Colin Firth and the Strategy of Actors

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Colin Firth is a British actor I never tire watching even if his films are tiresome. His vulnerable, winning portrayals are due to his inquisitive eyes, expressive facial features, and an overall countenance that is understated yet pervasive. His gift combines the trials of an uncomfortable male while exuding a gentleman persona that captures the heart of his leading ladies. Initially you saw him in period comedies and dramas — Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC television series of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Shakespeare in Love (1998), or in the flamboyant film version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest (2002) come to mind. Contemporary characters such as Mark in Bridget Jones’s Diary or Jamie in Love Actually, continue his trend of playing the conservative Brit in a wacky situation representing British dry humor for which he is a leader. And he deserved to be nominated for his performance in The King’s Speech (2010) for which he won Best Actor at the Oscars. He has the luxury to pick modern dramas or comedies. So then….

This brings me to ponder, in general, the strategy of the actor and his career. Let’s assume they all crave a forty-year career with stats bearing longevity and accolades to clutter the walls and mantles of their homes, and if British, to be a Sir or Dame would be an honor.

Let’s face it. Firth is a fine actor who plays in too many mediocre films. Does that help or hurt him? Consider Anthony Hopkins. He, too, is a fine actor who has starred in a life time of mediocre films. He’s knighted. He’s prolific. His performances are predictable. I can count on one hand superior performances while sixty others are forgettable. Counter that with the strategy of British/Irish Daniel Day-Lewis (and arguably Leonardo DiCaprio who is adopting DDL strategy) of selecting few roles. Quality vs. quantity. I remember every film DDL has made (and Leo) while the amount of films Colin Firth has made–well, can you remember more than a handful? But is Mama, Mia good?

Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.
Nicole Kidman is the female version of Firth.

I recently watched Railway Man. It had all the promise of an outstanding film. It had the cast. The story. And yet, there was something missing. The film was about Eric Lomax’s struggle with PTSD. Decades later. It debilitated not only him, but his mates who survived the torture of the infamous Burma Railway and the Japanese labor camp. Some are suicidal and most are incapable of sustaining emotional connections. The true story has a fantastic twist of forgiveness and closure; it’s the best ending that borders on a fairy tale. How amazing that Takeshi Nagase and Eric Lomax as the torturer and the tortured could become by the end of their lives friends. It’s incredulous, and yet, there it is, nothing short of inspirational.

When you have Firth, Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård in a film portraying true events, I wonder and hope the film has potential to be stellar. But this film is nothing compared to the classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). In The Railway Man, the acting by Firth is fine. Everyone’s acting in the film is strong. So is it the script by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson that seems lackluster and paling in comparison to other World War II films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist?  If you want to know the history behind Eric Lomax and The Railway Man, check out this site for differentiating Hollywood truth and fiction HERE.   My point is, The Railway Man is a magical story, and it didn’t come off that way to me. It felt mediocre. That’s a crime.

It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.
It made me squirm for Spectre this winter.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014). Did you like it? I saw some British dark humor in it that had me chuckling. Like Shaun of the Dead (2004), the scene where Galahad (Firth) swings through a radical congregation with a sword and decapitates the zombies to the tune of “Free Bird”.  Well, it was funny, in a sick way that had me recollecting Monty Python and the Black Knight scene in forest. “Tis but a scratch!” Dark British humor. Gotta love it.  However, the entire time I am watching Kingsman: The Secret Service, I kept wondering why Colin Firth chose to be in it? It was an awkward film. Samuel L. Jackson was horrible. It was a mediocre film at best.  

Because Firth can play comedy and drama smartly, like a favorite doll, I want to pick him up and place him in only great films. He’s a gifted actor who seems to stick out awkwardly in mediocre films. What do you think?

47 thoughts on “Colin Firth and the Strategy of Actors

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  1. You are a fine, fine writer Cindy!! Great article and it makes me wonder too about Firth, whom I also like as he just seems like a thoughtful, kind gentleman who never lets fame gets to his head. I do think he’s a bit TOO prolific when it’d probably help to be more choosy, esp at the stage of his career. Bummer about Railway Man, it is such a bummer when a GOOD story, a story worth telling like this one somehow just didn’t have that *ooomph* to make it a memorable, inspiring film. It seems to have all the right ingredients but yet, it ends up being meh.

    As for Kingsman however, I actually like Firth in it and I can see why they cast him as he’s this dapper, elegant spy who can be utterly bad ass. I’d say he fares better than Cavill in Man from UNCLE who’s just pretty but empty like a mannequin.

    I admire people like Day-Lewis who is an actor’s actor. He only does a handful of films every few years but they’re always something people buzz about because it’s still a rarity. I think one of the toughest jobs for an actor is to maintain that novelty value, on top of being on top of the game of course, which DDL never seems to have an issue with.

