Let Us Now Praise Keanu Reeves(also published on October 16 as a shorter and slightly different version under the title 'Fame Audit: Keanu Reeves')
The 'robotic' star: Defending a generation's most maligned actor
by Adam Sternbergh
In show business, there are few universally accepted articles of faith, but one of them would seem to be this: Keanu Reeves is a bad actor.
In fact, not only is Keanu Reeves a bad actor, he's come to personify bad acting, much in the way Einstein personifies genius or Shakespeare personifies literary mastery. The simple mention of the name Keanu, in conjunction with some upcoming film or as a point of comparison for another actor's performance, will reliably provoke in even the most casual movie fan a smirk that needs no further explanation. It implies what everyone is known to understand: That guy simply can't act.
Yet here we are, at the dawn of the 21st century, and Reeves has not only persevered, but flourished. His latest film, Hardball, spent its first two weekends at the top of the box office.
He's managed to keep himself both busy -- this is his fifth film in less than two years, and the 34th of his career -- and relevant, starring in two of the most popular movies of the '90s: Speed, in 1994, and The Matrix, in 1999. He's a sought-after leading man who can command US$15-million per picture. He plays in a band. He rides motorcycles. He is unfailingly described as polite, kind and thoughtful. He's kept his private life, well, private. In other words, he has become, against all odds, the very model of the modern movie star. The question -- given the widespread acknowledgement that his acting skills are, at the best, limited -- is: How?
It's hard to talk about Keanu Reeves without starting with his preternatural good looks. If everyone is in agreement that he's a pretty bad actor, then there's also a consensus that, physically speaking, he is something close to angelic.
In the beginning, his success seemed almost like a cruel joke on the normal-looking populace. Each new Keanu Reeves movie seemed to say, "You too could be up here onscreen if only you looked like this." Of course, all movie stars are by definition abnormally attractive, but most combine their genetic bounty with some measure of charisma and acting proficiency. With the young Keanu, his excessive good looks seemed to carry the whole load.
As such, it was easy to dismiss his early success as a fluke, the lottery payoff of good genes. Yet Hollywood has an overcrowded dustbin reserved for empty-headed pretty boys who can't act -- just ask Patrick Swayze or Richard Greico. Somehow Reeves avoided this fate.
The knock on Reeves's acting has always been that his line readings are excruciatingly flat -- generous critics call his style "inscrutable" and "implacable"; less generous ones prefer "robotic" and "wooden." In his earliest roles, such as the numbed teen in 1986's River's Edge, the brain-dazed dude in 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure or the hustler in 1991's My Own Private Idaho, it was possible to assume that Reeves's stilted manner was an inspired acting choice or, at the least, canny casting: a dazed, vacant actor playing dazed, vacant slackers.
This rationale was less easy to reconcile with his performances as Chevalier Danceny in Dangerous Liaisons, Jonathan Harker in Dracula or Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. In fact, it quickly became clear that Reeves was ill-equipped to play any character who a) has an accent, b) lives somewhere other than southern California in some time period other than the present, or c) both.
But even in his successes -- most recently, The Matrix -- Reeves hasn't been able, or willing, to shake this trademark demeanour. If anything, rather than grow out of his limitations, Reeves has grown into them. It certainly helps that, these days, no one tries to force him into the frilly shirts and booby-trapped syntax of a period piece or a Shakespearean drama. Instead, directors have finally figured out what he's good at and cast him in roles that play to those strengths.
In The Matrix, for example, Reeves plays Neo, a purposeless computer hacker who is pegged as the messiah in a fight against a computer-imposed dystopia. The film's creators, the Wachowski brothers, apparently moulded the movie's entire aesthetic around Reeves. The heroic characters are sleek and sinewy, alluringly androgynous, vaguely multi-ethnic and sheathed in black latex and leather. Reeves's love interest is played by Carrie-Anne Moss, but with her shorn black hair and angular face, she looks more like Reeves's identical twin sister than a potential mate.
For once, Reeves's mannered presence is singularly suited to a film's purposes -- and to his own role as a questing saviour. Reeves isn't very good at portraying anger, the one emotional state most young male actors excel at. But he is unusually adept at conveying the process of absorbing new information, the struggle to comprehend what's going on around him.
