How does one differentiate between "good" and "bad" acting?

February 24, 2016

Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director, Folding Chair Classical Theatre, NYC

 

 

If anyone tells you there are objective standards, they're full of shit. This is a matter of personal taste. There are trends. There are many people who loved Hoffman's acting. But if you don't, you're not wrong. At worst, you're eccentric.

(An interesting question—and one you didn't ask so I won't answer it, here—is why are there trends? Even if Hoffman isn't objectively a great actor, why do so many people love him? For that matter, why do so many people love the Beatles, Shakespeare, and Leonardo Da Vinci? Maybe someone will ask a question about why there are general trends in taste...)

I'm a director who has been working with actors for almost 30 years, and I'm the son of a film historian. I'll give you my definition of good acting. But I really want to stress (for the last time, then I'll quit) is that if I say Pacino is great and you disagree, my experience does not make me right and you wrong. It just means we have different tastes.

For me, an actor is good if ...

1. he makes me believe he's actually going through whatever his character is going through. I'm talking somewhat about physical stuff ("He really is getting shot!" "He really is jumping off a moving train!") but mostly about psychological stuff. ("He really is scared!" "He really is in love!") If an actor seems to be "faking it," he's not doing his job (as I define it).

2. he has to surprise me. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it's important. Except for really small parts that aren't supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g. a bank teller who just cashes the hero's checks), it's not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can't predict their every reaction before they have it.

Think of how a woman might react if her boyfriend breaks up with her. There are many, many truthful ways—ways which would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way.

She might break down and cry; she might laugh hysterically; she might throw water in his face; she might go completely numb, having no expression at all...

An actor's job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of their own possibilities. They must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, they become boring and predictable.

There are many ways and actor can surprise. Gary Oldman and Johnny Depp surprise us by being truthful while playing multiple, very different roles. Jack Nicholson surprises by being ... surprising. Even though he's not a chameleon like Oldman or Depp, you never know what he's going to do next. But whatever her does, it's grounded in psychological reality. It never seems fake.

Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Al Pacino, and many others have a surprising danger in them. They're a little scary to be around, because you feel they might jump you or blow up at you at any time. They are ticking time bombs.

And, of course, many comedic actors (e.g. Julia Louis-Dreyfus) surprise us in all sorts of quirky, zany ways. Or watch Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby." Absolutely surprising and absolutely truthful!

Another great example of surprising acting that never seems fake is Diane Keaton's work in "Annie Hall."

3. he is vulnerable. Great actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden. They are always naked. (Some are literally naked, but I'm talking about emotional nakedness.)  Bad actors are guarded. They don't want to share the parts of themselves that are ugly, mean, petty, jealous, etc.

There are so many examples of actors being naked on stage and screen. My favorite is Rosalind Russell in the movie "Picnic." Rent it some time if you haven't seen it. She plays a middle-aged schoolteacher who is in danger of growing old an dying alone. There's a heartbreaking scene in which she begs a man to marry her. She goes down on her knees in front of him. She gives up every scrap of dignity inside her and lets the scared, hurting parts of herself burst out.

These are the same scared, hurt parts that are inside all of us—the parts we work hard to hide. Hiding them (by holding them in) takes a toll on us, and one of the greatest gifts actors can give is to sacrifice their dignity for us for us. They expose themselves so we don't have to. They are like Christ dying for our sins.

This ties in with everything I wrote above: when actors are exposed and raw, it's always surprising. And if it doesn't seem real, there's no point in it. In fact, this sort of emotional nakedness is very hard to fake. If you ever get a sense that an actor is showing you a secret part of himself, he probably is.

Examples (in my opinion) are Julianne Moore and Bryan Cranston. Also, rent "The Browning Version" sometime. The early one (not the remake). Watch Michael Redgrave. He turns himself inside out and wrings out all his pain.

4. he knows how to listen. It's fascinating to watch actors when they're not speaking. Some are too caught up in ego or technicalities (e.g. trying to remember their next line) to totally focus on whoever it is they're acting with. Others seem to register everything they hear. You can see whatever is being said to them physically affecting them, as if the words are slapping them across the face. Watch Claire Danes. She's an amazing listener.

