Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Career Less Ordinary. Thoughts on Ewan McGregor on His 40th Birthday.

I don't think Ewan McGregor will be unhappy to be remembered as being Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith). You'd have to be a fool to not want to be remembered for an iconic character. Of course, you'd have to be a fool to think you wouldn't be remembered for an iconic character. That's the crux, isn't it? When you agree to take on such a well-known character, you can try to leave your own stamp on it, but you will be in a sense, making your own copy. Sir Alec Guinness was already an Oscar-winning legend when he played the wise Jedi. McGregor, not so much.

It's a credit to his talent that by the time he got to Revenge of the Sith, he managed to convince us that he could grow to be Sir Alec. I thought that in Phantom Menace, he was trying to sound like a young Alec but didn't quite pull it off, but by Revenge, he sounded closer to the original Obi-Wan and even had the same gravitas that Guinness brought to the role. In a curious way, McGregor's voice has been a blessing and curse, especially when playing Americans. No matter how good his American accent may be, every so often his native Scottish brogue slips out, and we instantly recognize his roots.

What I admire on a personal level about McGregor is his enthusiasm to take on risks in the roles he takes while not being above shameless commercialism. He can go from the intense Trainspotting to the Star Wars prequels without losing credibility either to his art-house fans or those who would rather die than go to an independent film. I do sense that he gravitates more for the avant-garde, with a touch of decadence within it. How else to explain something like Young Adam, a film where he becomes one of the few male actors to do a full-frontal nude scene. Granted, Young Adam was a film I disliked until the end, when my mind rapidly changed to a positive view of the film (but to be fair, I should see it again), but McGregor has this fearlessness when it comes to film. In short, he's unafraid to go further than most actors of his generation.

I think McGregor has a weakness for the offbeat, the quirky. This would put him in the same category as Johnny Depp (another actor who thrives on rather bizarre characters). However, like Depp, McGregor can also play a remarkably tender character. My mind goes to Miss Potter: as Beatrix Potter's love interest, McGregor was the most shy and chaste suitor in recent film memory. He can communicate the agony of the lovelorn so well: not just in Miss Potter but in one of his best films, Moulin Rouge!

Now, I'm aware Moulin Rouge! is an acquired taste, but his Christian managed to be terribly innocent and devastated by the pain of love in the end. In fact, if I think of I Love You Phillip Morris, McGregor can also communicate the agony love can unleash without being maudlin and overtly sentimental. Also, in the latter film, he managed to not go overboard on the Southern accent.

This isn't to say McGregor hasn't made his mistakes. Some have been rather abysmal. There was Deception (which was basically a Showtime movie released on an unsuspecting public). There was Amelia (trying to be overly romantic he was oddly boring--though the movie itself was boring, it wasn't a big drawback).

Then there is The Island. I am one of the few people who defends The Island as being a good film, or rather, two good films which make up one so-so film. I've long argued that The Island is two films: the first a potentially interesting take on life from the cloned point of view, the second a second-tier action film.

As I reflect on Ewan McGregor, my opinion of him as an actor is going up. I think he is an actual actor, and that he has talent. He may grow to be one of my favorite actors, primarily because I never know what to expect from him. He could be a loathsome murderer/sexual deviant in one film, a sweet romantic in the next. He might be better suited to play British characters since his American accent at times can go off (case in point: Deception). Nevertheless, I think he is one of the better actors working today, and I expect great things from him in the future.

With that, I wish Ewan McGregor a Happy 40th Birthday.

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