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The Sublime Beauty of the Moment: Kelly Reichardt on “Certain Women”

Kelly Reichardt might be the most important independent American filmmaker working right now. Over six features, she has built a body of work that stands in sharp contrast to the prefab stories and festival-friendly satisfactions of much of what passes for independent cinema today. Reichardt’s movies are immersive, even gripping, and they often reflect (albeit sometimes obliquely) the social and political issues of their day: Her 2008 masterpiece, Wendy and Lucy, about a young, broke drifter on the margins of society attempting to make her way to a new life in Alaska, opened right in the heart of the financial crisis; her 2010 western, Meek’s Cutoff, about a group of settlers adrift in the desert, was read by some as an allegory of the Iraq War. 2013’s Night Moves took on the subject of ecoterrorism, but in the most understated yet humane way.

Reichardt’s films (which were just recently featured in a MoMA retrospective) are difficult to describe. To give any real sense of them, you have to explain how they sound, and how they move, and the little moments, glances, and gestures between characters that sometimes say more than any plot synopsis ever could. Last year’s Certain Women, which played the Sundance and New York Film Festivals and is now being released on home video by the Criterion Collection, is no different. Based on short stories by Maile Meloy, it tells the loosely connected tales of three Montana women — a lawyer, a wife, and a rancher — at what might be key turning points in their lives. But sometimes the significance of a moment isn’t revealed until after the fact; so often, we’re just watching these women be. Through her graceful but straightforward direction, Reichardt manages to convey the everyday nature of the events depicted, while also hinting at the mystery beneath them. On the occasion of the Criterion release of Certain Women, I spoke to her about how exactly she captures what she does.

In the past, you’ve taken individual short stories and turned them into features. With Certain Women, you took three short stories by Maile Meloy and created a semi-episodic film. What made you decide to do that?

Like everything, it’s just a process. I tried a few things that didn’t really work out, and then I came upon Maile’s stories and really liked them. But they were another thing I was sort of fooling around with; I knew that this might not work. Is there a reason that putting these together would somehow make it more than just expanding one story? Each collection seems like its own world. I started working off her two collections, and I tried different combinations of stories. This went on for like a year. Finally somehow there was a point when it started making sense to me and seemed like something worth pursuing. Part of it was settling on that middle story with Michelle Williams and James LeGros, which was not the most obvious story in her collection. But really for me, it made the whole thing work. And then I started finding some themes to be able to work from, and also changing the Rancher in the third story into a woman. It’s a long process, where you are in the weeds for a long time but then eventually things start to make sense.

You also do some interesting things, structurally. I feel like the conventional thing — to the extent that anything in this movie would ever be conventional — would have been to lead up to the Laura Dern episode, with the hostage standoff. But I love the fact that that episode comes at the beginning.

It did sort of have to start with that. But action-wise, it’s true. I would say that the emotional climax happens in the third story, and that makes the three stories come together.

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The film is filled with wonderful little details, like Kristen Stewart dabbing her face at the diner with the napkin still rolled up with the fork and knife. Do you search for moments like that, or are they the result of happy accidents?

You leave room for spontaneous things to happen. That particular thing was Kristen. That was purely her. The actors obviously bring a lot to each scene. One thing about shooting on location is the weather: The scene in the parking lot with Kristen Stewart and Lily Gladstone, the wind was so incredible that day — Kristen could hardly keep her skirt from flying up. And things like that end up playing a big part in choices that the actors make, and the mood of something. How loud people end up speaking because of the weather. Or dealing with animals that are not trained and are going to be doing their own thing, so you’re just responding to them. Or you’re driving, actually driving a car, and you have to be thinking about traffic. All these things keep actors in the moment, but also keep anything from being too especially planned out. That night at the diner, particularly, there was a big storm outside that you can sort of see through the window, and that ends up adding something to the feeling of the night. But that was Kristen doing that. She figured her character was in too much of a hurry to unwrap her spoon and fork [laughs].

