Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Happy Birthday Jamie Bell!

Jamie Who? Don't feel bad. Two weeks ago I had no idea who he was either, even though he was actually already famous back in 2000, and I had even just seen him in a central role not much more than a month earlier in one of my favorite movies of the past year, King KongBuy me!See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database (Bell played Jimmy).

Of course I knew about the movie that had made him famous — you will too as soon as I mention it — but if I heard the name of the child actor who starred in it at the time, it must have gone in one ear and out the other. I certainly had no knowledge of what he had done since, but when I did “discover" him about two weeks or so ago I was totally amazed that he wasn't much more well-known.

My first stop whenever I want to know more about an actor or actress I just saw, of course, IMDB. I spend a lot of time on IMDB, actually, since I spend an awful lot, way too much, of my time watching stuff. IMDB is the ideal of what the Internet was originally supposed to be about: following hyperlinks, clicking through actors, movies, directors, finding connections you didn't know about ("he was married to her?!?" or "wow I didn't know she was in that movie!") It's also of course how you find out just how old a particular celebrity is. (Another great site I just discovered is Hey, It's "That Guy"!, which lists "easy to recognize and difficult to place. You can describe him but not name him." But they really need to add John Colicos!)

Anyway, according to the little elves who fill out the data entry forms at IMDB (they put place and date of birth front and center), this actor I had just become aware of actually had a birthday coming up in just two weeks, and not just any birthday. To my inexpressible horror, this guy was born in 1986. 1986!! (IMDB is full of shocks for me: but then, I'm easily shocked by this kind of thing; I still get shocked that people can be born in the late 1970s and actually be adults now... you'd think that getting older would get easier with the practice, but NO!) Which means that our new pal Jamie turns 20 years old — today. So. What the hell: today's a good a day as any to celebrate my discovery of this currently obscure and relatively anonymous actor, and to try to explain — to myself as much as to anyone — just why Jamie Bell is worth blogging about in the first place.

My first major discovery at his IMDB page was, as I have said, that he had already become famous six years ago at the tender age of 14.

The second thing I discovered was that this latest best-kept secret of the acting profession has been actually playing the lead in several movies since then (movies you probably haven't heard of, unfortunately, which is a shame since they look pretty cool) and has been taking some very gutsy risks and, according to what I've been reading and from that little I have seen, more than holding his own with some big-name directors and even some bigger-name stars. The more I read and learned about him the more interesting he seemed.

This guy has been amazingly busy for someone who was a teenager until today! Seven movies so far, one about to come out, and another currently filming. Oh, plus one music video. (So far I've only seen two of the movies and the video, together with a smattering of interviews.) Oh, and by the way: someone really needs to tell those IMDB elves that this cute-but-sullen-monkey photo may have been ok for his breakout role, but is, um, just a tad bit out of date: sullen monkey look?,

and they may want to substitute something a little more recent and, well, adult-looking. His fans would probably like this one (I'm not about to pick one of the near-soft-porn types of images celebrities always seem to end up with from photo-shoots):

jamie bell or if you really insist on sullen, there's always:

ANYway. If you followed the IMDB link earlier then you will have already had your recognition moment. Yes, he was "that Billy Elliot" kid.

Of course I heard about Billy Elliotsee this movie's record at the internet movie database at the time — who didn’t — and I was also vaguely aware that it had won some sorts of awards. I think I may even have been aware that the kid who starred in it was some sort of prodigy or something, as well, but that’s about all I knew.

Personally, I still have not seen Billy Elliot, myself: it's on a list of dozens and dozens of movies I still haven't gotten around to seeing yet. Loads of friends have told me how wonderful it is and it’s the kind of movie I would like: I am a sucker for tug-at-your-heartstrings movies and best of all it does have one of my totally favourite actresses in it, Julie Walters (if we're going to talk about British National Treasures I'll take her over "Dame" Judi any day ("little, clever, chubby Judi Dench"): did you see Julie in The Wife of Bath episode of Canterbury Tales? God she still burns up the screen). So I’m sure I will eventually get around to seeing it, even though I'm not sure I'll be able to get Sean Hayes's hilarious SNL spoof out of my head ...

Anyway, as I said, the movie won awards. In fact it turns out that the Billy Elliot star, Jamie Bell, shocked the world at the time by winning best actor in a leading role in 2001 at the BAFTAs for that performance, actually beating out competition like Tom Hanks (Cast Awaysee this movie's record at the internet movie database), Russell Crowe (Gladiatorsee this movie's record at the internet movie database ), Geoffrey Rush (Quillssee this movie's record at the internet movie database) and Michael Douglas (eh, who cares). (The kid's acceptance speech is a riot: "I think this is the first time I've been nominated for best actor" [laughter] "but to be nominated with all these guys ... I was kind of thinking of not bothering coming." [more laughter])
But back to my story. King Kong, I now know in hindsight, was first movie I saw Jamie in. Bell played Jimmy, the young orphan stowaway who was reading Heart of Darkness and who you immediately felt most protective and concerned over: the one you most strongly hoped wouldn't be eaten by a giant bug or squashed by a dinosaur or run through by a crazed savage. The one that the screenwriters were clearly singling out for you to empathize with the most.

