In a review of the film Grown-Ups 2, the Washington Post notes that while its star, Adam Sandler, is capable of playing complex characters in serious films, he seems to prefer acting like a child. Actors are capable of stagnating or disappearing into their characters.
Grown-Ups 2 is a demonstration of an actor who is not living up to his potential.
In Reign over Me (2007), he portrayed a grief-stricken father who has lost his family to 9/11. He begins to recover from the loss due to the dedication and patience of his former college roommate, played by Don Cheadle.
In Funny People (2009), he is a successful actor and comedian who is self-absorbed and estranged from his family. Then he is diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He believes he is about to die and decides to return to his origins as a stand-up comic.
And yet in the last few years he is content to do films that focus primarily on bodily fluids, flatulence and lusting after scantily-clad women. Grown-Ups 2 is an excellent example of his recent efforts—or rather lack of effort.
Another case-in-point of an actor no longer interested in perfecting his craft is Eddy Murphy. He received Golden Globe Award nominations for his performances in 48 Hrs., the Beverly Hills Cop series, and Trading Places. In 2007, he won the Golden Globe and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as soul singer James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls. He was ranked No. 10 on Comedy Central’s list of the “100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.”
In recent years Murphy has been willing to appear in films like Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, all of which are painful to watch. The Adventures of Pluto Nash is one of the biggest money-losers of all time.
But while these retreats from substantial to frivolous roles by Sandler and Murphy can be perceived as simply the result of disinterest in taking on challenging roles or the contented stolidity brought by wealth and security, there are actors who, for one reason or another, cannot escape the characters they have created.
One of the most tragic examples of these is Heath Ledger.
He won an Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award for this role as the Joker in the second installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Heath Ledger lived his characters. He would lock himself in a hotel room and prepare for his roles. This process could take weeks.
According to Janet Fife-Yeomans, the author of Heath: A Family’s Tale, he drew his inspiration for the Joker from a study of ventriloquists’ dummies. He created the look of the Joker, with the face of white greasepaint, the long hair and the splatter of mascara and red lipstick. The slashed lips and scars looked like infected wounds. Alone in his hotel room he developed the laugh, gestures and facial tics, as well as the hunched over gait of the Joker.
Four months into the filming of Batman, he started to keep a “Joker diary,” in which he expressed thoughts on which his character, a sociopathic clownish mass-murderer, was built. During the filming, he went from playfulness to mania that left him exhausted.
The Joker loomed behind him from that time on. Ms. Fife-Yeomans reports in Heath that a police investigation found that Ledger’s death in 2008 was more likely an overdose than a suicide. As if drugs were a way of slowing down the Joker’s endless potent vehemence.
Other actors go too far in their portrayals.
Christian Bale lost over sixty pounds for his role as Trevor Reznik in The Machinist (2004). He endangered his health. The director of the film, Brad Anderson, had never asked him to do it.
Jim Carrey played the off-kilter comedian Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999). He became so obsessed with playing Kaufman, his comic idol, that he refused to be called by his real name throughout the production, and wanted to be treated only as “Andy Kaufman,” even away from the set. (Wierdworm.)
When Robert DeNiro played Max Cady in Cape Fear, he paid a dentist to destroy his teeth so that he would look like he spent years in jail. (SBStyleBlazer.)
Others suffered from permanent typecasting, such as George Reeves, who became incredibly popular playing Superman on the small screen in the 1950s, but could not escape Superman to find work after the series ended in 1957. He became so despondent that he took his life in 1979. (Long Island Newsday and Snopes.com.)
And some simply cannot let their characters go. James Dickey had a cameo role as a sheriff in the film, Deliverance, based on his novel of the same name. Though he was a writer and poet but decidedly not an actor, he would repeatedly reenact his role in the film to family members and visitors until his death.
Jerry Lewis gained fame as a pratfalling perpetual juvenile on TV and in films in the 1950s. By 1966, Lewis, then 40, continued to do physical comedy, but his routines became increasingly labored. Although he continued to make films, his major effort since then was his yearly telethons for muscular dystrophy. He never quite abandoned “Jerry Lewis,” and went on mugging for the camera and recycling his overexuberant persona.
Adam Sandler and others represent actors who sink into their characters, surrender their gifts to static roles, or become trapped in their success. Fortunately there are many actors who continue to thrive and reach greater heights with every artistic endeavor.
By: Tom Ukinski