There’s a weird thing about acting. It should be the most shaded and amorphous of the arts, and assessment of its quality among the most subjective of judgements. But the opposite is the case. Art, plays and especially films and novels can be assessed as worthless or genius even within a narrow set of agreed values — great acting is a small miracle, but bad acting is bad acting; a competent performance, well, you can just feel it clicking into place. At the higher mid-level reaches that becomes dependent on the approach you prefer: Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is either masterful or, well, unlikely to gain a halal certificate.

And then there are the performances that break the frame altogether, reach into a different register of being, and show most acting to be contained within a set of conventional gestures. The most recent of these, to have a wide audience, was Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, which, well, it’s very hard to describe. That’s the thing about acting; it is only striking to the degree it slips away from language, evades characterisation, in anything other than the most descriptive fashion. Try to read theatre criticism from a half-century ago, say, and try and reassemble a picture of the performance. “Thalyssia Kischmitz gave us a brittle, wide-ranging Medea, with an underlying air of menace.” What does that mean? It could mean anyone of half a dozen performances, all contradicting one another, and reassembling some reliable picture of it is impossible. It means nothing, or next to it, and a vast amount of performance-oriented theatre criticism is bogus, filler, like a sports writing.

So what can you say about Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln? The voice is the first thing, the jumpiness the second. Avoiding any attempt to project nobility of spirit, greatness of purpose, etc, in an attribute, Day-Lewis gave Lincoln a voice like a rusty, unoiled waterpump, creaking up and down, combined with a tendency to jump round the room, to leap out of the statue he has become to memory. One crucial scene takes place in the White House telegraph room, where press and staff are waiting for a communique vital to the war, and someone wheels round on a swivel chair, and launches into some hoary old anecdote. It’s Lincoln in shirtsleeves, waiting there for the telegram too, the voice just short of the comic relief “old codger” type of old Westerns, the anecdote clearly having been told before. It is Lincoln as … annoying, the respected man who can become a bit of a pain, the bloke who’s been too long out of the swim to joke and josh easily. It is a man in full, the decades of him in thirty seconds, as if he were jumping out of the screen.

How did he do it? Well he’s Daniel Day-Lewis and he’s not telling. His preparation is spoken of in hushed tones, much parodied, understood in the cliched idea of the tortured actor, living off the land for six months to become a Mohican and the like. But it seems that as much is done in breaking down the idea of the character than in composing and constituting them — and to refuting the supposition that a character might have some essence to which access is easy. Day-Lewis entirely splits the president from the man, gives us the 50-something exhausted left-wing Illinois state politician that Lincoln was. Not only does he not add up to the great man, soon to be preserved in marble, he does not cohere to the lesser man he is at any given point. He is, like us, a grab bag of behaviours, some of which get used more than others, unified only in that they belong to the one body, answer to the one name. One day, CGI technology will be sufficient to remove entirely from around this performance the shit movie it was, wrapped in by its clueless man-child director.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln only works by working against the dominant idea of realist acting of the era, however modified it has been over the decades: that a real performance comes from finding internal psychological truths about the character, and letting them shape their outward behaviour. Taken initially from Constantin Stanislavski, and reshaped by psychoanalytic-dominated post-war schools such as the Method, these approaches take a specific and limited idea of the self: as stable over time, to the degree that even its instability is stable, (i.e. predictable, and the standard-issue hysteria of a thousand overpraised Hedda Gablers, moody hipster Hamlets, etc) —  and make it the general form of all human being. The style has become so general that we barely notice it, or the degree to which it departs from the way in which real people comport in space and time, oriented to each other, scattered across a fragmented reality. While the approach remains constant, the particular form of it changes, which is why versions of it 20 or 30 years old, start to look immediately dated. Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Marathon Man, remains magnificent, but more in the manner of a stately home preserved for the public than a living building. Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist — done, one suspects, with the same energy the old hoofer might have put into a Cardiff matinee of Hay Fever back in the rep years, retains its sinister and mysterious edge.

Olivier, being Olivier, could get away with that at the height of the Method madness, and there were a few others who had that dispensation. Robert Mitchum’s one of them, a man who is, by the standard of a full stage repertoire, a terrible actor, but whose approach — “stand where they tell you and say the words” — is pitch-perfect for the ’40s and ’50s films that were his glory, when he was, by and large, playing a man grappling with social and political forces beyond his comprehension and control, dealt with by a cold detachment and scepticism (and back in the trailer, quite a lot of dope). There are others who’ve been able to do that, many of them so-called character actors, from whom a lo-fi performance was required: J.T.Walsh, William H. Macy. Law and Order lived and died with Jerry Orbach’s version of it, a New York homicide cop who couldn’t think of anything less impressive than being a New York homicide cop.

As the “inner-dynamic” approach became more deadened and corrupted — star performances by actors for actors, especially those on awards juries — the contrary approach began to gather adherents, and a theory of sorts, in David Mamet’s theory of “practical performance”. Mamet argued that much current performance was based on a philosophical error, not only of stable subjectivity over time, but of social role dictating essential qualities. Kings acted kingly, regal and assured; police informers cringing and wormy, grandmas gathered children to their ample bosom and uncles were avuncular. Role had become self, but was then expressed as some sort of inner embodiment. Mass culture performance had become a vast gallery of cliches. Against this, Mamet pointed out that attributes were ideals of roles, and roles were assigned. The literal fact of being a King is that you become it by virtue of whose son you are. Inner quality has nothing to do with it, can have nothing to do with it. There is no right way to be a king, as an act of comportment in the world, because whatever the King does is being kingly. There is no route to a fresh or arresting performance by trying to be kingly. This is an oversimplification, of course — a future king may well get raised to be regal, in a certain manner — in need of a more complex approach.

Mamet being Mamet, it was oversimplified further from degree-zero acting, to absolute-zero performance, in which actors simply “spoke the words”, performance broken down until all psychologistic attitudinising had been driven out. You can see this working well, as an ensemble practice, with some concessions to received taste, in season one of The Unit, Mamet’s series about an elite special forces unit, largely around their home life. And you can see how weird it gets when it is wholly applied in a movie like Redbelt, that strange, strange tale of a martial arts gym, exciting by being devoid of the psychologistic challenges — the hero’s journey — that anyone else would have laid on it. One suspicion is that this sort of anti-acting doesn’t work if everyone is doing it. It has to have a background of more conventional performance for its stark practice to cut through.

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