Anthony Hopkins inhabits the role of Stevens, the head butler of Darlington Hall in the 1930’s. Considered by many to be the “perfect” servant, he is an absolutely loyal and tireless worker, suppressing his own needs and emotions in favor of a call of duty. Commanding an army of cooks, butlers, and maids, Stevens demonstrates a fierce commitment to order. At one critical moment, he responds, “It’s not my place to have an opinion.”
Portraying a character who tirelessly maintains his emotional distance is a difficult task for any actor, but Hopkins, a performer of fantastic range, is up to the challenge. Throughout the film, Stevens rarely offers the viewer insight with his spoken dialogue. As such, Hopkins employs his body language brilliantly to offer the viewer a window into his masked humanity. Each gesture, whether made with the eyes, lips, hands, or even legs, is gloriously realized and endlessly expressive. Most impressively, Hopkins uses his eyes to great effect, subtly hinting at the longing that lies behind the servant facade.
When each movement is performed with such skill and precision, it’s nearly impossible to single out a particular moment. One sequence that stands out as the premiere example of Hopkins’ brilliance in this role is the scene where Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson, as Stevens’ would-be lover), presses him to converse about his book. When Miss Kenton becomes too close, we immediately see Stevens move to the other side of the room and into the corner. Full of desire and curiosity, she continues to move toward him. As Stevens stares down at her with obvious attraction, she attempts to pry the book from his hands. The look in his eyes, as though he is seeing something for the first time, is staggering. The viewer is brought into the internal conflict that the distant butler faces. He struggles to hold onto the book just as he struggles to maintain his emotional distance. Stevens desperately wants to act on his attraction to Miss Kenton, but his fierce commitment to duty will not allow it. The latter side eventually wins out, but one never forgets this brief glimpse into the man behind the perfectly-pressed uniform and professional demeanor. He may be remembered by the masses for The Silence of the Lambs, but Hopkins will never top his work in Ivory’s tense masterpiece of longing and regret. Evan Kost
Crumpled, suspender-ed nowhere-man Sheldon “Machine” Levene flinches at the water fountain. Corporate honcho Blake (Alec Baldwin) spews expletives at Levene and the entire sales team. There’s a contest: “First prize, Cadillac, Second, Steak Knives, Third? You’re out of here. Each of the salesmen covet the golden Glengarry Glen Ross realty leads, they are the carrots on the stick that make these Pavlov-like dogs drool at their very mention, they are where all of the money is. Though his colleagues remain detached, cool and on the surface seemingly disaffected, Levene sweats. Buckets. This downtrodden, Lomanesque cog squirms beneath his furrowed brow—a canvas hat shabbily pushed over receding hair—battered trench coat slung sloppily over a colorless chair. Mustering brief courage Levene sputters, “The leads are weak.”
“You’re weak,” blasts Blake. “Are you man enough to take it?”
Lemmon, born in a Boston elevator, wears this role well. His body and face—constantly twisted in discomfort and anxiety are pointedly juxtaposed with the square-jawed he-men he must face off against. But survival matters, and though Levene permeates the personal space of his colleagues, the viewer gets the sense that he stands zero chance of winning the competition. Driving through a miserable downpour to hopefully close a sale, what he lacks in confidence and bravado, he compensates for with pig-hearted perseverance drawn from dogged desperation. Lemmon had a particular gift for finding the frazzled hearts of many of the working class ne’er do wells he played, from The China Syndrome, to The Apartment, to his brief, memorable cameo in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Lemmon’s empathy for the working man was his strong suit. Lisa Torem
Mortensen spent a decade or so Method-growling his way through under-seen supporting roles before being dropped unceremoniously into cinematic history as a certain ranger-cum-king in an infamous, hugely successful fantasy trilogy. After killing orcs, protecting hobbits, and romancing elves, probably the least obvious next step for Mortensen was to become Cronenberg’s favored leading man. But A History of Violence, along with its follow-up Eastern Promise (the duo’s terse tale of the Russian mafia) heralded a twilight renaissance for Mortensen as well as Cronenberg. The grotesque physiological nightmare-imagery of his previous work gave way to psychological-realist dramas about the hypocrisy of social pressures, while still referencing the antiseptic, often explicit, lessons in anatomy he had become so famous for. Mortensen proved to be the perfect foil for the auteur’s shifting focus.
As Tom Stall, he cultivates a stalwart folksiness with his fellow townspeople and firm but fair hand with his son (Ashton Holmes). As Tom’s alleged gangster past catches up with him, we’re asked to question his true identity. When that’s no longer up for debate, Joey Cusack bursts forth with an almost virtuosic ruthlessness. Mortensen trusts in the violence, the same approach that made Aragorn of Lord of the Rings a formidable warrior-king. But Cronenberg, in typical Cronenbergian fashion, grounds character conflict in sex. Mortensen’s two intimate scenes with the excellent Maria Bello—the first awkward role-playing, the other fierce primal aggression—encapsulate the schisms and the bonds of Stall/Cusack’s double-life just as surely as they demonstrate the actor’s vital commitment to Cronenberg’s uncompromising vision. Even without a mythical sword in his hands, Mortensen takes no prisoners. Ross Langager
Ran is legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork, a film based on Shakespeare’s King Lear that the auteur himself labeled as his testament. Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora anchors the grand opus with a virtuosic display of physical acting rooted in Japanese theatrical traditions. Kurosawa devoted more than 10 years of his life to developing the film, storyboarding the visuals in expressionistic paintings and drawings before committing a single take to celluloid. Indeed, there’s an undeniable painterly aspect to nearly every scene – in the shifting skies, the windblown grasses, the colors, bright or grim throughout—that betrays Kurosawa’s roots in the visual arts. That eye for minute detail played out in every aspect of the film, from the cinematography and the music, to the set/costume design and the acting.
Nakadai’s roots are firmly in the theatre and he describes in the extras on the Ran Criterion edition how Kurosawa’s method of filming continuous takes with four cameras—the actor never knowing which one was the close-up—allowed him to keep the flow of the scene going as if he were on stage. That theatrical training was vital as Nakadai was called upon to base his work on traditional Noh performance techniques that involved a great degree of physicality. Kurosawa even carried a Noh mask to the set and asked the designer to make Nakadai’s face look like that mask. The physical aspect played out in both subtle and striking ways.
Often we glimpse moments of glacial stillness in Nakadai’s face and body, the thoughts and emotions conveyed slowly through facial expressions and slight movements, such as the moment in the castle where madness descends on Hidetora and we see that happening merely by looking into the character’s eyes in several long takes. His face is still and filled with steadily increasing horror, the madness growing until finally it explodes into full bloom as he staggers down the stairs of the burning castle and into the windswept abyss. That scene had to be done in one take, by the way, as they really were burning down the castle and Nakadai suffered facial blisters when his beard caught fire as the walls around him burned. Nakadai’s genius throughout Ran is the ability to convey complex character development and advance the story through minimal dialogue and a masterly of the physical realm of acting. Sarah Zupko