It sounds like faint praise, but this is actually a rare skill. As critic Charles Taylor has pointed out, Reeves, more than most male actors, is willing to forego macho bluster and to defer to those around him. He's a passive actor, which is why he's often better when he's listening to others than when he's speaking. Admittedly, this isn't a recipe for an Oscar nomination, but in a movie like The Matrix -- in which Reeves spends almost the whole film trying to figure out what the hell is going on -- it works so effectively that it's impossible to imagine another actor in the part.
Not every movie is so well tailored to Reeves's peculiar talents, and he's certainly shown no hesitation to fill his dance card with throwaway fare like Hardball, The Replacements, Chain Reaction and Sweet November. Still, he manages to charm, and not despite his strained manner and visible concentration, but because of it.
There's not an actor working today who looks more effortful while onscreen. Watching Reeves is like watching an after-school special in which a popular hunk is unexpectedly cast in the school play. Though he's clearly not a natural, his commitment inspires respect in the audience, and on the odd occasion that he does hit a true emotional note -- as Reeves did in his recent role as a redneck wife-beater in The Gift -- it's all the more affecting.
When Reeves is onscreen, you can see the gears whirring and the pistons straining to get up to speed -- all the inner workings that other actors strive mightily to conceal. It's not great acting, but it is a kind of vulnerability and, in its way, it can make his performances just as compelling as those of his more seamless and skilful contemporaries.
Couple this vulnerability with Reeves's understated offscreen persona, and suddenly it's not that hard to decode his enduring popularity. In fact, there's a telling synchronicity between the way Reeves conducts himself onscreen and the way he conducts himself in the rest of his life.
Onscreen, he can't do rage and he can't do lust -- basically, anything that requires him to open himself up to the camera. (Never is this more evident than in My Own Private Idaho, in which Reeves is paired with River Phoenix, who is as raw and electric as a severed power cable.) Offscreen, too, Reeves won't open up; he's famously unwilling to wade into the familiar celebrity arena of reckless self-disclosure. (In a recent Vanity Fair article, the interviewer pressed Reeves to discuss the condition of his sister, who has cancer, on the grounds that "people want to know." Reeves answered, "Well, when you talk to them you can just say that you didn't get an answer.") On the one hand, this sense of reserve means he'll never be another River Phoenix. On the other, it means he'll never be another Anne Heche.
He's also shown no regard for standard movie-star ambition, purposefully thwarting his forward progress at several turns. After a string of indie films, he signed on to Speed, a mindless action thriller, and was immediately crowned the next Stallone or Mel Gibson. Then he spurned the sequel -- and a big paycheque -- to appear with Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, even though he'd earlier turned down a chance to act with Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat so that he could play Hamlet in Winnipeg. He recently donated his profit-sharing points for The Matrix sequels to the special-effects technicians and costume designers, claiming they are the film's true stars. (Genuine largesse or a cunning publicity stunt? It's likely the technicians couldn't care less.)
In short, he's managed to create the impression that, more so than any other celebrity, he doesn't much care about being a star -- and not in the self-conscious, look-at-me way of someone like Johnny Depp, which requires getting a lot of tattoos, moving to Paris, and no longer washing your hair. With Reeves, it simply seems as though, if someone tapped him on the shoulder one morning and told him that he would never again appear in a movie, he'd simply shrug, roll over and go back to sleep.
All of which means that Reeves has become a very likeable, even admirable, kind of movie star. In the context of the recent public display of grief by Hollywood's top celebrities -- which, despite all noble intentions, seemed to suggest that America's wounds could not be fully salved until Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts had declared that they, too, are in pain -- Reeves's brand of reclusiveness is all the more appealing.
No solid case for Reeves can be built on a defence of his acting. But the trick for a movie star is not to master the art of emoting; instead, movie stars succeed by creating a trademark persona so compelling that audiences will flock again and again to spend two hours in their presence. Tom Cruise, for example, has never been a great actor, but he's a great movie star. (And you could say the same for Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, for that matter.) These days, Reeves's enigmatic blankness, earnest vulnerability and dedication to dignified privacy seem much more inviting than the cocksure swagger and submit-or-die charisma of a Tom Cruise or a Bruce Willis, and more appropriate, as well. Perhaps Reeves, once so ridiculed, will even serve as the blueprint for a new and welcome kind of celebrity.