” . . . the play’s the thing . . . “ —Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
In a recent outing on this site I gave as an example of the emptiness of American culture the fact that American movies today are British Commonwealth dominated in directors, writers, and performers.
I confess, I love movies, for several reasons. Because the most important human knowledge is contained in stories, dramas, not in formal expositions. (Think the Incarnation.) Also, having always been something of a stumblebum, I love watching people who can move and declaim gracefully. Admittedly, my liking is somewhat soured these days by the movies’ idiot-amusing technical effects and endemic obscene language. Not to mention overdone sex and violence. Good drama cannot escape sex and violence, but they used to do it without copulation and gushing blood onscreen. However, let’s face it, like it or not, the movies are the predominant literary and graphic art form of our time.
Good actors and actresses give some evidence about the state of a culture. Please do not take me as an endorser of their morals or politics. But acting, if done well, is a form of cultural expression that requires some art—intelligence, charm, grace, imagination, and empathy—and reflects an upbringing with some cultural nourishment (and I mean cultural roots, not just some artificial polish). No need to over-emphasize thespian intelligence, which H.L. Mencken took apart properly in “The Cerebral Mime.” What I have to say about actors applies to a considerable extent to movie writers and directors as well, except for the better brains of the last two.
American movies have always been under the major influence of the British and other foreigners. Think of such British mainstays of “American” film as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, Trevor Howard, Leo G. Carroll, Merle Oberon, Jean Simmons, Boris Karloff, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Ray Milland, Joan Collins, Julie Christie, Julie Andrews, Robert Shaw, Peter O’Toole, Maureen O’Hara, Burgess Meredith, Roger Moore, Dudley Moore, Jacqueline Bissett, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and every star in Gone With the Wind except Clark Gable and Butterfly McQueen. Not to mention a host of “character” actors. This list could be extended endlessly (as could all the lists I am presenting). The British influence was so pervasive that most people thought of these stars as Americans. You want more foreign presence in “American” film? Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Bela Lugosi, Charles Boyer, Leslie Caron, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, Maximilian Schell, Louis Jourdan; Errol Flynn and Rod Taylor (Australia); Mary Pickford, Raymond Burr, and Glenn Ford (Canada).
But the British dominance was not always as pervasive as it is today. Many American stars tended to come out of upper- to middle-class Northeast: Bette Davis, Adolphe Menjou, Tyrone Power, Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly; Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Gene Tierney, Jimmy Stewart. Or working- to middle-class Northeast: Susan Hayward, Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Barbara Stanwyck, Charles Bronson. Or the Midwest: Lillian Gish, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Carole Lombard, Donna Reed, Judy Garland, Anne Baxter, Doris Day, Richard Widmark, Paul Newman, not to forget Rock Hudson, Ronald Reagan, and Roy Rogers. California contributed Shirley Temple, Gregory Peck, Marilyn Monroe, and many more. And the West (beyond the Missouri) was noted for producing rugged stars like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, George Montgomery, Marlon Brando, Barack Obama*, and James Coburn. There were also considerable numbers of Italian-Americans and Southerners in “earlier days,” although not as predominantly as at present.
Italian-Americans in earlier times: Sinatra, Ida Lupino, Don Ameche, Victor Mature, Rita Hayworth, Ernest Borgnine, Alan Alda, (not to mention the directors Minelli, Capra, and more recently Coppola). Southerners from earlier times: Oliver Hardy, Will Rogers, Charles Coburn, Miriam Hopkins, Joseph Cotten, Randolph Scott, Dana Andrews, Shepard Strudwick, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charrisse, Ava Gardner, Debbie Reynolds, Claude Akins, Andy Griffith, Joanne Woodward, Stacy Keach, Rip Torn (not to mention Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Audie Murphy, and Johnny Mack Brown), and, of course, Elvis. Joan Crawford, Vincent Price, and Steve McQueen had some Southern in their background.
British domination of American film acting today: Australia: Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Judy Davis, Guy Pearce, Rachel Ward, Colin Firth, Sam Neill, Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown, not to mention the Italian-Australians Greta Scacchi, Anthony LaPaglia, and Eric Bana. And let’s not forget that Mel Gibson grew up and got his start Down Under. New Zealand: Russell Crowe. South Africa: Charlize Theron. Canada: Donald Sutherland, Genevieve Bujold, Richard Dreyfuss, Dan Aykroyd, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Kara Unger, Meg and Jennifer Tilly. Ireland: Pierce Brosnan, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Bergin, Stephen Rea, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh, and quite a few other Irish regulars in American movies.