Speaking of location, all your films have a tremendous sense of atmosphere and place. I’m curious how you go about achieving that. You shot some of your previous films in and around Portland, Oregon, where you’ve spent a lot of time, but do you feel like you need to really get to know a location before you shoot there? You work with very small budgets, so I don’t think it’s a case where you’re hanging out on set for months before you get to shoot.

Well, we were there months before we shot. It’s not like I can always have a crew or actors there, but I can personally be there beforehand. Generally speaking, I do spend a lot of time in the locations, and finding the locations. That’s the biggest, longest thing. You need to know a place before you’re making a film there. But it’s true that you’re not there with everything you need for that long; the actual shooting and time with actors is always pretty fast. But the crew people are anxious to begin and will just start working on these sorts of things way early because they want to. That’s nice.

On this film, some of the smaller locations were changing and falling out as we shot, which made things really difficult. But the big location, the ranch…once I found the ranch, that became the center of the universe and we built everything onto that. And I was able to spend time there. I didn’t know anything about ranching when I started, which is part of the fun thing, isn’t it? So, I started working with the rancher first, and eventually brought [cinematographer] Chris Blauvelt with me. Eventually, the horses were getting used to us, and then the assistant director started coming and doing the routine with us, and then the art department starts working there. We were just, like, moving our way into people’s lives and working at the ranch.

Kristen Stewart in “Certain Women”

Lily Gladstone’s character as the Rancher in that final episode feels like such a breath of fresh air in this world, where everyone is so constricted. In her own low-key way, she’s very bold, straightforward, and romantic and honest. But then she meets with heartbreak as a result of it. Do you think at the end that she’s disappeared into the brown-gray background of this world like everyone else, or…

Well, I can’t impose an ending on it. That’s for each viewer to suss out on their own. But she does realize the steady beauty of a chore, I’ll say that.

You often cast nonprofessionals in your films alongside more seasoned actors like Laura Dern or Jared Harris. Do you have a particular style of directing actors, or do you modify it based on who you’re working with?

It depends on who you’re working with. I try to just find my way around. This is a certain scale of film: It’s on locations, it’s often in the winter, and the weather’s kind of harsh. So, they’re coming into our world to a degree. Within that, I try to figure out how people want to work, and I try to facilitate whatever it is they require. There’s no magic pill for anything. Everything’s a process, and it always feels like a new start and new terrain with each film, and you’re just always sort of finding your way. Not that experience doesn’t help; certainly it does. Working with Michelle [Williams] is obviously easy because we see each other, we know each other. But then with other actors, you’re trying to suss out what it is they require, and you hope that they require something similar. And there’s usually not a lot of lead-up, so you’re just starting to get to know people when they start acting for you. Sometimes it starts with costume design, where people start getting fitted for their clothes. And maybe you start to know people when you’re sending them research or whatever. But mostly, you’re kind of thrown into the fire together. And you’re figuring it all out while you’re working.

Certain Women feels like a spiritual sequel to your western Meek’s Cutoff, in which you have a group of women wandering these vast stretches of land that once belonged to another people. Now here we are in the modern day, and an entire civilization has been built on top of that land. But we see the little remnants of what was here before, with the Indian ritual at the mall, the story about native sandstone, even Lily Gladstone’s character, who is Native American. The two films resonated in that way for me.

Well, that’s because they’re both about the West. I mean, it’s hard to write about the West and not be thinking about Native Americans on some level. I think that’s just the nature of any sort of western — however you want to define the western.

Sound seems like a critical part of your movies, but also an underrated part.

They all sort of start with sound. The soundscapes begin with scouting and really listening to what’s happening in the spaces. With Wendy and Lucy, that film came from a John Raymond short story called “Train Choir,” which had train sounds built into it, so that was sort of in my head as I started. The concept of that film was to just use the trains as score: In the spaces where you’d use music, you would use the sounds of this kind of commerce. And then in Meek’s Cutoff it was really about how to build quiet, which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Building quiet is actually a lot harder than building a wall of sound. And it’s certainly harder to mix. We were in a place that was so quiet, and we had to get tracks of snakes and flies and just anything we could build sound with. We also had to get across the monotony and the repetitive nature of every day. And then animals brought a world of sound, and wind always brings a lot of sound.

