Too often, it seems, our film conversations begin and end with our most general subjective impressions. Sometimes we’ll break through to the next level and actually address some of the departments that went into making the film, (“The writing was really good!” “The special effects were terrible!”) but getting beyond that is the real challenge. Most of the time we lack the shared vocabulary to really express why we had a particular subjective reaction to something in a movie. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we start trying to talk about acting quality.
“The lead’s acting was so wooden!” we often hear both critics and moviegoers exclaim after seeing a film. But what are the specific qualities that make the interpretation of a role “bad?” What are the markers that set apart a terrible thespian from a good one? For the most part, spotting a bad performance is like recognizing porn: it’s hard to put it into words, but you know it when you see it.
Well, we can do better! We can break this language barrier and try to come to some kind of communal understanding for evaluating performances. What is it that makes for bad film acting?
Rather than discussing some lofty set of Platonic ideals that can then be applied into all kinds of films, I want to work backwards on this one, beginning with a film performance that is undoubtedly – unquestionably – bad. We’ll need something that we can all agree is a terrible performance, even through the rainbow of all our individual subjectivities. Something that takes everything normally associated with unconvincing acting and pushes it to such an extreme…
Ahhhh yes, there we go. That will do nicely.
For any of you fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to not immediately recognize the man in the above image, that is Tommy Wiseau. He is the writer, director, producer, and, yes, lead actor of 2003’s The Room, an infamously terrible cult film. Widely seen as one the best examples of Nanar (films that are enjoyable because of how uniquely and engrossingly terrible they are) the film has been called everything from “one of the most inept movies ever made” to “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.” The film’s plot (and I use the term extremely loosely) follows the misadventures of Johnny (Wiseau) as he realizes that his girlfriend is cheating on him with his best friend. Along the way, they run bump into random people, have odd encounters, and just kind of… exist in a weird, alternate dimension version of San Francisco.
And the main performance that anchors this train wreck? Well, check out this scene from the middle of the film, right after Wiseau’s character has just learned that his girlfriend is telling people that he physically assaulted her. (WARNING: NSFW for language)
It’s tempting to just say that the main problem here is that as a performer he isn’t skilled at emoting and leave it at that. It’s true that’s part of what makes this into such a terrible performance; Wiseau can hit enough of the general signifiers of an emotion (increased volume and throwing objects in the case of anger, for example) that we can identify what he’s going for. But he doesn’t actually affect any of the adjustments in vocal tone, physical demeanor, or body language that would be necessary to create an effective illusion. His delivery has the same affectation as he screams to the heavens that his girlfriend is lying as when he says hi to a friend. This is part of what makes Wiseau’s performance bad in a fascinating way: it loudly telegraphs emotions that he can’t even approximate. He both overplays and underplays the material.
But it goes beyond his inability to convincingly portray an emotion. There is also the fact that he never seems to be in control of his physicality. Acting is performed through the instruments of the actor’s body: the voice, the eyes, and the frame. A skilled thespian performs the way an expert surgeon operates: with sharp, calculated, and deliberate movements. This is the level of control that allows someone like Alan Rickman to convey a complicated idea or emotion simply by raising his eyebrow. Contrast the above clip from The Room with this clip from 2014’s A Little Chaos, which was co-written and directed by Rickman himself. See how much expressive mileage he gets just from tiny eye movements and very slight shifts in his facial expressions.
But there’s, somehow, even more. The next element that makes Tommy Wiseau’s performance stand out as a particularly strong case of bad acting? The other person in the scene with him. I’m not talking about the quality of Greg Sestero’s performance as Mark. (Although it isn’t particularly great.) I’m not even referring to Wiseau’s inability (or unwillingness?) to act off of his co-star. (Although that’s also true – there’s not a single genuine moment of interactivity in the scene) The real kicker is the way that the tone of Sestero’s performance influences the way we look at Wiseau’s. Sure, Sestero’s acting isn’t phenomenal, but it’s a few degrees closer to the realms of sanity than Wiseau’s. And that is the very thing that makes the lead’s erratic acting all the more noticeable.
Here’s what I mean: imagine if everyone in the film spoke with Wiseau’s bizarre accent, odd mannerisms, and tendency towards non-sequitur absurdity. The film might be too insane for anyone to survive its full runtime, but the acting in it would be seen in a different light. We would probably say that the film was clearly going for some kind of odd statement about human representation, and used an intentionally unsettling acting style to accentuate this. It would probably be seen as a poor decision on the director’s part, but it would register as the actors following through on some grander artistic vision.
This is not the case, and the fact that Sestero and the rest of the cast’s performances register so much closer to generic blandness than Wiseau’s just helps to highlight the lead’s inherent weirdness and inexplicable rhythms. This may be the main thing that’s worth remembering about performances in film, both good and bad ones: they’re never created by one artist in isolation. Instead, the collection of actors and technicians create a world with a specific register and tone, and each performance either gels with that world or it doesn’t. Performances that work beautifully in one tone might fall apart in another one, and the responsibility for that goes beyond just the individual actor or actress. Tommy Wiseau the actor gave a bad performance in, but it was made worse by Tommy Wiseau the writer, the director, and the producer.
So there we go. Lessons in how to give a bad performance from one of the inexplicable masters of our time. Begin with terrible material, hopefully some that demands sharper and more abrupt emotional transitions than what any human being is capable for delivering with conviction. Then, refuse to emote with subtlety or precision – build an emotional portrait through broad gestures and stock actions rather than through adjustments in vocal tone, body language, or facial expression. But don’t stop there! Make sure that all your physicality is constantly running away from you and the intentions of the material, presenting as inconsistent a through line as you can muster. Remember to take nothing from what the other person in the scene is doing and, last but not least, avoid fitting into any kind of calculated tonal register or design for the film. Do all of that and… well, you’ll still be one bizarre accent away from performing at Wiseau levels, but you’ll be well on your way!
Fortunately, all of the above tenants can be inverted, and we can find lessons in how to give good performances in their mirror opposite. When you take a performance that is as good as Tommy Wiseau’s is bad (take, for instance, Joaquin Phoenix in the final scene of Spike Jonze’s Her) you can clearly see the other end of these spectrums. Instead of monotone expressions, rich contrasts in emotional texture that create compelling illusions of real feelings. Instead of free form unpredictability, tight control over every facet of the performer’s presence. Instead of enormous gestures, we get tiny adjustments in the performers’ instruments that have been precisely selected for maximum impact. (Look for instance, at the way Phoenix’s eyes shift when Amy Adams asks him if Samantha is gone. It’s the emotional crux of the scene, and both acting and filmmaking work to highlight it.) And, most important of all, instead of incongruous mismatching, a seamless integration of tone and register with the other elements in the world and the filmmakers’ vision to create an overall impression of control and intent.