'A Cambodian Odyssey': Haing Ngor Was Among the Most Consequential Actors of His Time

It isn't often that a brutal personal account of mass murder, slavery, torture and the obliteration of a sovereign nation causes a reader to meditate on the art of acting, but then, Haing Ngor's was no ordinary life.

It isn't often that a brutal personal account of mass murder, slavery, torture and the obliteration of a sovereign nation causes a reader to meditate on the art of acting, but then, Haing Ngor's was no ordinary life. An Academy Award winner for his role in the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, and a survivor of the Cambodian genocide chronicled in the movie, Ngor is depicted on the back cover of his memoir, A Cambodian Odyssey, holding aloft his Oscar, his entire being ablaze with joy. On the front cover is a picture of Ngor as he must have looked during the depths of his travails just a few years before, seated in torn fatigues, with an expression on his face that defies description -- other than to say it is the same as in photographs of Cambodians as they entered Pol Pot's infamous prison, Tuol Sleng, knowing they were about to be tortured to death.

These two photographs of Ngor are themselves troubling, though in an entirely less consequential sense. To begin with, their placement on the front and back covers of A Cambodian Odyssey suggests that the low and high points of his journey are defined, respectively, by his imprisonment and repeated torture at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and by his improbable Hollywood triumph. This is misleading on many levels, as Ngor himself clearly states in the book. More on this inadvertent falsity -- evidently a product of the book's publishers and marketers rather than of Ngor himself -- later.

In addition, it would appear from the attribution on the book's inside back flap that the front-cover photograph was not taken by a captor or fellow prisoner during Ngor's time as a "war slave", but rather is a production still from the movie. There's no intent to deceive, and Ngor's memories of the Pol Pot era surely were corrosive enough for him to convincingly replicate for the cameras the way he felt in his darkest days. (Even though, it should be noted that the experiences Ngor reproduced in the movie were not his, but that of his countryman, Dith Pran.)

However, as this photo suggests, too often the pleasure we take in the art of acting is limited to an appreciation of the actor's ability merely to be himself, which, to state it bluntly, makes acting hardly an art at all. Ngor, adrift in America after enduring four years of unspeakable horror in his native country, reluctantly allowed himself to be drawn into the auditions for The Killing Fields mostly because he thought the movie might help publicize the plight of his fellow Cambodians. The producers and the director, Roland Joffe, undoubtedly detected some natural talent in Ngor, who had never acted before, but they also saw Ngor himself -- profoundly traumatized, unhealthy-looking and underweight, but willing to work hard, and, needless to say, of the same ethnicity as Dith Pran. Maybe that was all they, and the viewers of the movie, really needed.

In short, though Haing Ngor was portraying one of his countrymen in The Killing Fields, he was really playing himself. How else could this man, a practicing physician before his life was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, have garnered an Academy Award, which in theory is given only to those at the peak of the acting profession?

In truth, a look at the winners of the Academy Award over the years suggests just how un-special the award is, and how easy it is to win if you happen to be the right person in the right place and time. In 1946, Harold Russell, an amputee and World War II veteran in his first acting role, won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives playing, ahem, an amputee and World War II veteran. He appeared in just two subsequent films. Tatum O'Neal was 10-years-old in 1973 when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. In 1979, an eight-year-old boy, Justin Henry, was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Needless to say, there aren't any eight-year-olds -- nor non-professionals essaying their art for the first time -- winning Pulitzers or Guggenheims or Pritzker Prizes.

Even expanding the scope of inquiry to include unquestionably skilled professional actors does the profession no favors. Actors like Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro (who's been slumming egregiously for many years now) succeed not because they create living and vivid characters, at least in the latter halves of their careers, but because they are already exceptionally charismatic.

To be sure, there are actors -- often British, it would seem -- who don't play versions of themselves over and over again, but instead transform themselves utterly into another human being. Then again, they haven't created this new character, ex nihilo. They play off of the other actors, they are told how to move and where to hit their marks, they are given accent and dialect coaching, they are lit attractively, they are made up and costumed, they are given line readings, they are placed in front of beautiful landscapes or dramatic interiors, they are photographed and directed by others, and, most important of all, they recite words written by others. If on film or video, their bad takes are trimmed away, and even when offstage they are cosseted in a cocoon of perceptions spun by marketing departments, publicists and obsequious critics. They never, ever, work alone.

