There’s a difference between actors and line-readers, and it’s easy to confuse the second with the first.
For instance, Ryan Reynolds is a great line-reader, but just an OK actor. In The Proposal, his line “Hence the boat” may well be the funniest line in the film. (Sandra Bullock hesitates heading near the water because she can’t swim. Those three words are his response.) Reynolds brings a context to his line here—and many others—that involves his taking a huge step back to gain an alleged objectivity about whatever is happening, viewing the goings-on with a combination of amusement and detachment, and finally connecting back to whomever he is addressing with a combination of patient teaching and irony-tinged eye-rolling. His lines resonate.
My guilty pleasure film for the past few years has been Just Friends, where Reynolds is unsurprisingly cast as a romantic comedy figure with a snarky, cynical side. Anna Faris is actually the best thing in the film, but squeezes all the comedic juice out of each line he’s given by doing the same thing as in The Proposal. In that film, however, he eye-rolls more than teaches because the objects of his lines are generally the obnoxious star he’s babysitting (Faris) or his we-love-each-other-let’s-fight younger brother.
Perhaps he is only matched by Hugh Grant, a decent actor in many a different style who nonetheless excels at line reading. In another Sandra Bullock vehicle, Two Weeks Notice, Grant uses a different approach to make the lines sing beyond what is on the page. When Bullock as his assistant is (once again) appalled at his utter gall in calling her out from her participation in a friend’s wedding, she says, “I think you’re the most selfish human being on the planet. His reply is funny on the page—“Well, that’s just silly. Have you met everybody on the planet?—but sublime in the rendering. This line—and many others—benefits from a kind of dumb-struck, living in the moment, literal response to what he’s just heard. It’s childish or perhaps childlike, but that’s consistent with many of his characters. In Notting Hill, his readings are more gentle, as befits his different character, and he adds a sweet vulnerability to his “in the moment” responses. But his acting in this film is really more of a series of deftly delivered lines. In a sense, he reverses the acting process of others in that his performance is the sum total of his line-readings, and the character ends up coming from the lines rather than vice-versa.
Perhaps the queen of the great actors/line-readers is the inestimable Maggie Smith, dazzling audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with her line readings, and occasionally, with her acting, on Downton Abbey. Season Two of the series almost reduced her character to a comedy line-reading machine, almost concealing the sensitive actress she can be. Happily, as enjoyable as hearing these lines is, the show has reversed the trend.
There’s not enough time in my life to do it, but a case can be made for a more complete study of this actress’s oeuvre, with an eye to how much of her success as an actress is really more of a success with a line (just start with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and work outward from there…).
To check out the inverse, think of Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sean Penn, four of the greatest actors of our times. None are known for their witty line-readings, but they create characters that will live forever in American cinema. Food for thought and much more investigation….