Sometimes after I have seen what I think is a marvellous performance I will see the actor again in an interview, or occasionally even on the tube, and being startled by the fact that they are exactly like they were in the film. What I thought was a great performance was only them being more or less themselves. This happens more frequently with local actors but one more famous example is Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979). This is part of what makes acting and actors so intriguing. We might assume that a particular thing the actor is doing adds nuance and depth to a part and congratulate the actor for it, not knowing that this is not part of the act but a natural habit that the actor does all the time, whether on set or alone in the car. They might not even be aware of it. So it is something that is always there, and not unique for this particular performance for this particular part. But if what they do is something that is part of their natural behaviour it feels peculiar to regard it as great acting.
It is different with people like Kevin Costner for example. When I have seen interviews with him he comes across as rather stiff and dull. But in films he is not like that at all, he can be very likeable, or very scary, even an action hero, which is very far from how he appears in those interviews. Whereas Clint Eastwood, who directed Costner, and acted against him, in what might be their finest achievement, A Perfect World (1993), does not differ all that much from how he appears to be in private from how he appears in films. That would suggest that Costner is a much better actor, because he can believably transform himself into somebody whom is very different from who Costner is in person.
But there is more to it than that, because you must also come across as alive, present, believable, even if you are not a great actor you have to blend in with the film. In Crossroads (Tamra Davis 2002) three young women go on a road trip and they are played by Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana and Taryn Manning. Neither of them do their parts well, they all stumbled on their lines and come across as uncertain and unfocused. Whereas Eastwood come across as natural in his films Spears, even though she is playing a person close to herself, does not. It might be a question of being comfortable in front of the camera, which none of the three women succeed in being.
Here is when direction becomes vital. A recent article by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian about Lauren Bacall and her performance in To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks 1944) did not once mention the name of the director. Bradshaw mentioned the studio, the writers and other actors but it was as if he thought that directors are irrelevant as for as actors and performances are concerned. This is not unique for Bradshaw but a more general tendency, to talk about direction and acting as distinct from each other. But they are of course the opposite of that; directing to a large extent specifically means working with the actors. In creating a good atmosphere, in getting the right performance and getting a good performance. If an actor performs badly the director is partly to blame. (I have seen episodes of Next Top Model where the young would-be models are criticised by the jury for their performance on a photo shot, but that is unfair because the models do not know anything, they only do exactly what the photographer tells them to, so if they do badly it is not their fault but the photographers.)
Another job for the director is to see to it that there is harmony between the various actors, that they do not go off in different directions. Some directors care more than others about such things. Some are content with letting the actors do their thing, others control and modulate them, just as they do with the design, the editing and the imagery. Ernst Lubitsch played all the parts himself beforehand to show his actors how they should do it. Two directors closely associated with MGM, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli, had very different ideas of what kind of acting they wanted. For example, in Minnelli's films the energy of the actors is directed outwards whereas in Cukor's films it is directed inwards. Likewise, Akira Kurosawa's preferred style of acting is different from Yasujiro Ozu's and Hasse Ekman's is different from Ingmar Bergman's. This is an important aspect when considering the director as auteur, and it brings nuance to the often simplistic idea of a "studio style".
Hepburn and Holliday in Adam's Rib (George Cukor 1949)
Then there are different kinds of actors. There are those just playing a type and there are character actors, a term often misunderstood or at least used in different ways. A character actor sometimes refers to somebody who does not play a particular type, but varies from film to film. Sometimes it refers to an actor who plays eccentric characters, distinct or flamboyant. Walter Brennan was a character actor. Takashi Shimura played a tough samurai, a natural leader, in Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954) but in his previous film for Kurosawa, Ikiru (1952), he played a meek old man, sick with cancer, and almost the antithesis of his part in Seven Samurai. But often it is not that easy to distinguish. Look at Toshiro Mifune or Al Pacino for example. They are often stylised and eccentric, but not always. They can be subdued too. Sometimes they play more generic roles, other times they create deep and rounded characters. But none of this necessarily mean that one is better than the other. Meryl Streep changes a lot from part to part, Judi Dench less so, but that does not mean Streep is automatically a better actress.
Al Pacino is by some regarded as the greatest actor for the last 40 years or so, other finds him too flamboyant and loud. Although there is no contradiction between the two of course, being loud and flamboyant does not mean that you are not a good actor. With Pacino, his low-key performances such as in Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell 1997) or Insomnia (Christopher Nolan 2002) are all the more impressive. And in Heat (Michael Mann 1995) where he alternates between low-key and overly expressive, depending upon the situation and what it requires (I mean what it requires of his character Vincent Hanna), he might have given his best performance. But it is hard to say what good acting is, other than perhaps to say "I know it when I see it." Sometimes when people say that they disliked a performance what they mean is that they dislike the actor, which is not the same thing. It is sometimes a question of what kind of acting style a person prefers. Some like extravagant actors like Jack Nicholson, others prefer the more low-key acting style of someone like Daniel Auteuil. But one might require as much skill and effort as the other. Acting is not just showing up, there is a lot of work and technique involved, regardless of acting style. There are of course also those who dislike actors and think that amateurs are much better, in some quest for as much realism as possible. But to consider realism as the main goal and purpose is to have a limited view of cinema, and art,
When I was growing up in Sweden, British TV was all the rage and people were saying "And the actors are so good!" It was an axiom that British TV series had the best actors. But it was rather peculiar because what was it actually based on? How were they better than actors in series from other countries? It was just something one said, rather than something one had actually experienced. And I feel that is often the case when the quality of acting and actors are discussed. It is hardly ever based on a real study and evaluation of the acting in question.
Two of my favourite performances happen to be British, Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945) and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith 1951), but I would have a hard time explaining why. Why in the sense "What makes them different from other performances, by themselves and by others". One reason though is the conflict between the reserve (and the stiff upper lip that is required) and their, Laura's in Brief Encounter and Andrew's in The Browning Version, struggle with it, and ultimate inability to adhere to it (they both have breakdowns, crying uncontrollably), It is great acting, but part of the power comes not from the actual acting but the societal context, which is not part of the performances but help make the performances what they are. Another favourite performance is Clu Gulager in The Killers (Don Siegel 1964). Siegel often encouraged his actors to be quirky and odd, or cool, and none succeeded more than Gulager. It is a rather mannered performance, and he is always fussing around with something, at one point doing push-ups during a scene. It is a great performance. But whether it is great acting is another question all together.