King Kong, by the way, really was one of the best movies of the year. I keep telling people that, and they don't believe me. They role their eyes and say "oh, not another remake" or they smile politely and nod but you know they won't go and see it. But honest, it isn't just a good remake (though it is a loving tribute to the original). It's a really good movie. And I don't mean it was one of the best action films or one of the best special effects films, though it was damn good for that, too.

First off, even if it wasn't a movie with special effects or giant apes or action scenes of any kind, it is one of the most visually stunning, lovingly meticulous, beautiful period movies I've seen: Lisa and I both came out of the theatre saying the same thing: that this was what Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrowsee this movie's record at the internet movie database promised to be but wasn't! Every little detail of the early 1930s — the clothes, the magazines in the background, everything — are recreated with painstaking detail. (Plus, I had forgotten that the depression overlapped with the last few years of prohibition.) But what made King Kong so great was the characters: Kong himself, of course — an astonishing feat of more than just special effects — and all the minor background characters on the boat that the movie really took the time to get you to know (so you'd be upset when any of them are squashed, swallowed, or skewered).

Yes, the characters are all clichés — the original Kong was a B movie and this is a lovingly-crafted tribute to a B movie and a B movie itself, and proud of it, and beautifully faithful to the clichés of the period — nobody's saying it was Capote good or Brokeback good — it wasn't trying to be — but it was a genuinely good movie and it really made you feel something. It's only my terminal lameness as a blogger that kept me from blogging to that effect as soon as I came home from watching it, but as I say I have been trying to do my little bit to encourage everybody I knew to go and see it, and I strongly recommend you go out and rent or buy it when it comes out on DVD at the end of this month! It's not only a phenomenal ride, with hilariously, deliberately, manically over-the-top special effects sequences (not one, not two, not three, but four (ok just three) simultaneous T-Rexes), but it's a beautiful and sad love-story, and just a really good yarn (which is the best thing a movie can be). This New York Times review captures it well:
The climax of "King Kong" - one of the most familiar sequences in movies, and one that never grows old . . . is shameless and exalted, absurd and sublime, vulgar and grand. It's what movies were made for. [emphasis added]
(By the way: what's with all the comments about the first mate being a "magic negro". Yes, movies are full of the "magic negro" [and "magic blind person" and "magic handicapped person" and the “magic old person”], but just because Jimmy's mentor happens to be black [or because a black character happens to be a mentor], therefore he's also just a "magic negro"? The term is going to start to lose all meaning. See, e.g., this site for this quote: "Then of course there was Jamie Bell as Jimmy and his Magical Negroe, the one real black spot on the movie, as it were. Aren't we past the whole inexplicably Wisened Negroid Mentor Figure Who Dies So Our Young White Coming of Age Character Will Learn and Live thing, Peej? I'm over it." Again, the characters aren't finely-drawn characterizations. About the cliché issue; there's a spirited debate here on that topic — I had to laugh at 'Black Guy will soon die. White Boy will then cry' and 'Cliche Black Guy and his Billy Elliott bitch'. Ooo, that's cruel, but funny. The site I quoted above for the "magic negro" also complains about the background character situations, including Jimmy's, e.g.: "Frankly, this whole subplot is a mistake - It's laden with stilted groaners (the digression on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, for example) and comes off as cliche-ridden as the tough general and his fresh-faced recruit in that other Matrix film. " Again, this is missing the point. You need to get into the spirit of this movie. The same page does have a review that accords with me about the beauty of the film as a period piece: "But this film gives a better depiction of [depression-era New York] in its opening montage than “Cinderella Man” did in 2 1/2 hours. " Yes!)

But again, even after King Kong I couldn't have told you who Jamie Bell was. And as for my affection for the Jimmy character, at the time I credited Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson for bothering to take the time to make us care about all of the background characters that we knew were all going to be killed off one way or another, before we got to the action scenes. (And I totally disagree with those who say that this part of the film was a waste of time. Oh, and by the way: according to what I have read in more than one article and interview, it turns out that Fran Walsh actually wrote the Jimmy part specifically for Bell: I'm not surprised.)

