Friday, September 4, 2009

Perfectly suited to television

Normally, describing an actor as "perfectly suited to television" might seem like a slap in the face. It's alright to be on television, and in fact, it's increasingly respectable in its own right. But being "perfectly suited" to television? That sounds harsh.

Read on.

Ever since The Sopranos hit the air ten years ago -- and possibly before then, though that seems like a good benchmark -- cable television has been giving both the networks and the movies a run for their money. Hour-long television shows on HBO and Showtime are uniquely positioned to provide audiences the best of both worlds. Take the uncensored sex, language and violence of the movies, and TV's ability to develop characters and storylines over multiple seasons, and voila! True Must See TV, NBC be damned.

One of the kings of this form has been actor Michael C. Hall. First making a splash in our consciousness as David Fisher, the uptight homosexual baby brother in Six Feet Under's clan of funeral home directors, Hall quickly proved that this character was going to be a lot deeper and more complicated than some of his initial whiny antics suggested. When that show ended after five seasons (and what a final episode), Hall might have been perfectly content saying "I've had a good run," and slipping into supporting work. No one would have blamed him. Yet instead he became an even more indelible character, Dexter Morgan on Showtime's Dexter, now entering its fourth season. As a serial killer who follows a moral code of murdering only bad people, Hall's blood spatter specialist always has an exquisitely flimsy grasp on his secrets, which threaten to spill out and stain him, like so much blood.

So why would this talented actor, who has excelled so marvelously in his current arena, want to branch out into the movies?

That was my first thought when I saw a trailer for Gamer, due out on Friday. It's an action movie with a social message, as it seems to parody the gaming culture that has possessed our youth. Gerard Butler plays some kind of soldier of fortune trapped in some kind of game, only his decisions are not his own. Some kid on the outside world is actually "playing" him, and whether the soldier lives or dies is based entirely on the kid's dexterity with a joystick.

At least, that's what I can gather from a trailer I saw two months ago.

Michael C. Hall appears to play some kind of villain. Smart casting, to be sure, as Hall's Dexter can be plenty terrifying when he wants to be. (When he isn't being a good surrogate dad or bringing donuts to his fellow police officers, that is).

I should say, it's smart casting for the producers of Gamer, but I don't know if it's smart casting for Hall.

See, movies involving fights-to-the-death as reality shows/public entertainment have never exactly been critical darlings. Looking back on the undistinguished list of The Running Man, The Condemned and Death Race, one can pretty much predict Gamer's future. It'll open to a respectable $15 million in its first weekend, but word of mouth won't carry it. It'll have left all theaters within a month, with little more than $30 million in total earnings. Such is the fate of movies released on September 4th -- that's why they were scheduled for that date in the first place.

But will Gamer help us predict Hall's future? Is he going to go from extremely smart decisions on TV to extremely dumb ones in the movies?

Maybe not. There's an actual website that can "predict" Hall's future: IMDB. It shows two more movies on the horizon for Hall, Peep World and East Fifth Bliss. Both are comedies. Well, at least he isn't interested in becoming some kind of typecast big screen villain/killer.

But what roles he'd play in the movies is not really the point, is it? The point is, we like our David/Dexter on the small screen. We like him as a character about whom we learn more and more as the seasons of his shows unfold. We like his ability to surprise us, but not because he can show up in Gamer. We like to be surprised by the risks he takes within those roles, not because he's popping up in the damnedest of places on the big screen.

Unfortunately, few actors are satisfied with "just" being television stars. Even when he was an indisputable TV icon, Ted Danson wanted to try his luck on the big screen, without much success. Same can be said for guys like Kelsey Grammer, David Caruso and David Schwimmer. TV was so good to them, there was little chance that movies could do the same.

And so I worry it is with Michael C. Hall. But I really don't want to think of Michael C. Hall as a David Caruso or a David Schwimmer. It sounds strange to be saying this on a movie blog, but I want him to be bigger than the movies. I want him to be that rare actor who realizes his perfect calling -- and never allows the seductive lure of the cinema to spoil that, to make him seem "less than," to make him seem like he struck out.

But I suppose that if it's rare that lightning strikes twice -- as it has for Hall -- that thrice is even less likely. And I also suppose that Dexter Morgan can't go on narrowly escaping getting caught killing people for ten seasons. The movies will beckon. They always do.

Well, maybe after this weekend, when we're lined up to see Gamer for our second attempt to hit the drive-in, I'll think of Michael C. Hall as David, as Dexter ... and as the surprisingly awesome villain in the surprisingly awesome movie about dystopian fight-to-the-death reality video games.

Because as much as I like Hall's TV shows, I also want the guy to be happy. If marrying the shrill actress who plays his sister on Dexter (Jennifer Carpenter) makes him happy, so be it. And if the movies make him happy, so be it.

He's given me enough over the years to deserve it.


Don Handsome said...

I'd certainly agree that guys like Michael C. Hall are best suited for the high end cable programming world...every time HBO or Showtime needs to cast the next big-time Sunday nigh show, they should turn to Hall, Gandolfini, Krause, and Falco. These (and others like them) are actors who are really really good at slowly cultivating a character and in the process of allowing them grow, slowly burn their characters into our memories. These folks are terrific on terrific shows that take their time and they should have the pick of these shows (which is why Krause on Dirty Sexy Money was such a puzzler) because they clearly know how to engage a show that gives them a lot to work with week after week. These are not Movie Stars, these are working actors with a lot of talent. They can do a lot more with a strong recurring roll than they can with a secondary part in a movie. Why Hall would want to play second (or even third) fiddle to the omnipresent hack Gerard Butler is very concerning to me, as it can only mean one thing...Cable doesn't pay.

Certainly one can't argue that the stars of shows like the Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Dexter aren't treated like rock stars with red carpet galas marking their openings and award ceremonies etc. They are given good scripts that challenge them. They have a good Actor's Life, one that I would assume that when they were first starting off, they would have murdered what is it? Its gotta be the allure of the almighty dollar. Dexter Fisher's Agent is whispering in his ear right now just as Detective John Kelly's agent did, and spreading vile rumors that its better financially to be a middling movie actor than it is to be a bonafide arthouse TV star. Those agents are probably the cure for the problem is to make it not true any these guys enough so they can put the idea of the movies out of their head forever.

I get it...Michael C. Hall is scared that he'll end up like McLean Stevenson and be stuck in boob-tube hell, playing himself on Diff'rent Strokes forever. But if the fat cats at HBO and Showtime were smart, they'd make actors like Hall happy now and happy forever. Pay him whatever he wants to keep him happy. Let him do one show for five years at a time, with three years in between...get four more shows out of him. Let him wait for the best scripts to come along. Let him do whatever he wants (but PAY him) it will do wonders for the networks, but it will also do wonders for guys like Hall who COULD go down in history as one of the best actors in history as long as he sticks to television only.

Vancetastic said...

Thanks for the comment, Don. You're probably right that Hall doesn't make nearly what the star of a popular network hour-long drama would make, and I guess it's understandable -- even the most successful cable shows claim a miniscule percentage of the viewers that the worst network television claims. But I imagine Hall does okay for himself. You're right that it's hard to escape an agent's pernicious whispering in the ears of his clients. Let's hope Hall is one guy who can see the big picture.