Monday, December 12, 2011

new years eve and the myth of the actor

As I was watching New Year's Eve, a movie my daughter and my mom both wanted to see, I felt O.K. — at least it doesn't have animated singing penguins in it. I couldn't help but feel that it was very reminiscent of a television show my dad liked to watch in the '70s, Love, American Style. That show always had cute, silly, vignettes with cute, silly guest stars and pretty low-level sexual entendre. It is from the generation of director Garry Marshall (and my dad.) In fact, a quick check on imdb confirmed that Marshall wrote two episodes of that series, one in 1969, and one in 1972. I love imdb.

My mom, who has dementia, loved New Year's Eve. She wouldn't be able to tell you anyone's names, but she recognizes faces and loved seeing one star after another, no matter how great or small, as they worked their way through a day and night in New York. My daughter loved seeing Lea Michele from Glee and Sarah Jessica Parker from Sex and the City, two shows that she never sees, as she is usually asleep when they are on (or I won't turn them on), but are so intrinsically  girly that they seem to infiltrate a little girls' consciousness. Zac Efron was a big hit with her too, naturally.

Zac Efron helps Michelle Pfeiffer count down her New Year's (and life's) resolutions

While I was watching New Year's Eve I couldn't help but play the six degrees of Kevin Bacon as the pleasant cast roll by. Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Biel were both in Marshall's Valentine's Day last year. There's Kathryn Heigel and Josh Duhamel — they acted together in that baby movie Life as We Know It. I'm not sure about Sarah Jessica's Parker's connection to Marshall, if any, but there's her hubby Matthew Broderick in a micro-cameo. Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron were in Hairspray together. Cary Elwes was in Marshall's Georgia Rule. Hector Elizondo is in every Marshall movie — he is considered his good luck charm. Larry Miller was in Valentine's Day, Raising Helen, The Princess Diaries, and The Princess Diaries 2. — he may be giving Elizondo a run for his money. Abigail Breslin was in The Princess Diaries 2 and Raising Helen, and so on and so on. Some might say this is typical Hollywood nepotism, which of course enters into it, as we see a few shots during a party scene in New Year's Eve of Marshall's sister director Penny Marshall having a darn good time. But with Marshall, such casting has always seemed good-natured. He wants to work with people he likes. Who doesn't?

The plot of the movie is non-existent — it's just a loosely strung-together series of vignettes, with great shots of New York City. The interconnecting stories seem to be woven together at the last minute, when they realized that might actually be a good idea. But who cares. The reason people go to see a movie like this is to see some of their favorite stars, bright and shiny, on the big screen. It made me wonder, no offense to all the actors out there working so hard on a character, if anyone really goes to see an actor act.

Don't most people like a particular actor or actress because they, well, just like them? Robert De Niro is a brilliant actor and I've seen him play many different parts, from comedy to tragedy, but the reason I cross the street to see him do anything at all is because there is something intrinsically "Robert De Niro" that he brings to every role. I was lucky enough, many years ago, to meet the man after seeing him in a play off-Broadway. He starred in Cuba and his Teddy Bear with Ralph Macchio and Burt Young. After the show a friend and I went across the street to a bar for a drink and who should saunter in with a friend but the man himself? We all shared a chat and a drink (or two) at the bar. I was at the height of my De Niro appreciation, but I couldn't help but notice after sitting (and staring at) him for a while that I was having a drink with Rupert Pupkin. Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, a role I thought must be miles away from the real De Niro, the man who also starred in Raging Bull and The Godfather: Part 2. That evening knocked a bit of the gloss off of the man for me, but it also woke me up to acting and actors and personality. There is a bit of Rupert Pupkin and Vito Corleone and Jake LaMotta in everything that De Niro does, from Ronin, to, I'm sure film purists and snobs will hate me for saying and never admit, all those Focker movies. Because all of those characters are a part of him. It doesn't make his "classic" performances any less, but it actually makes acting, and the watching of movies and plays more human, more honest, at least for me.

De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy

My personal debunking of the "chameleon-like" nature of acting aside, I think that the myth of the actor is the appeal of a movie like New Year's Eve. Marshall could have, and maybe even should have, made a movie simply focusing on the story featuring Efron and Pfeiffer (who actually plays and looks her age and looks fabulous), as it was the most consistently entertaining. But watching DeNiro with Halle Berry and Hilary Swank was definitely appealing, too. Marshall has made an amusing film — there are no real belly laughs, although a few people in the audience seemed to enjoy some of the jokes quite a bit. There are even a few heart-tugging moments, especially with Berry keeping her midnight date. But mostly New Year's Eve is an excuse to watch a lot of people we like in a city that in the movies at least, has always been mythical and mystical. It's hard to be mad at a film that gives some work to, and lets audiences catch a glimpse, if only a brief one, of actors like Cherry Jones, Alyssa Milano, Common, Seth Meyers, Til Schweiger, Carla Gugino, Jon Bon Jovi, Sofia Vergara, Jim Belushi, Ludacris, etc.
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