All Life’s a Performance: ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Is One of the Most Revealing Movies About Acting Ever Made

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Fictional films function on the idea of suspension of disbelief, meaning that the filmmaking must help the spectator believe, temporarily, in the veracity of what they are seeing, however fabricated or even fantastical. Actors, naturally, play a big part in this trickery: They become different people, hopefully as seamlessly as possible, to help tell these stories. But that process in itself is a good story to tell. Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, opening Friday, does just that and more, as it follows the acting training that a 16-year-old girl, Madeline (Helena Howard, a revelation), experiences with a theater troupe in New York City. Yet Decker’s film is not the only recent example of this quasi-meta exploration of the acting craft by filmmakers: Bill Hader’s TV show Barry sees Hader himself play the titular character, a hitman who one day stumbles into an acting class and decides that the time has come for a career change. In slightly more distant history, Sydney Pollack’s 1982 film Tootsie focused on Michael, a male actor played by Dustin Hoffman, who goes very far (too far) to act as a woman for a role after exhausting more conventional casting options. If all these explorations of the actor’s work share similar concerns, Decker’s film is particularly honest, often to shocking effect, about what is at stake when an actor plays with his instrument (himself) and when a director uses that instrument for his (or her) own purposes.

Manuela Lazicessay, ringer, actors