I was outraged by the choice of Keira Knightley to play Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. “That woman,” I complained to my sister Rachel, “is known for her toned midriff, not her acting talent.” Although Knightley did a passable job in a decent film adaptation, I considered her subsequent Oscar nod an affront.
Rachel agreed with my assessment of the actress’s mediocrity, even if I couldn’t follow through with my plan to avoid her films. The problem was, Knightley kept selecting intriguing feminist roles, not the cheesy romantic leads her looks surely could have garnered her. The groundbreaking historical women she brought to life on the screen in The Duchess and A Dangerous Method led me to hours of fascinating research.
And then this year, an Oscar nod again, this time for an interesting biopic, The Imitation Game. When I grumbled about her second nomination, my sister disagreed. “I’ve changed my mind about her. Watch Begin Again. Two great films in one year. She has such good taste.”
And there it was, the trait so often ignored when we talk about acting: taste. Sometimes; as with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Cary Grant; we get both: good films and incredible talent. But so often, we can’t select a movie based on the cast and assume we’ll enjoy it. Why? Because so many skilled performers have Nicholas Cage judgment.
Recall Halle Berry, still gilded from her Oscar win, choosing a bad Bond flick and Catwoman to cement her legacy. Or the previously reliable Morgan Freeman. His films since The Shawshank Redemption make me feel like a comet has crashed into my brain.
Is it possible that taste is more important than talent? I’m not saying that judgment trumps skill if the acting is bad enough to spoil the film. (I’m looking at you, Andie MacDowell.) But if the actor or actress is decent, might good taste matter more?
Let’s take another example: an actress even less versatile and skilled than Keira Knightley (who is admittedly rising in my estimation). Katie Holmes is better known for being the ex of Tom Cruise than for her acting. Her performances are largely forgettable, but her films are not. Even during her Dawson’s Creek years, Holmes displayed remarkable discrimination in her choices. The following are my favorites of her credits (the first and fifth I rewatch often):
- Thank You for Smoking
- Batman Begins
- Pieces of April
- The Gift
- Wonder Boys
By rarely starring and choosing movies that feature fine performers, Holmes has ensured I don’t need to rely on her skill to enjoy her films. Her mere presence in Woman in Gold is making me reconsider it despite lukewarm reviews. I trust her taste to impress as much as I trust Cage’s to disappoint. (I vowed during Snake Eyes never to watch his films again. Alas, I caved, remembering Raising Arizona, and even let my husband bring home Drive Angry, which did, in fact, make me angry.)
Of course, it’s hard to place the same kind of trust in the taste of classic film performers. Since studios held such tight reign over their stars, performers’ ability to select was limited. But now and then, you can, as in the interesting case of Norma Shearer.
I’m not a big fan of Shearer’s acting, which I usually find too theatrical. That said, I always enjoy her films, even staid period dramas such as Marie Antoinette and antifeminist flicks such as The Women. But it’s her fight to play liberated women in the pre-Code era that makes me trust her judgment. A woman who would go to a photographer for sexy shots just so she’d be considered for parts like that of Jerry in The Divorcee? That’s an actress I can trust. And in pre-Code films, she relaxes the affectations and easy tears that occasionally mar her pictures. Shearer is never on my list of favorite film actresses, but just writing these words has made me long to see The Divorcee again.
Are there stars whose films you go to see in spite of the mediocrity of their acting? Which talented stars’ movies do you avoid due to the Cage syndrome? And what is up with Sandra Bullock’s love for Razzie-caliber roles?