A Lesser Art

This may seem a highly reductive interpretation of what the profession is all about, but acting is inarguably an interpretive art, not a creative one, and thus will always be subordinate to, and easier than, arts that create something out of nothing. This is why great performances are so ubiquitous but great screenplays so rare. As the late columnist Sydney Harris put it in a brief essay reprinted in his 1982 collection, Pieces of Eight, "For every thousand excellent actors or actresses, there may be only one or two excellent playwrights... Indeed, one of the perennial problems in the theater (in all countries everywhere) is the high ratio of first-rate performers to third-rate scripts. We almost never see a play where the writing is better than the acting: In almost every case, the interpretations are better than the play deserves. And for every choice role there are a hundred qualified candidates."

None of this belies the fact that some actors are simply better and more skilled than others. Ngor's co-star and fellow Best Supporting Actor nominee in The Killing Fields was John Malkovich, and when Ngor was announced as the winner over Malkovich (and Sir Ralph Richardson, among others), Malkovich pointed to the Oscar and said, in the Cambodian language, "Ach an neh. Rar boh anh teh," which means, "kiss my ass. It's mine." This was an affectionate jibe; Malkovich and Ngor became friends during the filming of The Killing Fields, and Malkovich had been taught this phrase and various profane others by Ngor, but nonetheless, many a truth is said in jest.

Malkovich is not only an infinitely more skilled actor than Ngor, he is a creative artist as well, having directed several movies and many memorable theatrical productions with the legendary Chicago ensemble Steppenwolf. Yet even Malkovich occasionally skates by on the same sort of thin shtick that characterizes nearly every other film actor.There have been a few too many times in his film career when he has trotted out the same whispery and menacing "effete aesthete" persona that he will, regrettably, be most remembered by when he is no longer on the scene.

It is on the stage -- in indelible productions such as Balm in Gilead and >True West -- where Malkovich's brilliance has been best displayed. In these productions and others, he pulsated with danger and unpredictability, as if anything could happen at any moment; I can remember one scene in a play where Malkovich was armed with a knife, and I actually was afraid that he was about to leap off the stage and stab someone in the audience.

As Malkovich and his few peers understand, that's exactly the point: In live theater, as in life, anything can happen at any moment. The composition of the audience, which is different every show; the inability to do additional takes or edit one's performance; the energy level of the actors on any given night; the influence of what they ate or drank or inhaled before stepping on stage; and the omnipresent gift of accident afforded by cheap props and creaky scenery results in a theoretical infinity of different performances, and conveys in any given performance the electrifying sensation that things could reel out of control at any instant.

In this regard, whether it is putatively realistic, twisted, absurdist, surreal or fantastical, theater at its best conveys at least a glimmering of the contingency and strangeness and unpredictability of life itself.

Of all that life is, the one thing it is assuredly not is pre-determined -- we simply cannot know how the story will end. While theater and movies have in common a dependence on scripts, in most other ways movies are the anti-spontaneous polar opposite of the theater. In a movie, nothing can happen, because it already has happened -- on the set, months ago and in a pitch meeting, years before that.

This sense of anti-spontaneity is only getting worse. From the beginning, film actors -- whether in romantic comedies or war movies or action flicks -- have always acted out their roles with an unseemly and unconvincing confidence, as if they know how the movie will end because they've already read the script, which of course they have. Where is the uncertainty, the ignorance of the future, and the tremulousness with which all of us launch ourselves into the unknown? Nowhere to be seen in our movies, where the unreality of performance has been heightened in recent years by Hollywood's relentless marketing machine, which uses focus groups and other forms of research to ensure that the audience not be exposed to anything they aren't already expecting. Add in CGI, which by making everything possible makes nothing believable; and plastic surgery, which turns familiar actors into waxen dummies of their actual selves, which are already one or two steps removed from the realm of real humanity; and most mainstream movies are about as palatable as the plaster wedding cake in a bakery window.

In this regard, the emblematic scene in contemporary mainstream movies is the one where the hero or bad guy is striding away from the scene of an imminent explosion. Invariably, movie makers go out of their way to accomplish two diametrically opposed effects in such scenes: First, they make the explosion as impressively large and loud as possible to excite or alarm the audience, and second, they direct the actor to walk away from the conflagration without blinking or flinching, or, for that matter, suffering second- and third-degree burns to their back and legs. (Coincidentally, I happened to catch a cable reprise of Con Air, in which Malkovich plays a bad guy named "Cyrus the Virus", while I was reading A Cambodian Odyssey, and sure enough, there's a scene in which Malkovich and his fellow escaped prisoners walk away from a huge explosion they've just caused without reacting to it.)

Sometimes, the scene is a little different; the protagonist, usually with a pretty girl in tow, is running away from a rapidly approaching fireball, but the effect is always the same: No injuries, no burns, and no terror whatsoever.

Why should they feel terror? They've already read the script. They know they'll come out just fine.

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