So now we get to two weeks ago. It was the 2002 film adaptation of Nicholas NicklebySee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database which I picked up entirely by chance for 40% off at a going-out-of-business sale at a local Suncoast Video. In fact I didn't even look at it closely when I bought it: I wouldn't have been able to tell you at the time if it was a feature film or a made-for-TV production (turns out there was a made-for TV productionSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database only a year earlier, which I had been vaguely aware of and which I'm sure had shown on A&E at some point but which I had missed: oh, and interesting tid-bit: IMDB tells me that the Smike character on that production was played by Lee Ingleby, whose more recent claim to fame is as Stan Shunspike, the Knight Bus conductor on Harry Potter. Of course there are numerous other versions: the 1947 production with Cedric Hardwicke which is sadly unavailable on DVD, and a a humongous miniseriesSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database from the 80s based on a stage production that no doubt retains the cast of characters of galactic proportions in Dickens's novel).

What can I say about Nicholas Nickleby? I ... loved this movie. Rottentomatoes gives it a 78% "fresh" rating, though you can certainly find dismissive comments like "Cliff Notes version of Dickens" and "Dame Edna — how twee". But it's a carefully and lovingly-written adaptation that as far as I am concerned, really works. (If you're a Times Select subscriber, you can read a fascinating explanation by the screenwriter/director, Douglas McGrath, of why and how he made it the way he did here: well worth reading, and if the link doesn't work for you, let me know and *ahem* maybe I'll send you a copy .)

Now for me, Jamie Bell was the best thing about this movie.

And it's a movie with no mean cast. Jim Broadbent (fresh from his oscar win), the incomparable Tom Courtenay, the always-brilliant Juliet Stevenson, Christopher frakkin' PLUMMER, for heaven's sake, Nathan Lane, Alan Cumming, Anne Hathaway, Romola Garai, and yes, Dame Edna. Yet Bell more than holds his own with this constellation of stellar phenomena. His performance, as the orphaned crippled boy Smike, whom Nicholas befriends and protects, just totally broke my heart.

Of course, an enourmous amount of the credit for the effectiveness of that part goes to McGrath. It sounds blasphemous but frankly McGrath improved enourmously on Dickens when he wrote his version of Smike. In the novel, Smike is almost more of a grotesque than a real human being you can empathize with. Pity, yes. But it's the kind of pity that comes with no small amount of distaste. For one thing, Smike in the novel is 19 — the same age as Nickleby — and is not only physically twisted and broken but he's also really, really stupid. (The author of the introduction to my edition of the novel makes no bones about his disdain for the character, referring to "the obtrusive way in which Dickens ... portrays" some of the attributes of Smike as "an embarrassment for modern readers", and that the character is only made "tolerable" when he is made a comic foil, such as when Mrs. Nickleby (who is really not a nice person at all in the novel: in this movie she is a total non-entity but that's all part of the necessary streamlining of turning a Dickens novel into a two-hour movie) "asks Smike (having learned he comes from Yorkshire and heard what Nicholas refers to as 'his melancholy history') whether he ever dined with the Grimbles of Grimble Hall.") Dickens's Smike could easily be the inspiration for Gollum in his more polite, "Smeagol" moments. (If you ever do rescue a waif in need of protection, you'll never find one this polite. I don't think they make kids that polite anymore.) At any rate, this production of Nicholas Nickleby really humanized Smike and put him and his friendship with Nicholas front and centre, and that is, I think, its greatest strength.

There are several images and moments in the film that have really stuck with me from Bell's performance as Smike. That soft, hopeless voice right after Nicholas puts the blanket over him in his scene by the stove in Nicholas's bedroom — the pacing and phrasing of his voice is amazingly skillful in this film throughout, in fact; the luminous, incandescent smile he cracks, spontaneously, the first time he looks up and sees Nicholas smiling at him (and the same smile he can't help flashing at Nicholas when he's trying to remember his line on stage); the incredible play of expressions on his face when he is overwhelmed by Kate's (Romola Garai, all radiant Blonde and smiling with heartfelt empathy and kindness) beauty and kindness and, above all, overwhelmed by her thanking him — her thanking him! — for his help to her brother. But above all, for me it is the scene in the bedroom after Frank arrives. The play of emotion on his face. The stages of thought he goes through. It looks so effortless and natural. And it totally pulls you in and makes you really feel those emotions. It is one of the marks of truly fine acting to be able to make you feel what the character is supposed to be feeling, as opposed to simply indicating to you how you ought to be feeling at any given moment. (Sadly, movies these days are mostly about indicating. Beautiful to look at they usually are, but you usually don't feel anything!)

Keep in mind that we are talking about a lad of a mere 16 with almost no professional training and with only two movies under his belt at the time.

