There’s an argument to be made that good acting is increasingly being confused with intense acting. That’s not to take anything away from Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner) or Leonardo DiCaprio (probably this year’s), but both roles (The Theory of Everything and The Revenant) are exalted for their transformative nature.
The subtleties of acting are the most important, argues director Marcus Geduld, who a couple of years back posted a detailed and highly-upvoted answer to the question ‘How does one differentiate between "good" and "bad" acting?’ on Quora.
He lauds Jack Nicholson’s ability to surprise, James Gandolfini’s use of his body and Julianne Moore’s emotional nakedness, going through the different traits he feels are necessary for fine acting.
Here’s his answer in full (via Slate):
‘If anyone tells you there are objective standards, they're full of crap. This is a matter of personal taste. There are trends. There are many people who loved Philip Seymour Hoffman's acting. But if you don't, you're not wrong. At worst, you're eccentric.
I'm a director who has been working with actors for almost 30 years, and I'm the son of a film historian. I'll give you my definition of good acting. But I really want to stress that if I say, “Pacino is great,” and you disagree, my experience does not make me right and you wrong. It just means we have different tastes.
First, for me, an actor is good if he makes me believe he's actually going through whatever his character is going through. I'm talking somewhat about physical stuff (“He really is getting shot!” “He really is jumping off a moving train!”) but mostly about psychological stuff (“He really is scared!” “He really is in love!”). If an actor seems to be faking it, he's not doing his job.
Second, the actor has to surprise me. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it's important. Except for really small parts that aren't supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g., a bank teller who just cashes the hero's checks), it's not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can't predict their every reaction before they have them. Think of how someone might react if his or her significant other ends the relationship. There are many, many truthful ways—ways that would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way. An actor's job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities. He or she must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, the actor becomes boring and predictable.
There are many ways and actor can surprise. Gary Oldman and Johnny Depp surprise us by being truthful while playing multiple, very different roles. Jack Nicholson surprises by being ... surprising. Even though he's not a chameleon like Oldman or Depp, you never know what he's going to do next. But whatever he does, it's grounded in psychological reality. It never seems fake. Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Al Pancino, and many others have a surprising danger in them. They're a little scary to be around, because you feel they might jump you or blow up at you at any time. They are ticking time bombs. And, of course, many comedic actors (e.g., Julia Louis-Dreyfus) surprise us in all sorts of quirky, zany ways. Or watch Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby—absolutely surprising and absolutely truthful. Another great example of surprising acting that never seems fake is Diane Keaton's work in Annie Hall.
Third, the actor is vulnerable. Great actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden. They are always naked. (Some are literally naked, but I'm talking about emotional nakedness.) Bad actors are guarded. They don't want to share the parts of themselves that are ugly, mean, petty, jealous, etc.
There are so many examples of actors being naked onstage and screen. My favorite is Rosalind Russell in the movie Picnic. She plays a middle-aged teacher who is in danger of growing old and dying alone. There's a heartbreaking scene in which she begs a man to marry her. She goes down on her knees in front of him. She gives up every scrap of dignity inside her and lets the scared, hurting parts of herself burst out. These are the same scared, hurt parts that are inside all of us—the parts we work hard to hide.
This ties in with everything I wrote above: When actors are exposed and raw, it's always surprising. And if it doesn't seem real, there's no point in it. In fact, this sort of emotional nakedness is very hard to fake. If you ever get a sense that an actor is showing you a secret part of himself, he probably is. Examples are Julianne Moore, Bryan Cranston, and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version. He turns himself inside out and wrings out all his pain.
Fourth, the actor knows how to listen. It's fascinating to watch actors when they're not speaking. Some are too caught up in ego or technicalities (e.g., trying to remember the next line) to totally focus on whomever it is they're acting with. Others seem to register everything they hear. You can see whatever is being said to them physically affecting them, as if the words are slapping them across the face. Watch Claire Danes. She's an amazing listener.
Fifth, the actor has a well-honed “instrument,” by which I mean he knows how to use his voice and body to serve whatever role he's playing. This doesn't necessarily mean he's slim and has a six-pack; James Gandolfini used his body well. It means he knows how to move and talk in expressive ways. His voice and body aren't fighting him or holding tension that's inappropriate to his role.
One negative example: Kristen Stewart. It's almost painful to watch her. She looks like she'd rather be anywhere else besides in front of a camera. She is (or seems) very self-conscious.
To me, Hoffman was great because he embodied all of these traits. He was vocally and physically gifted. He wasn't in great shape, but he used the shape he had in expressive ways. If you watch him closely when he's not speaking, you'll see he always listened to his co-stars closely. What they say affected him deeply, and his reactions grew organically out of whatever they had previously said or done to him. He was profoundly vulnerable. Always. This was his most distinctive trait. You always knew what you were getting from him was raw and honest. It was this rawness—as well as intelligence and a sly sense of humor—that made his work surprising and fresh. And I never once saw anything from him that seemed fake.
I don't hate Tom Cruise the way some people do. To me, he's believable most of the time. He's just not very interesting. He rarely surprises me, and he doesn't seem to dig deep into a anything raw or vulnerable inside him. He seems guarded. The must vulnerable I've seen him is in Eyes Wide Shut, in which he did some good work. But it wasn't brilliant, and it's not his norm.
Actors you think have won Oscars but haven't
Actors you think have won Oscars but haven't
1/14 Joaquin Phoenix
With three previous nominations under his belt - for films including Gladiator and The Master - it was his performance as Johnny Cash in 2005 biopic Walk the Line that was expected to see him win an Oscar (he lost to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman's for Capote).
