March 30, 2022

A Back Alley View of Acting and the Oscars

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s like inviting the audience to follow you, as though you’re walking through the back alleys of a city. You take unpredictable left and right turns and try and shake them off. Then you let them catch back up with you again.”

Those are Marlon Brando’s thoughts about acting, at least according to Jared Harris, who I recently followed through the radioactive back alleys of the HBO award-winning miniseries Chernobyl (2019), where Harris gives a Chekhovian performance as the steadfast, truth-seeking, truth-telling scientist Valery Legasov. I mention Chekhov because I think the author of Uncle Vanya would have admired the way Harris’s truth-to-power Legasov soldiers on against odds, a haggard, woebegone hero who stays the course all the way to an end of his own making. After sharing Brando’s view of acting with the New York Times, Harris admits that he, too, likes to throw the audience “off the track, all the time.”

At the Oscars

Thinking the back-alley theory of acting might be worth exploring in the aftermath of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, I tried it out on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the mean, misogynistic rancher Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for which Campion won the Best Director Oscar and Cumberbatch a Best Actor nomination. The back alley analogy made sense thanks to the way Cumberbatch’s unpredictability keeps shaking you off the track, so that when you finally arrive at his character’s shockingly sudden end, you’re left wondering where you were when whatever happened happened.

But then everything took a sudden real-life turn when Will Smith walked onstage at the Dolby Theatre and delivered what is being called “the slap heard round the world.”

Following Jared Harris

The career of Jared Harris is itself a back alley of twists and turns. I had no idea at the time that Lane Pryce, the ill-fated character inhabited by Harris in the AMC series Mad Men (2009-2012), was the son of Richard Harris, whose breakthrough film was This Sporting Life (1963). Watching it again last fall for the first time in decades, I was so impressed with Harris’s bruising, passionate, intensely physical performance that I looked up his biography and discovered the father-son connection.

As Lane Pryce, the younger Harris keeps you “off the track” most if not all the time playing a deceptively tight-laced, bespectacled Brit navigating the executive suite of a Madison Avenue advertising agency where he seldom feels at home, always looking over his shoulder, so much so that you wonder why you care enough to follow him down that hypothetical alley, but you do, there’s something appealingly haunted about him, and then you’re with him all the way after he flattens the show’s most obnoxious character in an impromptu office boxing match; goes out on the town with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper; has an affair with a black Playboy bunny; loses and regains his wife and family; falls into a money pit of his own making, struggles to climb out, embezzles funds, is caught and fired, and, by the time you “catch back up” with him, he’s found hanging from the door of his office, another end of his own making a decade before Chernobyl.

Following Jessie Buckley

When my wife and I saw Jessie Buckley in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) last August, neither of us had heard of her. It didn’t matter. She blew the back alley analogy to the moon, putting the actor and the audience on the same path, bringing us along with her from the first moment, although her route through a very strange film took numerous unlikely turns. “It was something that transcended and shifted and moved from when I read it to when I was playing it, to afterwards when I watched it,” she says of her role in a September 17, 2020 IndieWire interview. “It was something that really injected me with a feeling.”

It injected us with the immediate need to see more of her work, so we followed her from the cheerfully lethal nurse in Fargo 4, to the wild girl in Beast, to a spirited country western singer from Glasgow in Wild Rose to Chernobyl, where she plays/is/becomes Lyudmilla Ignatenko, a Ukrainian housewife who cares for her husband as he dies from radiation poisoning. The warmth and light she lends to so dark and harrowing a film brings Chekhov to mind again. You can open any book of his stories at random and find a version of Jessie’s Lyudmilla, as I just did: “He looked toward Zinotchka as she approached him, and his whole figure was lighted up by an expression of happiness as though by sunshine.”

Taking on Lyudmilla, however, was an existential challenge. There was no room for sudden turns, you have to stay on track. It was a question of survival, as Buckley suggests in an interview on “When you’re playing a real character who’s lived this horrific truth, that is terrifying …. Sometimes, you need to step into environments that are gonna just destroy you … and you’ve got no other option but to rebuild yourself, and to find a way to come out on top.”

Buckley at the Oscars

I had mixed feelings when Jessie Buckley was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in The Lost Daughter, knowing she’d be taking part in an occasion that would appear in stunning contrast to the scenes of devastation and human suffering in Ukraine. You get a sense of the scene in the New York Times account of Armani’s pre-Oscar party, “where fashion labels like Saint Laurent, Chanel and Gucci and powerhouse talent agencies like CAA competed with tech Goliaths like Apple to score the best restaurants, most elegant party spaces and the rarest specimens from among the celebrity coterie.” Surely Buckley felt a twinge, a flashback to her life as Lyudmilla, when the Academy delivered its perfunctory moment of silence “for the people of Ukraine.”

After a quick search online, I found an image of Buckley in her Oscar regalia, “a pink-hue custom Erdem floor-length gown with a plunging neckline … the train of the dress resting on the floor beside her.” Perhaps to offset the grandeur of the gown, she’s wearing no makeup. As much as she deserves this level of recognition, I’m glad that she didn’t have her moment on the same gaudy stage where the big slap was delivered because she’s undoubtedly on her way to more appropriate celebrations of her talent. I found The Lost Daughter almost as hard to sit through as the Oscars, in spite of Buckley’s no holds barred performance.

Awarding the Chekhovs

The two most memorable new films I’ve seen recently, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, were among the Best Picture nominees, with Hamaguchi and his cast and crew winning the Oscar for Best International Feature. Each film would be worthy of a Chekhov, if I could conduct my version of the Oscars. With the performance of Uncle Vanya at its core, Drive My Car is a Chekhovian wonder, thanks in great part to the lovably deadpan driver played by Toko Miura.

Speaking of lovable characters, there’s Licorice Pizza’s Alana Haim, someone I can see in Chekhov’s great story “On the Road” as the “young gentlewoman” who enters the “traveller’s room” at a tavern so bundled up and covered with snow that, seen from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl, she seems to have “no face and no arms” until “two little hands come out from the middle of the bundle, stretch upwards and begin angrily disentangling the network of shawls, kerchiefs, and scarves. First a big shawl fell on the ground, then a hood, then a white knitted kerchief. After freeing her head, the traveller took off her pelisse and at once shrank to half the size. Now she was in a long, grey coat with big buttons and bulging pockets.” Removing the coat, “which made her shrink to half her size again, she took off her big felt boots.” Now seen through Chekhov’s eyes “she no longer resembled a bundle: she was a thin little brunette of twenty, as slim as a snake, with a long white face and curly hair.”

In the same story, Liharev, the main character, amuses and amazes the “little brunette” with an extraordinary monologue, in which, among other things, he admits being “a Ukrainophile,” recalls running off to America “to join the brigands,” and concludes by expressing the “poignant intensity” of his love for the Russian people.”

Brando Declines

Because of Marlon Brando’s unprecedented refusal of the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in The Godfather, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, the date March 27, 1973 rates a place on the This Day In History website. Not only did he decline the honor, he sent the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather to the ceremony in his place, stating that he “very regretfully could not accept the award” because of Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans on film.

While I have yet to connect Brando’s back alley theory of acting to a source other than the Times article on Jared Harris, it has me thinking of a line from One-Eyed Jacks, which Brando also directed and in which his interpretation of the ultimately Byronic Rio constantly shakes off the viewer only “to let them catch back up again.” Declining  a suggestion that would have resulted in murder and mayhem, he says, gently, plaintively, almost musically, “That’s not my style.”


Jared Harris quotes Brando in “Jared Harris Is (and Isn’t) His Father’s Son,” in the September 25, 2021 New York Times.