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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is it really such a bad thing if an actor plays the same character — or his/herself — over and over again?

It’s a complaint that’s so ubiquitous that it’s hardly a complaint anymore, just a commentary on how The Movies works: “So-and-so is playing that same character again” or “I’m so tired of So-and-So playing himself.” And there’s been more than a little of this at the moment between Jennifer Aniston playing the same Jennifer Aniston character again in The Switch and Michael Cera apparently setting himself on a road to only ever playing the same Michael Cera character over and over again with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

I’m not fans of either Aniston or Cera, but I’m with Owen Gleiberman at EW’s The Movie Critics blog, who just wrote:

I hear what you’re saying (let’s agree right now that there’s some truth to it), but what’s amusing, and at times infuriating, about all this she/he is always the same! high dudgeon is the absolute, outraged presumption that if an actor doesn’t vary his or her personality very much (or, in fact, at all) from movie to movie, then that’s automatically a bad thing.

I have two words to say in disagreement with that idea: Katharine Hepburn.

Okay, you know the next line, so let’s all say it together out loud: Jennifer Aniston is no Katharine Hepburn!

There, do you feel better? Well, Jennifer Aniston certainly is no Katharine Hepburn, and no one else is either. But you get my point, which is not about the relative merits of The Break-Up and The Philadelphia Story but about the principle at stake. Hepburn, whose playful and melodious WASP trill is one of the glories of the American cinema, is arguably the most striking example of something that was true through most of classic Hollywood: that the actors we now consider American gods and goddesses didn’t vary their performances all that much. I would argue that even when they were great actors and did have range, the principle still holds.

Gleiberman goes on to add other great names to the roster of They’re Always the Same: James Stewart. Cary Grant. Humphrey Bogart. Bette Davis. And he goes on to ask:

Is it really such a bad thing if an actor plays the same character — or his/herself — over and over again?

I don’t think it is. An actor’s persona can be annoying if a movie is annoying, but it doesn’t have to be so. (Gleiberman mentions one Aniston movie in which she’s charming, because the movie is charming: Marley & Me. I agree completely. I also found Cera charming in Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist.)

Some actors I love so much that I sometimes want to see that one persona that made me love him or her in the first place. I’ll watch Jeff Goldblum in anything, because I love the Jeff Goldblum persona. Reader Alice noted, in comments following my review of The Switch, that he’s playing that same character again in that film. Which is great, as far as I’m concerned.) I like the Tom Hanks persona. I like the Will Smith persona. I like the Kristin Chenoweth persona. Helen Mirren could just stand around being Helen Mirren and I would love her for it.

Or course, all of this is quite distinct from whether an actor has great talent, or whether an actor has great talent but chooses not to use it. I think there’s a place for both the actor who disappears into every role and is different in every film, and the actor who plays him- or herself most of the time, and actors who can do both (George Clooney, anyone?).

What do you think?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • RogerBW

    Define “bad thing”. It may be perfectly good and entertaining; it’s not acting in the sense of exercising a skill. Someone who does the one-note performance is unlikely ever to get any better.

    So I enjoy watching Katherine Hepburn. But I see Joel Grey in something and think “Holy crap, that was him? Now that was good acting.” Does this mean I think Grey is better than Hepburn at the skills of acting? Yes. Does this mean I don’t want to watch Hepburn? Not necessarily. But it does mean that if someone doesn’t like one Hepburn film, that person will probably dislike all of them.

  • Jan Willem

    I certainly prefer actors playing the same persona in amusing films to belaboured, “transformative” impersonations that have a very unpleasant show-offy quality about them. Bruce Willis being his usual self most of the time is fine by me.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Long ago on this site – I think it was this one – there was a discussion on the distinction between a true actor and a movie star (understood that it’s not “either/or”).

    Actor: talent and range to play varied characters and roles, etc.

    Movie star: charismatic and loved by fans, great onscreen presence and the persona to carry a movie, can have a successful and award-winning career just by being himself or herself on screen.

