Take Robin Wright Penn. In State of Play, she plays Anne Collins, wife of Ben Affleck's suave senator. Their marriage is falling apart in full view of the public and the paparazzi, and Mrs. Collins obligingly plays the loyal stoic during press conferences. It's impossible not to see art imitating life a little bit, and it's especially difficult given that Penn seems to throb with emotional turmoil in every scene. It's an incredible thing to watch and wonder about, though I'm not sure it's for the right reasons.
Did Penn take the role as a bit of therapy for herself, or because it was easy to identify with Collins? Is she even acting at all? If she isn't, is it brilliance to employ your own anguish to the benefit of a character, or is that cheating? I honestly can't decide, and I don't even know if I'm somehow being unfair to the performance simply because I do know of the back-and-forth divorce proceedings of the Penns. All I know is that it's incredibly difficult to watch, and that whenever she comes onscreen I want her to leave because she makes me uncomfortable with her visible grief.
It's a strange reaction to have, isn't it? Normally, I applaud inwardly when I see a flicker of "real" emotion cross an actor's face. It's rare, and it's usually because I've stumbled on some personal fact or interview that makes me tune into it. One example that immediately springs to mind (I blame the Gamer ads) is a moment in Dear Frankie when the title boy meets his "dad" for the first time. Before I saw the movie, I had read an interview (you can read it here, thanks Google!) where Gerard Butler mentioned how difficult the scene was to play for him, because it mirrored his own childhood so much. You can see it onscreen, check it out here at roughly 7:42:
But again, I don't know if knowing the story behind it makes it more or less visible. Unlike State of Play, it doesn't make me as uncomfortable to watch. Instead, I find it refreshing because it's "true," perhaps because movies like Dear Frankie are usually built on such staged emotions. Yet at the same time, I feel like I've seen behind the curtain and destroyed something in the craft of Butler's performance.
So, to draw this musing to some kind of point, I'd like to hand the discussion to the readers. Are there any performances that have made you uncomfortable because you know (or think you know) the unhappiness behind them? Any that you admire because it reflected a real experience, or because the actor was confident enough to expose it? How do you think it reflects on the art of acting itself? Go crazy -- but not Method crazy. Remember, it's just a comments field.