Certain Women, we filmed in Livingston, Montana — it’s called “The Windiest Place in America.” It’s a crazy windy place, and everywhere you go — every alleyway or truck stop — the wind is making a hugely different sound. It was really hard to get clean. Wind is already hard to record, but at the truck stop, the wind going underneath the trucks has this really singsongy sound, and that was the starting idea of how to build a kind of distant ambience. And then there was the question of how to get across distance through sound for the Rancher character. Also, there’s a huge depot there, so there were going to be sounds of trains on the soundtrack whether I wanted them or not, so I needed to start planning for that ahead of the time. But then there are also these highway sounds. A lot of times, while you’re scouting, you start making notes of what you’re hearing, and then from that you start to build what the soundscape is going to be.

It wasn’t until I read Ella Taylor’s lovely essay in this Criterion booklet that I realized that in the very final scenes of the film, when we revisit each of these women, they’re all feeding someone or something.

Oh. Is that true? [Pause] Oh yeah, that is true.  Good eye, Ella! I hadn’t really thought of that. I just got the box today. And I’ve only seen the cover, and I haven’t opened the package yet.

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Kristen Stewart’s Not Bad Taking on Gitmo in Camp X-Ray

Let’s get this out of the way now: Kristen Stewart is fine in Camp X-Ray, the tough-minded/soft-hearted drama that packs America’s sweetheart off to Guantánamo Bay. The fact that such casting seems unlikely might be part of why she succeeds. Tasked with patrolling a cellblock of detainees for 12 hours at a time, Stewart’s Private Cole is a newbie everyone assumes is in over her head. It’s no surprise when, before the film’s through its first act, she’s had the foulest of human waste chucked at her. Ever read what dudes type about the Twilight star in comment threads?

Stewart plays Cole with her million-dollar hair bunned up, her movie-star litheness layered beneath formless fatigues, her eyes raw, and the dusting of freckles on her cheekbones exposed. She knuckles up her face, beating back all feeling but the blunt-edged boredom of the modern soldier, showing us a woman who is often playing a role herself: the prison guard who feels nothing, the regular woman from Florida who’s every bit as strong and capable as the men around her — and who must prove that without ever looking like she’s trying to.

So Stewart’s refined bone structure is no distraction here. She’s convincing as a kid from nowhere who, with no real prospects, signed up after 9-11 because she wanted to make a difference but winds up ground out and disillusioned. She’s best in the moments, in the film’s middle, when Cole struggles to swallow back new and larger feelings than her ennui. Ali (the wonderful Peyman Moaadi), an English-speaking detainee originally from Germany, picks at her as she patrols his block: “Blondie,” he says, “why you treat me like asshole?” (She’s not blonde; unlike the men she serves with, Ali feels comfortable acknowledging that Cole is not the usual soldier.) He’ll berate her, arguing that America is the world’s true source of terrorism, and he’ll scrape away at the foundation of her beliefs: He asks her how she came to believe in her Christian God — just through an accident of parenting? Stewart’s Cole pretends to blink away questions like that, but you see them weigh on her. Her circuit, passing each cell door every three minutes, has become a thoughtful plod.

He’s handsome enough, and she’s played by Kristen Stewart, so an attraction proves unavoidable. Outside the final scenes, first-time writer-director Peter Sattler keeps this mostly low-key despite his weakness for pedantry. Cole feels little connection to the men she serves with. Perhaps inevitably, one presses his affections too far during an off-day of drinking. But Ali: He may on occasion throw his feces at her, but he also wants to talk about life, about books, about their common humanity, and Moaadi (so memorable in A Separation) deftly navigates Ali’s tenderness and rage. Here’s a smart man penned up and reduced, brought so low that he fights with the only weapon he has, his own filth. More charmingly, he makes his own sudoku puzzles, and he’s amused when Cole — apparently not a Harry Potter reader — presumes that The Prisoner of Azkaban must be an Arabic book.

