A few years ago, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I went to see a film I knew nothing about and had attached zero expectations to. It was called City Island (2009, Raymond De Felitta) and it was a glorious surprise. A film about a dysfunctional family of four (plus one) who are all keeping secrets from each other, it featured a great cast including Andy Garcia, Alan Arkin and Julianna Margulies, and in the role of the youngest son, one of the most dynamic young actors I’d never clamped eyes on. His name was Ezra Miller.
As Vince Jr., Miller was taking on some weird and wonderful material, playing a teenager with a secret fetish for feeding overweight women. Those huge, dark eyes and those amazing cheekbones intrigued me. There was something in the way he moved. Like many great actors he seemed to chew up his scenes and everyone else in them. And while all the characters were utterly fascinating his was the only one I wanted to watch. The film was Miller’s for the taking and at least for this viewer, he took it.
Miller played sharp-witted and bruised but he was also very funny when he needed to be, displaying an emotional range that betrayed his seventeen years and the weight of his slight, boyish body. I liked his willingness to go to the dark side. I knew at once that here in the twisted world of American independent cinema was a new crush; a not-your-average teen actor.
Two years later he appeared again. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay) pushed Miller in different directions. I imagine it was a challenge. That slight, boyish body was cat-like, lithe and explosive, perfect for a role that required him to hold himself like a wire – coiled tight and ready to snap.
As Kevin he played a reprehensible character – a boy exploring the darkest parts of his psyche. It’s a lot to ask of any actor, but especially someone who was barely twenty. It was an impressive feat. The eyes and cheekbones were all still there and being put to devilish good use. But there was something else.
I was watching Kevin Khatchadourian plot and maim and kill but finding him utterly attractive and even desirable. I asked myself – is there something wrong with me?
Since I began this blog, I’ve written quite a few words about actors, living and legend, whom I find especially appealing (by the way, I promise to give some attention to the ladies in 2013 – Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Bette Davis for starters). Which has got me wondering what it is that actually makes an actor alluring, for me? What is the fascination? Why can’t I look away?
I know it’s more than good looks. And for all my fawning over Marlon Brando’s body and James Dean’s face, I am actually not that shallow – in my cinema life or my real life. I don’t run out to watch a film just so I can see Bradley Cooper shirtless. And while I may have just made repeated reference to Miller’s eyes and cheekbones it’s only because they seem to be playing an integral role in shaping his screen persona. It’s an alluring face, with just a touch of danger and he uses it to create characters that position the audience on that fine line between attraction and repulsion. Very human terrain.
We return to the cinema, in part, to see the actors we like. The machine of cinema operates for the eyes of the audience. Movies offer stories but they have also always offered stars. And while we are now a long way from the studio system and the star economy that ruled Hollywood through the 30s, 40s and 50s, I think many actors still promise certain qualities that make then fascinating to the masses or to the few. A star system of sorts remains – a ‘star’ provides the filmmakers with a ready-made audience who will regularly watch films showcasing their favourites actors and actresses. Watching a movie involves enchantment and escape but it also involves seduction and the promise of connection, a direct line with the star. And there in the dark, as the light plays on the big screen, we surrender.
When I saw The Perks of Being A Wallflower (2012, Stephen Chbosky) it all made sense. I understood what fascinates me. I saw the pattern emerging. Like most of the contemporary actors whose careers I follow with interest and fervor – Daniel Day-Lewis, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy and Joaquin Phoenix, to name just a few – Miller has a nerviness and unpredictability that makes him almost compulsively watchable. He’s chameleon-like with a palpable sense of danger and daring. If he’s not playing unhinged it’s at least clear he could. But what seduces me most about all these actors, and now Miller, is the discovery. I’m aroused by the chance to see something new and unexpected and surprising. It’s the thrill of the unknown. I can’t look away from an actor who keeps me guessing. It’s what keeps me coming back for more.
Although he is not the wallflower in question in Chbosky’s film (which he adapted and directed from his own 1999 novel), the compulsively watchable Miller makes the film his own. Chbosky describes him as ‘lightning in a bottle … and I don’t know if the bottle could ever be big enough for him.’
Playing Patrick – the gay stepbrother of Emma Watson’s Sam who befriend and change the life of wallflower Charlie (Logan Lerman) – his floppy hair is a cool prop to expose the urgency of youth. Patrick is both sensitive and comic, undoubtedly the smartest kid in school, he’s Charlie’s guide through the tortures of adolescence. Miller takes what could be yet another wisecracking gay sidekick role and turns it into something honest and quite deep (the confrontation with Brad, his secret boyfriend, in the cafeteria a key example). He both warms and devastates the heart. For a so-called teen film made in 2012, Perks has more in common with the truth of a John Hughes film. Now, I need to go back and see fourteen-year-old Miller in Afterschool (2008). And I need to see him in Another Happy Day (2011). I’ll do so soon. I expect these films will only seduce me further.
In real life, Miller has recently described himself as ‘queer.’ Given Hollywood’s history with gay actors, he has taken an admirable risk speaking so openly about his sexual identity. Miller stands poised at the precipice of what I think will be an incredible career. Let’s hope Hollywood doesn’t let him drop. And anyway, I think he’ll be spending most of his time in that twisted world of indie film I mentioned earlier, which has its own star currency and where those eyes and cheekbones really belong.
Postscript: For those who are wondering what’s to come from me in 2012, I’ll be posting one last long piece soon on Brokeback Mountain as well as a wrap up of my year in film.