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Some questions for movie fans

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Okay, all you movie fans out there, here are a couple of little questions for you.

A couple of days ago, based on some positive comments in an article on Cap Mag, I decided to take a look at the trailer for “Shall We Dance” (the new one, not the Astaire or Japanese ones of the same title). A few seconds of watching Richard Gere pop up on the screen and I gave it up. (I did go rent the original Japanese version which was very engaging).

Since watching films requires a certain “suspension of disbelief” to become intellectually and emotionally involved with the characters and story, are you able to achieve this involvement when the actor is someone you find to be personally despicable? Do you even patronize the films of these actors? More interestingly, is it moral to patronize films with actors who, outside of their film work, actively promote and support the destruction of your values? To complicate the issue, what if the costar(s) or director is someone you admire?

In the case of Richard Gere, I never thought much of him as an actor (even in “Pretty Woman”), and have always disliked his public quasi-religous, quasi-political nonsense, but I could watch his movies. Since his post 911 speech to the firefighters, though, he’s been on my “Most Repulsive in Hollywood” list. Hence, I would not even consider going to a film he is in. Period.

Since almost all of the actors who make public comments on political, environmental, religious, or other cultural topics espouse views which I consider objectionable at best, and obnoxious most of the time, avoiding all of their films would cut out a huge chunk of filmdom. Of course, these actors range from the “mainly ditzy” ones who mouth platitudes, to the ones who are quietly active in their personal lives, to the strident, way-out-there club.

For most of the actors in the first two categories, I find that I am able to separate “the person” from “the actor” and character. And, I do not consider going to their movies to be immoral solely on the basis that they hold “wrong-headed” ideas. (Of course, this depends on the specific issue and the nature of their views as I understand them and the degree of their “activism”). However, it has been a long time since I chose to go to or to rent a film starring those in the “strident” category, and the size of that group has been growing.

I am interested to learn your thoughts about this.

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Okay, all you movie fans out there, here are a couple of little questions for you.

And what a great series of questions they are!

To the broader moral issue: Clearly there is a point at which one should not seek value from evil, but whether certain actors are airhead bleeding-heart liberals, or downright evil people, is a matter of judgment. The two are not synonymous. There are also practical issues involved. During the Cold War I refused to see the Russian ballet, but today I buy appliances made in Red China. (Go figure.)

More specifically, if you dislike the individual to such a degree that it interferes with your enjoyment of an otherwise good movie, then don't go. People's thresholds in this regard vary, depending on sensitivities, values and interests. I for one absolutely love the movies, and perhaps I have learned over time to put aside personal judgments of actors and respond instead to their performance. Fairly recent case in point: Sean Penn. When he was younger I associated him with being an obnoxious rules-breaking rebel, and later with being an obnoxious liberal blowhard. I suspect that I missed a lot of his earlier movies not just because of my dislike of him, but because of the sort of movies in which he played. He was not the lead, but I saw him in The Game and was favorably impressed, so I gave I am Sam a try and was completely blown away by his acting ability. His role in Mystic River was classic. So, it is not that I have changed my mind about him as a person, but I am able to see the character role he plays in the movie, not the person.

Is there value in this for me. You bet there is. I loved the obnoxious James Baldwin in The Edge, and put aside my dislike for Martin Sheen and learned to almost revere aspects of his character on The West Wing. Heck, I suspect if we got to know many of these actors, directors, script writers, etc. on a personal basis, we would probably intensely dislike more than not. Which reminds me of one of the best examples, Quentin Tarantino. I doubt I could survive 5 minutes in the same room at a party with him, but I would be happy to spend next weekend with him talking movies.

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Generally, I will not support an artist that I think is acting against my values. I will not give them my money to support their irrational ideas. But, in todays movies I do judge between an irrational statement and a totally evil person. I have not seen one movie by Michael Moore and do not intend on it.

Ray K

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I have not seen one movie by Michael Moore and do not intend on it.

You won't be missing anything. From what I have heard, his movies are bad movies qua movies; not just bad on the basis of being vicious lies.

(P.S. I've recovered from my stomach flu!)

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To the broader moral issue: Clearly there is a point at which one should not seek value from evil, but whether certain actors are airhead bleeding-heart liberals, or downright evil people, is a matter of judgment. The two are not synonymous.