The film’s strongest passages concern a corporal’s annoyance that Cole and a detainee have started to hit it off. As a humiliation, for both the soldier and the prisoner, he orders her to guard Ali as he showers, a violation of both religious sensitivity and the Army’s operating procedure. Cole reports this to an unmoved superior, who asks, “You filed against another soldier because the detainee was uncomfortable?” As Sattler has it, it’s rare and courageous for an American serving in Gitmo to consider the prisoners as human. His point might be better taken if he applied that same generosity of spirit to Cole’s colleagues — surely there’s one guy who isn’t a son-of-a-bitch, right?

Sattler’s Guantánamo Bay may or may not look like the real thing, but it is convincingly sparse, all fluorescence and corridors, a cinderblock holding-pen. His compositions smartly emphasize the rigid, repetitive life endured by soldiers and prisoners both: Stewart’s tight bun, coils of razor wire, guards in formation, red cell doors set into a white wall. At times the correspondences feel pushy: Cole’s bunk rather pointedly resembles Ali’s cell, and Camp X-Ray cuts from detainees on their prayer mats to soldiers in a flag salute. Ritualized duty and belief are all that keep these characters going.

The style looses during some long scenes of conversation, when the movie begins to suggest a stage play, one whose script is not as expertly crafted as the best of Camp X-Ray. In the last 20 minutes the actors seem to be willing their characters toward the moments of heightened drama. Rather than caught up in new awareness of their common humanity, Cole and Ali feel like they’re trying to get everything they feel on the record before the film ends. Still, for much of its running time, Camp X-Ray stands as the fullest on-screen imaginative treatment of two of the defining developments of the last 15 years of American life: the deployment of women in our volunteer army, and the indefinite detention of men we think, but can’t quite prove, deserve it. Sattler never tells us what Ali or Cole did to get there, but he and his cast make certain we know that neither achieved what they had hoped for. The final beat between them is so ridiculous — and demonstrates such childish credulousness on the part of Cole — that the same could be said of Sattler himself.

Written and directed by Peter Sattler. Starring Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, John Carroll Lynch, and Lane Garrison.

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NYFF: Binoche Thrills in Assayas’s Clouds of Silas Maria

Life imitates art in all sorts of beguiling ways in Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’s intricate character drama about fame, art, and mortality. With fluid direction that nonetheless proves sneakily sharp in its evocative framing and transitional fades, Assayas’s latest tracks actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) into rehearsals of a new production of the play Maloja Snake – about a boss being overtaken by her assistant (and lesbian lover) – that first made her a star twenty years earlier.

Now asked to inhabit the older, suicidal role opposite young, tabloid-beloved up-and-comer Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), Maria struggles to come to terms with her new status, a discomfort she routinely articulates to her own personal assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart). Their conversations and trial-runs of the material, much of which take place at a house in the Sils Maria mountains once owned by the play’s now-deceased writer, form the basis of Assayas’s film, and grow ever-pricklier as Maria begins to inhabit the part, and spars with Val over interpretations of the material.

Clouds of Sils Maria jabs at modern Hollywood’s superhero/franchise fixation – including a ripe one from Stewart about pre-teens’ cultural influence – all while casting that genre’s dominance as another reason for Maria’s fear of becoming obsolete. Youth’s “creative energy,” as well as its fleeting nature, are prime preoccupations of Assayas’s story, which immerses itself in Maria’s efforts to keep herself artistically and professionally vital in a TMZ- and Internet-saturated modern world that she finds simultaneously repulsive and irresistible. Assayas’s digs at actorly pretentions and anxieties are rooted in a genuine empathy for his protagonist’s insecurity that she’s being left behind, and that like her character in “Maloja Snake,” she may become so passé that she’ll simply disappear.

The recurring sight of the actual Maloja Snake – a cascading cloudbank that navigates Sils Maria’s canyons – speaks to those notions with a subtlety and grace that’s indicative of the film as a whole. Even when its reality-vs.-fiction parallels feel a bit too on-the-nose, Clouds of Sils Maria has a richness of theme and character that’s consistently engaging, thanks in no small part to a modulated turn by Binoche as a star not yet ready to pass the torch to the next generation, and by a mysterious, enigmatic Stewart as a young woman caught uneasily, and ambiguously, between the past, present and future.