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2/14 Bill Murray
With only one Oscar nomination to his name (2003's Lost in Translation), Bill Murray is one oversight that - in many people's eyes - could easily throw the Academy Awards into disrepute.
3/14 Brad Pitt
The ever-present fixture he remains in Hollywood today, you'd think Brad Pitt would have won an Oscar by now; while serving as producer of 2014 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, he currently has zero acting wins to his name despite three nominations (Twelve Monkeys, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Moneyball).
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4/14 Samuel L. Jackson
Considering he's one of the most bankable film stars in the world, it's a surprise that - with over 160 credits to his name - Samuel L. Jackson has only received a mere one nomination (Pulp Fiction in 1994).
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5/14 Tom Cruise
Still one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, Tom Cruise seemed like a sure awards bet back in the Nineties with films Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire and Magnolia all earning him nominations - and yet, he never once emerged victorious.
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6/14 Richard Gere
Would you believe us if we told you Richard Gere has never even been nominated? Well, it's true - and, quite honestly, shocks us quite a bit. Poor guy.
Juan Naharro Gimenez
7/14 Gary Oldman
One of the film industry's finest character actors, Gary Oldman has been nominated just the once for playing George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
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8/14 Johnny Depp
Despite his recent dip in quality, Johnny Depp has delivered several Oscar-worthy performances in the past. With a total of three nominations to his name - all for post-2000 releases including Pirates of the Caribbean and Finding Neverland - it's more a wonder he didn't receive more recognition for standout films such as Ed Wood and Donnie Brasco in the Nineties.
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9/14 Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford may now be the world's highest-grossing actor (sorry, Samuel) but still doesn't have the Academy Award to back up such a feat. In fact, he's now into his third decade of not receiving recognition from the Academy with his sole nomination arriving back in 1985 for Witness.
10/14 Edward Norton
Edward Norton is just the kind of actor you'd assume would've scooped a statuette at some stage or another, but no - Norton just has three nominations to speak of; his first in 1996 (Primal Fear), his second in 1999 (American History X) and his third just last year (Best Picture winner, Birdman).
11/14 John Malkovich
American actor John Malkovich was nominated once in 1984 (Places in the Heart) and again in 1993 (In the Line of Fire) but hasn't posed much of a threat since.
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12/14 Annette Bening
Poor Annette Bening, who has come close to victory four times (The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia and The Kids Are All Right) but is yet to clinch one.
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13/14 Glenn Close
...well, it could be worse; she could be Glenn Close who has been on the shortlist six times for films including Fatal Attraction, Dangerous Liaisons and, most recently, Albert Nobbs.
14/14 Helena Bonham Carter
Helena Bonham Carter may have received a Best Actress nomination for Wings of a Dove (1997), but it was her Best Supporting Actress nomination for 2012's Best Picture winner The King's Speech that seemed a sure bet; Melissa Leo's role in The Fighter won that round.
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Keep in mind that many people (who aren't themselves actors, directors, or obsessive film buffs) aren't very clear on what an actor contributes to a film. It's not necessary for most audiences members to understand who does what during production. Lots of people think an actor is great if they like his or her character. But that's often a function of good writing more that good acting. Or they think she's good if she pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be handicapped. Those are impressive stunts, but they aren't the core of what actors do. If you forced me to rank Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man versus Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, I'd say he did more exciting work in the latter. In Rain Man he was able to hide behind some stunts. In Kramer vs. Kramer, he just had to be truthful.
Some people think acting is good if they like the movie. Keanu Reeves, in my mind, is a horrible actor—mostly because he's wooden and fake. It often seems as if he's reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are his. There is a difference between playing an undemonstrative person and being a wooden actor. In fact, playing someone who is reserved is very difficult (because you have to act without showing very much), and the actors who pull it off are brilliant. I would point you to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, Tommy Lee Jones in many of his roles, and even Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. These actors manage to convey the sense that although they have stony exteriors there's much going on underneath.
To me, Reeves conveys an actor who is showing up and saying his lines. Having auditioned many actors, I'm used to hearing ones that can take any writer's lines and make it sound like their own words. And I'm also used to less experienced (or less gifted) ones who sound uncomfortable with words that aren't their own. They sounds as if they're are reciting or reading something. They sounds scripted. Listen to Reeves in this clip, especially at around 10 seconds in, when he says, “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count.” Many of his line-readings sound like that to me: He has not fully lifted them off the page and into his own mind and body. I don't believe much else is going on underneath except maybe nervousness. I don't know if you can see a difference between Reeves, above, and Tommy Lee Jones here. They are both pretty deadpan. The difference, for me, is that Jones seems to be speaking his own words, even though they are just as scripted as the ones Reeves speaks. Jones is just much more comfortable in his skin and much more able to “own” his lines. If you feel otherwise, that's fine. Remember, it's subjective.
But some people like Reeves because they think the Matrix films are cool. They confuse the movies with the actor. If some other actor had been in those films, those same people would have liked him, but since he plays the protagonist, they focus on him.
Finally, many people confuse an actor's life with his work. Tom Cruise is a good example. He's a high-profile scientologist, and many people dislike that religion. They dislike his acting at least in part because they find him unsavory as a person. To some extent, this may be a sign of bad acting on his part. At least, he's not a good enough actor to make people forget about his private life while they're watching him in movies. To some extent, it wouldn't matter how skilled he was. Currently, many people are having strong reactions to work by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow that have nothing to do with what they're doing on screen. I'm not even remotely saying such people are wrong, stupid, or crazy. I'm just saying that people's reactions to actors are often complicated and not 100 percent influenced by their performances.’