Pop Culture

In defense of Orlando Bloom

Orlando Bloom is not a bad actor.  He isn’t Olivier, but he isn’t Shatner, either.  Why, then, does everyone assume he’s a bad actor?

For starters, he’s pretty.  Not “handsome,” mind you: pretty.  The bulk of Bloom’s fame derives from his role as Legolas in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and while he acquitted himself well with a bow and arrow in those films, he also had very long flaxen hair, the sort that usually belongs to mermaids and Disney heroines.  The Legolas part turned Bloom not just into a household name, but also into a tween-girl pin-up in the style of Joey McIntyre of New Kids On The Block, a cute and romantic idea of a boy, but without any of the threatening, hairy adult sexuality.

Furthermore, Bloom played … an elf.  There’s nothing wrong with prettiness per se, or with playing elves, but those factors do make it more difficult to take him seriously in human, grown-up roles.

The roles themselves also present a problem, because Bloom has almost exclusively acted in gigantic epics and/or period pieces, which require a number of tools that Bloom doesn’t have in his arsenal (starting, sad to say, with the ability to grow a convincing mustache).  In movies about Crusaders or ancient heroes, audiences expect a certain physical heft, and while Bloom is not spindly, he’s not imposing enough for these genres, either.  You believe Russell Crowe is a gladiator because he’s built like a fire hydrant; you believe Brad Pitt is Achilles because he’s oiled up and looks like an advertisement for Pilates.  You don’t believe Bloom as a legendary warrior in “Kingdom of Heaven,” though, because his costume looks like it’s about to swallow him — and, in their scenes together, so does Liam Neeson.

Subtle acting in bombastic period flicksAudiences expect actors in large-scale costume flicks to get in there and ham it up, too, and Bloom doesn’t do that; he does things more subtly, and as a result, he often barely registers.  It’s not really fair to blame Bloom for his performance in “Troy” — the writing he has to work with is weak, and on top of that, he’s playing Paris, one of the more ineffectual characters in the literary tradition.  But Bloom often looks overmatched and intimidated onscreen.  Eric Bana, who’s playing Hector, is far more compelling, and Bana isn’t even very good; he’s doing a lot of bellowing, though, and that makes the difference.  Edward Norton acts rings around Bloom in “Kingdom of Heaven”…from behind an immobile painted mask.  And it probably goes without saying that Johnny Depp makes a meal of Bloom in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

Of course, when Captain Jack Sparrow is onscreen, nobody else is going to make much of an impression, so, again, it’s unfair to say that Bloom is a bad actor just because he’s getting upstaged by a flamboyant Keith Richards impression (Geoffrey Rush got upstaged by it too, and he’s no acting slouch).  But it seems to happen to Bloom a lot — everyone around him is merrily chewing the scenery while Bloom just stands there, looking gassy — and if he’s going to appear in larger-than-life films, he needs to learn to kick it up a notch.  “Ned Kelly” is a case in point; when Heath Ledger is rampaging around the set, growling in that angry bass of his and wearing a ridiculously huge fake beard that may have eaten Pittsburgh, and a bucket as a helmet, subtle variations in eyebrow angle just won’t get the job done.

But the eyebrow does score the occasional point.  If you watch the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” carefully, you’ll see a handful of hilarious reaction shots from Bloom.  He’s a good straight man for Depp, his swordplay is believable, and in his scenes with Keira Knightley, he’s puppyish — but that’s what the role calls for, and he does it well.  You wouldn’t believe him as James Bond, but when he’s cast properly, he gets the job done.

More than a pretty boyBloom is not a talentless pretty-boy by any means.  He just needs to fine-tune his approach to projects so that he doesn’t seem like quite such a non-entity.  He might start with a moratorium on period films for a couple of years: no swords, no sandals, no ancient or imaginary lands.  “Elizabethtown” would have been a great first step in that direction, if the movie hadn’t been obnoxious (it was) and if Kirsten Dunst’s spazzy turn as Claire had not overwhelmed Bloom by comparison (it did), so he might also consider taking roles that actually call for him to act — not just to re-act, or to wait quietly in the background while his co-stars Brando it up in the spotlight.

Comedy seems like a promising choice for Bloom, or a small part in a Wes Anderson film — he should do something different.  Get in a food fight.  Play a junkie or a criminal.  Cut his hair short.  Do an American accent.  He shouldn’t do these things to prove he can, the way actresses love to “ugly up” because it betters their chances for an Oscar.  He should do these things because he already can; it’s just that nobody can tell, because all the hobbits and bronze shields and galloping horses and subtitled Saracen dialogue (and crappy English dialogue) are drowning him out.  He can do the job, but it would be easier for him to do it — and for us to appreciate him for it — if he didn’t have to wear seventy pounds of plate mail to work every day, or utter grand historical pronouncements that would sound forced and stagy no matter whose mouth they came out of.

Bloom needs to focus on the writing, to look for dialogue that he can deliver convincingly.  If he can do that, and if he can avoid roles that call for luxuriant facial hair, the kid might just have a future in this business.  But if he doesn’t make some changes in the way he picks parts…well, there are only so many elf roles to go around.

Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator of .

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