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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part II

There’s plenty of red glare in Twilight‘s last gleaming, emitting mainly from the peepers of Bella (Kristen Stewart), now 100 percent vampire, a conversion that took place during the final minutes of Breaking Dawn—Part I to save her life during a gruesome childbirth. The bizarre, jolting body horror that marked the penultimate installment of the franchise is absent in the wheel-spinning final chapter—unless you count the unease felt when witnessing the CGI crimes committed against the face of Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy), the child of Bella and Edward (Robert Pattinson), whose features are digitally altered to match her varying ages, from infant to late adolescent. The moppet’s very existence sets the stop-start plot in motion: The Volturi, that Rome-based cabal of vampires led by Michael Sheen and some other guys in Adam Ant regalia, mistakenly believe that Renesmee is an “immortal child” and thus a threat to the entire living-dead existence. To prepare for the battle with this Continental syndicate, Edward and his family, aided by Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and his wolf pack, summon vampires from around the globe. This motley lot—the women bloodsuckers all seem to resemble lip-augmented Tampa trophy wives; the men, hollow-cheeked consumptives who look like VIPs at the clubs SNL‘s Stefon frequents—are given ample time to explain and demonstrate their special powers. It’s about as exciting as watching David Blaine play Stratego and makes you miss the power of the first four films all the more: the uncontainable yearning of the Bella-Edward-Jacob triangle. Melissa Anderson

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Kristen Stewart: “I’m A Miserable C-Word”

I recently told you that Kristen Stewart is one of the best interviews out there, because she’ll actually spill what she’s feeling at the moment, sometimes in rather graphic terms.

And what she’s feeling right now–as she told Marieclaire UK–is like a big c word.

“I’m a miserable cunt,” admitted the Twilight star, on the record.

“I’m not sure if I’m most happy when I’m comfortable and content or when I’m pushing myself to the limits.

“There are such different versions of happy. And I really appreciate both.”

I wonder which state she’s in now–comfortable and cunt-tent or pushing married men to the limits, lol.

Kidding.

Kristen can do sullen like no one, and I actually feel she can break out of the franchise and score on the basis of sheer talent.

You’ll c-word that I’m right.

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THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Tonight, all across this nation, eager teens and slightly disturbed grown adults will be lining the blocks of movie theaters for the opening of Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1. This might make you feel bewildered and very, very old. The Peoples Improv Theater can relate to your confusion, and they want to help by getting you into the loop. They’ve hired a true fan to host Twilight by Dummies and explain the books and movie franchise by reenacting scenes and hopefully answering all of your questions, like the one about why Kristen Stewart has only one facial expression.

Fri., Nov. 18, 7 p.m., 2011

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Kristen Stewart Accomplishes Strange Personal Goal in Welcome to the Rileys

Some young actors yearn for that flashy role in a blockbuster movie that will prove their bankability
to a doubting Hollywood. Kristen Stewart, on the other hand, seems determined to accentuate her anti-star bona fides, delivering aggressively affectless interviews and bracketing this summer’s $300 million–earning Twilight: Eclipse with two grittier roles in movies seemingly chosen for their dim commercial prospects.

In this past spring’s Runaways, Stewart was as flat as a pancake, but still, somehow, fascinating to watch as the young Joan Jett, a stretched-tight canvas upon which Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon could paint the future.

But Jake Scott’s Welcome to the Rileys is so underwritten that, despite a more energetic performance, Stewart makes much less of an impression. She’s not exactly playing a hooker with a heart of gold, but she is playing a hooker, named Mallory, and the movie’s got something to do with her heart—though a lot more to do with her bad-girl vibe, and with her mouth and what it looks like when a payload of F-bombs drops out of it. Try as Stewart might, she can’t turn this Manic Trixie Nightmare Girl into a real person.

Rileys follows middle-aged schlub Doug Riley (James Gandolfini in Dad jeans) from Indianapolis to the Crescent City. Still mourning a teenage daughter lost a few years back—as well as another, more recent loss—Doug ditches his plumbing convention to hang out with 16-year-old exotic dancer Mallory. Their relationship remains resolutely uncarnal, as he fixes her toilet, buys her clean sheets, and picks her up from tricks gone bad.