There's some kind of intermediate point between being able to put aside an actor's moral standing and refusing to see an actor because of that standing. I'll use my take on Susan Sarandon as an example. Her political views disturb me to the point where it would take an overwhelming reason for me to go see any film she's in these days. However, I really enjoy her in Bull Durham, my favorite baseball movie of all time. My present evaluation of her somehow (ugh - there's that word! :)) doesn't detract at all from my enjoyment of that particular movie. On the other hand, I caught her quite by accident a little while ago on Comedy Central as a guest on Mad TV, and I was totally distracted from her performance by my opinion of her as a person. (By the way, all this applies equally to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham. Same goes for him in The Shawshank Redemption.)

I don't know how to explain that, but there it is.

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There's some kind of intermediate point between being able to put aside an actor's moral standing and refusing to see an actor because of that standing. I'll use my take on Susan Sarandon as an example. Her political views disturb me to the point where it would take an overwhelming reason for me to go see any film she's in these days. However, I really enjoy her in Bull Durham, my favorite baseball movie of all time. My present evaluation of her somehow (ugh - there's that word! :)) doesn't detract at all from my enjoyment of that particular movie. On the other hand, I caught her quite by accident a little while ago on Comedy Central as a guest on Mad TV, and I was totally distracted from her performance by my opinion of her as a person. (By the way, all this applies equally to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham. Same goes for him in The Shawshank Redemption.)

I don't know how to explain that, but there it is.

I'm not familiar with the format of Mad TV, but when you say she was a "guest" is it that her "performance" was essentially as herself, rather than as an other, carefully delineated character? If so, then your response (as would be mine) was more towards her as a person than towards a character. But that makes perfect sense.

Incidentally, I agree with your comments about each of their performances in Bull Durham, and I have greatly enjoyed Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption and several other movies, despite their jointly obnoxious politics.

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I think what matters is how much the actor's character in a movie (or show) differs from the actor's actual real-life personality. For example, I recently watched "Alfie" with Jude Law playing a playboy; one of his 'conquests' was Sarandon playing as a very loose older woman with unhinged morality and a penchant to show as much of her skin as she could get away with. Maybe to her it was a dare to the audience that though she was old she could still go at it with the young women, but to me, all I could say about her character of loose depravity was: "It figures".

Very similar thing happened in "Meet the Fockers", where Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand played completely lunatic leftie treehuggers. It just made sense!

At the same time, though Russell Crowe was upset about our war in Iraq, this does not affect my evaluation of his manly "Gladiator" role, which I find as enjoyable as ever (primarily, as I say, because the character was so different from the real person).

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I'm not familiar with the format of Mad TV,  but when you say she was a "guest" is it that her "performance" was essentially as herself, rather than as an other, carefully delineated character? If so,  then your response (as would be mine) was more towards her as a person than towards a character. But that makes perfect sense.

The performance was as a character in a sketch. MadTV is inconsistent with their guests - sometimes they act as the "host" like on Saturday Night Live, other times they just appear in sketches and nowhere else. This was the latter. I couldn't stop thinking of her personally enough to just accept the character on its own. Seemed like a good sketch, too - with another actor I might have enjoyed it.

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I am most able to separate the actor's work from his personal life if the actor's style is - or tends toward the - Romantic, i.e., devoted to capturing the essence of the characters he plays. This explains my liking for Gene Hackman (when he's not in a bad comedy), Mel Gibson, Robert Duvall, Anthony Hopkins, Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington (most of the time), Hugh Jackman, Gabriel Byrne (especially good in The Man In The Iron Mask), Tom Hanks, Clive Owen, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Hilary Swank, Kate Winslet, Morgan Freeman, Johnny Depp (who is hard to place, technique-wise), Chow Yun-Fat, Pierce Brosnan, Christian Bale, Juliette Binoche, Jeremy Irons (particularly excellent), Jean Reno, Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, Matt Damon, Samuel L. Jackson, and Joaquim Phoenix. Clint Eastwood, believe it or not, falls in this category (his films are a different matter). (This listing of current Hollywood players is not in any order and is not exhaustive, especially in regard to actresses.)

But, if a Naturalistic actor is very skilful (to the degree that Naturalism allows) and his character relies somewhat on his ability to display "tics" and "mannerisms," (e.g. when playing a neurotic) then I can even come to admire him for his "attention to detail": Pacino (see The Godfather, Carlito's Way), DeNiro (see The Godfather Part 2 where he was still Romantic; see also Heat where Pacino's performance is disgraceful by comparison), Penn (see also Carlito's Way), Colin Farrell, John Malkovich, Geoffrey Rush (also hard to place), and a few others I can't recall.

