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Denzel Washington Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1993)

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Denzel Washington’s captivating turn in Lee’s rendering of the story of Malcolm X‘s life, based on the 1965 publication The Autobiography of Malcolm X, is, simply put, his best. As the visionary African American civil rights leader, should be used as a tool for all actors preparing to star in a biopic. The actor who appears onscreen as a real-life figure must walk a fine line between the trap of mimicry and grasping at the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the character, hoisting them upon your shoulders and taking charge of the character, all the while being cognizant of the limitations of one’s self and imparting the characterization with actual personality to patch up any cinematic cracks. It is hard to imagine any other actor as the mythological Malcolm. His magnetism extends far beyond the screen and compels his audience to sit up and take note, and when the film was released they did, en masse: “X” marked the spot just about everywhere you went. Malcolm’s “logo”, of sorts, set about a sort of pop culture renaissance, a re-discovery of one of the most important stories of the entire Civil Rights movement. Washington’s performance helped to correct some of histories wildest inaccuracies, as well as shed new light on this man’s private life. He lost the Oscar to Al Pacino’s ham-fisted guffawing in Scent of a Woman, one of the worst instances of giving a “make-up” Oscar to a performer for a body of work that the Academy has ever engaged in. Courtney Young

Orson Welles A Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Police Captain Hank Quinlan is Welles’ most fascinating monstrosity. The undeniable villain of the much labored and studio-molested A Touch of Evil, Quinlan was reflective of the kind of internal and external adversarial forces that plagued Welles throughout his career. Perhaps Welles inhabits Quinlan so well because he studied for the part his whole life. Quinlan serves as perfect foil to Charlton Heston’s ambitious Mexican narc officer Vargas. Vargas’s ambition is to tackle the great white whale, the corrupt and racist Quinlan, the William Randolph Hearst from the Welles biography, whom he pursues with a vigilance that places his newlywed white wife (perhaps the reverse-race embodiment of Dolores Del Rio, Welles’s Mexican girlfriend during the filming of Citizen Kane) in serious peril. Quinlan, on the other hand, is the living end game of said ambition, with a dead wife, crippling obsessions, and new addictions (first to “hooch”, then to “candy bars”) to worry about. Quinlan now orchestrates crime scenes like a film director, planting evidence, and using his closest friends as supporting cast members.

His racism is apparent, though subtle, more about perception than slurs and derision. Quinlan’s confidence at film’s start whilst investigating a car bomb planted in Mexico and detonated in the U.S seems to arise from a belief that the entire scene is within the limits of his control, propelled by a curious belief in the intuitive power of his game leg. As Vargas’s skepticism in Quinlan’s official “truth” grows, the weathered police celebrity’s ability to manipulate reality to his liking deteriorates and his gravitas transforms into a war-torn gravity. His path, which involves a deal with the devil, surely not unfamiliar to the notoriously Hollywood-compromised Welles, becomes tragic, even as his actions threaten the only sympathetic characters in the film. Timothy Gabriele

Gene Wilder Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)

One of my favorite games is trying to pigeonhole my friends and students into the categories of kids from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). If you think about it, every one of has the potential to be Charlie Bucket (laconic, friendly); Augustus Gloop (fat, selfish); Mike Teevee (obnoxious, narcissistic); Violet Beauregarde (annoying, loud); or Veruca Salt (ostentatious, spoilt). But, just try to find one person to be Wilder’s Willy Wonka? Good luck. Although Wilder has made some seriously funny movies—The Producers (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Stir Crazy (1980)—he will forever be known as the incredibly eccentric, cane-wielding candy maker given to quoting William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, John Masefield and even Neil Armstrong! Wilder took a major fictional character in a children’s book and made Wonka into a very adult film character. Yes, he runs the competition to find someone to take over the factory (spoiler alert) and yes he has a kind heart to hire Oompa Loompas.

But Wilder’s Wonka is no birthday clown, but a cold, calculated, confectionary genius with a penchant for Ogden Nash—my favorite quote being, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” He is a loving man, no doubt, but is also dead-pan, sarcastic, sadistic, and plainly has no tolerance for bullshit. Yes, he is kind of scary during the infamous tunnel scene (“Are the fires of hell a-blowing? Is the grizzly reaper mowing?”), but what about all the warm and wonderful parts of the movie where Wilder seems to cement himself for eternity by acting or singing. Is there anyone on this planet who has seen the movie and not hummed the Wilder-sung “Pure Imagination” once? Or remembered their first time watching this film and feeling the shock of the five Golden Ticket winners when they see Wonka struggle to walk out of his factory at the beginning? Although author Roald Dahl never liked the original film, there is no question that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may be the greatest children’s film of all time. And there is absolutely no argument that it deserves that recognition because of Gene Wilder’s scrumdidlyumptious job. Shyam K. Sriram

Tom Wilkinson In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001)

Sure, he appeared in hits like The Full Monty and Shakespeare in Love, but In the Bedroom was British actor Tom Wilkinson’s first real chance to shine for American audiences. And by delving deep into the sadness and shortcomings of the grief-stricken father Matt Fowler from Andre Dubus’s short story “Killings”, Wilkinson quietly stunned his audience. He plays Dr. Fowler as a man envious of his son Frank’s youth, even after his son is killed by his girlfriend’s ex-husband. In the wake of the tragedy, Fowler keeps his small practice going, showing no signs of grief, and fails at consoling his wife (a tremendous Sissy Spacek). As the justice system slowly lets them down, Wilkinson takes on a frantic desperation as Fowler tries his hand, awkwardly, at amateur sleuthing. And Fowler also painfully visits Frank’s girlfriend and looks less like a grieved father and more like a shy and smitten boy.

Wilkinson’s ability to shift his demeanor from stoic doctor to cold sleepless husband to isolated unmoored man to vengeful father, with no connection between each, is astounding. He’s always uncomfortable, his back always straight, and his face barely wincing in the shadow of pain. But even after the Fowlers hash out their anger and Matt exacts justice for his son’s death, there is still no resolution. He lies in bed, as his wife rises to make coffee, trying to go back to some normality. But to see Wilkinson’s deflated face is to know nothing will be the same. Wilkinson doesn’t just create a character in Matt Fowler; he creates a whole life, one that doesn’t seem to end when the film does, as he brilliantly carries the rest of the man’s tragic life on his tired body. Matt Fiander

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