5. he has a well-honed "instrument." By which I mean he knows how to use his voice and body to serve whatever role he's playing. This doesn't necessarily mean he's slim and has a six-pack. James Gandolfini used his body well. It means he knows how to move and talk in expressive ways. His voice and body aren't fighting him or holding tension that's inappropriate to his role.

One negative example: Kristen Stewart. It's almost painful to watch her. She looks like she'd rather be anywhere else besides in front of a camera. She is (or seems) very self-conscious.

To me, Hoffman was great because he embodied all of these traits. He was vocally and physically gifted. He wasn't in great shape, but he used the shape he had in expressive ways. If you watch him closely when he's not speaking, you'll see he always listened to his co-stars closely. What they say affected him deeply, and his reactions grew organically our of whatever they had previously said or done to him.

He was profoundly vulnerable. Always. This was his most distinctive trait. You always knew what you were getting from him was raw and honest. It was this rawness—as well as intelligence and a sly sense of humor—that made his work surprising and fresh. And I never once saw anything from him that seemed fake.

I don't hate Tom Cruise the way some people do. To me, he's believable most of the time. He's just not very interesting. He rarely surprises me, and he doesn't seem to dig deep into a anything raw or vulnerable inside him. He seems guarded. The must vulnerable I've seen him is in "Eyes Wide Shut," in which he did some good work. But it wasn't brilliant. And it's not his norm.

Keep in mind that many people (who aren't themselves actors, directors, or obsessive film buffs) aren't very clear on what an actors contributes to a film. Which is fine. It's not necessary for most audiences members to understand who does what during production.

Lots of people think an actor is great if they like his character. But that's often a function of good writing more that good acting. Or they think he's good if he pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be handicapped. Those are impressive stunts, but they aren't the core of what actors do. If you forced me to rank Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" vs. Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer," I'd say he did more exciting work in the latter. In "Rain Man" he was able to hid behind some stunts. In "Kramer vs. Kramer," he just had to be truthful.

Some people think acting is good if they like the movie. Keanu Reeves, in my mind, is a horrible actor—mostly because he's wooden and fake. It often seems as if he's reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are his. But some people like him because they think the Matrix films are cool. They confuse the movies with the actor. If some other actor had been in those films, those same people would have liked him. It's not really the actor (or not entirely the actor) they're liking. But since he plays the protagonist, they focus on him.

Finally, many people confuse an actor's life with his work. Tom Cruise is a good example. He's a high-profile Scientologist, and many people dislike that religion. They dislike his acting at least in part because they find him unsavory as a person. To some extent, this may be a sign of bad acting on his part. At least, he's not a good-enough actor to make people forget about his private life while they're watching him in movies. To some extent, it wouldn't matter how skilled he was.

Currently, many people are having strong reactions to work by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow that have nothing to do with what they're doing on screen. I'm not even remotely saying such people are wrong, stupid, or crazy. I'm just saying that people's reactions to actors are often complicated and not 100% influenced by their performances.

UPDATE: a couple of people have asked me to elaborate on my claims about Keanu Reeves. They feel that although he's often wooden, this is appropriate for his character in "The Matrix." I will admit up front that I only saw the film once, when it first came out, so it's possible I'm misremembering. Certainly, a good director can sometimes put bad actors to good use.

Let me confine my remarks about Keanu to his acting in general, not just in "The Matrix," though I am still skeptical about his work in that movie.

There is a difference between playing an undemonstrative person and being a wooden actor. In fact, playing someone who is reserved is very difficult (because you have to act without showing very much), and the actors who pull it off are brilliant.

I would point you to Anthony Hopkins in "Remains of the Day," Tommy Lee Jones in many of his roles, and even Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry." These actors manage to convey the sense that though they have stony exteriors, there's much going on underneath. To me, Keanu Reeves conveys an actor who is showing up and saying his lines. I don't believe much else is going on underneath except maybe nervousness. If you feel otherwise, that's fine. Remember, it's subjective.

