Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

No Mere Mortal Can Resist

Every October, Michael Jackson’s Thriller resurrects itself. Thriller’s sensory aspects transport and captivate us time and time again, making our hair stand on end even though we know we’ve heard the track before. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Hallowe’en is days away, which means I’ve had one particular track on repeat: Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Due to my strong personal convictions, I think this is one of the best tracks ever recorded, both as a standalone work of art and as a Hallowe’en staple. As I was listening for the umpteenth time, I decided I wanted to pay tribute to the masterful storytelling MJ demonstrates in the title track of his 1982 album.

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Photo: BlogTO

I personally feel that everything about this song is unparalleled, for one key reason: “Thriller” weaves a scary story solely through audio (we’ll get to the video later). Visuals are a key element of our imagination, but “Thriller” harnesses the many possibilities of sound to prompt our own dreadful visions. How else does Jackson (along with producer Quincy Jones, songwriter Rod Temperton, and actor Vincent Price) use terror to allure us every time? Let’s break it down.

Sound & Senses

From the outset, the track’s many layers pull us into the King of Pop’s rich paranormal world. A coffin* opens. Wind blows and thunder crashes. A wolf howls in the distance. Footsteps fall …

The various sounds trigger our own associations based on what we’ve experienced and imagined in the past – each of us responds to these prompts in some way, with fear, amusement, or something else.

The soundscape is the backbone of the track. Sound effects support it throughout, littering the immersive narrative with sensory stimuli. The interlude in which Vincent Price reads a spoken word “rap” is overlaid with organ music, amplifying his deadly drawl. Evil laughter swiftly ends the song, and we hear the supposed coffin (or door) slam shut. All of these sounds combine to create a tapestry of horror, transporting us unwittingly into a haunted space of our own design.

* To me it sounds quite heavy, like a coffin being opened from within. But to you it may sound differently, like a creaky door. That’s what’s so wonderful about the track: we’re the ones building the setting based on the audio prompts we’re given.

Writing 

Rod Temperton’s lyrics strike listeners with vivid imagery that resurrects all manner of horrific creatures to shock you. I don’t know about you, but the diction makes me feel transported to a graveyard setting or similar. Such exacting language, written in the 2nd person point of view, situates us directly in the setting (“you try to scream … / you start to freeze …). We are the potential victim navigating the frightening landscape as we listen along.

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grisly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom

Voice & Performance

As Jackson performs the lyrics, he dances around (no pun intended) the actual identity of the monsters of whose malice he warns. In doing so, he dwells in the fear of the unknown. We “hear a creature creeping up behind” but we don’t see it, just like we don’t see anything when listening to the track. We are just as blind and helpless as Jackson tells us we are, left to picture the lyrical demons in our own minds.

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Vincent Price. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Jackson was threatening us with the imminent presence of evil, Vincent Price’s deadly voice is practically condemning. His chilling delivery does something Jackson’s higher-pitched voice could never achieve: it scares us senseless. If you didn’t think Price’s voice was sinister enough in speech, his diabolical laughter seals the entire track. The illusion is so carefully constructed that we are well and truly immersed – I still get chills.

Visuals

As much as I’ve praised “Thriller” the song for its auditory accomplishments, it would be a cardinal sin to overlook the 14-minute epic that serves as the music video. My mother reminisced that the 1983 premiere on MTV was such a big event that people skipped classes to watch it. It provides a visual narrative sequence with a surprising levity which somewhat offsets the audio, as well as the iconic “Thriller” choreography. However, you could argue that watching the short film detracts from the sonic experience I’ve just described – it’s a real treat to listen to the disembodied sounds/music and picture our own mélange of ghoulish chaos and fear. After all, seeing the video means that the darkness of the unknown is now illustrated, losing some of its mystique. But the music video is a spectacle in itself and deserves to be recognized.

michaeljacksonpopcorn
Michael Jackson’s iconic music video for Thriller is timelessly entertaining. Photo: Giphy

Whether you choose to watch the video or listen to the track, you’re guaranteed an interpretative masterpiece. But I stand by my veneration for the song in particular and its talents in transporting listeners without the need for visuals. Jackson’s “Thriller” isn’t just spectacular; it’s interactive. It’s both a trick of the mind and a treat to listen to. And that’s why it will thrill us for years to come.

And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the Thriller