Historical Epic Blockbusters: Are You Not Entertained … By Actors?
Smith-Rowsey opens his investigation into blockbuster performances with a close look at the genre that, more than any other, diminished the reputation of the initial blockbuster cycle (of the 1950s and 1960s) because of what were often considered “ham-fisted,” “declamatory,” “histrionic,” or simply “bad” performances. Prompted by Vivian Sobchack’s famous essay about “surge and splendor” in the historical epic, Smith-Rowsey asks if audiences want performers to fit in with their films’ pomp and circumstance, or if audiences rely upon relatively nuanced performances to mitigate against a production’s excesses. Smith-Rowsey finds that in Gladiator (2000), Sobchack’s performative “magnitude” is both appropriate and achieved given the film’s (and sub-genre’s) prioritization of size and scale. However, the author finds that in Titanic (1997), more understated, “heritage film”-style performances well suit that epic’s melodrama. Research shows that preview audiences for Titanic, importuned to suggest cuts, preferred that the film trim the ship-sinking scenes and preserve the quieter love scenes. The idea that blockbuster audiences prefer “acting” over “action” runs counter to most film criticism and scholarship.
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