I’ve been enjoying the blazing debate over the importance of acting in the movies that has taken over the Sydney Pollack thread. To me, acting remains a mysterious, unquantifiable activity that I have never really learned to discuss in critical terms. Actors, however, are something else, and I’ve never doubted their central importance to narrative cinema as units of meaning — “icons,” to use a much abused term — to be chosen and deployed by filmmakers for the sense and substance they bring with them. A star-based cinema has many disadvantages (particularly these days, when the stars are so powerful that very few directors can stand up to them), but it does have the tremendous advantage of being able to drop down a Robert Mitchum or a Margaret Sullavan as full-bodied characters in the middle of a narrative that would otherwise have to spend 60 of its 90 minutes setting up backstories and psychological profiles. And certain actors can have careers just thematically and stylistically coherent as any director’s, even though the individual films may be mediocre or worse. That lesson is brought home again by Lionsgate’s two latest boxsets drawn from the massive European holdings of Studio Canal: a four-film Sophia Loren collection and a five-film Catherine Deneuve set, both reviewed in today’s New York Times.
Dino Risi, who died this weekend at the age of 91, was a very gifted filmmaker whose work has largely been forgotten by American audiences, although it was Risi and his colleagues working in the “commedia all’italiana” who kept the art houses of the 1960s full in between New Wave pictures. Risi’s masterpiece remains “Il Sorpasso,” a piercing 1962 social satire that might be the work of a wiser, warmer, less self-conscious Billy Wilder. “Il Sorpasso” isn’t available in the US, though there is a good French disc that pairs it, under its French title, “Le Fanfaron,” with another important Risi, “I Mostri” (1963).