On “Breaking Through”

It’s not so much that I think Lynn Hirschberg’s Oscar portfolio piece, “Breaking Through,” doesn’t get the job done. In her triangulation of the cinematic breakthrough performance, she does showcase a dozen-plus nominees.

My problem with the piece, instead, is its lack of reach. In looking for the origins of classic actors’ “templates”—which, she says, can be formed by breakthrough performances—she doesn’t look far enough. Though she convincingly locates some decades-old breakthroughs (e.g., Diane Keaton’s; see below), her aim is off with many more recent career- or character-making moments.

For example, Hirschberg names the performance in which Vince Vaughan created his primary comedic personae—”the brilliant motormouth”—as Wedding Crashers. In an age where IMDB is a click away, how can she (or her editors) not look further back than 2005? In 2004, they’d find Vaughan revising the role—already become a cliché, if an enjoyable one—in Starsky & Hutch. A year earlier still, one can find his rapid-fire banter in Old School. (“All you gotta do is say ‘earmuffs’ to him…”) Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that it all goes back to 1996’s Swingers.

Hirschberg traces Owen Wilson’s “slacker deadbeat extraordinaire” back to Starsky & Hutch. I’ll allow a dismissal of Bottle Rocket [1996] on the grounds that nobody saw it; Hirschberg makes a similar argument about Diane Keaton’s breakthrough being Annie Hall, despite her appearance in three prior Woody Allen films. (She writes that “as with almost everything else in life, context is everything.”) But what about 2001’s Zoolander and The Royal Tenenbaums?

The list goes on: Harrison Ford “has never strayed far from men like Indiana Jones” (which is to say, men like Han Solo); George Clooney went “debonair” as Danny Ocean (after he did so as Bruce Wayne and Doug Ross, among others).

If this all seems of little consequence, consider each example in terms of the creative and financial circumstances of its production. When you slight Swingers for Wedding Crashers, you slight every pair of Hollywood outsiders who ever broke in with sheer creativity: not just Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughan, but Damon and Affleck, Smith and Mewes, and so on.

The same goes for the Owen Wilson question: Wes Anderson may be the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last two decades, and his writing with Wilson, alongside his landmark cinematic point-of-view, made his career. That legacy is nowhere to be found in a discussion of Starsky & Hutch.

In George Clooney’s case, it’s not the buddy system but television that’s getting overlooked. I understand Batman & Robin (1997) wasn’t Clooney’s best work, but he simply couldn’t have been the Bruce Wayne he was without the charming precedent of E.R.‘s Doug Ross character. These days, one can hardly accept the argument that a cinematic breakthrough can’t happen on television, not after James Gandolfini, Dennis Franz, and, well, Clooney.

What we have here, in other words, is a failure to acknowledge changing circumstances of star production: Stars can make themselves, with the right combination of luck and talent, and television is as important in making movie stars as are the movies. Neither change is reflected in Hirschberg’s piece; it is telling, indeed, that she spends so much time looking into the past—at Keaton, De Niro, and Nicholson; but also Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and Clark Gable —in an article so pointedly “about” the up-and-coming.

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