    1. Ruth, your last sentence says it all. If I were in films, I’d love to star in a lot of them–but at some point, the novelty must wear off and if you find yourself in mediocre or crappy films, then that wouldn’t be much fun. Managing your career must be daunting. I don’t envy agents or actors.

      1. That’s why I always like *obscure* actors because they’re in far less danger of overexposure. My French sweetheart Stanley juggles TV, movie AND theater works within a year, so even though he’s working all the time, he’s not ubiquitous because it’s spread through different media.

        I have no desire to be actors, I just can’t fathom such a job y’know, daunting and nerve-wracking. But I’d love to be an agent or casting person, man I’d even volunteer to work for free for Stanley if he’d let me 😀

          1. Yes, I’ve been cheering him on since April but he’s worth it!! Never even love a French actor before (well apart from drooling over Alain Delon’s cheekbones), but when I saw Stanley for the first time, it was like… magic.

            I was just commenting on someone’s blog that I’d take Stanley Weber reading a book in thick wool sweater + turtleneck over ALL of those greasy guys in Magic Mike!! 😀

  2. Omg… I love this guy and I totally agree with you!!! I’m not a fan at all of Samuel Jackson, just don’t care for the guy. We seem to have very simaliar tests in movies;) !!! That’s very helpful for me;) I’m going to be looking for this movie The Railway Man. Thanks Cindy

    1. I’d like to sit in on the filming. Watch the director work, the actors do their thing. I can’t imagine staying in character with microphones and cameras and people inches from me.

  3. He does have great bearing and presence without seeming too Shakespearian for want of a better word. He does have a nice range, but you are right to highlight his poor CV. Fab post as ever.

        1. Oh, I’m such a fan of Kevin Spacey. I’m waiting for season 4 of House of Cards to come out. He is so smart and versatile. I wasn’t aware he did amazing impressions. The Oscar hot shots should ask him to MC. He’d be great.

  4. Oh, I read “The Railway Man” and loved it! I’m sorry to hear it the movie version isn’t all it could be. It’s a shame too because I quite like Colin Firth, although you’re right to say he’s often better than whatever it is he’s appearing in. “The King’s Speech” was pretty good, though, I thought.

    1. Hi! The Railway Man is worthy of viewing, however, I had high hopes it would be great. It’s just good. The King’s Speech is a great film. I loved the whole cast. I’m a fan of Geoffrey Rush. Another fine actor caught in too many mediocre films. Thank you for commenting.

  5. the man is brilliant & dashing/ I’ve enjoyed most all I’ve seen of his work (someone once suggested Colin & I share certain physical similarities ((so I’m telling everybody who’ll listen)) I could share a picture and let you, an obvious fan, shake yr head politely) G,R,

  6. Really didn’t know much about Firth until ‘The King’s Speech’. (Shame on me). But it’s somewhat typical of some overseas actors – not getting the exposure they deserve over here. I’m really amazed by this versatility. There doesn’t seem to be any theme or role he can’t pull off. Action Hero? King? Goodguy? Badguy? Can’t wait to see what he’s up to next? Star Wars?

    1. Hi, JC. Who knows what he will do next. He seems to like to do a variety of genres. I like him best in dramatic roles and the comedies. He was perfect in all the canonical British period pieces.

  7. Wonderfully timely, Cindy–you seem to have a secret knack for knowing what I’m watching or about to watch. I just finished The Last of the Mohicans tonight, it being a toss up between DDL and Colin Firth in Railway Man. Apparently, I chose the better of the two. Still, as I’m a massive fan of Firth’s, I’ll suffer through the second one tomorrow evening and use your critique as a guide.
    And as you aptly point out, Firth has acted in more than a few disappointing and unforgettable films lately, and yet I continue to be drawn to him like a magnet. I will wait out the misses for those two or three golden few.
    Firth is worth it.

    1. Oh, Firth is! It’s a worthy watch–the story is so important, I just wish it had been outstanding instead of just good. Thanks, Shelley. Your Chloe is quite a hoot. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I know you don’t like cliches but I love them 😉

  8. My introduction to Firth was way back in the late 80s with Valmont, I really enjoyed his performance in that and he impressed me again in Shakespeare in Love. But he has had some really odd choice of late, including Kingsman, which was gloriously excessive but terribly miscast. You’ve got me thinking about what I really expect of him.

    1. Hi David–speaking of Kingsman, I noticed Michael Caine (who I think I’ll do a post about) is also a CBE and has made 115 films. Prolific! Yet, he’s more known for his cockney, working man Brit while Firth is more associated with upper crust. I see Firth growing into a Caine. There seems to be unlimited choices for men in older roles (not so for women 😦 ) Anyway, Caine was/is able to comedy and drama effortlessly. I thought as far as casting goes, the two of them in Kingsman gave the film a sense of legitimacy. Thanks for commenting, David.

