“Over the years,” David Mamet writes in his slim volume On Directing Film, “I have observed that there are two subdivisions of the thespian’s art: one is called Acting, and the other is called Great Acting.” His argument is too lengthy to quote in full, but he’s decidedly a fan of Acting, not of Great Acting, defining the latter as ostentatious performances that encourage viewers to identify with the actor rather than the character. My own taste runs in a very similar direction. Rarely do I get excited about performances that are widely acclaimed, especially when they involve the sort of histrionics that make for powerful Oscar clips. In 2003, for example, both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for their work in Mystic River; I found both of them embarrassingly hammy—especially Robbins, whose tic-ridden portrayal of lingering trauma I’d actually call his career worst (and I saw Howard The Duck in its original theatrical run). That’s Great Acting at its worst. My own choices for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor that year, by contrast, are Pascal Greggory and David Morse, in two little-seen films called Raja and The Slaughter Rule, respectively. Neither performance was remotely flashy enough to get awards attention, but both are subtly superlative.
There’s a middle ground between Acting and Great Acting, though—rarely seen but always fascinating. It occurs when an actor manages to create the appearance of doing very little, while actually strenuously signaling turbulent emotions. Usually, you’ll see this approach applied to a character to whose thoughts the reader is privy, but who, for reasons of either social necessity or just their personality, tends to present an impassive mask to the world. The finest example is Anthony Hopkins’ magnificently tremulous Mr. Stevens in Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day, a novel about an English butler with perhaps the stiffest upper lip in all of literature. Faced with a nearly impossible task, Hopkins somehow managed to convey Mr. Stevens’ feelings to the audience while maintaining the illusion of a person who carefully hides those feelings at all times. It’s an amazing feat, embodied most memorably in a scene that sees the estate’s housekeeper, Ms. Kenton (Emma Thompson), idly ask Mr. Stevens what he’s reading during some rare downtime. Their encounter is at once thrilling and mysterious. Take a look:
The first thing that jumps out about the scene, as it begins, is the lighting, or the comparative lack thereof. Ms. Kenton immediately observes how dim the room is and asks Mr. Stevens whether he can even see the pages of the book he’s reading. This is all taken directly from Ishiguro’s novel—which is interesting, because it doesn’t really seem like a crucial detail on the page. (I suppose it gives Ms. Kenton an opening to mention the book, thereby leading to her more aggressive interrogation. But she could have just asked, “What are you reading?” with no preamble; it’s a common enough question.) Director James Ivory, however, takes superb advantage of this opportunity, shrouding the set in so much gloom that you can barely see Hopkins’ and Thompson’s faces at the outset (but doing so realistically—there’s light streaming in from the window, though the curtains are mostly drawn, and a small lamp over Mr. Stevens’ shoulder). Consequently, when Mr. Stevens rises from his chair and literally backs himself into a corner, he suddenly looks exposed, like a vampire that’s been forced into the light and may soon crumble or burst into flames.
The camera follows. Ivory slowly pushes in on the pair, with Mr. Stevens, the prey, facing the camera and Ms. Kenton, the predator, keeping her back to it. Gradually, what had been a wide shot turns into a tight two-shot, with the camera moving closer to Mr. Stevens in concert with Ms. Kenton’s steady approach. By the end, this shot is virtually an over-the-shoulder close-up, intimate as all hell. When Mr. Stevens finally rejects Ms. Kenton’s overture strongly enough to make her turn and leave the room, the corresponding camera movement, pulling away from Hopkins back to the original wide shot, creates a profound emotional chasm. Consequently, I have very mixed feelings about Ivory’s decision to shoot a separate close-up of Thompson, to which he cuts three times during the sequence. It captures Ms. Kenton’s mix of genuine curiosity and playfulness very well, making it clear that she’s flirting with Mr. Stevens, but at the cost of breaking up what I suspect would have been a truly powerful shot had it been allowed to play out uninterrupted. Plus, I feel confident that Thompson is gifted enough to have been able to convey what was necessary from her voice alone, to say nothing of the quarter-profile we’re given.
In any case, Ivory’s primary shot permits us to see Hopkins’ face clearly, and what a story that face proceeds to tell. This particular role arrived at a notable moment in the actor’s career: He’d won an Oscar for playing Hannibal Lecter two years earlier, and The Remains Of The Day followed hard on the heels of the previous Merchant/Ivory film, Howards End, in which he’d also starred opposite Thompson. He was a villain in both of those pictures—blatantly in The Silence Of The Lambs, by dint of his character’s privileged selfishness in the E.M. Forster adaptation—so Mr. Stevens, who’s forever subservient, even toadying, was quite a change of pace for him. It was strange, at the time, to see him look so vulnerable. And once Ms. Kenton starts actively trying to tug Mr. Stevens’ book out of his hand, Hopkins must communicate to us what even Ishiguro’s internal, first-person monologue (from Mr. Stevens’ point of view) conceals. That’s the magic of this performance: Even in this extremely heightened moment, it seems as if Mr. Stevens is remaining stoic and containing his emotions, even though said emotions are written all over Hopkins’ face.
In the book, Mr. Stevens deliberately averts his eyes. “She reached forward and began gently to release the volume from my grasp,” Ishiguro writes. “I judged it best to look away while she did so, but with her person positioned so closely, this could only be achieved by twisting my head away at a somewhat unnatural angle.” Mr. Stevens then notes that he succeeded in maintaining this posture the entire time, with difficulty. Hopkins, on the other hand, gazes soulfully down at Thompson, with an expression that seems to occupy a curious limbo midway between blank and adoring, containing aspects of both. Hopkins also stands with his right hand raised beside his head, fingers slightly curled; at one point, just after Ms. Kenton succeeds in wresting the book from his other hand, he moves it a fraction of an inch forward, as if he’s about to caress her hair, before immediately pulling it back to its former position—a motion so subtle that I had to rewind and make sure I hadn’t imagined it. A truly faithful performance of this role, as it was conceived on the page, would demand that the actor genuinely appear indifferent to Ms. Kenton. But that wouldn’t be satisfying at all in a visual medium, and Hopkins (who deserved the Oscar that went to Tom Hanks for Philadelphia that year, especially since Hanks wound up winning again the following year) instead finds a way to give us what we need while seeming not to, with an invaluable assist from Richard Robbins’ suddenly keening score. It’s Great Acting shrewdly disguised as Acting. In other words, it’s great acting.