Bad actors

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Sit down and watch TV or even your average movie and notice how terrible most of the acting is. Obviously, there are a few great actors (De Niro, Brando, Hugh Laurie, etc.) who really seem to be the character they're playing, but most of the time it's acutely obvious that the actor is faking. (Mrs. Guesswork likes to watch Charmed where this feature is particularly in evidence.) Consider some potential theories for the low quality of acting:
  1. It's incredibly hard to actually fool other humans, so even the best actors aren't very convincing. So, while the market may be efficient, there just aren't enough good actors for all roles to be filled by convincing actors. I'm skeptical of this theory because people seem to get regularly fooled by all manner of con-men, fraudsters, etc. (Required reading: Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini.
  2. The market is efficient but it's selecting for some factor other than pure acting talent--being very attractive, for instance. If you watch a lot of evening TV (e.g. The WB) this seems like a plausible theory, but consider that the number of attractive people far exceeds the number of actors, so this really brings us back to option 1, there aren't enough attractive people who are also good actors.
  3. The market isn't efficient, but is mostly driven by factors other than actor quality, e.g., nepotism, ability to convince directors you are easy to work with, etc. So, unsurprisingly, you end up with a lot of bad actors who are well-connected. The fact that so children of actors often become actors themselves is sort-of evidence for this, but it could also be a result of those children being on average better actors than other people, so this isn't exactly what you'd call absolute proof.

Any other theories?

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4. For the mindless fluff pieces that grace most channels at most hours, the market doesn't actually reward good acting (or for that matter, good writing), so there's very little impetus for producers to overcome any tendency towards nepotism or spend very much work to find a brilliant actor when a mediocre one will work 90% as well, as far as profits are concerned.

Or I could just be exceedingly cynical.

Mr. Guesswork (or may I call you, "Educated"?), if you want to see truly eye-poppingly bad acting on television, tune in sometime on a weekday afternoon.

My guess: today's (prime-time) television and film actors aren't so much "bad" as stylized--they conform to a particular unrealistic acting style that doesn't (and isn't really meant to) fool anyone, but can be ignored by those who are thoroughly accustomed to the style. If you watch old films from the 1930's, the acting style is very different from today's, and seems ridiculously ornate--but in a way that audiences back then (like "classic film" fans today) could comfortably "see through" and not be distracted by. Similarly, the acting on sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s makes even today's sitcom actors look like Olivier by comparison--to our eyes, at least. I remember watching them at the time, though, and not (or at least not often) noticing the bad acting.

The same thing applies to other aspects of presentation, by the way. My mother, for example, always complains that she has trouble watching modern television and movies, because she keeps getting distracted by all the actors' horribly fake hair. Needless to say, I don't find the appearance of modern actors anywhere near as artificial as those in the films she grew up with. Presumably that's because I'm accustomed to a different set of conventions.


The "acting is stylized" theory is certainly one I've subscribed to for quite some time. However, I don't think it really explains the wide range of acting quality that one observes Sure, the conventions are strange, but why don't I perceive this as uniformly bad?

The acting industry is vicious and cut-throat, not to mention hard to get into. Just to get a part, one must survive countless rejections, embarassments, and dressings-down. On top of that, acting requires one to make himself somewhat vulnerable emotionally, and so it takes a certain kind of person just to make it through all the bullshit and into the rolodexes of people who matter.

Talent and attractiveness matter, but nowhere near as much as the sheer determination, resilience, and focus do. So, really, the pool from which casting directors pull their talent comprises of either the naturally well connected, or the ruthlessly determined. Appearance is the next factor, followed at a distance by talent.

Also, two of the actresses in 'Charmed' have been in the business since childhood, so they may not even bother trying anymore.

I forgot to mention, I also agree with what the two have said above me. It's a multitude of factors, I'm sure.

Truly convincing acting is very hard because it has to be effective for a very broad audience, and it has to look like you're not doing it when every other cue says you are. Being a con man is much easier, because you can tailor your performance to the single audience member, small group, or affinity group at hand; these folks also start off not knowing you are acting.

The best acting I've personally ever seen has been in improv,
where someone creates a character out of thin air and lets
the character's internals shape the piece. It is also the venue
for truly terrible pieces. Sometimes the same actors are
involved.

