The Case for Over-the-Top
It’s a phrase that gets applied to performances too easily—as if a large-scale, extravagant star turn from an actor is simply a matter of letting every bigger-is-better impulse pour onto the screen unchecked by fear, timidity, or taste. So let us now praise Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight by saying that we were thrilled to witness perfectly controlled pieces of work by actors who knew exactly how to calibrate what they were doing. Lesser talents would have let the blackface and the whiteface do their job for them, but for these two, good makeup was just a tool of the trade, a starting point for their intelligence and imagination. While we’re delighted to applaud the prodigally talented Downey in his comeback year, we wish we could end 2008 by heralding Ledger’s breakthrough to the first rank of young actors instead of by memorializing him. As The Dark Knight searingly demonstrated, he always seemed to know how much was too much. How sad and paradoxical that he left us wanting more.