Mark Wahlberg and other underplayers: Appreciated, if not nominated

[7 February 2011]

By Christopher Borrelli

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Mark Wahlberg recedes.

Your eyes can come off him, and he’s fine with that; he may be the only actor alive for whom this is true. He is often at the center of the action, yet much of his time is spent watching. He hangs back, passive. At times he can appear one severed muscle away from slack-jawed, but that’s only if you are not paying attention to what is and, more important, what is not happening.

He doesn’t, for instance, chew scenery, grandstand, prattle or erupt; he doesn’t disappear into roles, tumbling inward, losing a third of his body weight, until the actor is no more, a loosey-goosey transformation occurs and all that remains is… character! truth! Wahlberg, as far as I can tell, does not know method brooding, even if, between “The Departed” and “The Lovely Bones,” he seems constantly surrounded by it.

He is not show-offy. He does not even look especially thrilled to have a camera pointed at him. Which is why this awards season, from the vantage of my couch, I have felt so uncomfortable for Mark Wahlberg, a parade of trophies for everyone near him, none for him.

Wahlberg sits at those round banquet tables, and in those auditorium seats, the camera circles, the nominees are read and he stares and adjusts the lower half of his face into what would take a team of mathematicians with laser-precise calibration tools to confirm is a smile. Yes, arguably, by association and nothing else, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards alone, Wahlberg could claim to be part of four awards — two for “Boardwalk Empire,” of which he is a producer, two for “The Fighter,” in which he is ... well, see, this is why it’s been awkward lately. Wahlberg plays the primary fighter in “The Fighter,” of course, and yet, if you get your movie summaries from the 20-second clips doled out during award shows, Wahlberg might seem expendable, supporting, the backdrop that Christian Bale’s bug-eyed failed boxer and junkie brother Dick Eklund uses to droop one of his rubbery limbs across, the listening board that Melissa Leo’s self-congratulatory stage mother/boxing manager uses to remind Wahlberg’s Micky Ward of how indispensible she is.

It’s a cliche of award seasons, and not particularly shocking, that overt virtuosity shines brightest, particularly with actors, and that showy roles draw attention and trophies, and salt-of-the-earth performances devoid of crying or wide-eyed shouting or physical maladies or acting draw nothing. Wahlberg himself is not always so modest. In just the three David O. Russell pictures he’s been in, “The Fighter,” “I Heart Huckabees” and “Three Kings,” he’s shown range, playing a portrait of quietude (“The Fighter”), a dizzyingly hyperactive motor mouth (“Huckabees”) and a virtuous, all-purpose action guy.

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” for which he received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor, he was memorably and hilariously devoid of a thought filter, spouting Mamet-like invectives and zeroing in on every hint of weakness. And though he may be the only central character in “The Fighter” who wasn’t nominated for an acting Academy Award, as one of the film’s three producers, he could take home an Oscar if “The Fighter” pulls an upset victory.

So let’s not cry for him.

But that stillness and vaguely projected unease, even in his most boisterous roles, feels unique, original and understandably overlooked. He is among that rare breed of actor who intentionally underplays, resists, pulls back, shuts up. And yet his wide-open face also suggests naivete; his mellow, spacey voice suggests flakiness, not tenderness; and the way his eyes grow heavy-lidded doesn’t feel intentional. But it is intentional. He is the kind of actor who, as Lee Server wrote in a 2002 biography of Robert Mitchum, trusts “the camera’s occult powers, its peculiar and inexplicable ability, under the right circumstances and with a compatible human subject, to read an actor’s thoughts.” Does it matter if those thoughts rarely seem especially complicated?

You always know what Wahlberg is thinking in “The Fighter,” and it’s usually something like, “Can’t we all get along here?”

In other words, there’s a deceptive simplicity involved, but it’s one that feels quite different from what we expect of the other actors we associate with downplaying and laying low. It’s closest, I think, to the stature of Gary Cooper, who gave off a similar haunted rugged decency, though without the slight threat of violence that Wahlberg’s rangy heaviness can exude. They share a laconic strut, and what film writer David Thomson describes in Cooper as an odd, introspective “preoccupation with some deeper mystery.” But there are also shades here of Spencer Tracy’s shrewdness and lack of pretense. Among women, his closest kin seems to be, oh, Michelle Williams, who never appears to ask the audience for anything; though, ironically, she was nominated for a best actress Oscar for “Blue Valentine,” and her showier co-star, Ryan Gosling, who gives off a decent whiff of method, was left behind.

Which feels both like good judgment on the Academy’s part and further evidence that they don’t know how to read Wahlberg’s own brand of low-key.

He doesn’t, for instance, suggest genuine disinterest — that would be Bill Murray’s brand. And as proven by Jonathan Demme’s “The Truth About Charlie,” his remake of “Charade,” Wahlberg doesn’t have the expressiveness to be a leading man — let alone settle into the shoes of Cary Grant. Which is probably for the best: Wahlberg seems too smart to allow himself to be limited into the role of a Steve McQueen-ish icon. Rather, he works best with others, as the straight man to Will Ferrell in “The Other Guys” or just popping in and cameoing as a random hot guy opposite Tina Fey in “Date Night.”

He has found a place all to himself, where letting a film happen around you doesn’t mean being bland but modestly reactive, natural. At times that blandness serves as a blank slate (“Boogie Nights”); at times it gets misplaced as quiet magnetism (“Rock Star”); and at times it seems so familiar it veers into self-parody (“The Happening”). But at its best, in “The Fighter,” it suggests an entire soul. His Micky Ward is an introverted guy who never gets a word in, and Wahlberg shows this by internalizing what the film is about, by reflecting the plot through his slow steady assembling of confidence, by staying passive. He never finds much of a voice, and when does it’s a whine: He needs to distance himself from his family without shutting them out.

But, unlike, say, Sylvester Stallone in another popular boxing movie, Wahlberg shows no triumph, no evidence he is aware of his own effect. And that may be why Wahlberg is one of our smartest actors — he’s perfectly comfortable being the salt of the earth when you know he could be Spencer Tracy.

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