It's all about The Dark Knight this week. Part of the hype is the twin performances by Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, which is not undeserved. But both Bale and Ledger belong to a certain school of acting, and it's worth discussing the other schools, especially since one type tends to overshadow the other. When it comes time for acting awards to be doled out, I'm afraid that these two performances will blot out others, especially Robert Downey Jr.'s in Iron Man (375 screens). Actors use many different methods in their craft. One is what I'll call the "Brando" school. When Marlon Brando exploded onto the movie screen in the early 1950s, he brought a new style that was dubbed "raw" and "sensual." He used his entire being in his performances; his study of the "Method" taught him to reach deep into his own experiences to find real emotions to adapt to his characters.
The other school is the "always plays himself" school, of which John Wayne was probably the most pre-eminent member. Wayne had a very limited range and couldn't play all the various characters that Brando could, but he had a very specific onscreen personality that was emotionally satisfying all on its own. Moreover, within his small range, not even Brando could beat him. No one could have been better in The Searchers (1956), for example. Robert Downey Jr. belongs in this second school. Although he happens to possess the skill to play a wide range of parts, he remains chiefly true to his own personality. When you see him, it feels like you're visiting him again, rather than seeing a whole new person. His hijinks in Iron Man are wonderfully energetic and hilarious, but they bear a resemblance to his similar, wiry performances in Home for the Holidays, Two Girls and a Guy and other films.