  • It’s not a bad thing at all. I’ve found that this quote is a handy way to summarize the issue:

    “An actor is someone who pretends to be somebody else. A movie star is somebody who pretends that somebody else is them. Actors will change their face, will change their hair, will change their voice, will disappear into the role. A movie star doesn’t disappear.”

    — Director Nicholas Meyer

    I like that distinction. Neither approach is necessarily better; they’re just two different species of performer. Just don’t try to get one to be the other, or you end up with something like The Conqueror, in which John Wayne disastrously played Genghis Khan(!)

  • gensing

    I’d amend the phrased to “he/she keeps playing the same annoying character over and over again.” and that’s a bad thing.

    Michele Cera has never been anything other than annoying to me. (I’ve never seen Arrested Development, which I’m told was where he was good.)

    Aniston is almost more frustrating because I remember looking forward to seeing her post-Friends career after seeing her in ‘The Good Girl’. (btw, I only saw 1 episode of Friends.) Apparently there is some range there, maybe she’s not getting the offers to play the other roles.

    Playing the same character continually is not a bad thing – I just can’t be bothered with a movie anymore if one of them is in it. (Or Keanu Reeves, who sucks any enjoyment right out of a movie for me.) What is bad is when the walking self-caricatures are given instead of people you would really like to see in the role – you know, like actors! People who give a scene energy, even when they are playing someone tired. The ones on the screen that make the characters feel real and true, even in the most outrageous scenario. The ones that can use the smallest movement to surprise you with it’s honesty.

    I understand that the suits want the name before they’ll cough up the cash, but many of the best actors are not big names because they do disappear in their roles.

  • doa766

    it’s a bad thing when the actor is considered a great one by doing the same thing and over and over

  • Jester

    It’s an interesting question, but here’s a twist on it that some friends and I have discussed on and off over the years:

    Does acting “range” automatically come with major emotional and/or social issues?

    In other words, think about ten actors that wouldn’t be on the “persona” list and I’ll show you nine plus that have or have had major emotional problems, or deliberately choose to live “outside” the bounds of “normalcy”:

    Robert Downey Jr, Drew Barrymore, Christian Bale, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Tilda Swinton, Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson, Angelina Jolie, etc.

    These aren’t (for the most part) “bad people”. They’re just people that are not-very-nice, or people who are hard to live with or be around. Yet, they are “great actors” that have a lot of “range”.

    When my friends and I discuss this, we can only come up with a small list of actors that both have a “range” and don’t appear to have these personal issues. My contributions to that list are John Lithgow and Gweneth Paltrow.

  • Screaming

    Jester…I have to disagree with the idea of the person living outside of “normalcy”…you’re trying define someone without knowing them. How do you know which actors don’t have personal issues? Why because it’s not readily documented in a gossip rag?

    On the note about actors and their roles…the same persona can work for some roles…but I think true actors will challenge themselves. You can do a little bit of both.

  • JoshDM

    It’s amusing that you pose this question and then post a Milla Jovovobobovich movie, The Fourth Kind notwithstanding.

  • bronxbee

    i think there’s a range of “sameness” if that can be said. i don’t think katherine hepburn’s role in Philadelphia Story was quite the same as her role in Bringing Up Baby. or in Lion in Winter. or in African Queen. her voice and cheekbones made her distinctive and immediately recognizable. but there was such a range of subtlety in many of her performances, that i think her acting chops were seriously underestimated. same for Cary Grant — his transformation from the sly, almost con artist type of fellow in his very early career in such works as Sylvia Scarlett, or Topper, to his befuddled and clumsy, bewildered types of characters as in Bringing Up Baby, or his tough but honest men in Gunga Din, or the Howares of Virginia to his strong and gentle types Penny Serenade and others, to his generally sharp and business like characters like North by Northwest, or Charade. cary grant could play every sort of role: comedian, suave, villan, tortured, genial, romantic — and only the fact that he was so handsome and so noticeable made people think he was always playing the same sort of character. under the studio system, an actor got a wide range of characters to play, even if they weren’t always suited for such a role — and they played them to the best of their abilities.

    i think a lot of actors, like Jeff Goldblum, whose characters in things like The Fly are certainly different than One of the Hollywood Ten, and even tom hanks, have a range of emotion that is more subtle and honest than many an actor who drops 40 pounds, put on uncomfortable makeup and affects tortured physical attributes.

    as for jennifer anniston or michael cera — there are actors whose every role can annoy you (well, me) or who haven’t yet accumulated a body of work that really tests their range. and perhaps in this day and age of no studio contracts, no requirements to be in multiple movies under multiple directors, they may never get the chance to portray anything other than themselves.