Did you stop watching primetime television for a while? I did, and now on the rare occasions when I watch, it all looks very weird to me. I assume that dramatic forms like television and film evolve over time, and one's sense of the "natural" conventions can get frozen in time if one stops watching. Or perhaps one just gets out of practice at interpreting the conventions, sort of the way cheese started tasting very strange to me--really greasy, and kind of "off"--after I had stopped eating it regularly for a long time. (When was the last time you saw De Niro, anyway? Are you sure he's still convincing? Did you find him compelling in, say, "Meet the Parents", or "Analyze This", or their sequels?)

You might want to try an experiment: watch a lot of primetime television for a while, and see if your sense that the acting is awful goes away....

My theory is that many viewers confuse the actor with the role -- and that they like it that way. Magazines like People and Us follow celebrities and compare them to the roles they're currently playing, feeding this kind of interest. So we don't watch Charmed only to see Piper, Phoebe and Paige, we also watch it to see Coombs, Milano and McGowan. I didn't watch American Treasure because I was curious about the exploits of Benjamin Franklin Gates, but because I wanted to see Nicholas Cage -- also not a top actor -- do his schtick. So the skills that qualify one to be an actor aren't just believably playing a diverse set fo roles, or being pretty, but also having an attractive schtick and making the audience care about the personality in some way.

In fact, I suspect the celebrity/actor personality that the audience cares about and watches is sometimes itself fake -- an on-screen personality that the actor finds clicks with a certain audience so they repeat it, performance after performance. If you're not one of the ones for whom that personality seems attractive or otherwise interesting, the schtick just gets in the way.

Mrs. Guesswork has a point. Reading commentary on "Sith Happens" and relating it to the earlier Star Wars movies, I saw the point made that Harrison Ford (and Carrie Fisher) weren't really acting, that's their personality. Jack Nicholson plays creepy demented people, because he's creepy and demented. Or, at a minimum, those actors have those people inside them already, and aren't acting. However, there are only so many people who have appropriate characters built into them who are also able to memorize lines, handle all the crap that the acting business throws at them, are attractive enough and willing to maintain it, and have the determination to get "discovered". So you get people who have everything except the interesting character inside them.

Acting is an extremely inefficient market. The problem isn't a lack of good actors - there are tons of starving actors, many of them extremely talented and good looking. The problem is that people get roles through auditions, and auditions are done by directors and producers. The market for directors and producers is even more inefficient than the market for actors, and their incompetence causes bad audition assessments.

Producers tend to be people who just happen to have money (duh), and any market with a high cost of entry is highly inefficient. Directors tend to be people who have money, shmoozed the right people, or in some cases got lucky with a big hit already. Obviously the money and shmoozing aspects have no correlation with directorial talent, and the big hit one has a lot less than you would expect. Close to 100% of a film's success is attributed to the director, when in fact that success has a lot to do with the script, the actors, and most important of all a good marketing campaign.

Star actors have a similar problem. There are insurance companies which try to guess how much value an actor brings to a movie, and they attribute way too much to having starred in a previous hit movie, which has a lot more to do with having a good agent who can find and get you good roles than actually excelling in those roles. There's also a lot of being willing to fuck the director or producer involved.

Capping it off is the very small amount of competition in movies - only a relatively small number get played in theaters, and even fewer get enough of a marketing campaign to have any hope of being a big hit.

In short, the market for movies generally is extremely inefficient, and the market for actors is inefficient as a result. What's really puzzling is how bad the scripts are - with the thousands of scripts written every year, you'd think only the really good ones would get picked out. A friend of mine explained to me that there are basically two approaches to writing a movie - either a finished script is picked out, or a producer commisions a writer to do a script which they're given a basic outline for. In the latter case, the writer does the bare minimum necessary to get paid, then stops, because they have no further incentive to work on the project.

If you'd like to see a completely typical example of hollywood idiocy in action, watch 'project greenlight'. In the second episode of the first season, a couple of honest to goodness studio executives have to pick between three remaining scripts, and their only real criterion is that they should pick the one which can be made for under a million dollars, and they pick ... the most expensive of the three, weighing in at over 2 million.

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