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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