  • Lisa

    Am I the only one who thinks Clooney isn’t that great an actor?

    He’s got a little bit of nuance which takes him a long way – otherwise he’s plays variations on a theme.

  • amanohyo

    Jester, Gwyneth Paltrow has the range of a quadriplegic corpse locked in the luggage compartment of a wingless, battery-powered 747 cast out of solid lead… okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but she doesn’t disappear into her roles so much as perch atop them.

    If an actor cannot disappear into the role, it hurts the movie. I don’t want to visit with an old friend, comforting as that might be – I’d much rather be introduced to someone brand new. At the very least, if they’re going to play the same person they should explore the character to greater depths and try to discover some surprising inconsistencies that were not revelaed in previous performances (A new twist on an old classic, as they say).

    Movie Stars are similar to comfort food or chain restaurants: bland, predictable, usually unhealthy, overpriced, overused, heavily marketed, and surrounded by less well known, more interesting alternatives…but everyone gets a craving for them now and then. A great actor is like a master chef who never stops surprising you with new, delicious dishes.

  • amanohyo

    And Lisa, I agree. Clooney seems fairly one-note to me as well. He’s no Will Smith or Tom Cruise (or Tom Hanks or Hugh Grant), but he’s close. Of course, some of it is the fault of the writers and producers. Maybe some of these guys could actually display some range if they were given the chance.

  • julia

    It’s OK play the same character PROVIDED THAT 1) you play an interesting charcter AND 2) you limit the number of films you do so the public doesn’t get bored of you. So, with Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Nicholson–it’s OK. Unfortunately, Jennifer Aniston is about as interesting as burnt toast. I mean how old does it get to watch a 40+ yr old woman flipping her hair, rolling her eyes like a teenager, and acting like a ditz? That’s pretty much the extent of her Rachel Green mannerisms. And she NEVER gives it a rest. She churns out 2-3 romantic comedies a year like some money-hungry machine. She also picks the worst, cliched scripts that are bottom-of-the-barrel sitcom. At least Jack Nicholson, Hepburn and Stewart did some REALLY good films every now and then. Aniston has all the money in the world to produce a good project. AND, what did she do? She produced The Switch. She only has herself to blame for her lackluster movie career.

  • Okay, you know the next line, so let’s all say it together out loud: Jennifer Aniston is no Katharine Hepburn!

    But Jennifer Aniston is not a Katharine Hepburn and she’s not as likable as Kristen Chenoweth or Zoey Deschanel, both of whom have likable personas but rarely get the same type of starring roles that Ms. Aniston gets.

    Yes, I get it. She’s blonde and she’s likable and she used to be on a popular TV show. By that standard, we should be spending a whole lot more time discussing the movie stardom of former Married, with Children cast member Christina Applegate but we don’t.

    As for the “he/she’s just playing himself/herself” charge, anyone who has ever read a biography of a famous actor knows that not all famous actors play themselves. Often they just seem like they’re playing themselves. For example, Ginger Rogers–who was very likable on-screen and capable of convincingly playing both plebeian and patricians–was notoriously unlikable in real life.

    Nor do they always play the “same role.” Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart all started out playing hoods. It’s only after they became famous that they starting playing heroes.

    Anyway, no one actor or actress is going to appeal to everybody. And while I’ve liked Aniston in past roles like her part in The Object of My Affection (aka The Will and Grace Movie), she’s not likable enough to overcome the power of a bad script the way Chenoweth, Deschanel or Jolie can.

    Of course, YMMV.