[Update: March 18: I just got done listening to McGrath's commentary on the Nickleby DVD, and I just have to quote what he says about Jamie's performance in the scene I just mentioned:
"Jamie: his performance in this scene is so delicate and feeling; he was the most extraordinary boy to work with because he always brought the maximum amount of feeling to it without ever exceeding it and without ever appearing to push. He's an artist of great delicacy. And power. [emphasis mine]"
This is pretty amazingly high praise from a director, I think. And It's good to know I'm not crazy when I express astonishment at this young man's talent. McGrath's commentary also drew my attention to nuances I hadn't noticed in Charlie Hunnam's and Christopher Plummer's performances, as well: it's an enjoyable commentary. It's especially endearing the way he repeatedly refers to both 22-year-old (and already married and maybe even already divorced) Hunnam and 16-year-old Bell collectively and warmly as "the boys". ]

In fact, this movie was so effective that the emotions Jamie Bell's performance evoked in me included several that I didn't even know I had in me: I have managed somehow all my life up until now to avoid paternal, parental feelings — at least for human beings (up till now I've reserved all those feelings for my dogs ). (This is one of the reasons why I'm not surprised that Fran Walsh wrote the Jimmy character for Bell). And this is the greatest thing movies (and literature) can do: really make you feel something, even if it’s just for fictional characters.

By the way — don't get the idea that this movie is all sentimentality. It's also very, very funny. Of course you would expect Dame Edna and Nathan Lane to be there for laughs, but even the villains (Stevenson and Broadbent) are as deliciously hilarious as they are foul, and even Plummer's arch-villain uncle Ralph exposes a wonderful dry wit in between his acts of satanic evil. Dickens's novel intersperses the grinding, depressing gloom with lots of humour and this adaptation triumphantly captures the spirit of it all.

Nor is Bell's the only really amazing break-out role in Nickleby: Heather Goldenhersh, whom I had never heard of, steals every scene she's in as Fanny Squeers, for instance, and this movie is the first one that convinced me that Anne Hathaway really is very talented (Barry Humphries is right in the DVD extras about how convincingly she plays Victorian). Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson are a joy, and both Lane and Dame Edna are at their hammy best, Alan Cummings is great as always. Charlie Hunnam, who starred in the title role, and who as an actor was also totally new to me, took a while to win me over, but in the end he impressed me greatly with the subtlety and intensity of many very demanding parts of his performance, and with his comedic timing (despite the accent which I comment on below).

Apart from these two movies, so far the only other things I have seen Jamie in are the video for Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends (you can see a "making of" video here). — where he plays a young American kid who goes off to Iraq — and in a smattering of clips from his other movies and from various interviews, about which more below.

It's perplexing that I hadn't heard of a single one of the movies Bell has starred in other than Nickleby, Billy Elliot, and King Kong, because they all look great! (Well, I'm not entirely sure about DeathwatchSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database, a bizarre-looking World War One-based horror movie?! though it does have Andy Serkis in it, so I'm willing to give it a chance) They are all indies, so it's no surprise that they weren't accompanied by the sort of marketing blizzard that blows out of most Hollywood drek, but indies are the kind of movies I like to see, and the kind of movies that do tend to make it to the Boston market, so these movies must have had really meagre marketing budgets... I do vaguely remember seeing the commercials for UndertowSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database, which didn't compell me to want to see it (I figured it was just another stupid Hollywood action/gratuitous violence movie of the kind that would probably have the hero silhouetted in slow motion in front of a fireball), but the NYT calls director David Gordon Green "gifted", and the DVD cover blurbs claim that Roger Ebert called it a "masterpiece" and "one of the best films of 2004" (on-topic, a different NYT reviewer says "the movie was stolen by Mr. Bell"; on the other hand, only 58% of the reviews are positive, according to Rottentomatoes; you can listen to Ebert and Roeper's Undertow review here and to Ebert making it one of his 10 best films of 2004 here). The ChumscrubberSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database I had simply never heard of, which blows my mind since it's got Glenn Close and Ralph Fiennes (you know: the talented brother) in it for crying out loud, but it looks hilarious and definitely my cup of tea: a black comedy that deals with how suburban parents drug their kids with pharmaceuticals. And Dear WendySee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database, a very unusual-sounding piece tackling America's fascination with guns, by the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier (writer) of Dogville fame and Thomas Vinterberg (director) of Dogme95 fame (not that I had ever heard of Dogme95 before I read about it on Vinterberg's IMDB page) also looks well worth watching. All of these movies are now, or soon will be, out on DVD and I'll definitely be taking a look.

