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Russell Crowe LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

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Russell Crowe plays Bud White, a cop dismissed as all brawn and no brains by his fellow police officers in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. His character is filled with rage and that rage is channeled in his dealings with bullies, particularly those who abuse women. While Bud is out on the job, he encounters a Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken, embroiled in an illegal prostitution ring and soon after becomes involved with her. Bud’s relationship with Lynn serves to illustrate a different side of Bud; he shows vulnerability that makes him more complex. Crowe’s performance is nuanced and on edge all at the same time. At times the viewer can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Crowe naturally imbues Bud with a full personality, flawed and often insecure about his intelligence, yet heroic in spite of himself, his performance stands as his most complete character work. J.M. Suarez


 
Matt Damon The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)


For quite some time, Matt Damon was often cast as second fiddle in the media to his fellow actor-pal Ben Affleck after the release of their 1997 hit Good Will Hunting. Upon the release of The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon showed quite magnificently that he is, in fact, the talent to beat. Based on the 1955 Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Damon stars in the late Anthony Minghella’s brilliant adaptation as the creepy sociopath social climber and identity thief Tom Ripley. His rise from virtual obscurity begins when he is hired by Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn) to go to Italy and return his son Dickie (Jude Law) to New York. Ripley makes the journey and gradually insinuates himself into the lives of Dickie and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). Ripley quickly grows into the opulent lifestyle and begins to fall in love with Dickie. And as Dickie tires of Ripley, he attempts to excise Ripley from his life, at which point Ripley kills him and assumes his identity.


Ripley goes on the kill two more men and definitively scares the pants off Marge who seems to be the only one who sees Ripley for who he truly is. With a cast rounded out by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett, Damon was in highly-esteemed company, but like any masterful actor, he rose to the occasion, integrating himself into the ensemble rather than stealing the show with a flashy, grinning star turn. Ten years later and Damon is a star in his own right having recently completed the third installment of the very popular Jason Bourne series along,  with a host of other high profile, profitable films, but it was in Ripley where Mr. Damon really allowed audiences to experience the versatility and depth of his theatrical acumen. Take that Ben Affleck! Courtney Young


 
Harvey Fierstein Torch Song Trilogy (Paul Bogart, 1988)


Certain noises have the effect of a fog-horn: a baby crying, an angry elephant charging, and Harvey Fierstein screaming “Maaaa!” out his living room window in Torch Song Trilogy. Clearly, the most recognizable thing about Harvey Fierstein, regardless of the film, is the raspy, grating nasality of his voice. Unfortunately, some viewers can’t get past that voice to see the performance behind it, which is a tragic loss for film fans who have avoided Torch Song. The film is based on Fierstein’s own Tony-winning play about a drag queen looking for love in a culture that doesn’t understand him. The film opens with a monologue, as Arnold Beckoff dons his female attire before a show. Instantly, Fierstein’s range is on display, moving from hilarity and cattiness to pain and suffering with an ease that reveals how much of each of these Arnold has endured. From there, we see Arnold find love, lose it tragically, and create a home and family for himself and his adopted son, all the while engaging in battle with his loving but unsympathetic mother. Originally a series of three plays, the film condenses the story considerably, but Fierstein still gets to run the gamut of emotions, and run he does. In a role that has immense potential to be over-the-top, Fierstein finds the right balance of empathy and anger to make Torch Song Trilogy the first film to honestly and sensitively lay bare the emotional turmoil that comes with being gay in a homophobic culture. Michael Abernethy


 
Henry Fonda The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)


The description of Tom Joad as an “everyman” is a misnomer. Joad is a convicted felon, homeless, and unmarried. Yet, in the likable Henry Fonda’s hands, Joad inadvertently becomes that mythical everyman thanks to the charm of the man playing him. It is a stroke of brilliant casting. The specific circumstances of his life are irrelevant. It is his intent and heart, his yearning for a better life, that represent the struggles of “everyman” and Fonda excels at capturing that specific kind of innate desire for respect and compassion. Released after a decade of the world’s worst financial crisis, the film about an Oklahoma family displaced by the dustbowl spoke to the millions who faced similar struggles that transcended monetary concerns. Still, audiences of any era can relate to Fonda’s portrayal of an inherently decent man who just can’t find a way to prosper.


Conceivably, Fonda could have played Joad in an entirely different fashion, as a hardened, angry convict ready to lash out against a society that has treated him and his family so unjustly. But Fonda, always a lower-key actor, brings stillness to the character, an inner tranquility based in his love of family. His Joad is savvy and philosophical, and his final farewell to his mother (the equally magnificent Jane Darwell) remains one of cinema’s greatest scenes. When he says that he will be “ever’where”, in fights for justice and in moments of familial joy and success, we believe him. Joad is not a defeatist, although one would understand if he were. He possesses a belief in humankind and justice that is at odds with the life he has led. This attitude is what makes Joad a complex man, and all of his complexity comes through in Fonda’s performance. Michael Abernethy


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