I always thought that it was kind of perverse that Quentin Tarantino cast Robert DeNiro, probably the greatest American actor since Marlon Brando, in a key role in Jackie Brown, only to have it end up being a part where DeNiro had almost nothing to say, being that he portrayed a mumbling, inarticulate ex-con who spent most of his time stoned, getting stoned, wanting sex or having sex. At the time, it seemed to me like brilliant anti-casting, in a sense, giving the audience the actor who we most want, but not giving him much to say, or do, or act.
But I just read a quote from another brilliant actor, Daniel Day Lewis, in the current issue of The New York Times magazine online, which made me realize that I had it all wrong. (Which is usually the case, I'm afraid.)
People who delight in conversation are often using that as a means to not say what is on their minds. When I became interested in theater, the work I admired was being done by working-class writers. It was often about the inarticulate. I later saw the same thing in DeNiro's early work -- it was the most sublime struggle of a man trying to express himself. There was such poetry in that for me...
I now know and understand that I had it all backwards. DeNiro's best work had always been as characters trying, sometimes in vain, often with varying degrees of limited success, to articulate ideas that they could not find the words for: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, True Confessions, Awakenings, and even his comedic work in Meet The Parents and Analyze This. These are people who have a lot going on inside of them, but do not quite know how to put it. Or when they do speak out, it's usually mangled and inappropriate, the wrong words at the wrong time. (Think of DeNiro inviting Jodie Foster out on a date to a porno movie in Taxi Driver, then being puzzled by her sickened reaction.) When we see that struggle, we see ourselves.
Thinking, too, of one of my favorite movies, Rocky, and how each main character throughout the film doesn't know quite what to say or how to say it. (And how Stallone was capable, thirty years later, of so succesfully replicating that hesitant, groping, working-class vulnerability, stripped of pretension, in Rocky Balboa.)
Or think about some of the most cinematic characters of recent years that have touched people the most: Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, silent and brooding, or Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, his face a blank slate strew across a world colored mad, or Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, or Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, a death-row prisoner stuck within the walls of himself, or as the mentally-challenged Starbucks worker in I Am Sam (a brilliant performance in a terrible movie), or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, limited by his own, erratic brilliance, or even Matt Damon in the Bourne movies, too frenetic and driven to announce his own insecurities, or as the lifelong C.I.A. man in the underappreciated The Good Shepherd, too duty bound by tradition and family and expectation to even hint at his own, private heart. All characters that have volcanoes churning inside of them, both pleasant and volatile and mysterious and benign, and they are not capable of saying what it is that they want, or need.
In this world of unending Facebook updates and blathering blogs, where we're constantly telling each other what we feel and how we're doing and what we're doing and what we think in extended, unasked for monologues, it's somewhat startling to comprehend that the most moving works of art are usually the ones that acknowledge the inarticulate nature within us all.
Especially when we watch such characters up there, on the giant screen, we wonder. We wait for them to speak, anticipating what they may or may not say, and when they don't say the right words, or enough of them, we are quietly pulled in. Tugged in, almost. And when they do attempt to connect it is often never enough, and their humanity, their reality, quietly becomes something else, something real that we can recognize as ourselves writ large.