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Critic's Notebook

Saving their best for the stage?

When screen stars limit their ‘serious’ acting to choice Broadway roles, it’s movie fans who lose

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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Watching the Tonys two weeks ago left me with the uneasy sense that both the Broadway stage and the Hollywood screen were in trouble. Whenever Scarlett Johansson wins an award for a noteworthy theater performance (as she did for her featured part in the revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge’’) you wonder how that sort of thing happens. I don’t mean this cynically — although there’s that. (She earned her Tony; but at the movies, she has yet to top her sullen “Ghost World’’ self. Fans of her work in “The Nanny Diaries’’ are free to go and read elsewhere.) I mean that her agent(s) should be trying to find her parts as good in her chosen medium of outrageous remuneration and self-expression.

But, alas and more than ever, the stage has become the place where an actor challenges herself as an artist as opposed to being action figure, prop, or action-comedy beard. The saddest moment in Johansson’s winsome acceptance speech was when she thanked her agents for suggesting, while shooting “Iron Man 2,’’ that she do the Miller play “for a few months.’’ On stage, she wouldn’t have to wear a skin-tight jumpsuit and high-kick extras in heels. On stage, she could present and emote — like an actor.

During that same broadcast Denzel Washington beat Jude Law, Alfred Molina, Liev Schreiber, and Christopher Walken for the Tony for leading actor in a play. And Catherine Zeta-Jones won for leading actress in a musical over the expected winner, Montego Glover, and respected New York stage actors like Sherie Rene Scott and Kate Baldwin. The debate continues to rage: Are movie stars robbing better, less famous (less well compensated) actors of good roles? Are they the best actors for the parts? Does this matter if audiences show up? Aren’t the audiences showing up for the stars? And what about the Tonys? Short on people you’ve never heard of but would really knock your socks off and long on Katie Holmes (not a major movie star but married to one)?

To that end, the actor Hunter Foster has started a reasonably popular Facebook page (8,400-plus members) called “Give the Tonys Back to Broadway,’’ whose cause the theater critic Charles Isherwood has already taken up and complicated on one of The New York Times’ blogs. I’m more interested in granting Foster’s wish and getting Washington and Johansson — and Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, et al. — to bring that wattage to serious Hollywood moviemaking of any and every stripe. I’m all for these people tying themselves to lucrative action spectacles and never-ending franchises, then repolishing their integrity in New York. (“The A-Team’’ has Tony-nominees Liam Neeson Patrick Wilson.) I’ve complained about this before. If theater is being treated as a rejuvenating sabbatical away from the deadening effects of Hollywood, it’s hard not to see adult moviemaking (films made for, by, and about grown-ups — although not called “Grown Ups,’’ please) as chopped liver. Worse, actually: the greasy deli wrapping some chopped liver comes in.

I’m not yet tired of contemplating the nuances of Jonah Hill or how much he’s built like a soccer ball. I’m this close, though. The best (and most) acting Cate Blanchett has been asked to summon lately was for Liv Ullmann’s revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire.’’ The movie business may not need her, but we in the audience certainly do. Caaaate! Caaaaate! (It doesn’t sound quite as good as “Stelllla,’’ but you get the idea.)

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated one of the actors who recently lost a Tony to Catherine Zeta-Jones. It should have mentioned Kate Baldwin.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story mischaracterized Katie Finneran’s Tony Award status. She won the Tony this year for featured actress in a musical for her performance in “Promises, Promises.’’

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