British: Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Craig, Kate Beckinsale, Kate Winslett. Clive Owen, Sean Bean, Helena Bonham-Carter, Emma Thompson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Alan Rickman, James Cromwell, Brian Cox, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Samantha Morton, Hugh Grant, Jeremy Irons, Diana Rigg, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Pete Postlewaite, Richard E. Grant, Judi Dench, Gerard Butler, Robert Carlyle, Joanne Whaley-Kilmer, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Wilkinson, Miranda and Natasha Richardson, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, the indestructible Connery and Caine, etc., etc. etc. It would be easy to double this list. There is today hardly to be found an “American” movie in which one or more American characters are not played by a Brit. And of course, other foreigners chime in: Rutger Hauer (Dutch); Klaus Maria Brandauer (Austrian); Antonio Banderas, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz (Spanish); Lena Olin, Dolph Lundgren, Liv Ullmann, and Stellan Skaarsgard (Scandinavian), and Viggo Mortensen (half-Danish). Many French and Italian stars appear in American movies for the money but seldom leave their still civilized countries to reside in Hollywood.
Jewish actors and actresses have always had a considerable presence in the star category, and continue to do so although perhaps not as prominently as before: Mickey Rooney, Kirk Douglas, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Anne Bancroft, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, and many others. Of course, big names continue to come from the old stock Northeast with its wealth and other assets: Meryl Streep, Laura Linney, Kyra Sedwick, William Hurt; Susan Sarandon, the disgusting Baldwin brothers, Ed Harris, Bruce Willis, Jodi Foster, Tom Cruise, Sharon Stone; and from the Midwest: Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Gene Hackman, Tom Berenger, John Cusack, Haile Berry, Aidan Quinn; and California: Clint Eastwood, Richard Chamberlain, Meg Ryan, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon., etc.
My thesis is that the increasing cultural flatness and emptiness of mainstream America is reducing its capacity to produce the continuity of tradition and complexity of personality that makes for top flight acting. The main competition for the Brits’ top billing today is coming increasingly from Italian-Americans and Southerners, two groups that have traditional cultural heritages that have not been entirely absorbed into mainstream America. These two groups are steadily rising in their dominance while mainstream Americans are slipping.
Look at the Italian American presence in the top drawer of movie acting today: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Nicholas Cage, Linda Fiorentino, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Carla Gugino, Danny Aiello, Beverly D’Angelo, Leonard DiCaprio, Joe Pesci, Danny DeVito, Mira Sorvino, Vincent Donofrio, Gary Sinese, Maria Bello, Steve Buscemi, Rene Russo, etc. And Southerners: Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Andie McDowell, Holly Hunter, Renée Zellwegger, Kim Basinger, Dennis and Randy Quaid, Tommy Lee Jones, Billy Bob Thornton, Patricia Clarkson, Powers Boothe, Sissy Spacek, Nick Nolte, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Faye Dunaway, Chris Cooper, Jeff Daniels, Gary Busey, Mimi Rogers, Cybill Shepherd, Kathy Bates, Sean Young, Kathy Baker, Arliss Howard, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and if we must claim them, the siblings Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine. And, of course, Burt Reynolds. It is very worth mentioning that some top African American stars—James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and Jamie Foxx, for instance—are Southern born and bred.
A number of others come from the Southern border states, were partly raised in the South, or have Dixie in their family background, i.e., their backgrounds are not completely Yankee: Robert Duvall, Steve Martin, John Depp, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Kathleen Turner, Sandra Bullock, Ned Beatty, James Garner, Don Johnson, Suzy Amis.
Much more can be said about the cultural emptiness and decline that today’s American cinema reveals: plots regularly stolen from French and Japanese films; endless proliferation of sequels and prequels; Asian martial arts and explosions that are so repetitive and ritualized that they are starting to resemble high-tech kabuki; reliance on video games, comic books, and old TV shows for material; and a general orientation toward adolescent themes. Not to say that there are not good American-made films. The situation for film is somewhat the same as that for book publishing. The big hyped items are usually junk, while Americans continue quietly and steadily to produce unheralded good work.
What I am attempting to illustrate is my belief that mainstream American “culture” is progressively sliding into a materialist and presentistic mind that mostly produces flat and unimaginative people. If I am correct about the rising Southern predominance in cinema acting, that is only a complement to the long-established Southern predominance in the creative aspects of literature and music. (I realize that some of the performers I mention have had long careers and would fit either the “earlier” or the “recent” categories.) Please don’t nitpick to death my examples—I may have made some mistakes in labeling. Argue with my thesis all you like. I am eager to hear what the many wise and learned readers of Chronicles have to say on my theme.
*Just testing to see if you are paying attention.