There is a movie that came out
in the nineties in 2001 that I had really wanted to see but somehow never did. It’s called The Believer, and stars Ryan Gosling. It concerns a Nazi in nineties New York city. It so happens that this young Nazi is a Jew who was kicked out of synagogue for his precocious impudent questions in Torah class. His Nazi compadres have no knowledge of his origins.
Well, I recently rejoined GreenCine, a local, and I guess more environmentally friendly, version of Netflix, and The Believer was the first movie I got. It is a remarkable movie. I highly recommend it. And it has harrowing relevance to the current political moment, saturated as it is with rightwing hate talk and militia activity. It is an incredibly intelligent movie that is unflinching in its examination of the frightening ardor and intellectual passion of the leaders of these groups.
What was interesting, though, was that Gosling was not good in the role. I was suprised by this. I had admired his work in Half-Nelson, and was ready to be impressed with him here. Instead, I found him to be painfully self-conscious, all scowls and poses and no visceral engagement. Only in a penultimate scene, in which he speaks to an assembly of rightwing political benefactors, does he find his footing, and by then it is way too late.
He has a tell that he is watching himself, and that is his incessant licking of the lips. If you sit in a theater and watch acting that is truly compelling, you will notice something remarkable: no one is coughing. It is not that they are consciously preventing themselves from coughing out of reverence or respect for the actor; rather, the members of the audience have largely forgotten their own bodies and its attendant physical sensations, including the need to cough. They have been induced to project themselves into the body of the actor, and hence they have almost no awareness of their own sensations, unless such sensations are very powerful and insistent. They literally for get themselves.
Conversely, an audience watching bad actors will seek to escape the embarassing spectacle before them and retreat into their own sensations and thoughts, and their will be a superabundance of coughing, almost as if the coughing were an involuntary way of complaining to the actors about their inability to enthrall.
And an actor who is truly, viscerally, engaged in what he or she is doing, truly absorbed in his effort to affect those with whom he interacts and with the vulnerability that underwrites that effort, will not be mindful of his lips and whether or not they need moisture. Occasionally, perhaps, you will see a fully engaged actor lick his or her lips, but it is not a habit or a mannerism that happens repeatedly. Gosling, in this movie, licks his lips constantly. The lip licking is the actor’s preparation to say a line, not the character’s preparation to speak. Gosling also does a lot of face-scrunching.
There were some other actors who did magnificant work, most notably Theresa Russell, Heather Goldenhersh, and Elizabeth Reaser. They act circles around Gosling. The second DVD I got from GreenCine is Lars and the Real Girl, which also stars Gosling and in which he got critical accolades. It will be interesting to see whether he is good in that. It’s possible that I was taken in by his charisma in Half-Nelson, but it’s also possible that he had an easier time finding that character in himself. Given his role in The Believer, that would not be difficult to understand.`