Last week, I wrote about actors who were wasting their talents in bad movies – call it the Eddie Murphy Syndrome. Now let’s discuss actors who actually are reliable, who generally deliver good performances in smart, interesting movies.
One of them is Matt Damon, whose newest film, “Elysium,” opens today. Damon rose to prominence starring in and co-writing 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” and since then he’s devoted his career to mostly worthwhile projects. I particularly like his collaborations with Steven Soderbergh (“The Informant,” “Contagion” and the recent HBO feature “Behind the Candelabra”), but even his forays into big-budget territory – namely the “Bourne” films – have been better than average.
I’ve picked a few more actors whose recent work I’ve admired, and I now realize they all have one thing in common – they all began their careers as sex symbols or romantic leads and have expanded their range by working with dependable directors and choosing intelligent screenplays. The slackers from last week’s column should take notes.
Matthew McConaughey – McConaughey got his start with memorable supporting roles in indie productions such as Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” and John Sayles’ “Lone Star.” But by the early 2000s, he had become the go-to star for moronic romantic comedies – “The Wedding Planner,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “Failure to Launch,” et al. It’s as if Hollywood forgot he had any talent. Within the past few years, though, McConaughey has returned to his roots, turning up in a number of edgy, noncommercial films. His work as the title characters in William Friedkin’s brutal “Killer Joe” and the acclaimed Southern thriller “Mud,” along with his scene-stealing turn in “Magic Mike,” prove that McConaughey can play just about anyone. He’s gone from a punch line to a respectable actor within the past 10 years; let’s hope it stays that way.
Ryan Gosling – It would have been easy for Gosling to embrace the mainstream after his breakout role in “The Notebook.” But more often than not he’s strayed from the beaten path, and he’s used his popularity to anchor a number of risky, experimental films, including the art-house thrillers “Drive” and “The Place Beyond the Pines.” His recent roles have ranged from the charming social outcast in the comedy “Lars and the Real Girl” to an alcoholic in a crumbling marriage in “Blue Valentine,” while his terrific performance in 2006’s “Half Nelson” earned him a deserved Oscar nomination. Gosling’s output hasn’t been completely flawless – his last film, “Only God Forgives,” was a pretentious mess – but his refusal to be confined within the limitations of a Hollywood heartthrob is refreshing.
George Clooney – Of all the actors I’ve listed, Clooney’s track record is probably the closest to spotless (we’ve collectively forgotten about “Batman and Robin,” right?). He’s from the classic movie star mold, but he’s remarkably versatile, too: He’s just as comfortable with the goofy comedy of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” as the somber legalese of “Michael Clayton.” He’s even better in the midlife crisis character studies “Up in the Air” and “The Descendants.” He’s also worked with some of the most idiosyncratic directors in the business – David O. Russell, Soderbergh, Terrence Malick and the Coen brothers – and has turned out to be quite a good filmmaker himself: His directorial efforts “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night and Good Luck” and “The Ides of March” are all worthy efforts.
Brad Pitt – I think one of the reasons Pitt’s output has been so good in the last few years is that, like Clooney, he co-produces and finances most of the movies he’s in. Because he only stars in the movies he wants to get made, he doesn’t really waste his time on unworthy projects, and he also devotes equal time to A-list productions and independent ones: In 2007, he cashed a quick paycheck with “Ocean’s Thirteen” and then turned in a thoughtful performance in the leisurely period piece “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford;” in 2011, he appeared in both the ethereal “The Tree of Life” and the crowd pleaser “Moneyball.” And, also like Clooney, he isn’t afraid of comedy, and his work in the Coens’ “Burn After Reading” is one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in a long time.