Academic journal article CineAction

Hawke Ascending

Academic journal article CineAction

Hawke Ascending

Article excerpt

Icon, image, star: Ethan Hawke refuses to slip naturally into any of these categories. Certainly not an icon, which suggests something fixed and permanent, graven in stone or metal, and Hawke, although he is 'always the same' (as a friend one thinks one knows is 'always the same') is always different, as one discovers new aspects of a personality one believes to be thoroughly familiar, unsuspected shades and nuances, as he continues to develop and deepen from film to film. Not an image, either: the term suggests something deliberately cultivated and constructed, perhaps by a studio, by producers, by publicity agents. And not exactly even a star, although he has played many leading roles (even, now, the most famous leading role of all) and regularly has his name above the title. But 'star' already carries connotations of icon and image, as something known and fixed (if capable of many diverse inflections). Julia Roberts is a star, one of the few remaining. She may amaze us with her abilities, she may extend h er repertoire and range, but I don't think she will surprise us: we know her. But Hawke continues to surprise. If he betrays a consistent characteristic it's the appearance of total frankness, total openness, even as all the time he dreads revealing himself fully, yet by manifesting the dread he reveals himself all the more, reveals the vulnerability he would prefer people didn't know about but which becomes the most obvious, most manifest, aspect of the persona. He can be very aggressive, even brutal (already in Reality Bites, achieving full expression in Tape), but the aggressiveness is always a self-defence, the fear of getting deeply hurt is always there. One might say he was born to play Dickens's Pip, or one of the many possible Hamlets. He is also quite compulsive about giving himself to a role, so that, even as he dreads revealing himself, he cannot conceal himself. Person, personality, persona: the words merge into each other, and especially when applied to Hawke, who (onscreen) offers himself (with his disarming show of honesty, offers himself up) as all three: we know from Bergman's film that a 'persona' is both a mask and the person who hides (or believes he hides) beneath it.

Those familiar with my work will know that I seldom write this way, in a (kind of) semi-aware, semi-stream-of-consciousness manner, and I shall later examine Hawke's performances more objectively (though I have never been entirely objective-is anyone, even when they pretend to be?). But I wanted to establish a (kind of) imaginary relationship with Hawke (whom I shall probably never meet, except conceivably in the tense and artificial space of an interview), because I have always felt a curious (and very likely illusory) closeness to him-or to his screen persona. Perhaps I am wrong, and what appears on the screen is indeed a cunningly constructed image (though I doubt this even as I write it), but I have always experienced him as a person and imaginatively related to him as such, as I have never related to (to take a few names at random, as they come into my head) Robert De Niro, Adam Sandier, Rupert Everett or Clark Gable... And not because I think we have anything in particular in common, but because he see ms to offer himself so frankly (even as he would like to run and hide, or assume a disguise) as a vulnerable human being: something very rare, both on- and offscreen, in both professional actors and those people one meets every day, either as acquaintances or in chance encounters in the elevator, who conceal themselves automatically, from force of habit. Very few stars give that impression. Method acting (a performance style to which Hawke clearly relates) has encouraged something like it, or more precisely a pretence of it ('being spontaneous', improvizing) while equally discouraging it ('becoming' a character--if that were the primary criterion then surely Bette Davis and Beulah Bondi would be the greatest 'Method' actors, since Brando is always, irreducibly, Brando). …

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