“The brave and unflinching performance of Giovanna Mezzogiorno…” - James Berardinelli, ReelViews
“Blue Valentine” and “Rabbit Hole” have emotionally brave performances…” – Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post
“(Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island) is a brave performance” - Richard Crouse, Canada AM
“Natalie Portman gives it her all, physically and mentally, in a brave and demanding performance as Nina…” – Christy Lemire, Associated Press
“The movie stars Nicole Kidman in a rather brave performance” - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
“Javier Bardem’s touching and brave performance…” - Montreal Gazette
Film criticism is more hyperbolic today than ever before. I’m not suggesting that I am better than most critics because I clearly am not, but there are a few transgressions that I have with film discussion in this medium. Amongst all the pretentious (ha) and cringe-inducing (HA) terms, I’ve noticed one stick out like a sore thumb as of late — “brave”.
Brave is a term which is generally used in complimenting a performance that usually encompasses a realistic depiction of nudity, great psychological turmoil and/or overwhelming emotional distress. And in the process of preparing for a role — all of the intricate studies an actor may undertake to better equip themselves for the part or the torment a director (von Trier) may pull them through for the role’s sake — this can be true. For a person to rush out of their comfort zone (in reality) to better themselves in their work is a great show of dedication and in a way also a show of bravery, or at the very least a show of courage. But in terms of what’s being presented on the screen by an actor or actress, I don’t see and have never seen bravery.
For example, Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan is being doted on for being brave by many a critic. With the plethora of crises Nina goes through – from the emotional to the psychological to the sexual – it is (in my opinion) a reverent and unrelenting turn up there with the best of them… but it isn’t brave. Yes, Portman did step out of her comfort meekness and realistically morphed the character she portrayed from human to animal; concurrently transcending her image from demure to feral. However, this is expected — no, required — of an actor when undertaking a laborious part. If Portman wasn’t in the role, then some other actress would’ve happily filled the shoes and I’m sure would’ve also been deemed brave. This isn’t bravery – this is their job; one that isn’t nearly as in demand as there are people pursuing it. It was Portman’s job to do all she did on screen; it was in the script to act out the collapse of Nina Sayers and she gladly undertook that role. Surely it was difficult, but the role is a complex one. It was her privilege to portray Nina and not a duty or self-sacrifice.
So why is she – and so many other performers of the like – considered brave? Why throw a word generally used to describe heroic acts to also describe a performance? I suppose the question that should be asked is “Is there anything heroic about an actor?” to which I’d reply “No”. Like all artistic occupations, acting is a selfish one and I say this as an aspiring writer. There may be other reasons to pursue the arts — the intent to bring buried subjects to light is one writers and the like advocate when asked “What inspired this project?” (their authenticity behind the answer is subject to question, though) — but first and foremost, the reason for one to be involved in the arts is to reveal themselves to the world either to be validated or revered or sought after or any similar reason. There are, of course, some who act for cathartic reasons which is also a self-centered motivation. And then there are some who perform because, as they decry, “I cannot live without performing,” as if stricken with some disease. But I digress as this isn’t a diatribe on the egotistical basis from which a career in the arts stems from. Still, all of what I’ve written relates to my initial point that acting is in no way heroic and therefore cannot be considered brave. (I consider these terms mutually exclusive because I view the words from personal perspectives – for an introverted person to go to a party and interact with new people and try to come out of one’s shell may seem a small event, but for that person it is a heroic undertaking for themselves and a sign of bravery, whereas the job of an undercover cop is in and of itself a brave occupation, but how many times would you consider them bringing down a drug dealer a brave feat? Would they consider it brave – and if not should we?) For this label of bravery to be attributed to an actor in the same light is unfathomable to me because a performer must relinquish the idea of having a comfort zone in order to be qualified at their profession. The mask isn’t forced upon them, but rather self-assigned with equal parts enthusiasm and desire.
Of course there are examples of bravery in filmmaking and even a performance or two I’d consider brave, but not for reasons pertaining to the quality or anxiety that the performer appears to be going through on screen. Rather, I’d consider performances like Laurence Olivier’s in Othello brave simply for doing the role in black-face and jeopardizing the value of his (albeit fruitful and aged) career. It isn’t so much that he gallivants absurdly through the role and makes us question Hamlet’s intelligence more than anyone had ever done on-screen before, but rather the impending bellows from people who may deem the performance politically incorrect and accost Olivier himself. Then again, the actor himself knew what he was getting into when he shined his face black, so perhaps that wasn’t an act of bravery and just an onanistic wielding of celebrity used to feed provocative desire. His intentions aren’t knowledge to me, but what remains is that nothing he did in that film conveys an idea of bravery.
This thought was never meant to have spread across multiple paragraphs, but that tends to happen when you’ve got nothing better to do and a platform from which to speak. You see, I realize that blogging in and of itself is a selfish endeavor and know nothing I or anyone else on any blog may say is anything more than this. All I’ve written today is a minimally subversive rant that most will write off as petulant because in essence all it is is an lengthy attack on hyperbole in criticism and a specific one at that. Of course I could discuss the term “pretentious” and suggest that all cinema is as such because every filmmaker and performer claims wisdom because they speak concepts of right and wrong (or ambiguity) at people and make a career off doing so. So essentially, isn’t every film you find incorrect or undignified in their claims pretentious? It’s ten-cent criticism and today, you can find it most anywhere.
(Note: This isn’t to suggest all critics that have used such terms are lazy or poor thinkers. It’s difficult to write hundreds of reviews a year (especially for the ones you dislike) and not succumb to a lack of concern and thereafter hyperbole. Or hey, perhaps there are critics who find it completely justified to call a film pretentious or cringe-worthy and in that case I’d love to hear a rebuttal from someone who disagrees.)