In the early nineties there was much sport in picking on Keanu Reeves. His (mis)casting in My Own Private Idaho is essential: his callowness meshes with his Prince Hal manqué. My cousin took to calling him the world’s worst actor, and after watching Reeves in Little Buddha and Bram Stoker’s Dracula I was sympathetic. Yet in the former, Bernardo Bertolucci’s inert and rather woolly-headed cross between Jean Renoir’s The River and the 1946 camp adaptation of The Razor’s Edge, Reeves took a risk playing Siddharta. I can’t think of another actor in 1993 who would’ve essayed this imitation besides Meryl Streep. Alec Guinness, whose own rendition of an Indian in A Passage to India suffered from the actor’s exhaustive winking at the camera.
Little Buddha marked one of the last times that Reeves played a historical role; after the release of Speed he started a run during which he played stolid action heroes. I remember the hooting when people learned he played a cop trying to keep a city bus from dropping below 88 mph or whatever it is; but his goofy tranquility meshed with Sandra Bullock’s more conventional starmaking performance as the passenger hastily drafted into chauffering the bus. Then Neo beckoned. Making a mint off The Matrix, Reeves found his niche playing a levitating simulacrum of a men’s magazine ad, a pop version of Alain Delon’s terse killer in Le Samourai; he’s weightless yet fragrant, a cloud of Calvin Klein cologne.
Whether you buy Bright Wall/Dark Room praising Reeves’ “transfixing stillness” depends to some degree on readers’ ability to forget Sweet November. “Keanu’s failed performances are those that push him toward a theatricality against his natural instincts,” they write. “They also tend to be the kind of roles actors use to challenge or prove themselves—difficult accents, lush period pieces, reliance on verbal dexterity.” The point that interests me is their skepticism at the kind of acting often rewarded by amateurs like the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Accents, changes in physique, range – these things are so taken for granted as far as forming part of genius that no one questions them. It explains the aura of invincibility around Streep and Cate Blanchett: the performance’s goodness is commensurate with the effort expended on its behalf. College instructors don’t accept but-I-tried-so-hard from students, after all. From the piece:
Critics and audiences alike have a warped view of the history of acting, as if “true” cinematic acting began with the deification of Marlon Brando, followed by the 1970s glory days of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Each of these actors pronouncedly transform themselves from role to role. They take on various accents with panache, layer on idiosyncrasies, whittle their bodies down or bulk themselves up. A character is a costume to put on and never take off until the last camera rolls. It isn’t a coincidence that Jake Gyllenhaal and Matthew McConaughey’s recent renaissances and newfound respect both involved dramatic weight loss. Keanu is one of the few high-profile modern actors to not go for willful physical transformation or uglify himself for gravitas. If you’re not “transforming” as an actor, there is a belief that you’re doing something wrong.
Citing the terrific Point Break, the essay muses on those male actors who “fight against the lustful gaze of the camera.” Thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal, Channing Tatum, and Oscar Isaac, this presumption is starting to look quaint. With the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage, actors like the three mentioned woo the male gaze; if it keeps them from accepting token gay parts for the sake of “expanding” their “range,” bless them.
I don’t have much to contribute. My last Reeves flick was Constantine.