Tony Earnshaw: Arts View

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If you’re a fan of movies, theatre and television do you ever find yourself mulling over that eternal question: who is or was the best actor?

Football fans do it all the time, as do followers of Formula 1, cricket, boxing and tennis. If sports junkies can pit Lauda against Senna, Ali against Louis, Trueman against Warne then it stands to reason that film buffs regularly argue the merits of Tracy versus Spacey.

I mention this since speaking with a British actor who experienced the end of the repertory system. A thriving movement in the 30s, 40s and 50s it began to die out with the explosion of TV in the 60s and by the 70s had all but dried up entirely. Around the same time variety was fading in the UK just as vaudeville became extinct in America. Live entertainment couldn’t compete with the tube and, gradually, the training ground of actors shifted and changed.

These days the UK’s satellite channels are infested with documentaries about great names of the past – comedians such as Tommy Cooper or thesps like John Le Mesurier. All of them focus on talent, experience and the learning curve. And in doing so they point to an age that has gone and will not come again.

The phenomenon of repertory theatre gave actors the chance to play a different role every week – more than 50 in a year. Some of today’s actors are lucky if they play 50 characters in their entire career.

And with the nature and mechanics of acting constantly changing is it relevant, appropriate or fair to place the style of one against another from a different era? The answer is probably “no”. Yet it is intriguing to compare contemporary performers with the great stars of yesteryear. And the process becomes easier when another slew of summer remakes hit cinema screens.

It is a film star’s lot to be unfavourably compared to the person who authored a character or role. Think Jeff Bridges and John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. In actuality Bridges was closer to the original book; Wayne played it as himself. No comparison at all, in fact.

For younger audiences it’s probably all about regurgitation. Does anyone remember Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man now that Andrew Garfield is spinning the webs? Or Michael Keaton since Christian Bale took over as Batman? Modern actors don’t enjoy the breaks – through hard work and stagecraft – that their predecessors got. But as times change so do styles of acting. The real issue is believability; if someone hasn’t had the life experience then they can only rely on their talent as a performer. Sometimes it isn’t enough.

Me, I want my actors to be chameleons. I want the wigs and false noses – the schizophrenic art of morphing into someone different every time. It’s invidious to set Old Vic against Corrie but give me the evolution of a long run against the conveyor belt of soap any day of the week.