Let's get something out of the way right up front: Quentin Tarantino is not a good actor.
I say that not in the name of snark, and not even necessarily in the name of blunt honesty so much as to heed off any calls of apologia or favoritism that certain readers may no doubt be itching to type up this very moment based only on that title. I've rolled my eyes just as hard as many of you when he's made cameos in his own films in the past, and I don't think I've ever breathed a retroactive sigh of relief so deep as when I found out that he had originally intended to cast himself as Pei Mei in Kill Bill Volume 2 before deciding against it and going with Gordon Liu (or that he originally wanted to play Lance in Pulp Fiction, for that matter).
But something finally came together for me after his acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay during Sunday night's Oscar telecast, and it was obvious enough that it really should have been evident to me years ago. Tarantino is absolutely in love with movies, that much we know. We also know that he is absolutely, ravishingly in love with the worlds he creates and the characters with which he inhabits them (1) - so much so that some critics mistake it for empty self-indulgence and tag it as one of his flaws. His words on Sunday night emphasize the point that this love extends, as it naturally would, to his actors (bold italics are mine, for emphasis):
Boy oh, boy, you know I've been saying things like I want to thank the actors for what they've done when it comes to my script. But it's not just an easy thing to say. It really is why I'm standing here. I actually think if people are like knowing about my movies 30 or 50 years from now it's gonna be because of the characters that I created. And I really only got one chance to get it right. I have to cast the right people to make those characters come alive and hopefully live for a long time. And, boy, this time did I do it. Thank you so much, guys. Leo ain't over there, but I'm thanking him, too.
You can look at it two ways. As the flesh and blood ambassadors of his brilliant words, Tarantino the egoist would certainly see his actors as a vessel of his brilliance - a gel cap within which to house his genius for public consumption. And there's probably some truth to that, but I think it makes even more sense to look at it the other way, which is that one of the reasons Tarantino writes such great characters is to be able to give his actors something amazing to do, to make the kinds of impressions he knows that they're capable of. As a child who grew up worshiping John Travolta, to be able to grow up and give his idol the chance to embody Vincent Vega was a charge to Tarantino to give his hero a character worthy of sinking his teeth into and investing with all of his innate talents. Why else is it that it's one of the few genuinely great Travolta performances of the last two decades? At a time when Hollywood had chewed Travolta into the shape of a generic leading man and spit him out, Tarantino the film-lover remembered what had made him valuable as a performer and an icon in his heyday and was able to both write to that while also inverting it with enough paunchy, laconic acknowledgement of who he was now to add extra dimensions to it.
Simply put, Tarantino is one of the great writer/directors of our time not only because he so well understands the power, importance, and iconography of movies but because he fucking loves his actors and wants to give each and every one of them the opportunity to be a star and to have that great, iconic moment. Here's where it gets a little tricky, because it's entirely probable that the reason Tarantino puts himself into his own movies so often is because he selfishly wants to be a part of those moments as well, at the expense of a better performance by a more gifted actor. People likely groan every time he shows up on screen because it comes off as a bit too much - you're already one of the most widely-known writer-directors of all time, a ubiquitous presence behind the scenes. Isn't that enough? Why take the extra, tacky step of shoving yourself into roles in which you don't necessarily fit?
Because, as I said before, Tarantino is "absolutely, ravishingly in love with the worlds he creates and the characters with which he inhabits them (2)." If you've watched the behind-the-scenes features on some of his blu rays, or read certain interviews with his casts, you know that Tarantino the director is the most exuberant audience a performer can have. Samuel L Jackson has referred to him writhing behind the camera trying to control his laughter and excitement, and he employs a well-documented practice of always doing one extra take, asking if the crew knows why before they all genuinely intone "Because we love making movies!" He's so in love with his own words (3) that he wants to have the chance to read them on camera. He's in love with the process to such an extent that he wants to be involved at every level. And he's in love with his actors to the degree that he wants to get in front of a camera and act with them. It must have been a dream come extra-true for a young Tarantino to sit at that table in the beginning of Reservoir Dogs and announce his presence to the world while at the same time sharing the screen with Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Eddie Goddamn Bunker, and Lawrence Fucking Tierney. He desperately wanted to play the part of Lance in Pulp Fiction because he knew that the adrenaline shot sequence would be one of the high points of the film, and even though he ultimately decided that he was needed more behind the camera for that scene and opted to portray Jimmy (5), his consolation was that he got to perform with John Travolta (his hero, remember), Samuel L Jackson, and Harvey Keitel for the extent of the most entertaining segment of the movie. Even in Django Unchained, probably his worst performance in one of his own movies, he's there because he wants to act in a scene opposite Jamie Foxx, Michael Parks, and John Jarratt (it certainly doesn't hurt that he also gets to be completely decimated by a pistol and a bag of dynamite). He wants to interact with Django, Mr. Blonde, Jules, and the Wolf because he knows that they're destined to take on lives of their own outside of him and join the ranks of iconic cinematic characters, and he wants to be a part of that. And who wouldn't?
It's a joy that it just doesn't feel right to fault, despite the often mixed results.
(1) Even the most despicable. Take note, budding screenwriters and filmmakers: one the reasons that Tarantino is able to craft characters so engaging and so enduring is because he gives all of them, even the most vile and despicable, the respect and freedom to have their own humanity. It's why he's such a brilliant writer aside from the fact that he has an innate ability with language, and it's one of the many reasons why great actors want to work with him.
(2) Yes, I'm quoting myself because yes, I'm just as in love with my own words as Tarantino is with his.
(3) Again, people tend to lob this at him as a criticism, which I don't understand. Why shouldn't an artist be in love with his own work? Self-exaltation does not necessarily mutually exclude self-awareness and -critique, and I think that Tarantino's editorial process has shown that he is well aware of what sometimes needs to be excluded for the sake of the material rather than his own edification. (4) (5)
(4) Plus, I think it's entirely arguable that a certain level of egotism is necessary for great artistic endeavor. You don't make a movie that dares to take on the history of American slavery, as well as it's depiction throughout film history, in the guise of a tribute to an entire genre of film and do so with as much ambition as Tarantino does in Django Unchained without being a bit of an egoist.