IMDB says that Bell's next movie, yet to be released, actually has him working with legend Clint Eastwood on what looks to be a grueling feature (Flags of Our Fathers) about Iwo Jima, in which Bell will get to play a young American soldier who gets tortured and dismembered to death in a cave, and the movie he's filming now in Scotland, Hallam Foe, about "a confused and sweetly old-fashioned teenager" who is apparently into voyeurism. (It's the kind of role you probably would have seen Ewan McGregor in about ten years ago.) But I really am willing to bet that like me, you haven't heard of these movies either, and like me, you had probably forgotten all about the "Billy Elliot kid", and even if you had seen Billy Elliot (and even if it had "changed your life" as the web site says), you had no idea the kid had grown up and had played leading man in several films. Certainly not a single person I have mentioned this to had heard of him, which was one of my main reasons for wanting to write about him in my blog.

In preparation for writing this posting I did a lot of scouring on the web to find out more about Bell. I found a lot of articles, interviews, clips of interviews, and the like. Of course for much of the material I had to descend into the muggy bayou of the ubiquitous kind of fan site set up and run by sighing and swooning teenage girls where the air is humid with estrogen and the topics of conversation range the entire intellectual gamut from "Oooh, he's so dreamy" to "He's HOTTT", mostly written in text-messagingese. (Every once in a while, though, you come across a posting that's actually funny: "Jamie is actually my age! ...it's totally within the realm of possibility that Jamie will realise he is a homo and will come to the (natural) conclusion that we were born for each other" Ya gotta admire optimism like that! Obviously not all his fans are girls ... ) (The webmistress of one of these sites was even planning on putting together a "birthday scrapbook" for Jamie's 20th. She's collecting contributions from fans and actually plans to send it to him, somehow. As for me, I’ve never sent fan mail in my life and I'm afraid I must keep this particular birthday wish purely virtual. It's ... a whole lot less creepy. *shudder*) I often wonder whether celebrities read the kind of stuff written about them at web-sites like these. I actually kind of hope not. In fact, I would guess that the only celebrity who would do so would be one without a career, but then again, that kind of celebrity wouldn’t have many web-sites about him after too long…

The articles I have read do typically seem to cover at least some of the same ground: Billy Elliott, yadda. Born in depressed, working-class city, raised by single mum, yadda. Actor had a life a lot like the character in the film, yadda. Against all odds, yadda. (I'm not sure I actually saw the word "plucky" but you can fill it in.) If I were Bell I would find this incredibly condescending and annoying, even if it intended in the nicest way. When this MTV reporter wrote "Actor's diverse roles make it easy to forget we first met him as a ballet prodigy" (in an article titled Two Indies, 'King Kong,' Green Day Clip: Jamie Bell's A Long Way From 'Billy Elliot' ), I'm sure he genuinely meant it as sincere praise, but it still has a kind of pat on the head feel to it. (As I guess everything I've written so far does, too ... Ugh! But it's very hard to avoid that condescending tone even when you try to.) Further Head-Pats are administered to Bell for not following the life-script typical kiddy actor, e.g.: "We all know child stars are never allowed to grow up - disgracefully, cleverly or otherwise. There's always a drama when they change. There's always a headline writer's hope that they'll go completely off the rails, start taking pills, have bad boyfriends, take their clothes off, get fat." (from here); "the world enjoys extremes. Flashy, international success would have gone down nicely. The image of Bell as a bitter and twisted ex-child star has mileage in it, too (a trip to rehab would have been perfect). Bell the tootling-along-teenager just doesn't quite cut it. " (from here).

It is another common theme in the journalistic output about Bell that since his first role he has made mostly savvy, shrewd choices. For one thing, he has managed to completely avoid being pigeonholed into the "kiddy" roles that one might have expected a movie like Billy Elliot to have prepared him for. Though I am sure it is the great movie they say it is, I'm actually glad I didn't see him first in Billy Elliot: I've never been particularly partial to Kiddy actors — or more precisely to the kind of things Hollywood does with them. I never wanted to smother someone with a pillow more than Will Wheaton's Wesley Crusher (not even Marina Sirtis with her abortion of a transatlantic accent as Deanna Troi) and I knew from the first commercial I saw of Home Alone that I would rather have hot pokers driven into my eyes than see anything with Macaulay Culkin in it, and Jonathan Brandis — um, just looked him up on IMDB so I'd better not say anything uncharitable about Jonathan — HELL even the ones I LIKE I can't stand: I mean, The Sixth SenseSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database was a really, really, really great movie (though, sadly, the only movie made by M. Night Shyamalan that hasn't totally sucked) and "that sixth sense kid" was really, really, really talented in it (gosh, he's probably grown up by now too, and I haven't heard anything about him, either), but my GOD didn't you just want to pull his head off?! (You can't blame him for the brain-damaged copy he's forced to read in this clip but he's just so insufferable!) And honestly it took until Catch Me If You CanSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database to start liking Leonardo DiCaprio and despite my obligation to love all things Tolkien I still have my doubts about Elijah Wood. There are exceptions: Drew Barrymore and Anna Paquin I have loved from the beginning; Sean Astin I like now, though it took a lot for me to forgive a film like The GooniesSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database; but there aren't many.) In interviews, Bell makes it plain that although he was showered with offers from Hollywood, he avoided the easy choices and instead aimed at independent films made by directors he admired, and he's clearly been successful at that. The trade-off is that he is not as well-known, yet, as he might have been, and indeed has fallen off the map for most people, who will only remember him as the Billy Elliot boy. But it is a trade-off that has come with an impressive resume.

