How do you define good acting?

In a post earlier today,
Reid Rosefelt asked a good question about the nature of acting and the varied definitions that that different parties use to size up performances for awards purposes. Coincidentally this past weekend, after having watched two movies over successive days, “Love and Other Drugs” and “Tiny Furniture,” I ended up having an argument on the same subject.

A few of the people who watched “Tiny Furniture” with me were put off by the performances, and I found myself getting angry. I thought the characters were incredibly believable and naturalistic. In spite of the fact that I knew in advance that Lena Dunham had written and directed the movie in addition to starring in it, and that two members of her family basically play themselves in the film, I found myself forgetting those facts as I watched the film.

And for those people who think it’s easy to take non-actors, even playing a version of themselves, and create believable characters, I’ve got news for you. I see tons of movies that attempt this and fail. 

On the other end of the spectrum, in “Love and Other Drugs,” which is chock full of actors who have done good work in other movies, there was so much mugging and winking going on that I never believed for one second that any of the characters were real. After a while, Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyebrow movements and bug-eyed expressions started to remind me of Mr. Potato Head. In a scene where he is at a dinner table with his parents and siblings, I couldn’t believe them as a family for two seconds.

So to answer Reid’s question, I think good acting is when you forget that you are watching people act. “Tiny Furniture” is to my mind an example of a low profile film that does just that.

4 thoughts on “How do you define good acting?”

  1. I have to agree with Ira here. In many cliche family dinners we end up watching actors performing, as suppose to characters in their day-to-day basis. I am a young actor myself, but I am educated. I know acting comes from the purity of our performance. we’re no longer “acting” to be that character, we are that character. Like Ira said, the audience has to forget about the actor and watch the character. Otherwise it’s no art. And no Oscar either.
    Alberto Tihan

  2. Couldn’t agree more with Ira Deutchman’s thoughts on good acting. If I want to see someone doing something difficult and marvel at how well they’re doing it – I go to the circus. If I go to the cinema or theatre I don’t want anything to get in the way of the story, least of all actors working their socks off. Alec Guiness once said that if anyone ever commented on something that he did on stage he would smile, thank them and then make a mental note to remove it from the performance.

  3. There is no “acting” in Tiny Furniture — not, at least, in the classical sense. The performances required no technique and no acts of imagination. Those performances may have been believable, and of sufficient interest to sustain attention for 80 or 90 minutes. But that’s as far as it goes.

    Comparing these performances to bad Hollywood “acting” is not useful. Nor is there one standard by which to judge acting, good or bad The illusion of psychological realism is only one measure and one approach. A good actor creates his own naturalism — if that’s what’s required. But not all drama is naturalistic in this way. And a performance suitable for a Cassavetes film would not be suitable for a Elia Kazan film, and yet they were both actor-centric directors, looking for high degrees of realism.

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