Part 1

Life Support

by PopMatters Staff

26 July 2009


Ed Harris and more

Ed Harris The Right Stuff (Phillip Kaufman, 1983)

Harris’s performance as John Glenn in The Right Stuff is one of the finest supporting turns of the ‘80s. Harris has always been an interesting and dynamic character actor, and in the mold Christopher Walken, Michael Caine or his Stuff co-star Sam Shepard, Harris has the unique ability to turn out a strong performance in even the most baneful or overloaded of films. But when Harris has a part in a strong, meaty film like Kaufman’s, he simply shines. Harris is John Glenn, the first man to orbit the Earth, with a gleam of pride and glory in his laser-blue eyes. Harris’s Glenn is the ultimate Boy Scout, a true believer in the space program, a proper all-American who believes in what he’s doing without the slightest reservation. He immerses himself in the role, employing the firm, open grin of a superstar and the wide, believing, eager eyes of an innocent. It is a magnificent paradox. One would have expected Harris to play Glenn against the man’s legend, to deconstruct him or attempt to reveal his dark side.

Instead, Harris plays Glenn in strict accordance with the man’s public legend as a true believing patriot. In one of the film’s best scenes, Glenn berates his fellow astronauts for their wanton carousing and womanizing. In the hands of a less capable actor, this scene would have served to align us against Glenn, to position him as a sort of authority for us to distrust and renounce. But by playing Glenn as a super patriotic believer in the space program, Harris makes even the most disenchanted and cynical viewers believe in the righteousness of the American space program and long for its return to glory. James R. Fleming

Emile Hirsch Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Milk did what many previous films have failed to do: he took a real-life person and was able to present an authentic take on his spirit and that of the people around him without having to resort to cliché or stock storytelling techniques. While Sean Penn has deservedly gotten the most praise for his role as the titular Harvey Milk, it was Emile Hirsch’s Cleve Jones that flew in the face of cinematic convention, as far as “gay” characters go. Cleve is a hero to a movement, but Hirsch and Van Sant keenly also shed light on the many facets of his personality: he can be swishy, sexual, funny, fierce and strong. Our introduction to Cleve reveals a young, cocky, and amusing transplant to the San Francisco area. His very energy and his vibrancy make a bracing impression on Milk, and their friendship evolves into an intimate, intellectual relationship that has its eye set on the future of the gay rights movement. Hirsch imbues Cleve with pure effervescence, and a scrappy optimism that makes him seem unstoppable. One of the more moving moments in the entire film centers on Cleve’s mobilization of the larger San Francisco community in reaction to Harvey’s assassination. He is fueled by anger and sadness, but also by the need to celebrate Harvey’s life. Hirsch’s ease in making the audience feel some measure of his feeling without any cheap, sentimental tricks stands as one of the most affecting moments in recent film history, and one of the finest heterosexual interpretations of homosexuality. J.M. Suarez

Harvey Keitel The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

How does an actor known for playing mob operatives and punks depict the man who betrays Jesus Christ? By making Judas a goodfella. And it works. When we first meet Judas, threatening Jesus and jumping Romans in the street, Keitel portrays him with a little of the pimp he plays in Taxi Driver. After becoming a convert, Judas promises Jesus: “But if you stray this much from the path, I’ll kill you”. Keitel, swaggering a bit in his robe and sandals, holds up his hand and pinches his thumb and forefinger together for emphasis. His Judas is always grounded in the literal. Once Jesus has won Judas’s trust, Keitel plays the right-hand man as the loyal, but slightly dim capo: “Every day you have a different plan”, he half whines in frustration when Jesus tells him he must be crucified. Keitel’s worldly, prosaic, yet doggedly loyal Judas is the perfect foil for Willem Dafoe’s philosophical, naïve Jesus, whose miracles and parables Judas is often at a loss to understand.

While Scorsese can’t help the occasional scene set up as a tableau from Renaissance depictions of the passion, naturalistic acting carries the film, with Biblical speech converted to modern vernacular. In one of the film’s key scenes, when Judas agrees to betray Jesus to the Romans, Keitel works in complete concert with the camera. In a close-up with Dafoe, Judas in the foreground begins the scene slightly out of focus, fighting back tears. He exhales, his face relaxes, and he composes himself as the camera brings him into focus with Jesus. It’s a literal and figurative moment of clarity, and no scene in the film better captures Temptation‘s goal of stressing the human side of the epic events of the passion. Michael Curtis Nelson

Alfred Molina Prick up Your Ears (Stephen Frears, 1987)

This biopic of writer Joe Orton earns miles from Gary Oldman’s natural performance as the fallen playwright. The young Orton had hardly a literary inclination until meeting Alfred Molina’s Ken, a lit junkie with a pile of rejected novels, when at acting school. At first the two wrote as a team, and then Joe began casually scripting edgy crowd-pleasers for the stage. Thus, Ken’s tutelage of Joe skyrockets beyond its mentor, while Ken’s mentorship to Joe (of another kind) doesn’t fly so well.

The two gay men converge like magnets, with Ken as the putative personal assistant to Joe, who desires “playtime” outside the relationship. He takes to cruising for men with ease, while Ken awkwardly tries to keep up. The homo-repressed 1960s Britain makes the film an early, doomed entry in queer cinema—about which we shouldn’t gripe since it is better than no queer cine at all. In this form, Ken embodies the obsessive half, whose purpose hardly extends beyond supporting his mate’s profession. Next to the happening Joe, Molina’s Ken—bald by his late 20s—is a nervy schlub: think the late Telly Savalas doing J. Alfred Prufrock. Molina stares down all clichés, veering away from effeminate tones when they would be most convenient and avoids trapping Ken into a brooding madman, and more than holds his own next to an astonishing Oldman. His “suffering wife” or “other half” is far more humorous than bitchy: he shuffles like a biddy when feeling slighted though bellows with Orton at the good times. Regretfully, Ken’s sickness was real, and he had to down pills every day to stay even. It is this combination of mental illness and self-diagnoses that leads, in part, to the end both of their lives, at Ken’s frenzied hands. Matthew Sorrento

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