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Right now, individually and as a species, we spend more of our time looking at moving images of other people than at any other moment in human history. I don’t have data to support that claim, but come on: You and I both know it has to be true. What else have we been doing for the last two years?
Even before the pandemic annexed previously I.R.L. interactions, turning work meetings and family gatherings into extensions of screen time, the writing was on the wall. Maybe that’s the wrong cliché: The shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave stopped being metaphors. They were us.
A history of how this came to be — how screen life came to dominate reality, replacing large swaths of it and reconfiguring others — might begin with movies, with one of those origin myths about how early audiences mistook projected pictures for physical phenomena. Our naïve ancestors, one legend tells us, saw a black-and-white silent clip of a train pulling into a station and scrambled to get out of its way. Nowadays, our gullibility runs in the other direction. We might doubt the fact of a real locomotive if there were a video on YouTube questioning its existence.
Really, though, what is happening to our minds, our morals and our politics has very little to do with movies, or television, or the other technologies that we used to blame for corrupting our youth and messing with our epistemology. What Susan Sontag called “the image-world” is now just the world. “The powers of photography,” she wrote in the 1970s, have made it “less and less plausible to reflect upon our experience according to the distinction between images and things, between copies and originals.” And, we might add, between experience and performance.
That, along with everything else, complicates this Great Performers, traditionally an annual celebration of movie stars.
In 2020, when Covid all but halted movie openings and made in-person photo shoots hazardous, we responded by opening up Great Performers, for the first time, to include performances in nonmovie media: actors who worked mainly in television; stand-up comedians; TikTok artists and Twitter jesters. We could have gone further, of course, making room for politicians and public health officials, anti-mask tantrum-throwers and their designated shamers, influencers and meme-mongers and toddlers who tumbled into frame during parental work Zooms. All of them could be classified as performers, and some of them were pretty great.
This year, we faced a similar quandary. Movies are back, sort of, but it isn’t as if the status quo has been magically restored. This time, the urgent questions felt a little different. Not so much “Who is a performer” — because finally, who isn’t? — but rather: “What does a performer do to earn our attention?”
What is the matter of performance, and why do some performances matter? The first part is to some extent objective. It’s possible, and can be a lot of fun, to analyze the particulars of technique that make the work work. Will Smith’s Louisiana drawl, thigh-hugging shorts and rounded shoulders in “King Richard,” details of an impersonation of Venus and Serena Williams’s father that relies on and repurposes Smith’s own familiar and durable charm. Gaby Hoffmann’s sparrowish quickness and hawklike focus in “C’mon C’mon.” Joaquin Phoenix’s shambling, loose-hipped movement in the same film. The menacing stillness and disarmingly graceful brutality of Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog.” The vocal, facial and gestural counterpoint of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in “Passing.” The heartbreaking naturalness of Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman,” twin sisters using their resemblance and rapport to play, of all things, a daughter and her mother.
But analysis can only go so far. The effect that actors have — the source of their power and fascination — is more than just subjective. It’s interpersonal. Watching them act, we don’t simply appreciate their discipline or admire their craft. Whether they are professionals or not, whether they are pretending to be well-known figures from literature and history (Macbeth, Princess Diana), ordinary people or themselves, they offer the potent, sometimes uncomfortable possibility of intimacy. The illusion they create isn’t that they really are who they are playing, but rather that, whoever they are, we know them.
The process of choosing — of gleaning, from the universe of performances, 10 or a dozen great ones — has felt to me more personal this year than it has before. Less governed by the intellectual procedures of criticism, more fully influenced by mysteries of taste and affection. This year’s Great Performers is devoted to 14 actors whose presence I couldn’t shake, who would not quit me.
One thing they have in common — maybe the only thing, beyond their effect on me — is that they appear in stand-alone, feature-length narratives. In the olden days (which ended around 2017), it would have been clear that we were talking about movies rather than television, but thanks to streaming that distinction is now fully obsolete. “The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s epic, wide-screen western, is a Netflix thing. So is the exquisitely silver-toned period psychodrama of Rebecca Hall’s “Passing.” So is Bo Burnham’s one-man stand-up-special-cum-video-diary, “Inside.” Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” with its light-and-shadow cinematography and expressionist set design — and with a haggard, volcanic Denzel Washington in the title role — will appear on Apple TV+.
The flood of digital content comes from a single tap, which can make everything seem equivalent. An Instagram feed, a British baking show, old “30 Rock,” new “Insecure,” plumbing tips and porn — all that stuff might share your algorithms with past and present masterworks of cinema. The old taste hierarchies that would stack such offerings (and their fans) into pyramids of cultural status are a distant memory.
