The excerpt below is taken from a Master’s thesis I completed this fall at Colorado State University on soaps, online activism, and their juncture in the Save Our Soaps (SOS) movement. In the section this excerpt is taken from, I refute some common criticisms of and misconceptions about soap operas. See if you agree? Can you add anything to my argument?
This series of blog posts is dedicated to our faithful reader, “Jen.”
Critics frequently accuse soap actors of poor, hammy, over-the-top acting. Again, such sweeping generalization is essentially meaningless. We cannot lump the hundreds or more actors who have and do appear on soaps into one category of “bad actors.” Certainly soaps have featured and do feature less-than-stellar acting. So does theater, so does film. There are “badly”-written books. Should we extinguish all books from the cultural landscape?
“Good” and “bad” acting are not static, fixed, or stable labels. Joan Crawford rightfully won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the title character in Mildred Pierce. I personally love her performance in that as well. But were Kate Winslet, widely thought of today as a “good” actress to have mimicked Crawford’s portrayal in her reprisal of the same character in a recent remake of Mildred Pierce, donning Crawford’s slightly faux-British accent, almost Kabuki-like facial expressions (as RuPaul, has aptly, wittily described Crawford’s general approach to acting in her autobiography, Lettin’ It All Hang Out), and rigidly self-conscious postures, it would come off as comedy. At one time, critics and audiences enjoyed and thought of as “good” such a style of acting, and many actresses of Crawford’s era performed in a similar way. Today such on-screen behavior would seem bizarre or for some specific effect. As this example points to, estimations of “good” and “bad” acting are highly context-dependent. What is effective in one era may often not be in another.
In the 60s and 70s, Method Acting gained popularity. Actors committed so deeply to a role they lived it day in and day out until the work they did so for wrapped up. Method acting, employed by Hollywood royalty like Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway resulted in acting of tremendous intensity and emotional rawness. Think of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” wearing an undershirt and workman-like pants screaming, “Stellaaaaaaaa!” or Faye Dunaway’s being grabbed roughly and shaken by Jack Nicholson until she admits her daughter is both her daughter and her sister, the result of her father’s raping her. Today we still value such intensity and rawness, but we also sometimes value self-consciously humorous acting, subdued acting that takes a backseat to special effects, or a particular actor’s style. All of the above can hardly be assessed by the labels of “good” and “bad” when assessing a performance.
That being said, when speaking about acting or a performance generally, we will of course use the adjectives “good” and “bad.” Applying them to an entire fictional genre and those who act its stories borders on total intellectual and critical foolishness, however.
Also foolish is to adhere to the belief that “good” and “bad” in art are objective terms. A discussion of “goodness” or “badness” in art leads quickly to first what the point of art is—to entertain only, to inform and educate, to do all these things. Whatever opinion about art’s purpose that we subscribe to will color what we think of as “good” or “bad” acting, as the acting will be an element of that opinion. And then we must take into account personal tastes and proclivities, both immensely complicated matters that philosophers, evolutionary biologists, cultural critics and others have and continue to debate. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
I have a personal favorite way of demolishing the equation of soap acting with bad acting. I list some of the many, many actors whom people generally think of as “good,” even “excellent,” who got their show business start on soaps. Some of these people have been nominated for and even won Academy Awards, acting’s highest honor in the United States. To name just a few such actors: Demi Moore, Susan Sarandon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Julianne Moore, Tommy Lee Jones, and Laurence Fishburne. A full list would require more than can be dedicated to this document.
Even if we assume that when the aforementioned actors portrayed their soap characters they did so poorly, because soap acting is by definition “bad,” their time on soaps can accurately be called a time for honing their craft. Day after day, they acted and acted, and after all, repetition frequently makes an expert out of a novice. By this same commonly used logic, those actors who have stayed on soaps should be labeled the “best” actors, as the volume and frequency of their acting is unmatched in the world of professional acting. Of course, much more goes into an actor’s performance than simply the benefits of doing it a lot, such as inherent talent, what director directs him and how she does so, the actor’s age and life experience, and so forth. Still, the intensity of soap acting, pages and pages of script that soap writers and directors expect soap actors to memorize in sometimes less than a day, frequent rewrites of small chunks of dialogue just before or as shooting takes place, and simultaneous separate aspects of performance such as vocal inflection and gesticulation that actors must attend to, make soap acting a remarkable and rarely, if ever, matched training ground for “good” acting and actors.
By Akbi Khan
Edited by Akbi Khan
© Akbi Khan 2016