Wednesday, December 28, 2011

sherlock holmes and the cult of personality

How much of our love of movies and television is based on some indefinable desire, or connection, with certain actors? We may get excited by certain themes and characters and genres, but usually what gets us into the seats are the actors.

Holmes and Watson share a drink
I really enjoyed the latest Sherlock Holmes movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr. He is more over-the-top than ever in this steampunky, semi-anachronistic, but always fun action movie mash-up. The camera loves him, whether he is in drag or sporting a completely (deliberately) transparent disguise. There are some great action sequences and snappy dialogue. The other actors are all top-notch, too. Jude Law returns as Dr. Watson and he and Downey, Jr. still have a wonderful rapport. Director Guy Ritchie is happy to give them plenty of opportunity to banter between and during the highly choreographed fight sequences.
Watson watches Holmes take a drink, "You're drinking embalming fluid?"
Holmes, "Yes. Care for a drop?"
Watson, "You do seem ..."
Holmes, "Excited?"
Watson, "Manic."
Holmes, "I am."
Watson, "Verging on ..."
Holmes, "Ecstatic?"
Watson, "Psychotic. I should've brought you a sedative."
Rachel McAdams is also back, albeit too briefly, as Holmes's bad girl love interest, Irene Adler. Stephen Fry gives Downey, Jr. a run for his scene-stealing money with his version of Holmes's smarter (and apparently nudist) brother Mycroft, who calls his brother "Sherly." Noomi Rapace is appealing as the Gypsy Simza and Jared Harris is excellent as a very sinister and sociopathic Moriarty. But what is best about the film, what the film is truly about, is Downey's performance. That is what brings the most joy, why tickets and popcorn were purchased.

"You know, he's nothing like as slow witted as you've been leading me to believe, Sherly. "

Downey Jr. is not only helping to give Ritchie the directing career he has always wanted and for which he showed promise, but his surprise success as Ironman has also revitalized (for better or worse) super heroes at the movies. It's as if the world has finally discovered this charismatic and humorous actor, although he has been doing impressive work for years (Chaplin, Restoration, The Soloist, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Due Date, Tropic Thunder, etc.) He is comfortable in both leading and supporting roles, but there is no denying that Downey Jr. is an actor that people will go to the movies expressly to see. Ritchie has cannily combined Downey Jr's watchability with a character that also has a built-in audience, Sherlock Holmes — jackpot.

Downey Jr. as Iron Man
So how much of watching and loving movies and television is tied up with the cult of personality? When I think of some of my favorite actors I have to admit that although they are different from role to role, there is something, some element of their personality, that is also always there, and that I just like. I like them. And if the movie or television show or theater piece that they are appearing in sounds halfway decent (or even if it doesn't) they are usually enough to get me there. I would watch Derek Jacobi in anything. Or John Hurt, Gary Oldman, Meryl Streep, Sean Bean or Steve Buscemi. Luckily for me, they have showing up in some amazing pieces lately, Game of Thrones (Bean), Boardwalk Empire (Buscemi), The Iron Lady (Streep), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Oldman and Hurt). I want to see Johnny Depp's new movies, even the awful misfires he's been making lately with best bud Tim Burton. I'm still trying to erase Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter from my memory. They better not screw up Barnabas Collins in the upcoming Dark Shadows. Some other personalities that I keep an eye out for are Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Peter Dinklage, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Owen Wilson, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson and Helen Mirren.

As Charlie Chaplin
My cult of personalities doesn't just apply to current actors. I grew up watching black and white movies on television with the old man, who loved all the '30s gangster movies. I inherited his love of Humphrey Bogart — I never quite got to like Jimmy Cagney or George Raft — sorry, dad. I still love Bogie, who was both a great actor and a great personality. His Rick Blaine is a very different man from his Sam Spade or Captain Queeg or Dixon Steele, and yet all of those characters are somehow still Bogie, too.

I don't think my liking of the actor or actress diminishes their talent. Likability is what makes an actor a star, versus just a good actor. There are plenty of very good, talented actors out there, some who have even had Hollywood careers, but maybe never became big stars. Actors like Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra are all talented, but they also have that something extra that makes us connect with them as people. We like looking at them. One of the reasons different projects keep trying to capture Marilyn Monroe and can't quite completely is that she, her personality, was unique and special. Michelle Williams may get close, but she can't help but bring her own Michelle William-ness to her depiction. This applies to Downey Jr.'s excellent portrayal of Charlie Chaplin, as well.

Robert Downey Jr., through the force of his personality and likability, has gone from being comic relief in early projects like Back to School and Johnny Be Good and "actor's actor" movies like Chaplin to become a bona fide movie star. There is already talk of a third movie in the works. Bravo, Downey Jr. Looking forward to wherever your personality takes you and us next.
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