Aesthetic distinctions still matter, though, and may reside precisely in the various kinds of connection that different forms offer. Episodic narratives, with their busy ensembles, are simulations of social and domestic life. They concern people in groups, inserting the viewer into the dynamics of collective behavior. From episode to episode, your allegiances and tolerances will shift in ways that are anticipated and manipulated by the creators. As you watch “Succession,” let’s say, you might get annoyed with Kendall and decide to hang out with Roman and Gerri. When that becomes too kinky, you seek refuge in Shiv’s cynicism or cousin Greg’s goofiness. And then Logan does something that makes you feel sorry for Kendall all over again. The whole time, of course, you keep reminding yourself that you don’t really like any of these people. (Even if you’ve never watched the show, you get what I’m talking about. The same thing happens with “White Lotus,” “Grey’s Anatomy” or “The Real Housewives.”) At the other end of the spectrum, the stars of TikTok offer beguiling glimpses and whispered confidences — a state of perpetual flirtation that teases and endlessly defers the promise of something more.
A single story contained in a more-or-less two-hour vessel — what we used to just call a movie — offers a form of engagement that is less extensive than any serial and also more intense. Cinephiles worried about the disappearance of movie theaters lament the potential loss of ephemeral communities that assemble when an audience of strangers gathers in a big, dark room. I’d suggest that what defines cinema as an art form is another kind of communion, the brief flickering of a unique bond with the people onscreen.
The movies that generated this collection of performers vary enormously with respect to genre, tone, scale and theme. What they share is close attention to a single person functioning either within a circumscribed, highly charged set of relationships or in a state of isolation. Bo Burnham in his studio. Macbeth in his madness. Kristen Stewart’s Diana (in “Spencer”) in the empty chambers and whispering corridors of Sandringham House. Emi (Katia Pascariu) on the streets of Bucharest in “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.” Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the widowed theater artist in “Drive My Car,” alone with his grief and guilt. Even the gregarious Richard Williams seems like a man apart, a stranger in the white, privileged world of competitive tennis, sometimes at odds with his own family.
It’s not surprising that loneliness is a recurrent feature — a subject, a mood, an artistic strategy — in Covid-shadowed cinema. (The pandemic itself, the subject and setting of “Inside,” also features explicitly in “Bad Luck Banging” and obliquely in “Drive My Car.” In the first, Pascariu wears a surgical mask almost the whole time; in the second, the masks show up in an epilogue that takes place some time after the main story.) It also strikes me that solitude is a source of these characters’ credibility, of the uncanny sense of recognition we (or I, at least) feel in their presence.
The idea that movies run on empathy — a key insight of the great film critic Roger Ebert — is by now something of a truism. But empathy can be counterfeited, coerced and abused. Audiences can be tricked into caring about people who aren’t worthy of it. Or, even worse, we can restrict our caring only to people who obviously deserve it, who we have decided in advance merit our solidarity, pity or identification. A better standard might be curiosity — the feeling that we are in the company of someone worth knowing, however complicated that knowledge may turn out to be.
One of the key words in the contemporary lexicon is “performative,” which functions in the more heavily polemicized zones of the internet as a fancy synonym for “insincere.” A wholly accusatory term — nothing you would ascribe to yourself or your allies — it implies that whoever you are accusing isn’t really mad, concerned or passionate about whatever the day’s news cycle has tossed in their path but is only pretending to be.
Not to be that guy, but this usage is the opposite of what philosopher J.L. Austin meant by “performative,” a quasi-technical term he applied to a speech act that does what it says. Examples are scarce and specific: when you say “I swear” in a court of law or “I fold” at a poker table, you’re using performatives. You can fold your cards reluctantly or mistakenly, but not ironically. The words are the deed.
These divergent definitions suggest an interesting tension within our understanding of what it is to perform, perhaps especially in a world where we presume everything is being done for show. A performance is, by definition, something false, put on, artificial, self-conscious. And also, by the opposing definition, something authentic, persuasive, organic, true.
In his book “The Method,” which will be published early next year, the critic and stage director Isaac Butler traces the history of this tension as it applies to acting. Starting in prerevolutionary Russia, a new approach to theater insisted on truth — as opposed to eloquence, bravura or technical skill — as the highest value in acting. Its guru was Konstantin Stanislavsky. The Russian word perezhivanie, usually rendered as “experience” and described by Butler as “a state of fusion between actor and character,” was the key to Stanislavsky’s system.