      1. Agreed, but that legitimacy was then weakened by the cartoonish production and outlandish Jackson. Didn’t work for me at all but I never read the comic book from which it was inspired.

  9. Love ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘The Pianist’!!!
    Speaking of quality vs. quantity, I’d definitely go for quality.
    And I agree, I wish Firth chose to do only great films, or rather film that have the capability of being a good movie, instead of just any run on the mill film.
    I haven’t seen ‘The Railway Man’, but premise sounds interesting, and the fact it’s based on a true story is added bonus. So am glad he chose to do a movie like that. Even though the end result might not have been that good. At least the films seems to have all the necessary ingredients for making a superb piece of cinema.
    Love Colin Firth in films like ‘Another Country’, ‘The English Patient’, ‘Shakespeare in Love’, ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’, ‘Love Actually’, ‘Mamma Mia!’ (even though in secondary roles). And in lead roles in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, ‘A Single Man’ and of course ‘The King’s Speech’. The only two films of his I didn’t like so much, were ‘Easy Virtue’ & the animated ‘A Christmas Carol’. Both OK films.
    Am yet to watch the famed 90’s BBC adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

  10. With some notable exceptions, I don’t believe in the myth of the great actor. The British are well-trained and generally advance to their level of competence, while the Americans are untrained and are flung around from here to there until they (the successful ones at least) find a niche in which they are well-liked by the public. Movie stars are not judged on their acting abilities, but upon whether or not we like watching them. Superior acting skills are often a liability for one aspiring to a career in the movies, as the movies don’t generally allow much room for acting. I am of the belief that it is the accidental meshing of actor with character in a superior film that makes the world believe in superior actors. Take Robert DeNiro, who was impressive in his youth because he played certain characters so well, but is a total bore as an all around actor. I think Colin Firth is a bore because the movies he plays in are, to me at least, boring. DeCaprio is Scorsese cloning himself as Orson Welles, and succeeds in that strange incarnation. I find Hopkins a better actor than Firth, but equally boring. I think it interesting that Hopkins based his portrayal of Hannibal Lector largely on Brian cox’s performance in the first Hannibal picture, Manhunter. But because of the way Jonathan Demme framed him so tightly in silence of the lambs, the character comes across more fierce and terrifying, and Hopkins is praised to the skies for his characterization where Cox is forgotten. It is all an accident.

    1. 🙂 Oh, I do love it when you comment, Bill. You bring a lot of wisdom to conversation and I always appreciate your observations since you have such an intimate history with the industry. You have been behind the curtain and your knowledge extends mine. I’m just the fan in the front row. I agree with your Hopkins statement. I think it interesting that you see Scorsese as a clone of Orson Welles–so you think he’s more than just influenced? I do think Daniel Day-Lewis is the best out there working. Do you agree? Anyone living and working that you think is a great actor? I will guess you thought Brando was a great actor. I think I remember you comparing Depp to Brando. I do believe, more and more.

      1. Sorry .Cindy. I wasnt clear. I see Dicaprio as aScorcese’s clone of Welles, whom he uses as an alter ego in the same way he used to use DeNiro. The obvious beginning was “The Aviator,” Scorsese’s version of citizen Kane, with DeCaprio even re-enacting the double mirror gimmick.Again, I dont know if Day Lewis is the best. I thought he was terrible in There Will be Blood, and marvelous in The Ballad of Jack and Rose. In both, he was just doing his job, but there will be Bloodwas a mess of a movie and hardly any of the scenes worked, while jack and Rose, written and directed by his wife, didnt give him any room to be less than monumental. Depp was Brando’s protege, and has done well by his teacher, but still falls short. Have you seen The Brave, directed by Depp and starring himself and Brando? it’s amazing. I thought jeremy irons a fine actor, and edward norton had promise for a short while. all the new shakepearian actors who have risen to leading roles are crap in my book, but tastes and fashions change. I loved the run of hamlets from gielgud to burton to jacobi, aut branaugh dropped the torch and now…dont get me started!!!! .

  11. I thought Kingsman was a load of fun, in a popcorn movie, based-on-a-comic sort of way. Plus I could get my wife to watch it, since it starred Mr. Darcy! Although it did go overboard in a couple of scenes.

    It was fun to see Colin Firth as a badass action hero. Maybe his master strategy is angling for a role in Expendables 4?

    1. Hi James! Glad for your comment. i’m glad you enjoyed it as well as your wife. It was strange to see him hack away, but cool in the pub “Manners Maketh the Man” and he sure knows how to wear a suit. I liked the Michael Caine older version of himself–there were some fun parts, and some parts that didn’t work for me. Anyway, Expendables 4. Hmmm. Don’t know how I feel about that!

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