When watching an actor on camera, a critic should always look at each actor within the context of the individual film, and the particular world presented on camera. If one was going to try to judge Johnny Depp’s performance in Edward Scissorhands compared to Tom Hanks in Castaway, it may be difficult if you didn’t understand the concept “context reviewing.” The worlds of Edward Scissorhands and Castaway are completely different. One feels closer the reality, while the other is exaggerated. But they both provide good acting within the worlds and stories in which they exist.
Tom Hanks performance here is called “naturalistic” (in acting terms) because his reactions and interactions are recognizable in our reality, in the world in which we all live, in how we can actually view life. Depp’s performance on the other hand is referred to as “non-naturalistic.” Director Tim Burton is known for creating unique, surrealistic, and distorted views of the world in his filmmaking style (set design, costumes, make up, hair, props, etc.), and many of his actors reflect that in their performances as well. It may be unusual to you, and feel different from your reality, but that doesn’t make it bad acting, it just makes it creatively unique.
Here is the key to evaluating the acting in a film – If an actor stays true to their world (in physical appearance, facial expressions, speech, movement, and gestures) throughout a film, then one could say he/she has provided a clear illusion of believability. The acting talent has actually become the character (no matter the world) and has in essence become transparent and a part of that world we see on screen. As a critic that is what you want to look for, you want to believe that the character you are viewing actually does exist. If they make you feel they’ve existed within the story, then they have probably done a decent job acting.
*To get a clearer understanding of good acting v. bad acting examine Marcus Geduld’s exploration of “reviewing actors” and see what Oscar great Michael Caine offers from his BBC acting workshop. Here’s a look at a filmmaker who has over 100 films to his credit.
Barsam, R. M., & Monahan, D. (2010). Looking at movies: An introduction to film (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
BBC. (1987, August 27). Michael Caine Teaches Acting In Film. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZPLVDwEr7Y
Michael caine: On acting in film, arts, and entertainment
Geduld, M. (2014, September 14). How to tell good acting from bad acting – Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-tell-good-acting-from-bad-acting-2014-9
Manning, N. T. (2018, October 1). Quit Acting up [pdf].
Rice, S. (2017, February 20). Great Michael Caine interview: The mark of Caine. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4CufjSs7IU
60 Minutes – CBS