Bell's "interview persona" comes across as very likeable, seemingly guileless and honest, and unusually polite. In a few of the clips he is quite amusingly manic (in three interviews in New Zealand at the King Kong premiere that I can no longer find online, every third word seems to be "fanTAStic"; when did it stop being "brilliant"? I liked it better when everything was "brilliant" for my English cousins..., and you can see his enthusiastic response to the King Kong trailer here) He also displays a wickedly evil sense of humour (my favourite kind): on the DVD extras for Nickleby he slanders Juliet Stevenson with a tale of hilarious child abuse (while the director's commentary paints a very different picture of her relationship with the kids on the set), and you can see him tease Billy Elliott director Stephen Daldry in this interview. Of course he also has his teenage moments, moments of conceit ("it's great being me right now"), alternating with moments of self-deprecation (see the way he laughs at himself at the beginning of this interview, and the way he refers to his new hobby of playing bongos like one of his idols, James Dean, in this interview [this latter contains one of the "near-soft-porn" shots I referred to earlier, from — surprise, surprise — Abercrombie and Fitch; Vanity Fair’s March 2006 issue displays another]). Plus, in keeping with his northern roots, he's got a mouth on him like a sailor.

Looking back over everything I've written I guess I still haven't done a good job of articulating what the big deal is. It’s pretty uncontroversial to suggest that this guy has talent: he won awards for that talent, so it’s not exactly news. And it's not as though the UK doesn't churn out great actors by the busload kind of the way the US churns out bad presidents, only (thankfully) in much greater numbers. Yes, Bell is also exceptionally convincing with American accents — even a thick southern drawn — but it's not as though he’s the first British (or American) actor these days to master multiple accents utterly convincingly: long gone, thank all that's holy, are the days when even truly gifted actors like Dick Van Dyke could torture our ears with an unbearable parody of a Cockney accent or when a Monty Python alumnus could put on an equally painfully ludicrous American one, and nowadays I honestly do have to look up an actor on IMDB before I can be sure of their nationality. Julianne Moore, Kate Beckinsale [cripes! looking her up in IMDB just now I find out she has a daughter with Michael Sheen of Gallowglass See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database and Wilde See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database !! I spend way too much time on IMDB …], Chloë Sevigny, Christian Bale: if you didn’t know where they were born, you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching their movies, and that’s more often true than not nowadays with the current crop of great accent coaches. As an Englishman raised in the United States, with two British parents and boatloads of British relatives, I am cursed with an ear that is attuned to both sides of the Atlantic. Americans can easily hear the flaws in a faked American accent that to a Briton sounds completely authentic, and vice versa. But despite my having lived in the US most of my life, I have the dubious pleasure of being able to hear the implausible ultra-preciceness of Renee Zellweger's very accurate but just too painfully perfect accent, too, and it's distracting. (One really odd thing about Nickleby, though, was how distractingly bad Charlie Hunnam's British accent was: I couldn't believe my eyes when I found out he actually is British — he became famous as the 15-year old in the original UK version of Queer as Folk See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database. On the Nicholas Nickleby DVD extras Hunnam explains that he had spent the previous 3 years doing American roles and that in fact his native British accent (a so-called “Geordie” accent from Newcastle, actually quite close to where Bell grew up) was about as far from the standard Received Pronunciation anyway, but to me it was even more jarringly distracting than Renee Zellweger's Bridget Jones: just like Renee's, it wasn't that it was incorrect in any way — but it was just so artificial and precise.)

Clearly one of the reasons I set out to write this post was that, as I mentioned at the top, I was surprised that Bell is still not well-known, despite the subtle and persuasive talent I had seen him exhibit in Nickleby and of course all the press about his debut in 2001. I was also mindful that, like me, many people are turned off by child stars, but I felt like protesting that no, this guy really is talented as an actor and not just as some sort of child prodigy.

