Exceptional performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons make “Whiplash” a Must-See

I suspect that many actors are much better than they appear  to be. If an actor is given no direction, he  is likely to come off looking like he can’t act.  A bad script is easier to overcome, as so many of the movies from the 1940’s remind us.  Just watch one of Humphrey Bogart’s wartime melodramas and imagine yourself trying to pull off such cornball dialog in real life. Then watch the taxicab scene in “On the Waterfront.”  With Schulberg’s script and Kazan’s direction, neither actor could lose in a scene like that.  In fact, the whole cast blazed through brilliant scene after brilliant scene in that one. Those were some lucky actors, especially compared to the ones today, who are often left to stand in front of the camera mouthing lousy lines, with no direction to help make them look good.

After seeing Richard Conte in “The Brothers Rico,” I thought he was a great actor.  Then I saw him in “Full of Life,” in which he did all his acting with wild hand and arm gesticulations that had no relation to what he was saying.  I went back to “The Brothers Rico” and saw that director Phil Karlson kept Conte in medium and close-up shots that kept the offending limbs out of the frame.  The result was a tight, impressive performance, in contrast to the loose, undisciplined one in Richard Quine’s film. But it wasn’t the actor whose skill level was uneven; it was the difference between a careful and a careless director.

I have never cared for either Miles Teller or J.K. Simmons, the leads in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.”  Teller played dull, egotistical bores in mundane mumblecores and Simmons  played irritating father figures like a summer stock amateur.  But Chazelle gave them something more compelling to do in “Whiplash” and both met the challenge with spectacular results.

Chazelle’s story of the relationship between a college student who was willing to sacrifice everything in order to become a legendary drummer and the exacting music teacher who used sadistic means to drive his students beyond their limits captivated me from their first scene together and held me prisoner until their final face-off. It is essentially a two character play fleshed out with secondary and background characters,  but  never drops the focus from the primary conflict.

Chazelle doesn’t give his actors any slack.  They are working every moment they are on screen, and when the camera stops filming, you can still feel their sweat.  Like O’Toole and Hepburn in “A Lion in Winter,” or Burton and Taylor in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,”  they jab at each other with the kind of adversarial athleticism that  carries the audience deep into the adventure of shared catharsis.

“Whiplash” is not always believable as a representation of real-life  experience, but it works as a solid construct for its thematic purposes.  Which is to say that everything works within the world of the film, even though that world is artificial and not always in conformity with similar experiences one might have had in life.  There is truth, however, in the  essence of  the situational elements.  It just doesn’t usually play out this way in real life.

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