The experience of the character is what the actor explores inwardly and communicates outwardly, in such a way that the spectator accepts what he or she knows is not the case. We don’t mistake Will Smith for Richard Williams, Kristen Stewart for Diana or Bo Burham for himself, but we nonetheless believe them.
The arrival of Stanislavsky’s teaching in America — where it was preached as the Method by teachers like Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and practiced by artists like Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando and Kim Stanley — coincided with a renewed commitment to realism in theater and film. For actors, the always elusive, you-know-it-when-you-see-it standard of realism was not faithful mimicry so much as psychological truth. There were differing ideas about how that could be achieved, but a basic tenet was that the feelings, memories and impulses of the performer were tools for mastering the character.
The Method peaked in the 1950s and ’60s, but the mystique of authenticity remains. In popular culture, “method acting” now refers to an extreme commitment to erasing the boundary between character and self, a kind of total identification that is in many respects the opposite of what Stanislavsky and his American followers espoused. It means throwing yourself headlong into a character: speaking in dialect 24/7; gaining or losing a lot of weight; embracing outlandish behavior; neglecting personal hygiene. Not to find the sources of the character within yourself, but to make yourself, almost literally, into the character, to go so far into the performance that you are no longer performing.
If you follow that logic far enough, it starts to loop back on itself. Didn’t we already establish that everyone is always performing? Doesn’t that make every performance a meta-performance? Isn’t authenticity another kind of artifice?
That infinite regression — the abyss of self-consciousness that opens up whenever we open our mouths or turn on our cameras — is the explicit subject of “Inside.” Like Burnham’s previous stand-up specials, and like everyone else’s, it is addressed directly to an audience. The difference is that the audience is absent, and that Burnham’s performance is contained by a literal fourth wall. Alone in a room during lockdown, with a lighting rig, a keyboard and some other equipment but no other cast or crew, he plays with time — Does this last for 90 minutes? A year? Your whole life? — and with the conventions of online self-presentation. He undermines his privileged, white-male assumptions with self-awareness, and then undermines the assumption that self-awareness can accomplish anything. He mocks selfie and Instagram culture with the language of their own self-mockery. He fakes emotion so knowingly that when what looks like real emotion breaks out — when he weeps or raves or curls up in a ball — we have to be suspicious, even if we’re moved. He is either laying open his innermost self (one meaning of the title) or else showing off his specialized knowledge of how the manipulation of meaning works (another possible meaning of the title). Or both, because the point is that there isn’t a difference.
Unless you really pay attention. Movies are often said to resemble dreams in the way they assemble fragmentary images and fugitive meanings into illusions of continuity. The internet, by contrast, replicates — and also, of course, consumes — waking consciousness, fragmenting experience into shards of distraction, dissociation and randomness. That’s the experience Burnham tries to capture in “Inside,” but you understand what he’s doing only if you keep watching, without checking your texts or your Twitter feed or using the screen-in-screen feature to keep track of the playoff game.
That kind of exclusive engagement is something Burnham pointedly (and poignantly) begs for, even as he doubts it exists. His neediness turns a subtext of performance into text. Look at me! See me! Understand me! But like every other performer, he’s also saying the opposite: I’m not who you think I am. I’m not really here.
What is it like to live inside that doubleness, to practice a self-presentation that it also self-erasure? The Diana in “Spencer” might have something to say about that. Kristen Stewart in “Spencer” absolutely does. The argument about how good an actress she is has long been settled. Her skill was never in dispute around here; this is her third Great Performers appearance. But her work in “Spencer” represents a new level of achievement, and not primarily because of the technical hurdles she clears. The accent is faultless, the posture impeccable, the mix of vulnerability and grit completely persuasive. But this isn’t Kristen Stewart disappearing into the role. It’s closer to the old Method ideal of an actor using her own experience to gain access to the inner life of the character. A big part of the experience that fuses Stewart to Diana is the experience of being a movie star, of living from a very young age in the glare of public scrutiny, of losing the boundary between your private and your performing self.
I don’t mean that “Spencer” is shadow autobiography, or that Stewart identifies with Diana (though it’s easy enough to suppose that she sympathizes with some aspects of the princess’s plight). I’m more interested in the ways the film feeds our curiosity about both women, flattering and challenging our sense that we know them. We are taken into Diana’s confidence even as we are aware of invading her privacy, of witnessing her private agonies and anxieties. A terrible thing about her situation, among judgmental in-laws and all-seeing members of the royal staff, is the absence of anyone she can entirely trust. There turn out to be a few exceptions: her young sons; a kind dresser played by Sally Hawkins. Above all, there is the audience. Everyone else will betray her, but not us.
