Malcolm McDowell and more
A case could be made that McDowell’s performance as Alex DeLarge in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange mark the beginning (or at least one of the beginnings) of what we might now term the punk movement. McDowell plays Alex as equal part psychopath, sociopath, wounded child, anarchist, and social revolutionary. We have countless reasons to dislike and even hate Alex, but we don’t. There’s hardly a crime he doesn’t commit or a social code he doesn’t flout. McDowell plays Alex as chaos incarnate, someone any reasonable person would fear and despise. Yet we don’t. In fact, despite our better inclinations, we actually like Alex and even come to respect him, at least to some measure. This is what McDowell’s performance does to us: he makes us like and empathize with one of the most despicable characters ever put on screen. He does this by granting Alex charm and a pronounced measure of sexiness that is fundamentally tied to his capacity for violence—hence his relative punk-ness. Despite his sins, McDowell makes sure that his character possesses a certain measure of undeniable confidence, witnessed in his cocky stride and his righteousness. He doesn’t suggest that his character feels any remorse for what he’s doing, nor does he even feign or suggest any sort of apology. McDowell captivates us from the first scene of the film, which consists of a close focus on and pull back from McDowell’s cold, knowing and wicked face—to the last. This isn’t simply “acting”, this is an onscreen seduction. James R. Fleming
It may just be Tudor propaganda, but thanks to Shakespeare Richard III has become the most notorious villain in English literature. It’s also a plum role and notable actors from David Garrick and Edmund Kean to Lawrence Oliver and Al Pacino have all had their go at it. McKellan adds to the list of memorable performances with a uniquely 20th century personification of evil. In a fictional 1930s England he is the leader of a fascist army temporarily successful in conquering England. McKellan hits all the right notes: we first see him from behind a gas mask, identifiable only by his useless left arm, coolly dispatching King Henry to the next world. Then he’s an observant outsider at the Victory Ball celebrating the ascent of King Edward, then a shockingly bold suitor to Lady Anne in the presence of her husband’s corpse (previously dispatched by Richard). Above all, Richard is an actor who can convincingly assume any form or character required at the moment, and can equally convincingly address soliloquies to the camera. Actor McKellan helped his own cause by writing a screenplay which captures the essence of Shakespeare’s play while also working perfectly as a movie. This is Shakespeare as popular entertainment, not a dreaded school assignment. And that famous speech about “My kingdom for a horse”? McKellan delivers it, without a trace of irony, to a malfunctioning jeep. Sarah Boslaugh
It can be all too easy to write Mitchum off as a dependable but dull actor, and it’s certainly true that some of his later performances didn’t exactly set the screen ablaze. But in several indelible characterizations throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s Mitchum proved himself a resourceful and accomplished performer who was willing to take all kinds of physical and emotional risks on screen. Most memorable of all was his bone-chilling performance as Reverend Harry Powell in Laughton’s brilliant, expressionistic 1955 chiller. Mitchum’s diabolical preacher-man is also a serial-killer of vulnerable women, a big, bad wolf-like predator in the Depression-era countryside. He is the step-father from hell, a relentless pursuer of kids who know too much and might be the most heinous Man of God the screen as ever seen, and certainly one of its best arguments for atheism. With the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles and the most perverted strain of American Puritanism coursing through his veins, Mitchum uses those extraordinary hooded eyes and that barrel-deep voice to devastating effect, the menace intensified, not mitigated, by the peculiar touches of charm and droll humor that he brings to the character. It’s tantalizing to consider what Laughton and Mitchum might have gone on to achieve if they’d had further opportunities to collaborate. But The Night of the Hunter remains a thrilling one-off and, over 50 years later, Mitchum’s performance has lost none of its power to shock, provoke and disturb. Alexander Ramon
Norton is no stranger to brave and brilliant performances (Primal Fear, anyone?) but in American History X, he hit a personal stride with his strongest, most visceral performance to date. He transforms into Derek Vinyard, a smart yet vulnerable young man who is recruited into a neo-Nazi group by Cameron Alexander (Stacy Keach), an opportunistic, odious leader who finds lost souls and indoctrinates them into an army of hate. After killing two black men, Derek enters prison where he quickly joins a white supremacist gang but soon becomes disillusioned by their association with Mexican inmates. He leaves the group (to his detriment), eventually being raped in a harrowing sequence, by the same men he’d befriended and then abandoned. His gradual friendship with a black inmate saves his life and changes his perspective. After his release, his sole mission becomes to save his brother Daniel (Edward Furlong) from the same hate-filled life path he once followed. When actors explore the dark side, it is often either a hit or miss experiment with some making cinematic history and others creating blubbering messes that incite little more than public humiliation. Norton solidified his brilliance with this Academy Award-nominated performance, and his physical work—the white power tattoos, the hate-speech, the gladiator-in-training muscles—are as intrinsic to Derek as Norton’s intellectual ferocity is. His refusal to dumb down such a total bastard, and to even give him a shot at redemption, is a testament to Norton’s fearless lack of personal vanity: a proud tradition amongst actors who take risks. Like Robert De Niro or Marlon Brando before him, Norton is best when exploring innocence turned evil and the path to redemption. Courtney Young
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.