Having auditioned many actors, I'm used to hearing ones that can take any writer's lines and make it sound like their own words. And I'm also used to less experienced (or less gifted) ones who sound uncomfortable with words that aren't their own. They sounds as if they're are reciting or reading something. They sounds scripted.

Listen to Keanu in the clip, below, especially at around 10-seconds in, when he says, "I have offended you with my ignorance, Count." Many of his line-readings sound like that to me. He has not fully lifted them off the page and into his own mind and body.

 

 


I don't know if you can see a difference between Keanu, above, and Tommy Lee Jones, below. They are both pretty deadpan. The difference, for me, is that Jones seems to be speaking his own words, even though they are just as scripted as the ones Reeves speaks. Jones is just much more comfortable in his skin and much more able to "own" his lines.

 

 

 

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    Why can't some people tell good acting from bad?

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    Do people with asperger's syndrome have difficulty distinguishing good acting from bad acting?

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    Acting: Could someone tell me a good seducing sceene for my videbook?

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    Why can't I tell what bad acting is, even ones deemed extremely obvious?

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    Acting: What are some of the telltale signs of a bad actor?

 

 

 

Scott Danzig, directs actors for filmmaking

 

It can be very subjective, but sometimes acting expressivity... the perception of an acting performance... may be affected by directing and editing.  A director may not prominently highlight an actor's more effective, powerful moments.  Their performance may seem resultingly understated and even lackluster.

Also, if an editor decides to hide the facial expression of an actor portraying a man, breaking down upon learning of tragedy, opting for a different visual, you can't be very impressed by that acting performance.  Also, there's the Kuleshov Effect, where an editor can show an expressionless face... let's say your face as you're reading from the screen... and then a bowl of soup.  Then your face again.  You'd look hungry.  What great acting!  (not really by your doing)  So sometimes people can read too much into their perception of a performance when rating an actor's ability.  Certainly on the internet, "everybody's got an opinion".  They'll reach for whatever opinion they can formulate, sometimes not being able to peel away the layers and realize what exactly an actor was responsible for.

But I'd like to answer your question, while I'm at it :)  Horrible acting can be experienced by asking your non-actor friends to read some random dialogue in a scene with any emotion.  They might have some natural ability, but even then, it's probably not going to be pretty.  Compare how they sound to people talking naturally... try eavesdropping on a conversation in a restaurant.  Your non-actor buddies are going to sound like they're reading, not talking on their own.  It's a different part of the brain.  There's no emotion.  They might try to raise and lower their voices at certain parts, and if they're cute, maybe even mimic voices, but it won't sound anywhere as believable as that restaurant conversation.

What makes good acting?  Method acting is all about reacting naturally to imagined circumstances.  It's about putting your mindset into another world, and actually learning to think like another person.  You can imagine why exactly Heath Ledger was so screwed up after his relentless preparation to play this character:

 

 


What drives a person to become this?  What can possibly be going through the mind of the Joker at this moment, and more importantly, why?  Heath prepared himself to not just pretend to be the Joker for his final performance... but he invented a way, including a backstory, personality, and real world situation, where, while delivering his lines, he WAS the Joker.  Everything he said, and did (body language/facial expressions) were completely motivated by his recreation of the mind... of the Joker.

According to the NY Daily News, Ledger told reporters he "slept an average of two hours a night" while playing "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy ..."

He added: "I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."

Some believed it was this role that led to Heath Ledger's drug-related death.

This is an extreme case, but it shows what acting is all about.  Vulnerability is a key factor.  An actor must drop their guard and not try to "look a certain way".  They must let their new personality take over, for all to see.  If they retain even the slightest control, or their mindset is not convincing enough for them to retain, the believability falls apart, and genuine emotion is lost.

Acting is difficult.  Just trying to force yourself to cry realistically, without an onion on a cutting board, should convince you of that.  Try to act genuinely frightened.  Can you imagine yourself at the top of a ski slope, knowing you're rather safe on a bunny slope, but being paralyzed with fear to budge?  Can you actually FEEL that fear in an audition room?  It ain't easy to do.

