In the past two months, we have lost two Oscar winning actors, Paul Scofield and Charlton Heston. The Brit Scofield was only two years older than the Yankee Heston, but they were from two completely different schools of acting. Though a stage actor, Scofield's instincts on film were always to underplay, and Heston's instincts were almost always to overplay.
If you look at the history of film acting, underplaying is the modern style, and even those who play big nowadays do it lot more subtly than it was done in days gone by. It's not that one way is right and the other is wrong. Underplaying badly turns in a wooden performance, and overplaying badly is being a ham. Some actors have instances of both styles in their careers. Edward G. Robinson was overplaying a lot of roles in his early career, and he became easy to impersonate and mock, but in movies like The Stranger with Orson Welles and The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen, he plays it cool with the best of them. Sometimes in a movie with lots of cool and quiet actors, it helps to have someone chewing the scenery a little to kick up the energy level. McQueen and Robinson look even cooler because Jack Weston plays Pig the way he does, and Eli Wallach's Mexican desperado roles in The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly are excellent examples of overplaying as the perfect foil to underplaying.
I didn't agree with Heston's politics, but there are plenty of times when I agreed with his acting choices. I loved him in Touch of Evil, where he underplayed somewhat to let Orson Welles and others go over the top. His overplaying style was used perfectly in Kenneth Brannagh's Hamlet, where Heston plays the Actor King. The overplaying vs. underplaying dynamic works very well in Soylent Green in the scenes opposite the cooler Edward G. Robinson.
There are a couple of times, though, where I think Heston bit off more than he could chew or the writing failed him. An example of the first case is when he did the TV version of Man for All Seasons. It was a foolish choice to step into the role that Scofield had already done to near perfection. He couldn't help but look like a ham.
Where the writing failed him was in a Bud Light commercial that first aired in the 1996 Super Bowl. Bud Light had a recurring character whose trademark line was a teary "I love you, man", after which someone would tell him he was not getting the last Bud Light. This guy meets Heston at a Hollywood party. The final gag of the spot is Heston reading "I love you man!" in a completely different way, and someone giving him a Bud Light immediately. The problem for me in this thing was this. The guy who did the "I love you, man" bit actually read it perfectly. If you have ever been with a teary drunk, you recognize the signs immediately when this guy starts choking up. Heston's reading might strike a familiar note on the planet Remulak, or somewhere else where human emotions have never been seen, but the bizarreness of his choice made the joke fall flat, and it was a clear sign that the series of ads had run out of gas.
In fairness, I should point out bad choices Scofield made. I just can't think of any. He didn't make that many movies, but I liked him in everything I ever saw.
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