Maybe that’s too much. Maybe you recoil from that imposition. “Spencer” is like “Inside” in the way it risks alienating the viewer by demanding a kind and intensity of attention we may not be willing to confer. It also asks us to appreciate the way Diana learns to master the role of herself — to become more authentic not by rejecting the performance of princesshood but by taking control of it.
Maybe that’s just what a great actor does. And maybe, right now, the truest performances — the great performances — are the ones that double that accomplishment, that require actors to play actors. The two women at the center of “Passing,” Ruth Negga’s Clare and Tessa Thompson’s Irene, are friends from childhood, both Black, who find themselves on opposite sides of the color line in 1920s New York. Not that it’s so simple as that. Clare, married to a racist white man, intentionally passes for white. Irene, who lives in Harlem and is active in the Negro Welfare League, is sometimes mistaken for white in other parts of the city. Which one is performing, and what role? Those questions generate a lot of suspense and also a sense of vertigo about what is real, who is telling the truth, and whether authenticity has any bearing at all in matters of race and sexuality.
The beauty of the film lies in the contrast between the two central performances. Negga plays Irene as a risk-taker and an extrovert, delighting in her secret, in the danger of exposure, and in the ongoing, improvisatory imperatives of passing. Thompson’s Irene, repressed, serious and anxious, is driven to distraction, and ultimately to violence, less by Clare’s enactment of whiteness than by the lightness of spirit she brings to it. Clare knows how to act, so to speak, while Irene, forced into a performance of respectable, middle-class motherhood, feels trapped in a lie.
Emi, in “Bad Luck Banging,” is ensnared in the consequences of a performance that found the wrong audience. A sex tape that she made with her husband finds its way onto the internet, causing a scandal at the school where Emi teaches. The first three minutes of the movie consist of that tape, which means that Pascariu, like Emi — Pascariu as Emi, though we don’t know that yet — is introduced in a state of maximum physical exposure. For the rest of the film, she is fully dressed and almost always masked, which removes some of the usual resources of screen performance. There are barely any close-ups, no visible smiles or grimacing, so we try to read her mood through her eyes and the crease between them. At the end, she confronts a hostile audience of parents who watch the naughty clip in her presence and then enact a theater of shaming and bad-faith argument, both for and against her. If the greatness of some of the other performances lies in their achievement of intimacy, Pascariu’s is great because she defends Emi’s privacy and preserves her dignity, reminding us how much we don’t know about her, even if we think we’ve seen everything.
And so it is with Julie Harte, the young filmmaker played by Honor Swinton Byrne in Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II.” In the first “Souvenir,” Julie fell in love with an eccentric fellow who turned out to be a compulsive liar and a heroin addict, and in the sequel she is making a film about their relationship and his death. This is an overtly autobiographical film, set in the 1980s, and Julie’s movie-within-the-movie, a student film, is a replica of Hogg’s own early work. The two “Souvenir” movies together seem to amount to an act of total cinematic exposure, but they also affirm just how mysterious even our own experience can be. And the key to the mystery — not the solution to it but the dark center of it — is Swinton Byrne’s quiet, reserved, at times almost affectless performance. We know her by not knowing her; her performance hides as much as it reveals.
Which is just what people are like. And acting, finally, is a way of acquainting us with the strangeness of being human. One of the most perfect metaphors for this strangeness — and also one of the most perceptive considerations of acting I’ve seen onscreen — comes in “Drive My Car,” adapted by Ryusuke Hamaguchi from a Haruki Murakami short story. The main character, Yusuke, an actor and director, specializes in an unusual form of experimental theater, presenting classic plays with multinational casts, each actor speaking in their own native language. At a theater workshop in Hiroshima, he assembles a cast for Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” with dialogue in Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean and Korean sign language. The actors prepare by mastering the timing of the lines, and by receiving the psychological meaning of words they don’t literally understand.
The result, as presented onscreen and threaded through Yusuke’s own emotional turmoil, is almost shatteringly powerful. As Yusuke, Nishijima stands at a slight remove from the play-within-the-movie, since Yusuke hasn’t cast himself. Instead, he watches, as we watch, a kind of miracle unfold. The tenderness and melancholy of Chekhov’s play, its nuances of thwarted ambition, misdirected desire and piercing devotion, don’t emerge in spite of the linguistic cacophony, but by means of it. A more concentrated, almost spiritual form of understanding ripples among the actors — finally including Yusuke himself — and it seems to flow outward, from the stage to the theater audience and then from the screen to you. You don’t quite believe what you’ve seen, but you feel it. More than that: You know it.