The great William H. Macy has said that it was his mentor-collaborator David Mamet who first told him that acting can be a noble profession.
Even the most heralded actors sometimes seem to shy away from talking about their love of the craft; it’s human nature to dismiss entertainment as “not rocket science.” Sometimes there’s an embarrassment to admitting that an acting career is an extension of playing dress up and pretend as children — some just never grew out of it.
But when actors truly ply their craft — and make no mistake, it is a craft — the results can be astounding. We have all come to know the three leading men of “Foxcatcher”: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum. Yet they all disappear so fluidly into their roles, we don’t see stars. We see a troubled billionaire, a family man and an athlete living in his brother’s shadow. While taking on the role of Martin Luther King Jr. would seem an impossible task, David Oyelowo’s star-making turn never veers into mere imitation (above). Eddie Redmayne literally risked his physical health to slip into the skin of Stephen Hawking.
Even actresses we think we know have managed to surprise us. Reese Witherspoon bared her soul and body to portray Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” Julianne Moore continued to astound with a raw turn as a professor suffering from Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” And the ladies of “Birdman” — Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan and Naomi Watts — create characters who could each warrant their own movie.
Performances like these required an astounding amount of preparation and work, all in the name of making it look natural. Anyone who thinks acting is easy should, quite simply, try it. If you’re right, maybe you’re the next Daniel Day-Lewis and you’ve found a new career path. But most people would not want to endure the countless rejections, the horrible auditions or the wide-open criticisms.
But when actors get it right, as so many have this year, there is something marvelous and transcendent that happens in that darkened theater or home television or laptop computer. Sometimes it moves us to laughter or tears. It’s something that makes us see another point of view or open our minds and hearts. When that occurs, movies are magic. And acting is truly noble.