Adam Sandler’s popular success is not tantamount to the infantilizing of a once-revered commercial genre, nor is his persona inimical to the concerns of contemporary comic love stories. Instead, the cultural resonance of his persona speaks to a number of complex industrial, social and theoretical conditions. Sandler and many of his male contemporaries currently produce frantic meditations on such androcentric themes as the emasculating effects of prolonged adolescence, virility as masquerade and the inadequacies of serial monogamy. This essay analyzes the cultural instrumentalities of Sandler’s leading man status – their significance to and use-value for producers and consumers alike.
If naturalistic acting serves the interests of diegetic absorption and functions as a metaphorical bridge between irredeemably separate subjects, then theatricality re-establishes an insurmountable barrier. Just as Stanley Cavell maintains that cinema cannot offer the mutuality and co-presence of actors and audience that is essential to live theatre, and that it must always screen the audience from a staged reality, theatrical screen acting similarly obstructs intersubjective connectivity between viewer and viewed. On film, ostentatious presentational acting reinforces the insurmountable separateness of individuals. Daniel Day-Lewis’ recent turn in There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) as a monstrous turn-of-the-century oil baron is a case in point. The critical reception of his performance is decidedly divided between rapturous accolades for its ferocity and the hostile belittlement of its apparently overripe histrionics. Indeed, the film’s infamous final sequence does more than present Day-Lewis at his most unhinged; for his detractors, his apparent theatrics bring about an unwarranted shift in the film’s tonal register that destroys the work’s stylistic and emotional continuity. Such criticism misses the point entirely. There Will Be Blood is a sustained exercise in theatrical alienation, and its subject is a fundamentally metaphysical one: the irredeemable separateness of an other.</p><p>By reconfiguring ostentatious performance from an alienating mode of expression to a rhetorical strategy that affects the self-consciousness of viewers, theatricality transcends its typical characterization as the antithesis of dramatic absorption. Theatrical screen actors do more than present us with a set of stylized gestures; they speak of an inescapable ontological dilemma. Hailing us as viewers rather than confederates, far removed from any possibility of proximity or shared subjectivity, their radical otherness does not permit intimacy, only helpless scrutiny.
This paper describes how actors are able to articulate complex assertions via their performances, and argues that our seemingly instinctive inclination toward the evaluation of acting can be understood as a tacit acknowledgement and appreciation of these embodied suppositions. With star acting in particular, we can identify the creative mobilization of recurring elements that form a conceptual nucleus, which serves to organize various discursive clusters surrounding an actor’s work. These core principles can be referred to as performative indices, and our interest in their manifestation is twofold: we appreciate the particularities of how a performer enacts these performative indices creatively, and the more skilled performers use them to make assertions regarding the larger beliefs, conditions, desires, ethical tenets, ideologies, problems and tensions that their stardom dramatizes. To become cognizant of such underlying conceptual dimensions of screen acting, then, is to recognize that our interest in actors’ mimetic capacities and/or their cultural connotations as stars is neither axiomatic nor exclusive.
The essay undertakes an investigation of the concept of the supporting player, identifying the narrational, performative and cultural assumptions that underlie this dramatic category. Disentangling these intertwining constituents reveals certain dominant assertions about cinematic characters and the actors who portray them. Such dramaturgical norms implicitly suppress alternative conceptions of character, performance and narrative engagement. Consequently, the supporting player – as textual function, delimited bundle of traits, social type, performative category and professional designation – will be resituated as an agent that might prompt a contemplative reassessment of a fictional scenario.</p><p> The author’s contribution to performance studies is to suggest the means by which a supporting actor’s performative embodiment of a character opens up a textual construction for critical investigation. Supporting players are asserted here as figures that trouble narrative coherence. Rather than limit them to the structural position of an actant that assists or resists a protagonist, the performance of a secondary character can rupture the integrity of a narrative, throwing a story’s explicit concerns into critical relief.</p><p> Supporting players are often posited as a mere allies or adversaries, lacking complexity as “flat” characters or types, and their performance style seems devoid of star autonomy. However, they are not simply beholden to the demands of narrative economy, teleology and dramatic coherence. Contrarily, attendance to the minutiae of their gestures can alert viewers to narrative possibilities that transcend actantial functionality. Ultimately the essay demonstrates how an overlooked or “integrated” performance can redirect viewers’ narrative interest toward an associational contemplation of experiences that lie beyond the parameters of the dramatic.