On rare occasion, you find no real need to separate the actor's performances from his ideas: the right-wing, non-conformist Bruce Willis, who never employs tics, hence his superb work in the Romantic director M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable. Willis is not an especial favorite of mine, but, with this plug, tonight's seemingly-hackneyed Hostage had better be watchable. :)

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But, if a Naturalistic actor is very skilful (to the degree that Naturalism allows) ... Penn (see also Carlito's Way), Colin Farrell, John Malkovich, Geoffrey Rush (also hard to place), and a few others I can't recall.

I think the quintessential instance of this is Robert De Niro's performance in Flawless (1999). This film also brought Philip Seymour Hoffman to my attention, who also turned in a stellar performance.

On rare occasion, you find no real need to separate the actor's performances from his ideas: the right-wing, non-conformist Bruce Willis, who never employs tics, hence his superb work in the Romantic director M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable.  Willis is not an especial favorite of mine, but, with this plug, tonight's seemingly-hackneyed Hostage had better be watchable. :)

I think Willis peaked near the very begining of his acting career on the mid-1980s TV show Moonlighting. But then, fifteen years later, what Shyamalan coaxed out of Willis in Unbreakable, was remarkable. One of my favorite films, too.

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I think the quintessential instance of this is Robert De Niro's performance in Flawless (1999). This film also brought Philip Seymour Hoffman to my attention, who also turned in a stellar performance.

I know exactly what you mean. I saw Flawless in 2000. While I did not enjoy the movie overall, I remember being impressed by DeNiro's acting. I also remember Hoffman, who was in quite a number of movies during that end-of-century period. His last major appearance was in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I wonder what he's up to now.

I think Willis peaked near the very begining of his acting career on the mid-1980s TV show Moonlighting. But then,  fifteen years later, what Shyamalan coaxed out of Willis in Unbreakable, was remarkable. One of my favorite films, too.

I used to consider Willis a very charismatic but middleweight actor until his performance in Twelve Monkeys. So, I wouldn't agree that his career peaked in the 80s. Unless of course, you are talking strictly about his earnings. But, even then, he still had John McTiernan's Die Hard ahead of him.

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I know exactly what you mean.  I saw Flawless in 2000.  While I did not enjoy the movie overall, I remember being impressed by DeNiro's acting.

I'm curious about why you did not enjoy the movie. Are you referring to the content, or the quality of the film itself?

I also remember Hoffman, who was in quite a number of movies during that end-of-century period.  His last major appearance was in The Talented Mr. Ripley. I wonder what he's up to now.

Since then, aside from a whole bunch of great character parts, he starred in a film that did not do very well, Love Liza. But I am looking forward to his starring role in Capote, due out later this year. I think he is a great actor.

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I'm curious about why you did not enjoy the movie. Are you referring to the content, or the quality of the film itself?

While I cannot provide a blow-by-blow account of the movie without re-watching the first 15 minutes, I remember that the f-word was used promiscuously, and the subject-matter was transvestites. If I recall correctly [and there are spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen this film], Hoffman was a transvestite whom you had the greatest sympathy for, and DeNiro played a man with a strong aversion towards that segment of the counterculture. The movie ends with DeNiro changing his mind (almost) entirely about transvestism.

At the time I saw it, I was a near-total beginner in Objectivism with a kind of "bad-boy" past, so it wasn't that I had objective moral qualms about the film; but I did - and do - have an aversion to transvestites. And to colorful language for its own sake. Hoffman's acting made me sympathetic towards his character, and DeNiro's transformation was quite convincing, but I still couldn't shake the subconscious, "this-is-not-really-my-kind-of-film" impression in my mind.

Since then, aside from a whole bunch of great character parts, he starred in a film that did not do very well, Love Liza. But I am looking forward to his starring role in Capote, due out later this year. I think he is a great actor.

Thanks for the update. I presume Capote is Truman Capote, whom I know next to nothing about but whose name I've heard many times throughout my life. I'll be sure to watch it, if only to keep in step with Hoffman's career.

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"Warning: There are spoilers about a movie in this post."

The movie ends with DeNiro changing his mind (almost) entirely about transvestism.

De Niro's character's development in the movie paralleled my own development in watching the film. I was quite put off by the transvestites until I was able to see their personal character values rather than the sad sexual state they were in. De Niro (and me) learned to value them for what they did rather than how they appeared. It was not an easy transition for either of us (De Niro in the film and me as a viewer) but by the end of the film I felt sympathy, concern, and some level of admiration for the character portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

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Since I'm not an actor, director or scriptwriter and I know how difficult and rare those arts are at the higher levels, I'm grateful if a movie has a tight, purposeful, logical story, a good sense of life, some concern w/ideas, and a hero or even a well-drawn villian.

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