  • Lisa

    Jennifer Aniston is over 40 years old – she’s effectively dead in Hollywood terms. Think she’s gonna get offered Five Easy Pieces? She’s making the best of a bad situation. (As a woman in Hollywood, she’s not gonna get the opportunity to make Five Easy Pieces anyway). I would put her acting talent on a par with Clooney’s, only he’s maybe smarter about exploiting his or gets more opportunity to do that. Having some writing talent helps too.

    ^Money does not guarantee taste or that a project will be good otherwise Transformers would be a great movie.

    ^^I think Paltrow is a good actress – she’s a bit chilly though.

  • sophronia

    I don’t really mind seeing actors play the same kinds of roles, because honestly, it makes the movie a better experience. It really throws you out of the movie when you are faced with some absurd bit of casting like John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. You have to expend so much energy on trying not to recognize John Wayne up there that you can’t really concentrate on the movie. For example, I watched a few minutes of Valkyrie the other day and my brain just would not stop thinking, “There’s Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform.” I just couldn’t suspend enough disbelief to go with that casting. As talented as, for example, Sean Penn may be, nobody wants to see him play Jesus or Abraham Lincoln or somebody like that.

    Most movie roles these days are pretty cliched anyway, especially the female ones. We tend to notice the actors who are good enough to make some subtle distinctions between even similar performances. In a world where Julia Roberts can win an Oscar for playing Julia Roberts’ usual character in a push-up bra, and Meg Ryan gets slammed for not wanting to play America’s Sweetheart forever, there’s not a lot of incentive to branch out.

  • @Tonio:

    Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart all started out playing hoods. It’s only after they became famous that they starting playing heroes.

    It’s notable that those three gentlemen all got their start in the heyday of the studio system, in which a journeyman actor could expect to work on several projects a year on contract with the studio, working his way up from minor roles. That kind of experience is pretty handy for developing an honing a lasting screen persona, as they all did. They turned out to be good investments at both ends of their respective careers.


    In a world where Julia Roberts can win an Oscar for playing Julia Roberts’ usual character in a push-up bra, and Meg Ryan gets slammed for not wanting to play America’s Sweetheart forever, there’s not a lot of incentive to branch out.

    Well said! Now that the suits are running Hollywood, they’re much less interested in talented individuals than in having a “brand” that they can market and sell the same way every time, preferably many times. The more they can nail down the very specific “type” of a brand-name movie star, the less work they have to do to sell their movies, and less work = more profit.

  • Alice

    When I said Jeff Goldblum was playing the same character over and over again, I didn’t mean that he was not capable of playing something different, just that he kept accepting roles that were basically the same. For the money? Probably. He has a much wider range than that. I just think he has gotten lazy (disheartened?).

    There are actors I like so much I’m not interested in seeing play the bad guy or the psycho. But that’s just me. I expect them to seek out those roles anyway, if they are well written and honest.

  • Stefanie

    And don’t forget our favorite wisecracker Bruce Campbell. He took this concept meta with My Name Is Bruce (although arguably John Malkovich was taken there first in Being John Malkovich).

  • Boingo

    “Good or Bad thing?” For the actor who wants out of being typecast-bad (obviously). For the audience-
    sometimes, they like the ‘ol typecast role, expect it,
    and are comfy with it (Woody in a serious role in Aliens V?).”Jackie Chan stated in an interview, he was
    sick of his usual roles,and wanted to”get the girl” for
    a change.” For the actor who just wants to work (not
    all that easy at times),some probably are just happy to
    get a part (especially as they age out of the mainstream, and had never been big box office draws). I read how happy Travolta was to be out
    of mothballs with “Pulpfiction.” His words: “I never
    was really that good, but I never was ‘that bad’.”
    Mickey Rooney’s tearful interview was the most heart-
    wrenching-” I was 40 yrs. old,and no one would hire me.”

    So there’s actors on different tiers, some are allowed
    the adventure of stretching their range. I’m still awed by Meryl Streep (par for the course).Alan Rickman
    is stamped in my head as a bad/evil guy, though a
    talented classical stage actor with a good range.
    I’ll see if I can handle a change of roles with him
    in the future.

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