An Actor's Editor

Reading this passage from D.T. Max’s engaging profile of filmmaker Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, next week’s Duplicity) makes me wonder if awards for best performance ought to be shared with editors and directors:

John Gilroy, Tony’s brother, is editing the film. Gilroy asks him to cue up more footage from Rome. Each take presents a small variation. In one, Roberts doesn’t look back at all. In another, the children steal the scene with their ebullience. The look that Roberts casts over her shoulder actually has an important structural role in the movie. Roberts plays Claire Stenwick; Owen is Ray Koval; both are career intelligence officers. Several years earlier, at a party in Dubai, Claire, then with the C.I.A., met Ray, then with MI-6; she seduced him, drugged him, then stole some military codes from his briefcase. For Ray, a ladies’ man—the script describes him as “Ray with the good suit and the easy smile”—there were multiple humiliations in this fleecing. He has spent the intervening years nursing not only his anger but also his passion for her. Rome marks their first meeting since that entanglement, and Gilroy wants the audience to be unsure if Claire knows that she’s being pursued. Perhaps she has laid another trap for Ray. Roberts’s glance must instill the viewer with a tantalizing sense of uncertainty just this side of frustration.
John runs more film, and Roberts keeps gliding by, her face expressive despite dark glasses. In one shot, she twists her neck. “That look is way too strong,” Gilroy says. In some takes, Roberts appears coyly amused; in others, she seems indifferent, a woman in a rush. Finally, in Take 5, Roberts gives a glance backward that is delectably ambiguous, turning back with a half smile. Is she looking at the children? Listening for Owen? Is she just enjoying Rome? A pigeon flies up behind her. The children play with fervor but don’t distract. Owen deftly navigates the street, his unbuttoned Armani jacket flapping in the breeze. He looks great. Gilroy, leaning back in his lounge chair, smiles at his brother. “See, it just works,” he says. “She turns her head at the right moment. Where it falls—here.”

I saw Duplicity at an early screening this afternoon, and Julia Roberts is quite good: tough, smart, sexy, mysterious, charming, easily lovable — everything she ought to be in a role like this. It’s not revolutionary, but I do think she deserves some praise for her work. Yet passages like the one above reveal the complexities of assigning credit in collaborative mediums like film. Implicit in Max’s scene is the question: Is Roberts really a good actor — or is Gilroy just a clever filmmaker?

Sure, Roberts gives a strong performance, but what if Gilroy and his brother hadn’t chosen their shots so carefully? And what if Gilroy hadn’t forced Roberts to do more than a dozen subtly different takes, as revealed in the paragraphs prior? How much credit does Roberts really deserve when, through choices made entirely by others, her performance might have varied drastically — and potentially been far worse?