We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.
The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.
An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.
We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.
It’s around this time each year that a couple of former students, be they upperclassmen, student aides, or simply returning to visit, will come by a class and find me in the middle of a lesson they recognize. Inevitably, some will ask, “Don’t you get tired of doing the same stuff every year?”
Sometimes, yes, but there’s also value to repeating units so we can improve them, and it’s always nice to be on familiar ground–one less thing to plan from scratch. In this way, teachers are like actors: putting on a rehearsed performance multiple times, each time trying to make it come off as fresh to an audience seeing it for the first time. Strange that students don’t realize how much of this is staged when they know that we teach multiple sections of the same class every year, too; they all seem to compare notes with their friends about what happens in various periods of classes often enough.
And make no mistake, it is a performance. One of the things newer teachers all end up learning the hard way–and something we all have to readjust to as a new year starts–is just how physically draining it is to be up there working a crowd. I’ve learned in my experience that there is one non-negotiable element of good teaching, and it isn’t any of the things you’re likely to hear in a college education class–it’s not positivity, “withitness,” or rapport.
It’s enthusiasm. I find that you can create just about any atmosphere or character you want in a classroom (mine tends to be decidedly crusty), as long as you do it with energy. It’s far better to be a negative teacher with energy than to be an apathetic Pollyanna. This, of course, is hard. But it’s another way in which teaching is like acting.