An "actor's director" gives their actors a plethora of details on the backstory, and the false world that the actor must enter.  What holes are left, an actor must fill through their own character analysis.  They must draw on their own experiences that inspire the emotions they must feel.  If the actor has never been on a ski slope, perhaps they must imagine at the bottom of the slope is the neighbor's pitbull with gnashing teeth.  Whatever must be invented should feel like a schizophrenic illusion.

If you want to see bad acting, try looking at the PhD movie, Piled Higher and Deeper Movie.  They sadly ruined a great idea by having actual PhD's act in the movie.  You'll see quite plainly what I'm referring to when I describe very fake-sounding dialogue.  None of them are trained actors, and although the rest of the production seems good, the acting keeps the viewers from "suspending their disbelief".  You can't just pay attention to what's going on in the movie.  You're always thinking, "Here are these PhD students being silly in a movie."

If you want to see good acting, well, there are a ton of great examples, like Heath Ledger's.  I'd like to draw attention to the acting, however, in Alexander Payne's movies.  Especially with the latest film of his I've seen, Nebraska, I've become extremely impressed with how natural his acting performances are.  A good litmus test is how he does not dress up his scenes with continuous action or dialogue.  Often, he embraces silence.  There are scenes in that movie such as this one:

 


Ever sit with your family and you just don't have much to say?  There are long pauses of silence, where this family is just watching TV, with awkward silence.  The sparse words that are delivered are perfectly chosen and entertaining, but otherwise, this movie is the stark reality of real life.  But I found myself interested, amused, happy and sad, throughout this movie.  Alexander Payne and his actors were brilliant.

More well-known, along similar lines, is Sideways, also directed by Payne.  Again, natural moments blanketed with silence:

 


Without great acting, Alexander Payne's movies would not be possible.

Peter Jackson's movies?

 


Well, good acting is more of a "nice to have" :)
 

 

 

Rebecca Metz, TV/Film/Theater/Voice/Improv actor, Carnegie Mellon grad.

 

 

There are lots of technical acting details that you could use to explain the difference. But fundamentally, good acting is believable acting.

When we watch something, we suspend our disbelief enough to allow ourselves to forget that we're watching something that isn't real life. When you're watching good acting, you believe that the person you're watching is living under the imaginary circumstances of the story, and you're emotionally engaged in how they react to those circumstances.

Bad acting gets in the way of your believing and engaging with that story by making you aware that you're watching an actor.

 

 

 

 

Ken Miyamoto, Produced screenwriter, former Sony Pictures script reader/story analyst, form...

 

 

Marcus Geduld conjured an answer that pretty much stated my own feelings on the question. 

Cinema as a whole is subjective.  Performance can be subjective as well.  There are actors that are heralded, yet I still don't care for them that much.  And there are actors that are less celebrated, but I love them.  Tom Cruise IS a great actor in my eyes... look beyond his action roles to the likes of Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, etc. 

That said, there IS a way to objectively view a performance and decide whether it is good or bad acting. 

Self awareness is the kiss of death for an actor.  Bad actors aren't able to break through those walls of self consciousness and become very aware of their performance.  Overly aware.  And the audience can tell.

It's the actors that make those emotions real and effortless, like the aforementioned Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman, among so many more, that are great actors. 

And then there's the element of performance where certain actors become masterful of their craft and truly do disappear into many of their roles, much like we've seen with Daniel Day-Lewis, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro early in his career, etc. 

