From Big Screen to Small

Established movie actors continue to find better work on TV

Dec 23, 2008 at 2:06 pm

The new remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still makes the best case possible for why good actors are better served by television than movies these days.

Sure, there is a cluster of genuine movie stars who are also fine actors in their prime — Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep — and able to headline in big, important films with well-written, complex characters. So rare and special are they that almost every film they make is positioned as an Oscar candidate.

But there’s only so much of a market for films like Milk, Revolutionary Road, Doubt and The Reader. Mostly, what you get at the multiplexes is a Day the Earth Stood Still, where an attractive actor finds a gimmicky one-note role that suits his image — the slow-motion, beyond-deadpan Keanu Reeves as an Earth-visiting alien. He (it’s usually a he) coasts through it depending on the digitalized special effects to substitute for the flat narrative.

Good for Reeves if he can make a fortune with this, but what about Jennifer Connelly, an Oscar-winning actress (A Beautiful Mind) wasted here trying to establish an emotional connection to both Reeves’ alien and an obnoxious stepson (Jaden Smith)? The movie is tone deaf to the lack of chemistry between her character and theirs.

Wouldn’t she be better served in a good TV drama, especially the kind of edgy, provocative material finding its way to pay and basic cable, and even sometimes to the networks? Like, say, Weeds or The Closer or Saving Grace — series built around forthright, intelligent female characters (Mary-Louise Parker, Kyra Sedgwick and Holly Hunter, respectively) that showcase motion-picture refugees? (Before Beautiful Mind, Connelly was in the cast of a one-season series called The $treet.)

In the days when acting and not special effects ruled the movies, the great stars of the 1960s and 1970s wouldn’t dream of a TV series except maybe as a form of retirement. Or, if they started on TV, they tried to move up. It just wasn’t an equal medium. No more.

Connelly’s co-star in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Jon Hamm, spends his little screen time looking sheepishly perplexed at how dull the story is. He should worry. He recently starred as Don Draper in the second season of the finest drama on television, AMC’s Mad Men, about hard-drinking, chain-smoking, infidelity-flaunting advertising executives in meticulously observed Kennedy-era America. And it’s a safe bet that a year from now — a month from now — it will be Mad Men, not The Day the Earth Stood Still, that matters to popular culture.

Mad Men basically features actors too new and young to have been movie stars, although Hamm is almost 40 and his chief co-star — John Slattery, who plays his boss Roger Sterling — is a veteran motion-picture character actor.

But a new series on ABC, Life on Mars, weirdly tries to replicate Mad Men’s appeal by meticulously re-creating the grungy early 1970s of crime-ridden New York. Based on a British series, its sci-fi/detective-show premise is that a present-day cop (Jason O’Mara) accidentally time-travels to 1973, where his fellow detectives are brutish and sexist.

To be honest, it’s more gimmicky than revelatory, but its genius stroke is in casting cinema’s great method wild man, Mean Streets’ Harvey Keitel, as the detective who rules this roost. It also gives Gretchen Mol — a fine young actress once touted for movie stardom (The Notorious Bettie Page) but whose career was stalling out for lack of a hit — a nice role as Policewoman’s Bureau member Annie Norris.

The show returns Jan. 28; maybe it’ll improve. If not, give Keitel and Mol another series.

A cable hit based on an Israeli series, HBO’s In Treatment, rescued a fine movie actor who had fallen into the pit of forgettable movies, 58-year-old Gabriel Byrne. Blessed with an ability to be simultaneously sensitive and rugged, he was a reason to see such movies as Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects and Into the West in the early 1990s. But by 2002 he was starring in a trite, formulaic supernatural thriller called Ghost Ship.

But this year, Byrne made a strong impact as a therapist whose own values and ideas are tested by the challenges he faces from his clients’ problems and attractions. Another fine motion-picture actor, Oscar-winner Dianne Weist, has a recurring role as his therapist. The kind of drama that Hollywood feels skews too old (or too smart?) for a major movie, In Treatment has been given the go-ahead for a new season. So watch for it.

One of In Treatment’s executive producers is the actor Mark Wahlberg, who is also a creator of HBO’s Entourage, a corrosively funny series about the pressures and pleasures of Hollywood’s star-making machinery on young people.

Entourage has been the breakout vehicle for Jeremy Piven, a 43-year-old character actor who never had been allowed in the movies to reveal the hilarious, lunatic-level aggressiveness he shows each week as agent Ari Gold.

Truthfully, it seems there’s been far more talk about movie stars doing great acting on TV series than in the movies. The announcement that, for instance, the distinguished Laurence Fishburne was joining CBS’s CSI generated much buzz. Among the others generating talk: Alec Baldwin enlivening the NBC comedy 30 Rock, Dennis Hopper anchoring the new Crash on Starz and Glenn Close on FX’s Damages.

HBO’s Big Love, going into its third season as a look at life within a polygamist Mormon family, has a cast that reads like the credits of a cool indie film: Bill Paxton (Frailty), Jeanne Tripplehorn (Sliding Doors), Chloe Sevigny (Broken Flowers) and 82-year-old Harry Dean Stanton (Paris, Texas).

There will no doubt be many more good actors trying to get from film to TV as long as Hollywood sees movies like Day the Earth Stood Still as blockbuster entertainment.