Malkovich is one of those American actors who is regarded as a real actor, which is to say, he actually can act, he’s an artist, he’s in it because he wants to be a great actor, or make a great contribution, he’s certainly an actor who gives something a little bit extra, he’s always provocative, always intense. He’s also one of those actors for whom we feel that the calibre of material offered to him is rarely commensurate to his talent – Malkovich has never had a great run of performances in the way his compatriots from the generation preceding his did, namely Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. But then perhaps Malkovich has never quite been the Hollywood star in the same way either. Infact, off the top of my head, it’s difficult to really name any of his Hollywood films. However, his output in Europe seems to be more distinctive, where he has worked with Raoul Ruiz, Manoel de Olveira, Michelangelo Antonioni and Liliana Cavani. Malkovich though, is an actor of such strength, that he can take fairly mediocre material, and render it compelling. And Colour Me Kubrick is an example of this.
The film itself is a light, fluffy affair, loose in parts, piquant in others, and had the actor at the centre of the film been of anything less than Malkovich’s standard, then Colour Me Kubrick would have been a very ordinary film indeed. But there Malkovich is, delivering perhaps one of the great underrated screen performances of recent years (this is certainly an example of an actor’s work receiving less than due attention because it was done in an unfeted film – an actor cannot enjoy success unless the production he is working on, is successful as a whole – there’s moral in there somewhere). Colour Me Kubrick is based on the true story of Alan Conway, who went around passing himself off as filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. It wasn’t that Conway looked anything like Kubrick, he didn’t, but he was able to get away with it because Kubrick’s reclusiveness meant that few people were certain of what he looked like. And Malkovich goes to town as Conway, playing him as a cheap, camp, bedsitland, alcoholic – imagine one of those middle aged men wearing a brown mac and tatty old baseball cap with a cheap bottle of vodka in his pocket, and you’ve got him . Scene by scene, he wins the confidence of wannabe showbiz types by appealing to their vanity; he promises a young rock group work on his new film, and so they buy him drinks (“rich people don’t carry cash”), and on another occasion, he beds a young costumer designer after promising to hook him up with his Hollywood connections, and on another, he agrees to invest in a swanky restaurant in order to save it from bankruptcy, offering to get his Hollywood legal team to “look over the figures”. Perhaps Conway’s most audacious con, was of a light entertainer, who, in real life had been Joe Longthorne but was coded as Lee Pratt in the film. After attending a party at Pratt’s house, Conway tells him he will help him crack Vegas, and the con starts in a scene where Malkovich delivers a great piece of bravura acting – waving his arms about, and speaking in a sort of unmodulated bellow: he informs Pratt that he will speak to “Moe Green in Vegas”, and, “Sheckie in New York”, and get the ball rolling. It is a sensational acting choice, hilarious, and disquietingly true, the film is worth watching if only for this scene. The net result however, is that he takes up residence in a luxury hotel, all at Pratt’s expense of course.
The film is choc full of these wonderful little moments created by Malkovich. Playing a character who is himself acting, offers rich performance possibilities. It’s true that Malkovich, now in his late 50s, is a master craftsman. He is innately compelling, with his intensity, intelligence, dry humour and unusual persona. His work is always precise, always simple, never adding unnecessary detail, but always striving to express the scene, and he makes it seem effortless in Colour Me Kubrick, as all great actors do. Essentially however, at the heart of this performance, is the fact that Malkovich is making acting choices he enjoys, choices which interest him, which touch off his imagination, and which ultimately energise him and fuel him through the scenes. The alternative to making enjoyable choices, is making choices we do not enjoy, and this typically happens when we act to please the director – whether that’s to give the director what we think he wants in order to make him like us, or whether it’s to shore up an insecure director by doing it his way (insecure directors typically talk too much, and want to control how the actor does the scene) – the irony is, most actors make choices in order to please others, which is why so much contemporary acting is joyless and stingy. Malkovich doesn’t fall into that trap – and as a result, we the audience, are delighted by a performance which is properly energised, vivid, various, and, well, fun.
Make choices you enjoy.
To quote the great David Mamet; “You not only have a right to choose actions which are fun, you have a responsibility – that’s your job as an actor”.