But beyond self awareness in their performance, yes, it's subjective.  And yes, it's often more about the role than it is the acting, which is why you likely hold actors like Tom Cruise to a lesser standard because as of late (And I'm a Tom Cruise fan), he hasn't had any great roles.  He's been Tom Cruise the action hero for the most part.  And if you look at Philip Seymour Hoffman roles in comparison to his Capote, Boogie Nights, Happiness, and others, you'll see that he plays those characters very different

 

 

 

 

Brian Sniatkowski, Lover of classic movies

 

To paraphrase Potter Stewart, I can't define good acting, but I know it when I see it.  I agree with you about Daniel Day-Lewis. He might be the finest actor alive today, however I disagree with your evaluation of Meryl Streep.  Watch Sophie's Choice where she not only perfects a Polish accent (and speaks German with a Polish accent, according to a German friend of mine), but she exudes a  certain world weariness perfect for her character. THAT is acting.

There are actors who are famous for playing themselves. I don't denigrate that sort of actor, because I believe they have a special talent. I wouldn't call them great actors, but they are great presences. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, Clarke Gable, Jean Arthur, Katharine and Audrey Hepburn come to mind in this category.

Then there are actors who can move from character to character with ease and make that character  believable.  Tom Hanks. Jimmy Stewart is underrated in this respect, especially later in his career. Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Al Pacino, Michael Caine, Meryl Streep,  Brando, there are many excellent actors in this category.

Then there are the few who virtually become the person they are playing. As good as Al Pacino, Tom Hanks  or Jack Nicholson are at what they do would you cast any as Abraham Lincoln? Maybe Hanks could pull it off.

Daniel Day-Lewis is on whole 'nother level and so was Bette Davis.

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Grace, Film fan from childhood, viewed thousands on thousands, some studied in depth

 

 

Do you believe the character?  Do they tell their story with conviction and purpose?  If you saw that actor walking down the street would you see the actor or would you think of a character they portrayed? 

If you find a story in a movie incredibly believable, if the actor became enough of that character where you believed in what you saw, then they've done a good job, that's how to know what good acting is.

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Grace, Film fan from childhood, viewed thousands on thousands, some studied in depth

 

A lot of very good stuff in this post.  I'd like to add this: a good actor believes in his character, a great actor has his audience believing in his character.

Someone once said that "music is what happens between the notes".  I would say that acting is what happens between the lines and the movement.

For me there is nothing, absolutely nothing like the electricity you can feel in the air between the line, and the reaction to the line.  As an actor, you say or do something, and there's this moment where there's a perceivable pressure in the air that breaks into a laugh, or best of all, a gasp.

When you can do that, and you can do it night after night, or character after character, that's when you begin to be a good actor.

It differs from actor to actor, and also in one time to another time.  What worked for the great actors of the past - like Spencer Tracy, Laurence Olivier, Katherine Hepburn, etc. won't work for actors today, but actors today can bring performances that have no less impact.

An actor knows more than just the lines, he or she understands the character, and can bring elements of the current time and their culture into a performance that their contemporary audience can understand.

Sometimes a performance can be so universal it transcends time.  I recently played the ghost of John Barrymore in the comedy "I Hate Hamlet."  I studied some of Barrymore's old films, and I watched the silent film "The Beloved Rogue" (1927).

Barrymore's depiction of a man exiled from a city he loves reaches across time.  He starts the scene dressed as a clown, celebrating All Fools Day.  He offends a nobleman, and the king sentences him to exile.

As he strips off his makeup, in two and a half minutes we see him lose his joy, and his tragic face is revealed. 

 

 

Filmed almost 90 years ago, no lines, no sound, no special effects, yet it's as moving as any drama you'll see today.

What's the difference between good and bad acting?  In bad acting, the audience sees movement and hear lines.  In good acting, they see and hear truth.

 

 

 

 

 

Liu Timothy, Just someone who likes to watch films.

 

Good acting does not seem like one is acting. The actor is literally just living the script rather than acting out the script, with seemingly natural and unrehearsed expressions and emotions. The audience can at least feel and at most relate to what the actor is trying to imply from the scene. For example, when we watch Batman: The Dark Knight, we do not see Heath Ledger as himself but Joker; there is almost no distinction between him and the role he is playing.
 
Bad acting, however, will look either wooden or overacted to the point that it is very obvious that the actor is trying to act his or her role. Check out the movie The Room (2003), for example; Tommy Wiseau's acting is very bad in that film.

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