I guess it might help if I included another testimonial from one of the directors Bell has worked with. This is from an interview by Skye Sherwin (I can't find a link for the text, but it was ID Magazine — and you can see a scan of it here):
On the phone from the Berlin Film Festival ... [Thomas] Vinterberg enthuses on the brilliance of his lead [in Dear Wendy]. "He's very intelligent and we needed that for this quite unusual film. You watch, not an ordinary boy, a sweet boy in front of you. When you watch him on screen something else happens. I think he's going to be gigantic, not that I'd wish that on anyone," he laughs.
When he says when you watch him on the screen, something else happens”, I know precisely what he means. Describing it is another thing altogether, and something I have certainly failed to do in this posting. SAYING that someone is talented is just so many words. You have to see it. And if you see him, you will either agree with me (and these directors), or you won’t.

You can also tell from Vinterberg’s comments (“not an ordinary boy, a sweet boy”) that Bell has some personal charisma off-screen, as well. In fact, there almost seems to be something uncanny about the way this young man is able to make people like him. According to one interviewer, "Bell seems to collect people who want to mentor him" (eight, so far, according to that article), and you get the feeling that every interviewer was to some extent smitten with him. In fact, that seems to be more or less par for the course with interviewers. So much so that when Skye Sherwin writes "As millions of people can already attest, it's impossible not to fall in love with Jamie Bell" (though she is presumably making another Billy Elliot reference), I find myself strangely unsurprised that someone would write this. Bell himself is quoted in this interview saying: "When I got to New Zealand they said 'We're so glad you're here, we were worried you weren't going to do it!' and I was like 'Oh please, Peter Jackson won 11 Academy Awards, am I going to say no?'" -- they were worried he might not do it? Geesh! He's even managed to make people half a world away fond of him. Makes you wonder if they can bottle whatever it is that he’s got.

This kind of charisma must be very useful for an actor in his work as well, of course. It's even worth suggesting that in-born charisma is probably an important component of any actor's talent and ability to make the audience empathize with him; and Bell seems to have been born with a particularly intense dose of it.

Of course it’s ridiculous the way fans impute personality traits to celebrities they have never met, or to assume that an actor is something like a character he or she plays. But you can draw inferences from the wake a celebrity leaves behind them. There is no shortage of actors who collect “tales” of what assholes they are in real-life; so far, Bell seems to have done the opposite.

Ridiculous or not, it's human nature. Lisa likes to categorize celebrities that we like by the "would you want to have lunch with them" criterion. I mean there are lots of actors we think are great but you're not entirely sure you'd want to spend time with them in person (Johnny Depp? Christopher Walken?), actors that you grudgingly acknowledge as talented despite their reputation in person as total assholes, and then actors that you would like to have lunch with. I get the feeling from the interviews that Bell is one of this last category, not that we'd have anything in common -- I'm a bookish nerd who has never liked sports; the last time I was good at video games was in the paleolithic when Centipede and Tempest were cool; I haven't seen Donnie Darko and am therefore clueless as to why Bell would call himself a member of the Donnie Darko generation (which reminds me of the Simpsons quote "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' is"). At least I have reason to believe we might have some politics in common, since allegedly Bell has written a screenplay where Tony Blair gets assassinated by a soldier whose friend was killed in Iraq.

In his interviews Bell himself makes it clear he wants to be known for something other than Billy Elliot. The question is, is he frustrated with the pace at which his career is proceeding? Although he's done some critically-acclaimed work since Billy Elliot, he certainly has not yet achieved fame with the public at large with any of that work. Did he have his hopes up when in interviews he says that "Kong is going to be the biggest-thing-on-the-planet"? On the other hand, maybe this really is going according to plan and he is deliberately taking his time to build his career, so that by the time he really does break into the big time he can be proud of his work to date. Besides: getting a reputation in the industry with the people who count - who will give you jobs - is probably more important at this stage than being a huge star with a high recognition factor. Either way, given his gifts as an artist, I have no hesitation predicting that everybody will know who he is soon enough. Like Vinterberg, I think he’s going to be gigantic.

Well, at 20 there's time enough for that! So, Happy Birthday, Jamie, from a new fan. And many happy returns! Here's hoping that this is just the beginning of a great career.

