Christopher Miller on McCabe & Mrs Miller

Christopher Miller watches films so that you don't have to.

Actors. Can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em. Angela Carter once called theatre actors "painted loons" and I do have a certain sympathy with that view. All that declaiming. All those people savouring their own voices, like they're tasting wine. Film acting is different, and it's worth remembering what a film actor does, or is supposed to do. They're often at their most effective when they're silent. The best film actors are like violin strings: they seem to resonate even when they don't appear to be doing anything at all. Watch Daniel Day Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread and see how it, whatever "it" is, comes muscling off the screen. Then watch Tom Cruise in Anderson's Magnolia and wonder how a man with so little charisma can command the fees he does. Philip Seymour Hoffman stands quietly behind him and he's like a klieg light compared to the fitful guttering of the established star.

So, it's not just performance. And it's not just the ability to act. And it's not just "star quality", either, whatever that's supposed to mean. It seems, with the best actors, to be something naturalistic and entirely artificial at the same time. They have to be able to communicate outwards while appearing to be communing inwards; to reach the gallery while looking like they don't remotely care. You believe them and you don't (you have to have both, or how would you know to be impressed by them?) and what often makes the difference is something analogous to tone. Think of John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson in Oh Brother Where Art Thou: how we believe them even when their faces appear to be deliberately dancing for our amusement. Then think of poor George Clooney. Clooney is an intelligent man, and he works extremely hard. He can "do" the heightened cornpone that the other actors can, but he can't inhabit it. His face or his body, or something, is out of tune with what he's trying to achieve. In the old days, they used to make ducks dance by placing candles in the tin beneath their feet. Clooney reminds me of that.

Actors can ruin a film; stars most of all. They're so very much there, aren't they? They're either barnstorming for your attention or they resemble a congealing lump. Warren Beatty's features, for example, are perfectly symmetrical and perfectly bland. In McCabe & Mrs Miller, he's supposed to be a gunman: ornery and tough and weirdly innocent underneath. But all he is is a pampered Californian who thinks that acting is like playing in a sandbox; what he does, essentially, is mumble, enunciate round a cigar and make disconnected gestures. Oh, and he has a great smile. Julie Christie, meanwhile, volunteered to lumber herself with a godawful mockney accent. And what this does, I think, is remind you that you're watching a film. Which is fine, but not when it comes to Robert Altman. There's a sense in which Altman doesn't make films at all. Watch a long enough sequence of shots and what you get is a narrative that lopes happily and unhurriedly from one place to another. There are scenes that are just there; the camera stops to examine something that has next-to-no bearing on the story. It's lovely, this; poetic and not. Then there's the overlapping dialogue, just like life, and the actors who don't seem to be acting; who seem to have wandered in to be who they happen to be. No. Altman should have been braver. He could have had Elliot Gould, but he decided that he wasn't bankable. Beatty and Christie take the film and they upend it; they turn it into something theatrical and false. The tone's all wrong. And I don't care if Roger Ebert calls it "perfect" or if David Thomson writes that it's one of "the most beguiling films ever made in America". They're wrong. I'm sorry. They just are.

Christopher Miller is a teacher of film studies and a movie bore.