Owen Gleiberman
August 21, 2010 AT 05:09 PM EDT

Image Credit: Kerry HayesLately, I’ve been hearing a lot of bellyaching from readers about actors who, you say, essentially give the same performance in film after film. The prime offender — as, according to this criticism, she has been for years — is Jennifer Aniston, who is accused of never having grown past her performance as Rachel on Friends: same cheerleader- next-door sexy wholesomeness, same silky straight goddess-of- shampoo-commercial hair, same lonely-princess aura. But in the last year or so, a lot of folks have been singing a similar song about Michael Cera, with his flat turtle stare and high school girl’s voice and 21st century Woody Allen neurotic-nerd patter. I hear what you’re saying (let’s agree right now that there’s some truth to it), but what’s amusing, and at times infuriating, about all this she/he is always the same! high dudgeon is the absolute, outraged presumption that if an actor doesn’t vary his or her personality very much (or, in fact, at all) from movie to movie, then that’s automatically a bad thing.

I have two words to say in disagreement with that idea: Katharine Hepburn.

Okay, you know the next line, so let’s all say it together out loud: Jennifer Aniston is no Katharine Hepburn!

There, do you feel better? Well, Jennifer Aniston certainly is no Katharine Hepburn, and no one else is either. But you get my point, which is not about the relative merits of The Break-Up and The Philadelphia Story but about the principle at stake. Hepburn, whose playful and melodious WASP trill is one of the glories of the American cinema, is arguably the most striking example of something that was true through most of classic Hollywood: that the actors we now consider American gods and goddesses didn’t vary their performances all that much. I would argue that even when they were great actors and did have range, the principle still holds.

Take James Stewart, who I often think of as my favorite American movie star. He always had a dark side (it’s there in It’s a Wonderful Life, and even in his very early performance in After the Thin Man), and over the course of his career he stretched his aw-shucks persona around a more and more daring palette of roles, especially when he worked with Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. But let’s be honest: The Jimmy Stewart we all know and love had a voice, a manner, and an inner decency so pronounced and captivating that people went to his movies for decades to see him be that guy.

The deep abiding mystery of Hollywood acting, and it is captured brilliantly in Jeanine Basinger’s 2007 book The Star Machine, is that the familiar personalities of the great old stars were themselves performances. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart isn’t just playing a cynical saloon keeper named Rick. He’s playing a tough, thick-voiced brooder named Humphrey Bogart who’s playing a cynical saloon keeper named Rick. Just as the British-born actor Archie Leach spent his entire career playing an outrageous character named Cary Grant who then played spies and thieves and paleontologists and pilots and newspaper editors. The actors who became the most mythological, like Bogart and Grant and Bette Davis, may have been the least varied in persona. That’s part of what sears their souls into ours.

If you accept all that, then the real problem with Jennifer Aniston or Michael Cera giving “the same performance” isn’t the lack of variety. It’s the perception that the performance has overstayed its welcome, that it has grown predictable and tiresome. And I guess on that basis, you could make the case that Aniston, say, should try to vary what she does a little more. Except that she keeps doing it because people, more often than not, keep going to her movies. I, for one, believe that in a good film (like, say, Marley & Me), that sunny/cute/flirtatious/homey Aniston personality is just dandy, and that she’s really a victim of the teeth-grindingly formulaic screenwriting that tends to dominate these days in her strong-suit genre, which is romantic comedy.

As for Cera, I myself invoked the he’s-always-the-same grumble about a year ago after I saw Youth in Revolt, but mostly because I wanted to praise him for trying out a personality change-up in that very movie. He played a guy who, like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam, concocted a badass alter ego to win a girl, and the make-believe tough clowning looked good on him. It wasn’t just a one-time thing, either. If you really watch Cera’s performance in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you’ll see that he’s playing a different kind of character than he did in Superbad or Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist — an unlikely babe magnet who uses his insecurity to lure girls to him and even treats them, at times, quite callously. I bought it. In fact, part of what I liked about the movie is that it showed you how hormonally driven guyish insensitivity comes in many flavors. Sure, Cera played Scott without giving himself a complete and total personality transplant. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t acting, or that he wasn’t different than before. Frankly, when I read all those complaints about him, I feel like what’s really starting to sound the same is the complainers.

Yet I think I have an idea about what’s driving some of them. It used to be that if you liked an actor or actress, all he or she had to do was show up and entertain you. These days, though, the thing that’s on everyone’s mind is cred. Not just what’s fun, but what’s smart and cool to like. The way that actors become cool is by trying to be like Sean Penn — a brilliant chameleon — who launched his career by trying to be like Robert De Niro, who launched his career by trying to be like Marlon Brando. “Acting,” in other words, is cool; just “being,” on the other hand, is lame.

But isn’t that false to the way that we’ve always watched, and enjoyed, certain movie stars? Okay, maybe Jennifer Aniston really is the same character in movie after movie. I, for one, like that character. The underlying point made by the she’s-always-the-same club isn’t really that she should change, but that so many people out there have so much hatred for who she is.

So here’s what I want to know: Who are the contemporary actors and actresses — they may even be among the most celebrated — who never change very much? Who, in fact, are always the same? Who are your favorites? And who are the ones who you think need to change?

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