How do you know if somebody is good at acting like somebody else who isn't real? That's why actors who play people that were real are constantly being given awards (witness the last three best actors in a row - Forrest Whitaker as Idi Amin, Phil Hoffman as Truman Capote, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles ... and with the ladies SIX out of the last EIGHT - Helen Mirren as the Queen, Reese Witherspoon as June Carter, Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Julia Roberts as Erin Brockavich, Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena). NOW I know the fact that these were real people doesn't mean that the traits brought to the surface by the actor aren't new to us (I bet you had never seen an Aileen Wuornos impression), but still there's something going on here. [Honorable mention for Cate Blanchett's killer Dylan in I'm Not There and Johnny Depp's Hunter Thompson]
What's more, you know the performance that people often cheer for the loudest are those portrayals of disability, craziness, etc. "Hey, Sean Penn isn't really mentally retarded! That's acting!" (I've never seen that movie, but you know what I mean).
The occasion for this post is a salon.com article about Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. The article quotes a professional actor puzzled by all the lauding of Day-Lewis: "Weird how so many people confuse 'acting that you can see' with great acting," he says. NOW I'm pulling for DDL on Sunday ... that performance was one of the most stunning, memorable, most enormous things I've ever seen in a film. Perhaps rivaled only by DDL in Gangs of New York. But I think the article might be on to something.
But really, the problem is that I don't truly understand acting. This is something that I've thought about for a while. I mean I have actors and performances that I love and they often coincide with the actors and performances that critics think are great too. And while I'll go in for the BIG performance like the next guy, I can think of a number of counterpoints in smaller movies that blow me away just as much (for example Laura Linney in You Can Count On Me or Ryan Gosling in Half-Nelson). But I've never been sure how to spot bad acting. Anyone can see that Keanu Reeves is programmed to robot through every role with the same monotone and squint. So I solicit not only your opinion on the BIG performances, but what are some BAD ones (preferably bad ones that come from decent movies ... too easy to say Paris Hilton wasn't all that good in "The Hottie and the Nottie.")