There’s no mystery to what Doug’s doing, and the blunt motivation makes this sad ex-father, whom Gandolfini saddles with a drawl that won’t stay put, sympathetic but not particularly interesting. Gandolfini underplays accordingly.

Though dull, the relationship between Doug and Mallory can be sweet, and Scott directs unobtrusively and has a nice eye for detail. The son of Ridley and nephew of Tony, he exhibits little of the visual flair of his forebears—THANK GOD—and lets New Orleans speak for itself.

Doug’s wife, Lois (Melissa Leo), agoraphobic since their daughter’s death, gathers her courage and follows her wayward husband south. Surprisingly, given the indignities visited upon her early in Ken Hixon’s screenplay—watch the freakshow try to drive!—Lois becomes Rileys’ most compelling character, thanks mostly to Leo, who in the face of her co-stars’ opacity gives a transparent performance. Lois is incapable of hiding her emotions; Leo plays her as someone who’s too exhausted even to try.

Thanks to Leo and the way she brings Gandolfini to attention in their scenes together, the movie is at its wisest when it explores the Rileys’ strained 30-year marriage, and exults in that marriage’s gentle renewal amid the squalor of Mallory’s shitty row house. And so the best moments of Welcome to the Rileys don’t include its most bankable star at all. Well played, Kristen Stewart. An anti-star is born.

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Vampires Suck Sucks

Writer-director team Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer continue to act as the drain trap to our pop-culture toilet. The Date Movie and Meet the Spartans collaborators have made a career of low-overhead channel-surf bricolages catering to ninth-graders with nothing else to do on a Friday night, movies not meant to be watched so much as texted during. (Smart money says Friedberg and Seltzer never sit through these movies in entirety.) Their Vampires Suck isn’t a spoof of vampire movies as a genre, which would demand an audience whose collective memory reached beyond 2008, but of the first two Twilight movies specifically, with iconic scenes re-enacted and laced with gags. Many of the film’s jokes, such as they are, consist of mentioning the titles of contemporary reality-TV shows, which should be a riot for viewers who think that their cable channel guide is the soul of wit. Jenn Proske provides a reasonable facsimile of Kristen Stewart’s soulful lip-gnashing and eyebrow fluttering, and there’s a giggle-worthy bit with a Segway, but SNL’s “The Franks” parody had more laughs, and the distinct advantage of being only two minutes long. If you’ve ever read a single book—we’ll include Stephenie Meyer—you’re probably better than this.

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GOD SAVE PEREZ

On any given day, we’d say we peruse the PerezHilton.com page about a hundred times to read about frivolous nonsense like Lindsay Lohan’s out-of-work woes and the always uncomfortable Kristen Stewart—and so do about a million other people. Now imagine if these ridiculously fun blog posts came to life. Perez Hilton Saves the Universe is a show about just that, though on this day, Perez wrestles with demons of love, ego, and celebrity and fights to save L.A. from nuclear disaster (that is, if terrorists and Kathy Griffin don’t stop him). Though if, in fact, Perez could save the world by giving Fergie a mustache and adding nipples to pictures of Madonna’s boy toy, we wouldn’t feel as much guilt about this addiction. Time to refresh the page.

Sun., May 30, 9:30 p.m., 2010

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Morgan Freeman=Nobility

When you plunk down money for movies starring certain actors, you know pretty much the kind of mood they’re going to radiate, and that’s just what you come to want.

With Morgan Freeman, it’s nobility.

With Reese Witherspoon, you’re geting chirpy.

With Kristen Stewart, you’re in for some serious sullenness, with lots of eyeball rolling.

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And George Clooney equals suavity, with a lot of half smiling asides.

Of course within those boundaries, these actors work out a lot of variations of human emotion.

It’s just that they’re primarily known for one type of characterization, and that’s extremely pleasing to movie audiences. It’s a continuation of the syndrome that had us always expecting Bette Davis to be bitchy, Gable to be macho, and Marilyn to be hot.

Can you think of other current actors and what deal they specialize in?