And, though you'll never read this for a brazillion years (and if you ever did you'd probably find it so long, tedious, sentimental, superficial, and condescending that you'd never get this far), here's some advice (one of the perks of getting older is that you get to do this):
  • For GOD's sake, man, don't lose your accent! Are you crazy? I can hear the hint of American creeping in to your speech in interviews. Listen: I know how Andrew Sullivan sounded back when he still lived in Boston, before he became "famous". And I've heard him interviewed on Charlie Rose and the like, since he lost his accent. And it's not pretty. (The last "transatlantic" accent I heard that could be described as pleasant was Alistair Cooke's. Of course nobody born as late as 1986 could possibly have any idea who that is, I know.) I certainly regret losing mine (and even though my original accent does re-emerge slightly when I'm with my English relatives, it sounds totally American to them no matter how British it sounds to my American friends). You'll always have more swooning females at your beck and call if you keep the accent.
  • As I mentioned above, you need to try to find a real villain to play. The best kind, I think, is the kind where the audience really really likes you to begin with before they find out you're a real bastard. Samuel West did a great one in PersuasionSee this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database, but they don't have to be period pieces: think David Strathairn in Passion Fish or The Firm and then think of him in Dolores Claiborne; Patrick Malahide is another genius for that; and Damian Lewis is looking good in that department, too.
  • Don't give up acting for directing quite yet. You may think it's boring that actors have only "six faces" they can pull, but you are underestimating just what you're able to do to people's feelings with that talent of yours with those six faces. It's a gift. Just because something may come easy (well, I know hard work is involved too) to someone who has the talent for it doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
  • 20 is really, really young. I know they’ve been calling you an adult now for two years, but it won’t be long before you look back at 20 and say “what was I thinking?” It’s rare that for someone to be the same person at 25 that they were at 20; at 30 even oneself at 25 can seem like a child, and an idiot. (Actually, given the benefit of hindsight, that sort of problem never completely goes away.) My point is that it’s important neither to take oneself too seriously at this age, nor to believe that what is important to you now will always be so.
  • Even though 20 is really, really young, and your whole life is stretching ahead of you and time seems infinite, it really is true that life is short. And one of the main reasons for this is that time speeds up as you get older: each year is just a little bit shorter than the one before. The next 20 won’t take anywhere NEAR as long as the first 20 did. I guess this is something you just can’t really believe until it happens, though … *whew* What a downer ... Good thing you'll never read this!

  • Don’t let them take any more pictures of you in hats like this: As Jimmy in King Kong The ears, man. (You may want to avoid backlighting for the same reason )

Just keep up the good work: I'm really looking forward to what's coming next in your career!

Here's a smattering of more pictures:
King Kong (in front, with the gun):

Postscript added Mar. 15:

I came across this photo:

jbmum and just had to do a double-take. Bell's mother of course doesn't really look anything like my mother, but the bangs, the glasses, the dark red hair, the smile, even the way she holds her arm, for just one moment it was … weird. I know that somewhere I have pictures that would show the chance resemblance with my mother better than this one (she's the one on the left, of course): Mum and Brum

but it'll have to do. Weird. Well, Bell's mum is from the north of England; who knows: maybe she has some Scot in her. Maybe even some Burns or Douglas?

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Track with co.mments
At Sun Apr 02, 01:52:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent (and thorough)expose on Jamie's massive talent.

It was enlightening to hear your impressions on Jamie and the initial impact he made on your sensibilities as you watched Nickelby. I too have become a huge fan and follower of this lad's many talents but have always wondered whether my glowing view of him was colored by his totally engaging and charismatic performance as Billy Elliot.

He completely stole my heart in that story. And since then I have found myself totally convinced and enraptured by every role he has taken on...completely impressed in new and different ways each time.

Anyway...just curious. Have you see Billy Elliot yet?

I am looking forward to hearing your review

At Sun Apr 02, 01:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger IVSTINIANVS said...

No, I still haven't seen Billy Elliot. Life keeps interfering with my movie-watching plans. I also like to have friends over for movie-watching so I often put off movies until everybody's schedules can accommodate. Undertow and a screening of King Kong for those friends of mine who haven't seen it yet are top of the list...

I'm glad you enjoyed the review; are you following the hallam foe blog?

At Mon Apr 03, 01:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh yes!...checking in daily so far...loved the book...refreshingly unique...Jamie's perfect for the role.

At Fri Oct 06, 07:36:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Billy Elliot is one of the best films ever - see it asap!!!! I also can't get over Jamie's charisma....

At Sun Jun 07, 12:13:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

awesome review, i stayed up until 5am just to finish reading it! man, of all his films, i gotta say; The Chumscrubber. An amazing film. I've only become a fan of jamie bell in the past 2 weeks and couldnt help laughing at your story of how you came to know him, cause mine was exactly the same. pretty much a mixture of 'Wow, hold the phone. thats the billy elliot kid?!'
keep up the good work man, that blog was brilliant!

At Thu Jul 31, 12:36:00 PM EDT, Blogger Rashida Ilyana said...

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At Thu Jul 31, 12:39:00 PM EDT, Blogger Rashida Ilyana said...

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At Thu Jul 31, 12:44:00 PM EDT, Blogger Rashida Ilyana said...

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