The Fame Audit - Keanu Reeves
(Translated publised on October 13 as a longer and slightly different version under the title 'Let Us Now Praise Keanu Reeves')
by Adam Sternbergh
Name: Keanu Charles Reeves
Audit Date: October 16, 2001
Experience: 34 films since 1985
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, but he's come to personify bad acting, much in the way that Einstein personifies genius or Shakespeare personifies literary mastery. The simple mention of the name "Keanu" 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 twenty-first century, and Reeves has not only persevered, but flourished. 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 career 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." As such, it was easy to dismiss his success as a fluke, the lottery payoff of good genes. Yet Hollywood has an overcrowded dustbin reserved for empty-headed pretty boys -- just ask Patrick Swayze or Richard Grieco.
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 a canny acting choice or, at the least, inspired casting: a dazed, vacant actor playing dazed, vacant slackers.
This rationale was less easy to reconcile with Reeves's 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 other than the present, or (c) both.
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. 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 and, for once, Reeves's mannered presence is singularly suited to a film's purposes. Reeves isn't very good at portraying anger, the one emotional state at which most young male actors excel. But he is unusually good 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 Salon critic Charles Taylor has pointed out, Reeves -- more than most male actors -- is willing to forego macho bluster and 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 well 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 act, 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 good 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 skillful contemporaries.
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, he can't do 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 up 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. 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.
Reeves has also shown no regard for standard movie-star ambition, purposefully thwarting his forward progress at several turns. Most recently, he donated his profit-sharing points for The Matrix sequels to the special-effects technicians and costume designers, claiming they are the film's real 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 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. 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 -- has made Reeves's brand of reclusiveness all the more appealing. 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 Bruce Willis. So despite what you may have thought, Keanu Reeves is not too famous. He's not not too famous. Keanu Reeves, as it turns out, is just right.
- Definitely rocking that whole soulful eyes/ winning smile/ alluringly multi-ethnic hottie vibe
- Everyone everywhere must by now understand that The Matrix kicks ass two times (Yes. - Ani)
- Late night + the couch + big bowl of popping corn + The Devil's Advocate on cable = Happiness (I've never done that, but yes. - Ani)
- All signs are that he'll never, ever, ever write a book called Cool Breeze Off the Mountain: The Keanu Reeves Story
- Okay, yes, it's true -- he's not so good with the accents...
- or the rest of the acting thing, in so far as acting is defined as "portraying a variety of different characters believably" (Kill yourself. - Ani)
- Bram Stoker's Dracula now being screened by Taliban recruitment officers as evidence of crumbling American empire
- All the winning smiles and soulful eyes in the world can't distract us from the fact that he pads his résumé with stinkers like Sweet November and Chain Reaction
Current approximate level of fame: Keanu Reeves
Deserved approximate level of fame: Keanu Reeves