Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Acting or Writing Genius

There is an inherent problem in acting, or perhaps even more so writing, genius.

Don't get me wrong, it is not necessarily an easy task to successfully portray people of normal wits and intelligence. And it is certainly something of a challenge to portray stupid people; in particular in acting, where timing is of the essence to make it believable. The latter is actually one of the reasons why Christina Applegate's depiction of Kelly Bundy in Married with Children is an impressive feat. We utterly believe in Kelly's stupidity; to the extent where it would be easy to assume that Applegate shares this feature with her character. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If she had been stupid, we would not have viewed Kelly as a stupid character, but rather as a character played (unsuccessfully) by a stupid actor. We recognise the asinine without a doubt, but we also recognise when something is out of synch with its context; in this case, the story. Stupid in synch equals brilliant portrayal of stupid character; stupid out of synch equals a poor portrayal by a stupid actor.

But I digress.

This post is not about the lower register (which it is still easier to bow down to), but the higher one, which remains ever elusive. As in all cases, fiction does not require being real, it requires seeming real. And therein lies the rub.

Acting or writing genius requires on the one hand to present the audience with an understandable entity; one which they can still comfortably understand as genius. On the other, it also requires that that understandable genius isn't transformed, as if by default, into a regular bloke. The balance is not easy and there are many examples of failure. Mostly, however, the failure does not consist of a too rigid depiction of the genius as actual genius. Perhaps this is because your normal actors and writers aren't actually geniuses themselves. Not even most of the more intellectual ones. And even if they were, chances are that they would ironically dumb down a genius character to make her or him relatable.

The other side of the coin is writing or acting upwards, telling your audience how brilliant your character is, only to stumble on the finish line by having the character absolutely clueless about something which they really ought not be clueless about. In TV shows, this is often shown by the genius character knowing little or nothing about any and all popular culture (Dr Sheldon Cooper obviously being a great exception to that rule). You only need to think about characters like Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS) or Dr Temperance Brennan (Bones) who usually come off as super smart people, up until the point when a pop cultural reference appears. Because, as we all know, super smart people live entirely apart from the world, and can still stay up to date on the human condition, without ever taking in a single tabloid placard or zapping by anything pop cultural on TV. And after all, nothing of the kind would ever appear in a proper news show or newspaper either, so... Well, I guess you catch my drift.

So the trick is balance; to establish a level of genius you can sell, and without selling it short. And at the end of the day, it doesn't require genius. Only the skills to seem like one.

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