Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Lord of the Rings Performance Review Series: Samwise

Sam: One of the things I’m finding through trying my hand at this critique project is it’s rather difficult to analyze performances ranging across 10 hours of film all at one time. The comments have to be kept at a fairly high level, otherwise I’d be writing these posts non-stop for months. Anyway, onward we doggedly trudge to Samwise, son of Hamfast.

Sean Astin was the other actor to receive an Academy Award nod for Best Supporting Actor (ROTK), and it could probably be viewed as an acknowledgement of his superior work throughout the film trilogy. Tolkien himself had mentioned somewhere that he considered Sam to be the “real” hero of the story, but his heroism stems from his faithful and humble servant’s heart rather than any great measure of wisdom, strength, or any other virtue normally associated with heroes. His strength comes from devotion to his friends, his courage from dedication to what’s right, his wisdom from his unconquerable “hobbit-sense,” and his endurance to the eventual revelation that greater powers are at work in the world: powers which he cannot alter. Sam is the closest thing to an “Everyman” The Lord of the Rings offers up, complete with a wonderful mixture of sarcasm, humor, love, confusion, and even vengeance. Astin taps into Sam’s mindset beautifully, with nearly every one of his “spotlight” moments being driven by the character’s simple, pure, and admirable qualities.

In one sense, we love Samwise the way we love a doting pet – even when he is rebuked he may be hurt and confused for a moment, but he’ll be right back cuddling up to you in the next moment. On the other hand, there is much to admire about Samwise precisely because he is not a dog or a cat. Animals are driven by instinct and know their owners are there to care for them as the pack leader. Any humanoid creature with a soul – be it man, elf, dwarf, or hobbit – has choices to make which animals never contemplate. Many literary critics scoffed mightily at the way in which Samwise seems to be more of a puppy than a relatable character, but that is what is so remarkable about him: despite the dangers and the fact he has nothing to personally gain from it, he continually chooses to put himself in harm’s way for others.

Astin captures this mentality from his first moments on-screen. No sooner are we introduced to the character than he is whisked off on Frodo’s journey to Rivendell. We see his manservant’s mindset when Pippin collides with Frodo in Maggot’s field and at other safe moments, such as when he offers Frodo some fried tomatoes at the camp under Weathertop. Astin delivers one or two awkward takes where he tries a little too hard to make Sam seem simple, overly rustic, or unlearned. A primary example is the “If I take one more step” line early in the FOTR. A simple acknowledgement of the significance of the event would have sufficed in this situation, which would have served to keep Sam’s grounding and reserve his wonder for other moments, such as his meetings with the Elves, which get diminished due to his premature amazement at a cornfield. Astin’s interpretation of Sam’s take on seeing the Twenty-first Hall in Moria (“Now there’s an eye-opener, and no mistake!”) is much simpler, almost tough-in-cheek, elicits a mini-laugh from most audiences, and is directly in line with the Sam we know and love. I also think it’s not at all coincidental the former moment is not found in the book while the second is, although the line was lifted from a battle scene prior to entering Moria which was not seen in the movie. The point, though, is the actor has source material to review and understand the character’s reaction to certain moments when the scene is drawn from that source material. When there is no direct source material, the actor’s job becomes a little harder.

As in the book, the character of Sam becomes increasingly more crucial to the action. By the time we enter ROTK territory, Sam has grown significantly. It was one of my greatest disappointments after viewing Jackson’s films to realize there would be no movie scene of Sam’s tempting by the Ring. This, of course, became academic due to Jackson’s decision to use Frodo’s captivity as a sort of cliff-hanger with the audience believing the Ring was in the clutches of the Enemy, which is an entirely valid approach for a filmmaker to follow. And perhaps it would have been a visual disaster in any case, since Sam’s struggle with the Ring is, like everyone else’s, entirely in his own mind. Still, it would have been interesting indeed to see how Astin handled that challenge and set it against Elijah Wood’s interpretation. The brief moment he does get – when handing the Ring back to Frodo in the orc tower – is of a different nature, though still grounded in the book. Audiences can be forgiven for wondering briefly whether Sam’s reluctance to give the Ring back is borne of his desire to spare Frodo the pain of it as a burden or due to the Ring’s beloved trickery, or perhaps both confusedly at once. Jackson provides the audial cues at this juncture to inform us the Ring is, in fact, at work, with the tininess of Frodo’s voice indicating the Ring can influence even the staunch Samwise. Astin’s facial expressions, meanwhile, provide an excellent tapestry of horror and pity as the Ring plays on those qualities and attempts to drive the two friends apart from each other. The actor’s triumph in this moment is to keep it simple (“less is more”) and not try to carry the story on his own. It is the combination of all elements – Frodo’s pleading, Sam’s inward struggle, Jackson’s sound effects and camera positioning, as well as the audience’s knowledge of the Ring’s demonic nature – which produce the desired effect. The key for the actor is to stay within their function and not try to do too much on their own.

