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Dennis Hopper Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

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They all considered it too vulgar and intense—Robert Loggia, Richard Bright, and Willem Dafoe. But when director Lynch met with the former Easy Rider rebel about playing the vile villain in his new film, Hopper stunned the soft spoken director. “I am Frank Booth” he exclaimed, and one of the classic horrors of modern cinema was born. Hopper embraced the inherent evil in craven criminal Frank, formulating the switchover from helium to amyl nitrate in the notorious “breathing device”, as well as intensifying the “relationship” between the hood and his fey cohort, the Roy Orbison crooning Ben (played brilliantly by Dean Stockwell). After years far outside the mainstream, Hopper soon found his flagging career back on track—and it’s not hard to see why. Frank Booth is the kind of career defining turn that both relies on and accents an actor’s specialized strengths. In the case of Hopper, the combination of clear-cut evil and the sense memory manipulation of a decade lost in a drug-fueled haze meshed into one of the most remarkable expressions of depravity ever captured. Bill Gibron


 
Jeremy Irons Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)


While accepting his Oscar for Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, Jeremy Irons said, “... some of you may understand why—thank you David Cronenberg”. Those who did understand knew that the staid Academy of the ‘80s just couldn’t bring itself to reward the perverse, deeply disturbing performance Irons had given in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, and many felt Iron’s Reversal win was overdue acknowledgement of his brilliant performance in Ringers. Irons plays twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle, brothers who share a medical practice, lover, and a drug-fueled descent into madness. What makes his portrayal remarkable, aside from his skill in acting opposite himself, are the small details—looks, gestures, and phrasing—that make each character distinguishable while still making the twins virtually identical. It is a chilling performance that would understandably make any woman reluctant to ever go to the gynecologist again, but Irons doesn’t emphasize the creepiness factor. Instead, he plays to normality; even as the twins’ instability grows, they follow what is, to them, a logic and reasoning that justify their depraved and deadly decisions. In one simple scene, Beverly and Elliot walk in a haze through their apartment, one behind the other, in perfect unison with eerily identical expressions. In the age before CGI, the scene required the best special effect to be effective: great acting that is precise and wholly believable. It is this quality of acting that infuses every frame of Iron’s performance and makes the Mantle brothers two of the most complex and frightening characters to grace a movie screen. Michael Abernethy


 
Ted Levine The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)


If taken for (heavily made-up) face value, “Buffalo Bill” aka Jamie Gumb—aka the plot catalyst for this 1991 Oscar-winning thriller—is nothing more than an amalgamation of several notorious serial killers. From the “act lame to trick ‘em” take on Ted Bundy, to the skin sewing lady suits of Ed Gein, novelist Thomas Harris went for simplified shock over character substance. Luckily, Demme gave this all important villain role to character actor Levine, and the actor literally lost himself in the part. He read all he could about the men Bill was based on, and even visited transvestite bars to perfect his crude cross-dressing skills. But it is in the man’s utter disconnection from reality wherein Levine’s performance and Lambs’ true evil, lies. We never really fear for Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling as she spars, ‘quid pro quo’ style with Dr. Hannibal Lecter. But the minute Gumb opens the door to her and peers from behind the entrance to his dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, true terror makes its presence known—and it is horrific. Bill Gibron


 
Peter Lorre M. (Fritz Lang, 1931)


When Peter Lorre came to Hollywood, no one was quite sure what to do with the immensely talented but short, bug-eyed actor, so they threw him into a series of supporting roles that never allowed him to show his full range. German director Fritz Lang knew better, casting Lorre in his greatest role, serial-killer Hans Beckart in 1931’s M. One could easily watch his performance sans sound (or subtitles) and still have full understanding of what Beckart is thinking and feeling. Lorre’s most memorable scenes come at the film’s end, as he pleads with an angry citizenry to convince them that he is not the much sought-after child killer, then switches to try to make them understand the compulsion that drives him to murder. Lorre is wholly believable, and actually makes the vile Beckart a sympathetic character. Still, these scenes are not Lorre’s best. He is at his best in quieter scenes: sipping a drink in a bar as the urge to kill again overtakes him, distorting his face in his mirror into the monster he pictures himself to be, and luring a child to her death with balloons and candy. Beckart the man is a likable fellow; Beckart the murderer is a monster on the par with Hannibal Lector and Nosferatu. The strength of Lorre’s performance is making both of these men real, and showing that this dichotomy of character is possible. Michael Abernethy


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