English actors are kicking our ass. It’s like watching the NBA play the local, high school team. Whether it’s the modern-day craftsmen of RADA like Ralph Fiennes and Clive Owen or the fearless, “school of Mike Leigh” greats like Gary Oldman and Tim Roth, it’s merely a choice between the breathtaking artistry of Gielgud versus the hair-on-end fire of Olivier. And we’ve got – Sean Penn.
It seems centuries ago now but there was a time when American acting was the gold standard. There was Brando, of course, and De Niro and Pacino in the 70s – actors who electrified the screen with their intensity even when their characters held absolutely still. They could speak ten lines with a gesture of the wrist, a nearly imperceptible nod. Now it’s the Brits who are putting us to shame. From the youngish and wild like Tim Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton to the older and wiser Ray Winstone and Sir Ian McKellen, Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren. (Even the walking time bombshells like Clive Owen and Daniel Craig – whose ridiculously good looks serve as a foil to their infinite skill – can act circles around our thespians. Where’s our Warren Beatty?)
When Javier Bardem saw “Raging Bull” he wasn’t sure if De Niro was an actor or a real-life boxer. All he knew was that he wanted to be De Niro – not just “an actor” but De Niro. He wanted to achieve that shamanistic level where two souls – actor and character – merge. And it shows in Bardem and his European colleagues. They settle for nothing less.