes and a large number of laughable failures. For every Jack Black, a genuinely gifted musician, that exists out there, there are a half-dozen others who make us laugh at their pathetic attempts to become rock stars: Keanu Reeves, Jared Leto, Kevin Bacon, Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner, to name exactly a half-dozen. To say nothing of the would-be chanteuses: Scarlett Johansson, Lindsey Lohan, Minnie Driver, Hilary Duff, Milla Jovovich and Jennifer Love Hewitt, to name another half-dozen.

So I guess my perspective is: Why even bother? Why not just be happy with acting, rather than making a fool of yourself as a musician? Isn't acting good enough for you?

I remember the actress who first really brought me face to face with my own bias. You may know her better as "J. Lo." In fact, the only reason we all know Jennifer Lopez as "J. Lo" is because she embarked on a singing career. I venture to say she wouldn't have been a tenth as famous if she'd just remained an actress, someone who never knocked our socks off, but could do a nice little job in films like Out of Sight. So in a manner of speaking, J. Lo has been a smashing success as a musician.

The difference is, I no longer like her. I really did like her when she was "just" an actress, plucky and attractive, with a modest share of success that was likely to grow with time. But once she became a full-on diva, and directed all her attentions to grasping for the title of "world's most famous person," and churned out mindless pop albums that were barely even catchy, and started dating Puffy, and began making bad movies with Ben Affleck, she ruined herself. Yes, she was a million times more famous. And a million times less credible. And a million times less likeable.

So I guess it really comes down to the motivation for switching to the other side that makes the difference for me. If you are being cynical, you'd say that the primary motivation is always to become more famous, for both the singer becoming an actor and the actor becoming a singer. Their agents, their families, and everyone who ever advised them has emphasized that they are in the business of promoting their own brand. If you can be both the host and the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, bully for you. (In fact, there was a particularly weird SNL last fall when Tim McGraw hosted and Ludacris was the musical guest. Weird because rapper Ludacris is a more established actor than country singer McGraw, and had in fact done double duty himself as recently as 2006. If anything, you'd think the roles would have been reversed, except maybe the kids today aren't interested in McGraw's music.)

So let's look at secondary motivations, and this is where you'll see my personal biases. For the musician who wants to become an actor, it's about new challenges. It's about committing to grueling work schedules, about trying to develop the perspective of another person. It's about pushing your own limitations -- but in a realistic way in which you might actually succeed.

For the actor who wants to become a musician? It's about becoming a "rock star." It's about boozing and carousing and having a posse. It's about getting "rock star parking." After all, why do you think they call it "rock star parking" rather than "movie star parking"? Because it's the rock star who is worshipped like an icon, a god of cool, a stumbling, no-sense-making person who is allowed to be that way because he might just also be a genius. He might be the next John Lennon ... even if he started out as one of the guys in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.

But then again, that might just be me. And I really enjoy watching the acting of a former pro wrestler, so what do I know?

1 comment:

Vancetastic said...

Ha -- I just randomly came across this bit from the wikipedia page of Joaquin Phoenix, which speaks directly to this whole discussion:

"On October 27, 2008, [Phoenix] announced his retirement from film in order to focus on his music career. It has been rumored and reported that although he has claimed to have quit film acting to pursue a career in music, it is actually an elaborate stunt in order to lampoon pompous Hollywood actors and the entertainment media. His pursuit of a musical career will be chronicled by brother-in-law Casey Affleck."