Mixed emotions

As a number of actors are proving this awards season, delivering a bittersweet performance requires the deft touch of a skilled artist.

Early in rehearsals for Alan Bennett's play "The History Boys," star Richard Griffiths tried to determine the right mood for a scene in which his beloved teacher character Hector is called on the carpet by the school's headmaster for a string of sexual indiscretions. "At one point, I decided to try giving him a hard look," Griffiths explains, "as if to say, 'If you come one step closer, I'll rip your lungs out.'"

But director Nicholas Hytner -- who helmed both the play and Fox Searchlight's film version -- stopped Griffiths on the spot, telling the actor he was being "too threatening." So, Griffiths shifted gears, calling on the wit and "amused tolerance" that Hector displays throughout the piece. Audiences go into that scene liking Hector, then they hate him when they hear the charges against him, and then, says Griffiths, "They get very confused. They were ready to be judgmental, and by the end of the scene, they're not entirely sure."

It can be tricky to execute that kind of shift from being a comic figure to a tragic one in a single moment, but for Griffiths, who in his long stage and screen career has ranged from broad, clownish characters to engagingly dramatic ones, the harder part was figuring out how big to play it, especially when the time came to film a performance that he'd been giving in London and New York for two years. "The first three scenes I have in the film are, even for Hector, very theatrical and larger-than-life," he says. "I kept fighting the possibility that it looked bad. You have to pull it back and find something a bit more grounded."

This Oscar season, the buzz has gathered around riveting dramatic performances by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" and "Blood Diamond"), Ryan Gosling (ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson"), Jennifer Hudson (Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls"), Helen Mirren (Miramax's "The Queen") and Forest Whitaker (Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland"), and there's even been talk that the wild comic performance of Sacha Baron Cohen in Fox's "Borat" might get a nomination.

As often happens, performances that straddle the line between being wildly funny and heart-rending, such as Griffiths' or Alan Arkin's in Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," tend to be respected but not lauded. The conventional wisdom is that drama is hard, and comedy is harder, but dramedy might be hardest of all.

Consider Emily Blunt, whose turn as Meryl Streep's villainous assistant in Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" is at once pithily funny and more than a little sad. Blunt insists, "Yes, she's sarcastic, yes, she's imperious, yes, she's a total pain in the ass, but you have to find glimpses of her warmth and humanity."

And if one asks New York Magazine critic David Edelstein, Blunt does just that. "She gives a hypercomic performance," Edelstein says. "But, at the same time, you register the intense terror of this woman. Even though she's one of the villains of the story, you feel enormous sympathy for her."

To Edelstein, the key to a performance like Blunt's is in how she navigates being both real and funny. "Any great clown (finds) the emotion first and then play the stylization," he says.

Griffiths, frequently a stylized actor in films like Warners' "Harry Potter" series, agrees. "If you're somebody who fires out a funny line and gets a laugh, that's all right, but the proper thing is to be able to give the audience an idea that they understand," he says. "To the character, the situation may be quite serious, but the audience should see why it's funny."

In Fox Searchlight's "Thank You for Smoking," Aaron Eckhart plays a tobacco lobbyist so slick and amoral that he'd be impossible to believe if Eckhart didn't sell the role with his chipper, can-do performance. The actor says that the most important preparation for a role like this is "knowing why it's funny in the first place." Says Eckhart: "If it's written funny and I play it straight, it's going to be funny. It always starts in real behavior, and it helps to have a director like Jason Reitman, who recognizes both what's funny and what's plausible acting."

Eckhart is just as wowed by his co-stars Todd Louiso and William H. Macy because they also trusted Reitman and "Smoking" novelist Christopher Buckley's dialogue enough to deliver it without being affected. "What they have to say is so absurd that you have to laugh, just because they believe it so much," he says.

Eckhart's own comic tastes run from Jim Carrey and Dudley Moore to, in a different key, Bob Hope and Vince Vaughn. Asked to cite some of his favorite comic performances of 2006, Eckhart mentions Vaughn in Universal's "The Break-Up." "People said that movie was really a drama and wasn't funny, but I thought it was hilarious," he says. "And Vaughn does some serious acting."

What makes a performance like Vaughn's doubly impressive is that he's an American, and as many have noted, Americans don't excel at subtle comedy. "There's a kind of Method-y approach in a lot of American acting that isn't great for comic timing," Edelstein says. "They somehow think that if you want them to stylize, then that's untrue. They have trouble reconciling the two ideas. I think British actors have an easier time."

According to the British Blunt, "Our sense of humor is more ironic, I think. There's a lot more sarcasm. We do have an innate silliness in the U.K., too, but it's less about seeing how far you'll go to stab yourself in the eye with needles, like (MTV's) 'Jackass' or something."

Griffiths isn't sure that's true. He thinks the best comedy emerges from "anger masquerading as civility," and he hails two Americans as the best at that: Buster Keaton and George Segal.

But while Edelstein is adamant that he's "no anglophile," he can't help but cite more Brits when he considers the best performances of 2006. Fox Searchlight's "'Notes on a Scandal' borders on camp in places, but Judi Dench finds the emotional truth in this extremely stylized comic performance of an insane person," he says. "She's an example of how you can do that with blinding brilliance. And I think Helen Mirren gives a hilarious performance in (Miramax's) 'The Queen,' and yet, once again, it's the subtlest comedy imaginable. She has this enormously blinkered worldview, and there's an enormous amount of comedy in that and an enormous amount of pathos in that as well."

Then there's Peter O'Toole, whose performance as an O'Toole-like dying actor in Miramax's "Venus" has audiences rolling in the aisles right up to the moment that he tears out their hearts. It's a masterful performance because he's seemingly doing nothing but reciting the lines, softly and resignedly, and yet he allows his frailty and vulnerability to give each joke an added weight. O'Toole has created a character that will stay with people for decades in the way these sorts of natural-seeming funny-sad performances do -- because they have the flavor of life as it's really lived, not in its extremes.

The same could be said of Alan Arkin in "Sunshine," where he plays a heroin-snorting grandfather who might be the most level-headed member of his dysfunctional family. For Arkin's part, he traces his low-key style back to his performance more than 35 years ago as the melancholy bombardier Yossarian in Mike Nichols' 1970 film version of "Catch-22."

According to Arkin, he complained to Nichols that he didn't know who the character was, and the director barked back, "He's you!" Arkin replied, "Me? There is no such person." He says he "went to dailies every day for several months to see if anything actually showed up onscreen."

When he got the script for "Sunshine," Arkin says he understood the character right away. The only scene he felt needed work is arguably the most tender in the film, when Grandpa helps his granddaughter (Abigail Breslin) with her beauty pageant routine in a seedy motel room on what turns out to be the last night of his life.

"I felt it was too soft," Arkin says. "Even though it's his last scene in the movie, the audience doesn't know it, and he doesn't know it. And as much as he loves his granddaughter, and even though it's the only time we see them together, I've still got to be the same lunatic to a certain extent that I am in the rest of the movie.

"I like films where you don't know whether it's going to be funny or sad from moment to moment," Arkin adds. "I don't want to know where a movie's taking me before I see it."

To him, the key to straddling that line between drama and comedy is to embrace the unpredictability because it's closer to how life is anyway. "Until I was in my middle 30s, I didn't want to go anywhere near myself," Arkin says. "But now, I'm happy not to play someone a million miles from who I am. I'm happy just hanging around my own personality neighborhood."