Pop Goes the Culture
By Paul Tatara
Good news for the new year, everybody! Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino are alive and well. They just live in Daniel Day-Lewis. If you still haven’t seen Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, prepare yourself for a staggering piece of work. Day-Lewis, who plays a fanatical turn-of-the-century oilman named Daniel Plainview, doesn’t seem to be acting in There Will Be Blood so much as he seems possessed by the spirit of the character he’s playing. You know—the way those guys I mentioned in the first sentence used to do it.
Driven by Day-Lewis’ merciless focus, and Anderson’s sudden maturation as both a director and a screenwriter, There Will Be Blood is a character study that implies a capsule overview of 20th century, capitalistic nihilism—things start out ugly, then get even uglier when the drill hits oil. This is a great, great movie, one of the best of the current decade, and it firmly cements Day-Lewis as the premiere actor of his generation. Whether they hand it out on TV or overnight it to him via UPS, he’s bound to win an Oscar.
So let’s get back to Nicholson, De Niro, and Pacino. They’re still breathing, of course. But as far as ongoing contributions to world cinema are concerned, with some rare exceptions, they might as well be embalmed. The overboard praise they now receive for performances that simply hold together for two straight hours speaks volumes about how much we miss the actors they used to be.
Nicholson was solid in About Schmidt, and Scorsese won his Oscar for Raging Bull by directing The Departed. So that must count for something. Pacino, WHO YELLS A LOT THESE DAYS, delivered a marvelously understated performance in Donnie Brasco, and he sure did look sleepy and confused in Insomnia. And De Niro was terrific in Goodfellas. Eighteen years ago. Then he got covered in sewage in Meet the Parents, and everybody at the mall laughed and laughed and laughed.
You can’t say that these guys have completely lost their bearings. But the kind of soul-rattling work that Day-Lewis now serves up with such consistency used to be what they did. You have to wonder why that kind of raw power has become a fleeting thing in their more “mature” performances. Do actors get worn out after a while, or is there simply less of a reason for them to break their asses once they become icons?
In the early-to-mid ’70s, Nicholson delivered electrifying performances one after another. Look at this sequence: Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I realize I left out A Safe Place, but that was directed by Henry Jaglom, so it’s not really a movie.) All that in the course of five years (!), and now we’re supposed to get excited because he cries at the end of About Schmidt? Or because he shouts a macho catch phrase in A Few Good Men? Really?
I’m guessing that Nicholson, De Niro, and Pacino have gotten too comfortable to feel the day-to-day friction that generates great art. There’s no sand in the oyster, and what’s the point of sticking it in your own craw when you’re already surrounded by pearls? They may still want it to some degree—although, if you’ve ever seen De Niro making a goddamned fool of himself in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, you have to wonder—but they just keep cranking out movies regardless of whether there’s any depth to the script, or if they’re working with a director who can orchestrate a genuine emotion. They act because that’s their occupation, not because it’s what they have to do to function in a screwed-up world.
And then there’s Day-Lewis. He’s been in eight movies since My Left Foot in 1989, and only one them—The Ballad of Jack and Rose— was a dud. Otherwise, his work has effectively spanned the range from tender to hellish, and all the stops in-between. You don’t doubt for one instant, during any of his performances, that his head, heart, and soul are completely in the game.
It may be a while before we see Day-Lewis again. He actually turned down work for a couple of years while he waited for Anderson to land financing for There Will Be Blood, so he knows how to wait. But you can rest-assured that he won’t be afraid to kick up some existential dust the next time he steps in front of a camera. His work is gripping precisely because he seems gripped by it himself. What a shame it will be if he ever loses that.
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