Astin does a tremendous job with the opportunities he’s given in the script, never wasting a chance to show us what noble intentions and a pure heart can achieve. There are several weepy moments in ROTK, and I’ve heard plenty of people mention the moment Frodo sends Sam away prior to entering Shelob’s Lair as one of their main tear-jerkers. Their reaction is certainly warranted due to the intimate nature of the conflict, the audience’s knowledge of Gollum’s duplicity, and Astin’s admirable handling of his character’s reactions throughout the scene. For me, personally, the scene is well done but never rises to a higher level because (once again) Jackson is toying with the source material and creating situations that never arise in the story. Jackson’s purpose here, obviously, was to isolate Frodo and have him face the terror of Shelob’s Lair alone while also allowing Sam the opportunity to arrive just in time to save the day later. One can argue the value of taking such liberties with a film script, but the result is forcing Wood and Astin into acting a scene which neither of the characters ever contemplate in the book. This creates yet another vacuum for the actor because there is no source material indicating how the character would respond in such a situation. That’s not to say actors can’t fill these voids with their imaginations – they can and do, and the three actors in this scene do so quite well despite getting little help from the script (“He’s poisoned you against me!”).

But contrast that scene with my tear-jerking moment of choice: on the slopes of Mount Doom itself, Sam tries to comfort Frodo by reminding him of their homeland. Frodo, however, cannot recall any sensation of peace or green because his mind and soul are in perpetual torment from the Ring – robbing him of any pleasant memories. Sam’s resolve hardens beyond steel in response: in the book he has a debate with himself in which he says he’ll carry Frodo to the summit “if it breaks my back and my heart.” In the book, when it comes to it, Sam calmly tells Frodo “up you get!” as he carries him “pig-a-back” up the slopes of Orodruin. In the film, this moment translates into a tremendous clip where Sam, through gritted teeth says, “Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it for you – BUT I CAN CARRY YOU!” He then hoists Frodo on his shoulders and works his way inch by inch up the volcano as we hear, for the first time, the emotional strains of Into the West played under the action. Even though neither scene is verbatim from the book, one set of actions does happen in the source material while the other does not. The effects of this fact stretch beyond the lines being well written or even well delivered: there is, rather, a deeper understanding of the characters’ motivations in those moments because the actors know how the author had them react under those conditions – it drives both the script and the acting to greater heights.

Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all of this: I wasn't there during the filming. This is just my guess as to why certain scenes seem to "work" while others come up short. There were plenty of us when the movies came out (myself included) who felt the films would never get a fair shake at the Oscars because of the establishment's disdain for fantasy cinema. There may be some of that, but the truth is this interpretation of The Lord of the Rings is spotty when it comes to truly great theatrical moments. They are there and in decent number, but you're basically talking Aeschylus vs. Shakespeare. Besides, it's hard to deny Jackson's focus was, is, and always will be on the visualization of grand tales. He certainly succeeds in that regard and Hollywood acknowledged this by awarding his trilogy enough Oscars to tie Titanic for the most Academy Awards ever. But they were all in the technical categories because the critics had a point: these films do not contain the kind of sustained acting performances that rise to the level of Great Art. In fairness, the breadth of the story probably made that an impossibility to begin with, and let us be glad no one had that as their aim.

But back to Astin: over the course of the full film trilogy, we see Sam evolve from a simple gardener to a staunch companion to a great Hero of the Age. Through it all, Astin keeps true to Sam’s underlying qualities and we are treated indeed to see how those innate virtues, actively chosen to prevail in the most trying of times, lead directly to incredible feats of courage and will. In the falling action, Astin never lets his Sam grow beyond himself: although he’s clearly more self-confident (And who wouldn’t be after saving the world? His sudden and direct proposal to Rosie is the manifestation of this), the character never loses his grounding or becomes any sort of traditionally “heroic” figure. This, of course, is precisely how Samwise would react, and Astin’s recognition of this endears Sam to us all the more.

Master of Toons

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