Lights, Camera, Conversation… “On matters of gravity…”

Posted on October 18, 2013


On Clooney. On Jackman. On heroes not playing heroes. On how much money is enough. On fans.

Different people like George Clooney for different reasons. My affection for the actor comes from the fact that, at least in terms of his career, he has his head screwed on straight. After his TV-show earnings and the truckload of dollars he got for playing the caped crusader in Batman & Robin, he declared that money was no longer the driving force in his choice of films – and he has lived up to his word. Just look at the projects he’s been in since then. There have been blockbusters, of course, like The Perfect Storm and the Ocean’s Eleven movies. But Clooney, more often, has been seen in projects that have challenged him as an actor, projects that have teamed him with quality filmmakers, projects like The Thin Red Line and Three Kings and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Solaris and Syriana and The American and The Descendants. Some have worked, some haven’t, but Clooney has always worked in them. In him, we see an actor who isn’t afraid to be an actor. He isn’t afraid of letting the grey show. He isn’t afraid to bomb. He likes his work and it shows.

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You cannot imagine too many other actors – big-name actors, world-famous stars – do what Clooney does in Alfonso Cuarón’s outer-space saga Gravity, where he plays second fiddle to the superb special effects and Sandra Bullock, in that order. (The point isn’t that he still stands to make more money from this film than most of us will see in a lifetime. The point is that he was okay being off screen for large stretches and handing over the reins to the heroine, modestly calling himself “just a bus driver.”) A few words about the film itself, which I first thought was Cast Away set in space, with a heroine (instead of a hero) having to make her peace with a strange environment (with no one, mostly, to talk to) and make her way back home. But gradually, I began to see the title as referring to the “gravity” of Bullock’s situation, not just because she’s stranded in space but because she’s been crippled by a tragedy back home and needs to learn to, well, walk again.

The film seemed to me the world’s most expensive therapy session. Bullock’s depression is not explicitly mentioned, but we recognise the symptoms when she’s found balled up in the foetal position and when she talks about driving around with the radio on, not wanting to think about anything. She’s numb, she’s cut off from everyone else (the film literalises this), she’s spinning in a vacuum (again, the film literalises this), and she needs to be grounded – she needs to learn to stand upright again. And Clooney is her shrink. He uses therapeutic lingo like “let go” and he talks her through a really rough patch. At least, that’s how the film played out for me – and it’s amazing to see Clooney take on a role that, in a therapy-intense drama like Ordinary People, would have automatically been a “supporting part.” But as the cliché goes, there are no small parts, only small actors – and Clooney, over the years (and despite his limitations as a performer), has proved that he is among the biggest of actors, the kind who cares not about screen time or close-ups or being upstaged, but about the quality of the script and the director and the excitement of being part of something that could be a game-changer.

In a smaller way, Hugh Jackman does something similar in Prisoners. This, too, is a “silent movie,” if not literally then in its opting for quietness over noise. There could have been a lot of sound and fury in this hunt-for-missing-children thriller, but the material only sounds like a thriller – it’s really a drama, and in the most general sense it is about how you can be ready for hurricanes and floods and every disaster imaginable but life will still find a curve ball to throw at you (which is something that could be said about Gravity too). Except for stray experiments like The Fountain, Jackman doesn’t quite have the body of “different” work that Clooney has – so his taking up something like Prisoners is possibly even more of a risk. What will Wolverine fans make of this arty narrative that cuts away from scenes just as they seem to be building towards a meaty finish? The thought doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind.

If you want to be uncharitable, you could say that this is Jackman’s Oscar-bait effort, and while this may be true, it doesn’t change the fact that this big international star is in this really small movie about a dark subject that not many from his core fan-group are likely to want to see. That’s the excuse we usually hear from our big-name actors whenever they are asked why they don’t do something different, something smaller in scale, why they don’t act their age. And we’ll be told that they have to cater to their fans, who expect certain things from them, and then they’ll bring in market economics to justify why these films aren’t possible. But why not take a pay cut or a back-end deal that eases the budget? Why not sneak in a film like this between the big films? Why not play a juicy supporting part in someone else’s film? Once you’ve made your money, once you’ve made those investments, why still treat acting as a profession and not as art?

I was talking about this with a filmmaker, and he said that these fears aren’t completely unjustified. He took the example of Kuselan, where Rajinikanth was seen in a guest appearance. But despite the actor (and the people behind the film) making this amply clear, the film was sold – down the chain that involves distributors and the people who buy the film from these distributors and the people that they, in turn, sell the movie to – as a “Rajinikanth movie,” which meant that its selling price went through the roof. (Every distributor, after all, wants to make a profit. Why would he sell a film as “one where Rajinikanth is in just a guest role” when he can sell it for more as a Rajinikanth movie?) The film was released. The fans felt cheated. The film flopped. And this, the filmmaker I spoke to said, is why our actors don’t take too many risks after they become big, whereas Hollywood actors don’t have this problem because the studios take care of distribution. Apparently, our stars are grounded by stronger forces of gravitation.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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