Part 3

The Classics You Should Have Seen By Now

by PopMatters Staff

28 July 2009


Marcello Mastroianni and more

Heath Ledger Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is one of two films (the other being The Dark Knight) that officially canonized the brilliance of Ledger. Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, the narrative revolves around the romance and self-discovery between Ledger’s Ennis del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist, against the magnificent backdrop of a breathtaking pastoral Wyoming. Amidst controversy produced largely by conservative audiences, Brokeback was both a commercial and critical success. Ledger’s tortured Ennis walks a tightrope between his love for Jack Twist and his fear of violence and ignominy if he chooses to live life as his authentic self, forcing himself into a hetero-normative relationship with Alma (Michelle Williams), to no avail. Ennis’ dark internal conflict rounds out a deeply contemplative character that frequently mumbles and is privy to isolated eruptions of violence and sharp words (Ledger’s use of voice is nothing short of astonishing here).

This Academy Award-nominated performance was one of the last before Ledger’s untimely death at the age of 29. Brokeback is a lasting testament to Ledger’s sheer power as an actor (and to his chameleonic charisma), that leaves us feeling a great sense of loss, resulting from an abrupt end to what seemed to be the beginning of a brilliant actor’s oeuvre. There’s also a sense of joy to be had from Ledger’s raw, candid turn, too: he was perhaps the first straight actor to play the lead in a gay romance that found even conservative American film-going audiences going along for the ride without much judgment. To have such a platform with which to espouse tolerance, and in such an iconic, personal way, is the benchmark of a great artist. Courtney Young

James Mason Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)

I love what Mason does with his body in Ray’s film. We talk about actors giving ‘physical performances’ and his is a perfect example of this. It is an extremely ‘physical’ performance in that the actor uses each muscle, each joint, each peculiar nuance of his own physicality to breathe harrowing life into the strung-out addict school teacher he is playing (his eyes virtually shake in their sockets when he’s fiending). In particular, there is a brief moment at the beginning of the film, before he descends like Orpheus into a Hell of addiction and mental illness, when he is reaching for a green sweater in his locker—painfully slumping, every muscle tensed with an anguished look on his face. It only lasts a few seconds, but this is the kind of detail that Mason so expertly conveys in each scene as he maps out his character: the attention given to each second is full, the performance lean without going over the top. Mason has played sad sacks before memorably in Lolita and the remake of A Star is Born, but there is a haunted look on his face here that didn’t come through in the other two as clearly, or as daringly, lending the film a claustrophobic, yet intimate feeling. Especially in his final scenes, it is as though Mason is playing another man altogether, a tweaked-out, murderous zealot who thinks he is receiving messages from God to kill his family. The film’s look at ethics, masculinity, addiction and faith, I thought, were interesting and edgy in the present day, so they must have been downright scandalous for the ‘50s. Matt Mazur

Marcello Mastroianni (Federico Fellini, 1963)

If every director has an actor for a celluloid double, then Fellini without a doubt found his in the continental cool of Mastroianni. The middle aged man, who had survived a stint in a Nazi prison (he eventually escaped to Venice), came to acting indirectly. While working for a film company, it was suggested he take acting lessons. In 1948, he made his onscreen debut, and by 1963, he was a major international superstar. Like the character in La Dolce Vita (1960), Mastroianni plays a member of the media—this time, a director suffering from a creative slump. As the title tells (it was taken from the number of projects Fellini had helmed since the start of his career), the lack of inspiration leads to acts of artistic desperation that puts our hero on a predetermined pilgrim’s progress through his hopes and fears, his highs and his invective interpersonal lows. Looking as suave as he is sad, Mastroianni gets us to accept what appears to be an egotistical display of public pouting. His performance alone makes this movie the masterpiece it is. Fellini as devilish doppelganger fills in the gaps nicely. Bill Gibron

Paul Newman The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961)

I first watched The Hustler with my grandfather when I was ten years old. He’d told me that it was not only his favorite film, but also the best screen performance he’d ever watched. He said Newman was “cool, just cool” and that there was something also to be learned from his character and performance. During my first viewing, I was taken by Newman’s cocky arrogance and sheer confidence in his role as ace pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson. For me at the tender age of ten, Newman’s performance personified a sort of cool that just didn’t seem to exist anymore—he seemed otherworldly, a product of an era long before my own. As soon as the movie was over, I wanted to be a pool hustler just like Newman’s character. It was his cockiness I liked, the ease and grace with which he moved around the pool hall. He didn’t just play pool, he performed the game. All eyes were on him—he made women swoon and manipulated virtually every man he met.

The brilliance in this performance is owed entirely to Newman’s grace on screen, from the way he handles a cigarette to the way he handles a woman or a pool stick, Newman not only brings “Fast” Eddie alive, but renders him as a seemingly mythical figure who, much like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Macbeth, is torn to emotional shreds in front of us. Though the movie takes place in a fairly short period of time, Newman, through subtle turns of voice and expression and a cold gaze that sets in later in the film, psychically ages his character quickly. This is the sort of performance which, like my grandfather suggested, you can learn something from: yes, “Fast” Eddie is a gifted man, but he is also as an amoral man who trades his gifts and shot at happiness for money and a limited measure of fame. Newman returned to the character of Eddie 25 years later in 1986’s The Color of Money, directed by Martin Scorsese, a role for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. James R. Fleming

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